While mainstream science fiction excels at imagining far-out futures, exploring the far reaches of the imagination, and scaring the bejesus out of us, it’s generally accepted that historically, the genre has been pretty terrible at populating its brave new worlds with anyone other than straight, cisgender white dudes. (Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and many of the other "greats" wrote almost exclusively about their demographic, and onscreen science fiction, from Star Wars and Back to the Future to adaptations like War of the Worlds and Blade Runner, has long shared similar representation issues.)
But sci-fi history actually has featured ahead-of-its-time, female-identifying authors and creators who have challenged conventional notions of race, gender, and sexuality head-on for centuries. Their contributions are so essential (some are by far the most out-there in the canon) that without them, the genre could not possibly have grown into the blockbuster behemoth it is today. Like many sci-fi creators, this radical group’s explorations weren’t limited to faroff planets; they dove into the sticky, difficult, often ugly realities of their own worlds, many of which are still with us today. They tackled misogyny, homophobia, racism, and the dangers of conventional gender roles — concepts often foreign to the world they inhabited. While their efforts were not always celebrated in the mainstream, they opened the possibility of a better future and pushed the conversation forward.
An extremely nerdy caveat: Many female voices have been excluded from the sci-fi canon based on the argument that the works they create aren’t “really” science fiction, but fantasy (in Party Down, Martin Starr's Roman is fixated on this — the distinction between “hard” sci-fi and fantasy). While most of this “categorization” is simply a sexist dodge, we do believe in categories. For our purposes, let’s define science fiction here as the depiction of fictional worlds in which science (including space travel), technology, and/or pseudoscience feature prominently and necessarily in the story's telling. Therefore, A Handmaid's Tale, though probably one of this writer's favorite books of all time, is not science fiction (Atwood herself has described it as speculative/dystopian fiction, a genre having more to do with social critique than adventure), while superhero comics — when they feature superpowers — could be considered such. Below, a rundown of some of the most feminist moments in sci-fi history:
Marie-Anne de Roumier-Robert Publishes Voyage de Milord Céton Dans les Sept Planètes (1765)
In an era when women had to rely on pen names if they wanted to be taken seriously, Roumier-Robert, the educated daughter of a well-connected French family, wrote under her own name. Voyage de Milord Céton chronicles the adventures of a young aristocrat and his sister as they visit the planets of the solar system, which each house souls of deceased historical figures. Though some of her male contemporaries accused her of copying the work of celebrated French author and family friend Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle (copycatting was a common charge against female authors of the time), Robert-Roumier's Voyage is remembered as one of the earliest-known works of science fiction by a woman. (Read it here.)
Mary Shelley Publishes Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus, at 21 (1818)
Young female creatives feeling somehow less accomplished than their peers should remember the tale of young Mary Shelley. At just 18, the writer spent a summer with her family and several other writers, including beau Percy Bysshe Shelley and poet Lord Byron, in Geneva, where they spent nights swapping ghost stories. For a while, Shelley couldn't come up with one to share; then one night, conversation turned to the nature of humanity, which inspired in her a short story about a man's quest to reanimate a corpse and the disastrous existential consequences that ensue. She later expanded the tale into Frankenstein, which quickly became a foundational text on the downside of scientific progress and made Shelley the reigning queen of goths for generations to come.
Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain Publishes "Sultana's Dream" (1905)
It's criminal that Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain is rarely mentioned alongside her American feminist contemporaries. Her work on behalf of women's rights in early 20th-century India included establishing the first school for Muslim girls and the publication of multiple gender-centric stories. In the short utopian satire "Sultana's Dream," the tradition of purdah (in which women are hidden from society in various ways) is reversed so that men are the isolates, and women invent and benefit from advanced technology, including flying cars and solar power. With its publication, Hussain became not only one of the best-known Islamic feminist authors, but also one of the very first known feminist sci-fi writers in the East or West, period. (Read it here.)
Charlotte Perkins Gilman Publishes the Herland Trilogy (1911-1916)
Most people familiar with Gilman first made her acquaintance in English class, via "The Yellow Wallpaper," her famous, semiautobiographical short story about postpartum psychosis. Unfortunately, her most badass works are less frequently assigned, including the Herland trilogy, a set of utopian novels in which male explorers encounter a hidden society that has done away with its sexist, racist, and otherwise-unjust institutions. Beginning in 1911 with the publication of Moving the Mountain, and continuing in 1915 with Herland — the best known of the set — and concluding with Her in Ourland (1916), the Herland trilogy was a landmark work that shredded Victorian gender norms. Consider it one of the earliest manifestations of #banmen.
Thea von Harbou Co-writes Fritz Lang's Metropolis (1927)
The silent movie about a rich city maintained by an all-but-enslaved working class is known not only as a classic dystopian tale and a major moment in the history of German film, but as filmmaker Fritz Lang’s magnum opus. But often forgotten is the fact that Lang’s wife, Thea von Harbou, wrote most of the script and subsequently cast Gustav Fröhlich as the film's star. Von Frau was deeply conflicted politically: A Nazi loyalist, she campaigned for pro-choice policies and defied the law to marry her third husband, a man of color. But her creative contributions ultimately made the science-fiction world a more inclusive place. Whether Metropolis is feminist or not is debatable (its female protagonist, Maria, is certainly more strong-willed than most damsels in distress), but von Harbou insisted on keeping her more progressive beliefs in the picture.
Naomi Mitchison Publishes Memoirs of a Spacewoman (1962)
Given the level of scientific curiosity and detail that fill this tale of a female space explorer, it’s no surprise that its author, Scottish novelist Naomi Mitchison, trained as a geneticist. Guided by a prototypical version of Star Trek's Prime Directive, which forbids explorers from intervening in alien cultures, Spacewoman's protagonist and her colleagues, a group of Martians who can change their sex at will, observe life forms around the galaxy, including a race of butterflies who telepathically taunt the caterpillar population as lesser beings. The radical novel begins with a real pipe-bomb of a cold open, too, at least for its era: "I think of my friends and the fathers of my children." Add to this the fact that Mitchison wrote more than 90 books, many of which dealt boldly with abortion and other women’s rights issues; that she started writing science fiction in her 60s; and that she helped proofread her friend J.R.R. Tolkien's little trilogy The Lord of the Rings — and it becomes pretty obvious why her contributions to the sci-fi genre were meaningful.
Nichelle Nichols Debuts as Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek (1966)
If you know one thing about feminism and sci-fi, you know about Star Trek’s Lieutenant Nyota Uhura, communications officer on the first-ever starship Enterprise and one of the most prominent — and awesome — black female characters in science-fiction history. Nichelle Nichols’s portrayal of Uhura was the first step in what would become the show’s lifelong commitment to the idea of a brighter future for everyone — a quality that distinguished it from its genre contemporaries. It’s sadly not true that Nichols’s kiss with William Shatner (Captain Kirk) in a 1968 episode was television’s first interracial kiss, as is often rumored, but Nichols's portrayal of the intelligent, force-to-be-reckoned-with Uhura gave generations of women of color — including Whoopi Goldberg and astronaut Mae Jemison — the inspiration that science fiction is known for delivering.
Betty Jo Trimble Leads – and Wins – the Save Star Trek Campaign (1968)
One of the biggest and earliest wins for fandom can be credited to a single shrewd nerd girl. In 1968, Trek superfan Betty Jo "Bjo" Trimble learned that NBC was planning on canceling the new show Star Trek, which wasn't doing as well as expected after two seasons (at the time, shows that didn't make it to three seasons didn't get reruns and tended to fall through the cracks of TV history). Together with her husband, John, she organized a massive grassroots letter-writing campaign that rallied fans across the country to demand the show be saved. Obviously, the crusade worked, and thanks to third-season syndication, Trek has become one of the longest-running and most lucrative — not to mention one of the most socially progressive — franchises ever. (More on this fan coup here.)
Ursula K. LeGuin Publishes The Left Hand of Darkness (1969)
If you were to ask the occasional fan to name a work of feminist sci-fi, they would probably mention The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin's classic novel about a diplomatic interplanetary mission that explores asexuality, androgyny, and gender as harmful social constructs in more depth than any work preceding it. Though some of LeGuin's feminist contemporaries criticized the novel for trafficking in gender stereotypes, its publication — just as the women's liberation movement was getting off the ground — was an absolutely crucial moment in the history of science fiction. It was so revolutionary, in fact, that the story’s progressive themes, which were of course controversial at the time of publication, are still considered radical in 2014.
Joanna Russ Publishes The Female Man, "When It Changed" (1970, 1972)
An outspoken lesbian feminist, Joanna Russ was extremely influential in terms of sexuality and gender in science fiction when the genre was just beginning to hit its pop-cultural stride in the 1970s. A well-regarded literary critic and author, Russ's convictions were ahead of her time, and her most famous and respected undertakings still read like they were written yesterday. "When It Changed," a short story about an encounter between sexist dude-stronauts and an advanced, manless world, was written as a compellingly direct challenge to sexist "all-woman world" stories that were in vogue at the time. In the classic satirical novel The Female Man (its title mocks the notion that women must be more masculine to be respected) four women traveling between parallel dimensions confront different notions of womanhood; its observations about the absurdity of gender roles remain sadly timeless.
The First Star Trek Convention, Documented by Joan Winston, Sondra Marshak, and Jacqueline Lichtenberg (1972)
While not female-dominated per se, the organization of the first-ever Star Trek convention in January 1972 was an unusually egalitarian affair for the sci-fi world of the time. The committee that organized the New York City assembly was nearly 50/50 in terms of gender, and what's more, the key documentarians of the growing subculture were three women: Sondra Marshak, Jacqueline Lichtenberg, and Joan Winston, who in 1975 published Star Trek Lives!, a collective memoir of Trek fandom during the preceding decade. Two years later, the particularly animated Winston wrote The Making of the Trek Conventions, a now-classic chronicle of the early days of one of the biggest fan subcultures of all time.
Samuel R. Delany Publishes Controversial, Queer-Friendly Dhalgren (1975)
Likely only the most diehard sci-fi nerds have heard of this apocalyptic and supremely bizarre novel about the denizens of a midwestern town sequestered from the rest of the world by some unknown event. Written by Samuel Delany, an outspoken gay African-American writer whose works (which also included a few issues of Wonder Woman in the early '70s) are frequently concerned with sexuality, Dhalgren is a labyrinthine story that has been compared to works by James Joyce for its complexity and circular, often metatextual structure. But the book is also notable — especially given its era — for its openly bisexual characters whose sometimes polyamorous relationships were described as matter-of-factly as the landscape or any other minor plot point.
The Bionic Woman Gets Her Own Spinoff (1976)
It wasn’t a surprise that The Six Million Dollar Man was a smash hit in the mid-1970s — it epitomized the cool-dude genre so popular then. Its 1976 spinoff The Bionic Woman, which tracked the adventures of robotically upgraded tennis player Jaime Sommers, may have been just the lady version of The Six Million Dollar Man and may have only lasted three seasons, but as its half-baked, sexist 2007 reboot made perfectly clear, Lindsay Wagner's O.G. Bionic Woman was momentous. She not only brought lots of feminist badassery to the masses — initially, she did even better in the ratings than her male forebearer.
Ellen Ripley Kicks Ass in Alien (1979)
Would Ridley Scott's Alien films be anywhere near as epic without Sigourney Weaver? No. Weaver’s portrayal of Ellen Ripley, the warrant officer who uses massive guns and major smarts in order to triumph over a seemingly endless parade of giant, terrifying, body-snatching aliens, was and continues to be a major leap for science fiction. It subverted gender roles in a stunningly logical fashion — by casting a mostly gender-neutral role with an actor who just happens to be a woman — and proved beyond doubt that women could play beleaguered, tough-as-nails action heroes just as men had for decades.
Leigh Brackett Writes First Draft of The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
True, Star Wars has been riddled with plenty of gender issues since its inception, but it should never be forgotten that the first draft of The Empire Strikes Back, the franchise's second and undoubtedly best installment, was written by a woman. Leigh Brackett, a screenwriter known for movies like The Big Sleep (which she co-wrote with William effing Faulkner), was a staunch advocate of what was then called "science fantasy" despite its perceived inferiority at the time. Her commitment to the genre earned her a lot of flack from her contemporaries … until George Lucas approached her to write his second script. Her death from cancer shortly after turning in her initial draft put rewrites into the hands of Lawrence Kasdan, but her name still appears as a co-credit on the film.
Metroid's Samus Is (Surprise!) a Woman (1986)
If only Reddit and 4chan had existed in 1986. If only we could have witnessed the outrage and disbelief that must have overtaken male video-gamers upon reaching any three of the five alternate endings of Metroid (a platformer starring a bounty hunter named Samus Aran) and discovered that its protagonist — who wears a full-body suit throughout the game's levels — was a woman. A what?! True, there have since been multiple issues around the sexualization of the space-pirate assassin, including the evolution of her wardrobe once gamers discovered her gender, but the original reveal turned gender norms in fighting games on their heads. (Bonus: Nintendo developers who created the game credit Ellen Ripley and the Alien franchise as huge influences. Funny how that whole logic-being-contagious thing works.)
Sarah Connor Flexes Her Guns in Terminator 2 (1991)
If Sarah Connor's muscle-bulging pull-ups — and subsequent badassery throughout the rest of Terminator 2 — aren’t a staggering win for feminist sci-fi, I don't really know what is.
Dana Scully Babysits Fox Mulder in The X-Files (1993)
There's little doubt that Fox "Spooky" Mulder would not have survived nine seasons of supernatural investigations without the help of doctor and noted skeptic Dana Scully. Sure, it's kinda annoying that someone as brilliant and capable as Scully would have to essentially babysit a dude so deeply dedicated to his search for aliens and monsters that he's forgotten how to play ball with the outside world. But Gillian Anderson's shoulder-padded, eye-rolling, logical Scully ensured The X-Files was a landmark in feminist screenwriting. Scully wasn't just a "strong female character"; she was a strong character, period.
Star Trek: Voyager Stars Kathryn Janeway, First Major Female Trek Captain (1995)
Diversity-loving Star Trek has always featured women in prominentleadership roles in its cast of characters (see: Lt. Uhura), but it wasn't until 1995 — four years after creator Gene Roddenberry's death — that the franchise finally put a woman at the helm of her own series: Kathryn Janeway, Captain of the U.S.S. Voyager. Played by Kate Mulgrew, Star Trek: Voyager's Janeway was fair-minded, no-nonsense, empathetic, battle-tested, and best of all, totally fallible — qualities that, like The X-Files' Scully's, demonstrated just how easy it is to write a complex, compelling character who just happens to be female.
Octavia Butler Wins a MacArthur Genius Grant (1995)
If you've never read Octavia E. Butler, I feel bad for you. One of the most well-read female sci-fi writers — and probably sci-fi writers of any gender — of all time, the African-American author explores racism, sexism, homophobia, poverty, violence, and religion via dystopian futures and interstellar alien politics magnificently (check out Lilith's Brood and the Parable of the Sower trilogy). In 1995, this impassioned advocate for social change became the first science-fiction writer to receive the MacArthur Fellowship (a.k.a. the "Genius Grant"), which recognizes those who have made indispensable and singular contributions to Western society.
Lieutenant Starbuck Gets Gender-Swapped, Complex in Battlestar Galactica (2004)
The original 1978 Battlestar Galactica series portrayed Lieutenant Starbuck as a womanizing, cigar-smoking rogue, but the 2004 reimagining of Starbuck as an incredibly flawed, adaptive, and brilliant woman made the character unforgettable. Playing Kara Thrace, Katee Sackhoff was as rebellious, arrogant, and hedonistic as the original and, even better, she actually changes over the show's four seasons. Once again, a female character's imperfections (quickness to anger, uncouth behavior, rash decision-making), depth, and lack of conformity to conventional gender norms made her a banner example of how breaking stale male-gaze-y archetypes makes sci-fi way more interesting.
Carol Danvers Becomes Captain Marvel, the Carol Corps Is Born (2012)
Superhero comics aren't sci-fi like Star Trek is sci-fi, but their fantastical narratives are quasi-scientific in many ways (genetically modified, radioactive spiders, anyone?), and like the sci-fi world, the comics world has been plagued by sexism for decades. Take part-time Avenger Carol Danvers, for example. Also known as Ms. Marvel, this former soldier was long burdened by ill-fitting costumes and sexist plotlines, but two years ago, writer Kelly Sue De Connick and illustrator Jamie McKelvie gave her a major upgrade: Her costume was revamped to actually be superhero-practical (none of that sexy boot-and-cleavage stuff) and she was renamed Captain Marvel. She wasn't the first female Captain — the Pam Grier–inspired Monica Rambeau takes that title — but this time around, female comics fans didn't just rejoice; they rallied and birthed the Carol Corps, a feminist fandom community that has improved the atmosphere for lady-geeks at conventions, online, and beyond.
Janelle Monáe Releases The Electric Lady (2013)
When she emerged in 2007 with her debut EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), Janelle Monáe was making music so progressive, most of the music-loving world wasn’t ready for it. While some critics and fans immediately picked up on the brilliance of her Afrofuturistic, multi-suite body of work — a set of dystopian concept albums, inspired by Fritz Lang and Thea von Harbou's Metropolis, about a fugitive android named Cindi Mayweather — it took a while for Monáe to win a wider audience. That happened last year with The Electric Lady, a stunning double album that has now achieved mainstream success doing what sci-fi does best: giving fans new insight into race and gender issues of the present by exploring them against the backdrop of an exciting, dramatic future.
Ms. Marvel, a Teenage Muslim Superhero, Is Born (2014)
Once again delighting fans hungry for diversity in comics, Marvel late last year debuted a brand-new superhero: a 16-year-old Muslim shapeshifter from Jersey named Kamala Khan. Brought to life by award-winning comics writer G. Willow Wilson — a Muslim woman — this second-generation Pakistani-American Ms. Marvel (not to be confused with the aforementioned Carol Danvers, who's now Captain Marvel) is the first solo-billed Muslim superhero in Marvel's history.
Women – and Soon, Queers ! – Destroy Science Fiction (2014-2015)
Thumbing its nose at huffy male fans who still cling to the notion that women have no place in "their" sacred sci-fi temple, online sci-fi/fantasy mag Lightspeed launched a Kickstarter earlier this year to produce its fourth-anniversary special: an issue entirely consisting of sci-fi written by women. The goal was $5,000; when the campaign ended on February 16, Lightspeed had amassed over $53,000, allowing the staff to publish not only Women Destroy Science Fiction, but also special issues of its sister magazines, Nightmare and Fantasy, titled Women Destroy Horror and Women Destroy Fantasy. A Queers Destroy Science Fiction issue is planned for 2015.