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A Short History of the Backlash against Feminism in SF/F

by Laura Quilter

see also:
lists of explicitly homophobic and anti-feminist works

Anti-feminist works have been around as long as there has been a feminist movement. Since the 19th century, the US and England have published numerous works depicting the horrors of a female-run society. Themes running through these works from the beginning include the notions that women are humorless; women lack creativity and ingenuity; and women tend towards socialism (almost always a Great Evil in these works).

Anti-feminist works from about 1875 through about 1925 often depicted tribes of Amazons or some kind of feminist revolution. The Amazon tribes were cruel and violent, and either kidnapped men or kept men in a state of slavery for breeding. These stories were often blatantly racist in their depictions of the "primitive" "female-run" tribe; white men came in and set them straight, or barely escaped with their lives.

The feminist revolution, on the other hand, was usually a creation of US or English white, upper-class women. Working-class white people only showed up in scenes of mass revolt against the tyranny of the women; people of color were generally invisible. These women were humorless suffragettes, intent on ridding society of the vices of men's rule. Generally a revolution led by men or by men and "natural" women overcame the rule of the unnatural women.

As the 20th century wore on, the Amazon tribes stories became more exotic and less fearful, and occasionally not quite as racist. Heroic women were tolerated, as exceptions to the general lot.

Beginning in the mid-20th century, anti-feminist stories began appearing again in greater numbers. These often mixed the Evils of Socialism and the Evils of Feminism, and depicted horrible societies, alien and human. White men, as ever, could be counted on to Save the Day.

David McIlwain, under the name Charles Eric Maine, published World Without Men (1958; later republished as Alph in 1972), in which an all-woman society creates a male from frozen sperm. Lots of understated, unfulfilling lesbian sex, until Alph (the quintessential alpha male) inspires a revolution among women who really want to be natural women. Alph, apparently, lives on in the world to repopulate the world with males ...

In the 1970s these stories took on a sex-ploitation angle, depicting in lurid (relatively, for the time) detail the sexual failures of the all-woman societies. Men's brawn and masculine, penetrative sex, was strangely attractive ... Women's natural inclination to submissiveness was finally fulfilled by the available men, and either the all-woman society crumbled or a woman ran off with a man.

John Boyd's Sex and the High Command (1970) envisions a secret female conspiracy. Patronizing but not really misogynistic, Sex and the High Command can be considered an update to Robert Chambers' 1913 The Gay Rebellion.

In Thomas Berger's Regiment of Women (1973), named for "the monstrous regiment of women," women have taken over all the positions of authority; men are required to wear ridiculous bits of clothing, take demeaning jobs (such as "secretary"), and suffer sexual harassment. Regiment could have made some useful insights were they not undercut by the silly comments about it being the man's turn to be on top: it's natural, after all, because he has the "protuberant organ."

Edmund Cooper's Gender Genocide (1972) (published as Who Needs Men? in the UK) involves an all-female, explicitly lesbian society, with women warriors who hunt down the few surviving heterosexuals and men. One young woman, vaguely dissatisfied with her lurid lesbian sex life, is captured by a man, raped, and (of course) falls in love with him; the book ends tragically, with the woman dying in defense of her man and baby, and the world probably going to come to no good end without men.

By the 1980s not many male writers wrote deliberately anti-feminist novels that were clearly misogynistic, although certainly writers poked fun at what they thought of as the Feminists or even sometimes the Women's Libbers. And many male writers still had difficulty writing women characters who were more than foils or fuck-toys for the male characters. The female Amazon was coming back into vogue, however, for men who wanted to portray a woman as strong and capable. While many of these characters seemed more fetishistic than real, they were a welcome break from vapid, clinging, or purely secondary characters.

--- Laura Quilter, April 2002

This short paper was written based on research conducted from 1991 to April 2002. Research was conducted using the collections and interlibrary loan resources of the University of Illinois at Chicago, University Library; San Francisco Public Library (especially the pulp paperback collection); and the Library of Congress.

Works that were particularly helpful included:

Moskowitz, Sam, editor. When Women Rule (New York: Walker & Company, 1972); especially his introductory essay, "When Women Rule."

Russ, Joanna. "Amor Vincit Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction", first published in Science-Fiction Studies, Volume 5, 1980; available in To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction (1995)

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