Robert A. Heinlein: The Tor.com Blog Symposium

What Do Heinlein Women Want?

Right. Predictably, on cue, as on every panel about SFF, if you mention the words “Heinlein” and “women” in the same sentence or even in the same page, you attract screaming, ranting and accusations that Heinlein and by extension yourself cook babies for breakfast or perhaps eat them live on camera.

So, kind sirs—and particularly madams—why all this sound and fury, signifying by and large absolutely nothing? Why do some women feel required to stone Heinlein in effigy whenever his name is mentioned?

Oh, yeah, I know, he wrote women who like sex and all penetration is violation (my aching left foot) and all that rot. Which is why vast pickets of marching women have formed outside every theater showing Sex and the City, right? No? Odd.

Wait—it’s because he wrote women who wanted to have babies. And this, as we all know, is a gross lie. Liberated women do NOT want to have babies. This is why there is absolutely NO industry devoted to infertility, in vitro fertilization, and other techniques devoted to helping women who built high power careers first realize their dream of having babies. Also, older women who are educated and have careers do not EVER adopt from abroad, with or without the help/support of a husband. In fact these things were never heard of. Wait—WHAT? What parallel universe is this?

So it must be because his women characters were attracted to men and tried to be attractive to the male gender. Of course, he should never write things that do not portray the life of women in the current world. Women are NEVER attracted to men. As for dressing for men—why, you can’t find a pair of high heels anywhere on display in store windows. Dresses? What are dresses? They’ve long been abolished. The closest to dressing nice a woman goes is the pantsuit…unless one looks outside the Women’s Studies departments in colleges—but who would want to do that?

Okay—if everyone is done screaming, may we now speak as adults discussing adult problems?

Heinlein had some peculiar notions about women. Sure he did, though the two I found most peculiar are not ones most people complain about.

The first one was companionate marriage. I’ve mentioned in another post that I don’t think group marriage can work, generally. (Yes, I know a couple that do. But in general, most of us were simply not designed for it. Jealousy festers and competitiveness tears the group apart. Besides, no one ever does the dishes. Not that I think it should be forbidden. Marriages—all sorts—should be a matter for contract law. Provided all participants are adults and capable of consent, it’s no outsider’s business.)

The problem with companionate marriage and the assumption that women view sex the same way that men do (and here I’m talking specifically of Heinlein’s life as told by Patterson, not the novels. Those are set in the far future where this objection might not apply) is that women are the child-bearing sex. Beyond the fallibility of all means of contraception, right now we haven’t even adapted (psychologically, though we might have intellectually) to the existence of semi-foolproof means of contraception. This means evolution, psychologically, has shaped us differently. Women tend to want security in their relationships. (Look at the different mating patterns of lesbians and gay males, if you don’t believe me.) Companionate marriage, no matter how loved you might feel, strikes at that source of security, particularly as women start to age.

Not having made a study of the matter, I can’t swear that the greatest percentage of them follow the pattern of Heinlein’s second marriage. I can however say—anedoctal though it is—that all my friends who started out with companionate or open marriages had them either end the same way or revised the principles profoundly and saved the marriage by changing it.

Again, in my opinion this does not apply to Heinlein’s books set in the far future, when the human race might have adapted (there are studies that seem to show we adapt much faster than we’d thought so far) to different conditions. In fact, Heinlein is one of the very, very few authors who have extrapolated how advances in longevity/health/improved contraception, etc.—that are already shaping our lives—might shape our species in the future. And he might be the only one who put those changes in a positive light. It’s one of the reasons I like his future history. After all, the history of man has been one of overcoming biology in various ways. I don’t see why that shouldn’t continue.

The only other problem I had with his real-life treatment of women was his quixotic belief that married women shouldn’t work because they would be taking bread from the mouth of working men and their families. The idea that men would be supporting a family was statistically true in his time, but the idea that economics is a zero sum game and that adding more producers does not make the pie grow exponentially but only cuts it in thinner slices betrays a stunning ignorance of economics for such a well-read man. However, that stunning ignorance/distortion of economics was common in his day and still prevails today, underlying everything from people who wish to see salaries regulated to people who believe incoming immigrants—even educated and well-equipped—impoverish a country. In fact those beliefs underlie policy in most “civilized nations.”

I will admit to laughing—while crying—while reading that he excoriated universities for not training more women engineers, but then wouldn’t allow Ginny to work, even while they were starving. (On the other hand, having been there, I will say that being broke is a wonderful stimulant to the creative mind—so without that wrong-headed belief and resultant economic distress, he might not have persevered.)

I had the same argument with my father long ago—about married women staying home, not about the creative mind—and couldn’t move him from his opinion, even though it was never negotiable that I would get a graduate degree. The futility of educating a generation of women who never use their skill didn’t seem to bother him. It bothered me, which is why in both cases—my dad, and Heinlein—I chose to smile and say “ah, well, they’re men of their time” and leave it at that. Regardless of how much I admire them, I am an adult and I am able to separate my beliefs from theirs and still respect them while disagreeing.

In the context of their time one needs to understand that most of my dad’s life, in Portugal, where I grew up and he still lives, a woman needed her husband’s written permission to work (so the peculiar notion wasn’t his alone.) I’m not versed in U.S. law of Heinlein’s early decades, but I’d like to point out the other thing that shocked me was the idea that it was a crime for unmarried people to cohabitate. I don’t think this was a crime, ever, in Portugal—though I could be wrong. Adultery was a crime in most of Europe in the nineteenth century, but after that enforcement got spotty.

Knowing that merely living with someone you weren’t married to could lead to being arrested put all his remarks about Mrs. Grundy in perspective. It made me understand his hostility to traditional marriage and why he tried to write the most “scandalous” women possible. I’d grown up in that environment, I’d probably be much worse—since the last thing I can stand is mealy-mouthed conformity enforced without analysis or thought.

Which, I guess is the problem with Heinlein and the reason he brings out so much seething and irrational fury from otherwise rational people—because he makes us think (which was his stated goal in writing) and makes us uncomfortably aware that customs and attitudes change.

This is odd, since we are of course absolutely sure that we have the one right attitude and that the future will never deviate from what we think/know/believe now. After all, every period of liberalization in attitudes and mores continued, unabated. Every social trend is irreversible. Which is why the Regency period in England was not followed by the Victorian period.

Oh, you mean it was? You mean our descendants might find our attitudes very odd from perspectives we don’t think about? And you mean one of the reasons Heinlein is both relevant and infuriating is that he makes us think these things over?

Who would have thought it?


Sarah A. Hoyt grew up in rural Portugal, which is probably why she’s so fond of tipping sacred cows. When she runs out of those, she can be found at her desk writing science fiction and fantasy, mystery and historicals. Her latest of each are, in order: Darkship Thieves, A French Polished Murder (as Elise Hyatt), and No Will But His: A Novel of Kathryn Howard. What this particular woman wants—or would very much like—is a vacation up at the Nature and Science Museum. Herself, her drawing pad and some dinosaur bones to commune with.?

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