Thu
Aug 12 2010 12:15pm

The right kind of girl

Regarding the Heinlein biography, Pamela Dean said:

I was sure, even early on in my reading, that he wasn’t actually talking to me. I didn’t belong in his worlds. Though as an adult this quality sometimes made me want to pull out my hair, as a child I found it delicious. I was eavesdropping on secrets that I wasn’t meant to know: as a girl, the wrong kind of girl, bad at mathematics, repulsed by babies, dubious of marriage, almost, at times, a Luddite. I was getting all the secrets of a universe I would never enter, a universe more fantastical than that of Tolkien, Lovecraft, Austen, and Carroll put together. There was an inexplicable joy in this that was hugely addictive.

I’m terrible at mathematics, but I always felt that in the future that would be one of the things that would get engineered away. The first time I saw a pocket calculator I thought “I knew it!” And I wasn’t an engineer, but that would also be one of those things—I mean, I could be. Okay, I was a classics major, but I didn’t have a problem with the concept.

The odd thing is that I never felt like the wrong kind of girl for Heinlein. I didn’t feel as if I was eavesdropping, I felt that I was being confided in. As a teenager I was very used to being the exception—I could force male company to take me seriously even though I was a girl. In my imagination, I’d make misogynists like C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton let me in by this rule. Oh, they’d say, girls suck, yes, well, but this is Jo. By sheer force of my natural Jo-ness, I’d make them take me seriously. I am now, at forty-five, rather weary of the effort required, of the ongoing necessity to assert this in order to be taken seriously. It gets awfully tiresome. Even at fifteen, I could see there was a problem with this... but if all the other girls in my world insisted on turning into typical teenage girls, what else could I do?

But with Heinlein I never felt my gender was an issue. Girls were not invisible to him. Girls existed, and could be on the moon. And I did want babies, not now, but when I was grown up. How else would we carry on the human race, after all? In most of what I read, you could ask what was missing from this picture—no women, no people who weren’t white, no families, no older people, no kids, no poor people. Heinlein had all that. Poor people. People with ethnic names. People with different skin color. Girls not just as love objects, but grandmothers. Not just boy scouts, but little bratty sisters. Not just Kip, but Pee Wee. I might have asked why the girls couldn’t have been front and centre (I didn’t like Podkayne either), but then he wrote Friday.

Heinlein told me that it was actually okay for women to like sex. I may be dim, but I’d never have figured that out from most of what I was reading. He told me they could be radio operators on space stations and the work would get done more efficiently. And the biography told me he really believed that, when he was recruiting for the lab where he was doing war work he went to women’s colleges to find engineering graduates. He told me I didn’t always have to crash my way through closed doors to get myself into the story. I believed in him because I felt he believed in me—the potential me, the one who would be an engineer, and know how to change diapers and plan invasions, the best me I could be.

Where I felt he wasn’t talking to me was where I was excluded for being insufficiently American. That’s something Patterson made me feel even more. Heinlein loved America and was patriotic and emotional about it, but he also understood that he was living on a planet. Patterson doesn’t seem to imagine any non-US readers for this biography. Heinlein knew that Americans came in all shapes and sizes and colors and genders, but as for the rest of the world, he thought “the cowards never started and the weaklings died on the way.” That’s hurtful for a European to read. Heinlein wrote about people with different skin color, but never ever with different culture—Juan Rico is as assimilated as people can possibly be, and so are all Heinlein’s characters.

I wrote to Heinlein in 1980, a very grumpy letter, when I found out that Expanded Universe wouldn’t be published outside the U.S. “You can’t stop me getting it anyway,” I wrote. “I am saving up for a ticket. Anyway, I can’t imagine you could say anything worse about Americans than that they have a new Heinlein book and won’t share it. But in case you care, it is being serialised in Destinies, and I can buy that here.” He didn’t reply, and I’m really not surprised.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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20 comments
Phoenix Falls
1. PhoenixFalls
"Heinlein told me that it was actually okay for women to like sex. I may be dim, but I’d never have figured that out from most of what I was reading."

I may be dim too, but if it weren't for my parents finally getting us a modem when I was 15/16 I wouldn't have known this either -- despite having gone through at least three different sex ed segments by that point. I guess I'll move Friday up on my TBR stack. . . I'm just starting to read Heinlein (did Asimov/Clarke/Bradbury/Herbert as a teen but somehow never got to Heinlein) so it's fascinating reading all the different posts about him here.

Thanks for the reminder that the rest of the world is made up of people too. . . I'm American and even I get fed up with that mindset sometimes. ;)
DavidA
2. DavidA
I posted this comment in another thread, but I'll repost it here because it is directly on topic:

I am male, but I began reading Heinlein at age 8 in the 1960s, and I am convinced that Brooks McNye, and all her sisters in the Heinlein canon, imprinted on me at an early age that "of course" women can do whatever men can do, and that they should do and be whatever they want. There is residual sexism in his work, because he couldn't divorce himself entirely from his time, but that value shines through.

To add to my prior comment, I also thought the glaring exception is Podkayne. She just doesn't seem like a real person, of any gender.
Jo Walton
3. bluejo
DavidA: That's one of those things that it's just as important for boys to absorb as girls.

Podkayne -- there's just something off about it. Every so often I re-read it, thinking I'm sure to like it this time, but I never do.
Darius Bacon
4. Darius
That hogging of _Expanded Universe_ boggled me, too. (I'm American.) The reason made some kind of sense, OK, but how could it measure up to denying the world a good Heinlein collection?
DavidA
5. Lsana
Just a minor point that I noticed in this post: I hate to break it to you, but a calculator is about as likely to make up for the fact that a person can't do math as a word processor is to make up for the fact that someone can't write.

Now if you can do math but are hopeless at arithmetic, that's an entirely different subject. This is a category of people that includes 99.5% of all professional mathematicians...
Jo Walton
6. bluejo
Darius: The reason was trivial in comparison. I still feel an illicit thrill from owning Expanded Universe.

Lsana: I seem to have been born without an arithmetic co-processor, which prevented me from ever getting anywhere with math. In physics and chemistry, where I could use the calculator as necessary, all was fine.
DavidA
7. Brian2
Speaking off the top of my head, popular culture in the 50s and 60s wasn't doing much to tell you that girls and women were real, and independent human beings. It's been a long time since I've read much of Heinlein, but I remember him as the one striking exception. As a boy, I felt that he was showing you how life really was behind the curtain, and that once you got there no one had the power to define anyone else, and people as natural objects were multidimensional and fascinating and potentially frustrating in a way that they couldn't be when you reduced them to cultural constructs. No doubt he was inconsistent about it, but the basic point was pretty clear.

And yes, "I didn't feel I was eavesdropping, I felt I was being confided in."
DavidA
8. RetroGrouch
I understand Heinlein's feeling that America was THE culture, but I don't know if I can explain it adequately. Looking through the prism of the times, we had saved the entire world and was then defending it from the communists. We were bringing food and democracy to the world. But though RAH characters may have sounded American (how could they not?) they went beyond the times and the culture. Women were smart, sexy, and at least as capable (if not more) than men. The first openly gay characters I ever read about were his, and they were not scorned, but accepted. He foresaw the Muslim religion expanding out of its traditional geographies. The above scorned Podakayne was a valley girl transported to a sci-fi setting. Although she was the narrator of the story, her brother is actually the protagonist. Think of her as a story device, an experiment in perspective. Although not my favorite book of his, it is better than a number of others.
DavidA
9. Lsana
@6 bluejo,

Ah. Being terrible at arithmetic is completely different from being terrible at math.

Pardon the digression. I'm just on a one-woman crusade to try to correct the impression that "math = arithmetic."
DavidA
10. Captain Button
@9 Lsana: A distinction Heinlein used in Beyond This Horizon where Theobald is being taught math but is considered too young to be taught arithmetic.
DavidA
11. David G. Hartwell
A story I told in part elsewhere. I met a girl (now in her 80s, in New Castle, Delaware) who dated Isaac Asimov before he was married. They worked together at the Philadelphia Navy Yards through the war. I asked her if she knew Heinlein. "Oh, the recruiter," she said. He came to my college and hired me."
DavidA
12. Bill Patterson
Very interesting anecdote, David. But ISTR Asimov talking about being married to Gertrude at the time of his service at NAES. Do you mean she dated Asimov in New York before his marriage and before NAES?

Recruiting engineers for NAES was one of Heinlein's first jobs there, and he recruited every female engineer he could find, both for ideological reasons and practical reasons (a female engineer would not be drafted out from under them)
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Bill: I especially liked the story about him telling the college that refused to allow women to study engineering that they had hampered the war effort.
DavidA
14. Bill Patterson
bluejoe@13 -- so did I, and, even more importantly, so did Heinlein himself while it was happening. He said it gave him great satisfaction to rip a new one for the president of that university in public.
DavidA
15. Bill Patterson
dernier pensee: I think that was a very early example of something he said later in life about seeking out the toes God meant to be stepped upon and treading heavily thereupon.
DavidA
16. RandolphF
Heinlein was, I think, a deeply conflicted man, and his great insights seem never to have won out over some of the prejudices of his childhood. I believe this is what made him so attractive to so many Americans--he offered a safe way into a wider world.

BTW, computation--including arithmetic--is the stitching and mathematics is the design. Calculators are the mathematical equivalent of sewing machines and (electronic) computers the equivalent of looms.
DavidA
17. HelenS
"But with Heinlein I never felt my gender was an issue. Girls were not invisible to him."

I always felt that the kind of person I was was invisible to him, whether defined in terms of gender or not. But I certainly don't remember identifying with any of his women characters.
DavidA
18. Captain Button
Bill Patterson @ 12:

I skimmed the relevant section of In Memory Yet Green. Asimov was not married or even formally engaged when he moved to Philadelphia in May 1942. He wanted to be, but Gertrude was waffling. He went back to New York every weekend to see her, and they were engaged by June 7th and married on July 25th.
DavidA
19. Bill Patterson
#18 Captain Button. Ok, so Asimov actually was married to Gertrude during most of the time he was at NAES. I think what I was remembering was that Gertrude went to visit family, which left him free to be summoned along to Ulcer Gulch instead of reading quietly in his lab with a sandwich, which he would have preferred.

And that places David Hartwell's anecdote between May and July of 1942, so there is room for both recollections to be true.
DavidA
20. Suzanne K. Moses
I want very badly to like Heinlein's books, I tried for years. I can't put my finger on it, but there's something in his writing that actively pushes me away.

It's rather frustrating. I'll keep an eye out for the biography though, he sounds like someone I would like to know more about.

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