There's an unfortunate tendency to overlook the contributions of women to the field of science fiction. The names that stick out tend to be pretty much exclusively male: Asimov, Heinlein, Clarke, Herbert. Of the twenty-nine authors recognized as Grandmasters of Science Fiction by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America since the award was established in 1975, only four have been women.
I know I've been guilty of this myself. of the dozen or so SF classics I've written about in this series over the past couple years, the only female author I've highlighted is Ursula K. Le Guin. This is largely because I write about the books I'm most familiar with, which for the most part are the ones that I grew up reading from my Dad's wonderful collection of paperbacks, which was heavily weighted towards novels written before 1970. The only female authors I can remember from that collection are a couple of the Anne McCaffrey Pern books, and a couple novels written by E. Mayne Hull in collaboration with her husband A.E. van Vogt.
There have been more women writing science fiction since the 1960s, but the truth is that they have always been there -- often writing invisibly, behind male or gender-neutral pseudonyms -- contibuting to the great body of imaginative literature.
Which shouldn't be surprising, considering that in the view of many critics, the first science fiction novel was written by a woman.
If Jules Verne was the Father of Science Fiction, the Mother would have to be Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, whose novel Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus was written before Verne was even born. She based her novel on some of the early scientists experimenting with electricity, who had discovered that they could make dead animal tissue twitch by passing a current through it. From this bit of speculation, Shelly constructed a story which raised themes which have lived on in science fiction to this day, about bioethics and the creation of artificial life.
The first female American writer of science fiction was Gerturde Barrows Bennett, who wrote under the name of Francis Stevens. Writing at the dawn of the Pulp Era, between 1917 and 1923, she wrote a number of highly-regarded dark fantasies, such as Claimed (1920) and an early dystopian science fiction novel, The Heads of Cerberus (1919), a time travel story about a totalitarian future.
When E. E. Smith was writing his first novel, The Skylark of Space, he felt intimidated by incorporating a romantic element into the story. Lee Hawkins Darby, the wife of the friend on which Smith based one of the characters in the story, offered to help him with the love scenes and the romantic dialogue and was credited as co-author when the story was first serialized in Amazing Stories. The two only collaborated on the first book, and later revisions of Skylark bear only Smith's name.
Claire Winger Harris broke into science fiction with a story titled "The Runaway World" published by Weird Tales in 1926, and by entering a contest later that year run by Hugo Gernsbeck, the editor of Amazing Stories. Gernsbeck was impressed by her story, "The Fate of the Poseidonia", but his reaction was quite telling:
"That the third prize winner should prove to be a woman was one of the surprises of the contest, for, as a rule, women do not make good scientification writers, because their education and general tendencies on scientific matters are usually limited. But the exception, as usual, proves the rule, the exception in this case being extraordinarily impressive."This assumption that women lacked the background and the intelligence to write about science proved harder to kill than Frankenstein's Monster. To a large extent, it was simply a reflection of attitudes towards women in the sciences in general, which had ossified back in the Victorian Era and still linger today. I suspect a great deal of it had to do with the pulp magazines like Amazing and Weird Tales being aimed at young adolescent males. Harris was the first female science fiction writer in America to write under her real name, and one of the few of her era to write openly as a woman.
It never occurred to ol' Hugo that girls might like to read "scientificion" too; but they did, and by the 1940's science fiction fandom recognized a sizable number of "femme fans" in their community.
Leigh Brackett alternated between writing space operas and planetary romances for the pulp magazines in the 1940s and '50s, and writing screenplays for Hollywood. Her very last story combined her two fields, writing an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back for George Lucas shortly before her death from cancer in 1978.
In the 1930s and '40s, Catherine Lucille Moore wrote under the name C. L. Moore not to conceal her gender, but rather to conceal the fact from her employers at the Fletcher Trust Company that she was writing pulp fiction on the side. Her Northwest Smith stories combined planetary romance with elements of noir and Lovecraftian horror. She also wrote a series of sword-and-sorcery tales about Jirel of Joiry, one of the first female protagonists in heroic fantasy. In 1940, she married writer Henry Kuttner, and the two embarked on a successful partnership as collaborators until Kuttner's death in 1958.
Andre Norton was one of many female authors who wrote under a male pseudonym to be more salable. Coming across her early novel, Star Man's Son: 2250 A.D. in middle school, I was confused for many years into thinking "Andre" was a girl's name. Norton started out as a schoolteacher and a librarian. She wrote historical adventure for young adult readers and in the 1950s moved into space opera and heroic fantasy. She wrote the first D&D novel, Quag Keep, in the 1970s, but probably her most famous novels are her Witch World series set in an alternate universe of magic.
Much as I hate to admit it, Ayn Rand counts as one of our women of science fiction as well. Her story Anthem (1938) is set in a post-apocalyptic society where a collectivist society with a medieval technology lives in the ruins of civilization and an inquisitive inventor discovers electricity and the perpendicular pronoun. The heroes of her most famous work, Atlas Shrugged, are incorruptable individualist engineers and their techical innovations, the Reardon Metal and the Galt Engine, are catalysts to the plot.
I didn't particularly like Anthem when it was inflcited on me in high school; I felt that Norton's Star Man's Son was a better tale of post-apocalyptic adventure and that Heinlein's Orphans of the Sky a better exploration of the theme of Gallileo before the Inquisition; but neither of these is what Rand intended to write. Anthem is about Individualism vs. Collectivism, and science in her story serves as a metaphor for Knowledge which can be only discovered by the questing individual.
The confluence of Second Wave Feminism in the 1960s and the "New Wave" movement in science fiction rejecting the traditional tropes of space opera and experimenting with literary forms, led to an influx of women in the science fiction field.
Possibly the most secretive of all women science fiction writers was Alice Bradley Sheldon, who wrote under the name James Tiptree Jr. She was a highly educated woman from a well-to-do family, who traveled the world with her parents at an early age. During WWII, she worked in the US Army Air Force in their photo intelligence group. After the war, she worked briefly for the CIA before returning to college to pursue a doctorate in experimental psychology. She began writing science fiction in the late 1960s, using the pseudonym to protect her academic reputation. Tiptree's short stories explored explored issues of gender and the relationship between the sexes that were groundbreaking. Although these themes led some fans to speculate about Tiptree's gender, most assumed that she was male, and Robert Silverberg even insisted: "It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing."
Anne McCaffery is best-known for her Dragonriders of Pern series. Are they science fiction, or fantasy? They're science fiction... with dragons. She wrote several groups of connected novels in addition to the Pern series, but perhaps the most significant one to this overview is her very first one, Restoree (1967), which was written in reaction to the way heroines were usually portrayed in science fiction. "I was so tired of all the weak women screaming in the corner while their boyfriends were beating off the aliens. I wouldn't have been—I'd've been in there swinging with something or kicking them as hard as I could". In Restoree it is the heroine, brought to an alien planet, who winds up resucing handsome planetary regent.
Ursula K. Le Guin was the daughter of an anthropologist, and an interest in sociology underlies much of her work. She was inspired reading Lord of the Rings in the 1950s, but instead of imitating Tolkien as many fantasy writers have done, she used the inspiration to take fantasy in different directions in A Wizard of Earthsea (1968). Her science fiction novel The Left Hand of Darkness (1970) explores themes of sexual identity and the clash of cultures.
There are many other women who deserve mention here: Octavia Butler, Zenna Henderson, and Connie Willis to name a few; not to mention the writers who have come into the field through Star Trek fanfiction and become authors in their own right. And then there's that J.K. Rowling woman you might have heard of.
As I have said, my own familiarity with these women and their work is sadly lacking, and I can give only a superficial overview of the their contributions to the field. Women haven't always been visible in science fiction, but their voices have always been there. By it's nature, science fiction is a field celebrating diversity of ideas, and the Women of Science Fiction are a rich part of that diversity.