The Secret Feminist Cabal by Helen Merrick

As the subtitle of the book says, Helen Merrick’s 2009 The Secret Feminist Cabal is a cultural history of science fiction feminisms, from the birth of the genre through its tumultuous past to today. After reading Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing and To Write Like a Woman, I found myself searching for more recent scholarly work on science fiction’s role in women’s lives and how SF has interacted with and synthesized its own feminisms. Merrick’s book is an engaging and wonderfully written examination of the unseen and often erased history of women in SF.

Anyone interested in the history of SF fandoms, the reclaimed “herstory” of women in science fiction and fandom both, and the intersections of feminism and women’s writing with science will find value in this text. Merrick is an accessible writer: she does not assume that her reader will know all of the people or references she makes. That applies not just to the academic criticism she uses but also to her cultural examination of fandom. For those who weren’t alive (many of us) in the twenties and thirties, or during the forties and fifties, or the sixties up through the nineties, she explains the fandom resources she’s referencing and their uses, like APAs and fanzines. The use of letters-of-comment and letters to the editor as resources, from the pulps and onward, is an illuminating choice.

After all, science fiction is about more than just stories. It’s definitely about more than academic SF criticism. It’s about the people who were participating and devoting their lives to the fandom and their love of the literature, and how they shaped the narrative when they interacted with writers and editors.

It’s important to note, straight away, the use of the plural in the title: feminisms, not feminism. Merrick’s work doesn’t try to deal with false monoliths of culture, women or what could be called, at any point in time, Feminism. Her preface deals with the struggle of telling a story about SF feminisms right at the start:

My particular journeys through feminist SF texts, academe and fandom inevitably inflect my account, producing a very particular and invested story of SF feminisms.

Her awareness of her own position and investment in her narrative produces a nuanced reading of the history of feminist SF and the current state of affairs.

The text also makes an effort to engage with the intersections of race, class and sexuality in feminism, though Merrick acknowledges throughout the text that there are many more stories to be told on those fronts than she has managed to collect. The final chapter on contemporary SF feminisms, for example, deals predominantly with the changes in both mainstream and fandom feminisms to address race, class, sexuality and all of the others parts of “self” that haven’t traditionally been given enough attention—but it does so mostly through an examination of the Tiptree Awards. While Merrick didn’t write a book about race or sexuality, she never forgets the ways in which feminism has regularly failed in recognizing those aspects of women. She makes sure to reinforce that mainstream feminism for many years was mostly white and middle class.

I appreciate the fact that she keeps those issues in the forefront of her arguments. It’s important to acknowledge the failures as well as the successes of feminism, both within SF and without. One of those failures is its attitude toward women of color. (I hope someone else does write the book Merrick comments could be written on woman fans & writers of color and their experience of SF feminisms, which will by necessity differ from hers.) These cultural histories are deeply personal and experience-related, even when they are heavily researched, as The Secret Feminist Cabal was. More voices are only for the better.

As for the academic aspects of the text, it smoothly integrates scholarship and scholarly writing with engaging, personal, readable narrative. (With the exception of the first chapter, which is a much more scholarly section that lays out the other chapters and what the text will treat with—it is perhaps the most “difficult” of the lot, but necessary.) The bibliography is impressive and constitutes quite a reading list on its own. Merrick extensively annotates her text and provides scores of voices and documented sources for the arguments she makes. For me, as a young fan who wasn’t alive at the time (to be perfectly honest, my mother wasn’t even alive for a good half of the years discussed in this book), these quotes from fanzines, prominent fans, books, scholarship and feminism are invaluable. Some are mind-blowing, such as the quote at the beginning of the second chapter, and reveal exactly how ugly the circumstances could be for female fans and writers during the pulps. On the other hand, seeing for certain that there were and always have been women participating in SF is a balm for the soul.

Merrick addresses it best, but the tendency to erase women’s histories is common, no less in SF. Reclaiming and documenting our presence and our contributions is intensely important to preserving the real history of the genre and its growth.

As a queer woman, I appreciated that Merrick includes lesbian feminisms and narratives within the realm of her examination, even when traditional feminism was antagonistic toward lesbians and the fact that their feminist icon writers might have been queer. (An aside: Joanna Russ has a particularly excellent essay on this contained in To Write Like a Woman.) This is a book concerned with sexuality only where it intersects with feminism, though, so there is less of a focus than a book on queer SF histories might be. (Similarly, this is how she addresses issues of race and feminist SF: discussing but not focusing.)

The chapter on feminist science is another excellent addition to the narrative: after all, what is science fiction without some engagement with the idea of “science?” It was eye-opening for me as a reader, as I have not read much feminist scientific discourse, and seeing its overlays and commentaries was fascinating. How that commentary could be used and engaged with by SF is an important topic to discuss in the context of a cultural history with many viewpoints.

While Merrick at the outset puts the book forward as an argument for SF feminism to be recognized by the mainstream—much like the usual argument that SF should be considered a worthy part of the literary/academic canon—I honestly forgot that was the point once the narrative began. (I’m not sure it’s necessary for SF or SF feminisms to be recognized by the mainstream, who are generally stuck in their ways regarding canon-creation.) I deeply enjoyed the herstory, the overlaying narratives and maps of feminism, counter-feminism, women and men in science fiction, and the critical focus.

What gaps there are in this text are self-aware, and Merrick’s acknowledgement that she is speaking from her personal place (as I am reading it from my personal place) makes it an even better work of scholarship. For such a huge subject, involving so many people from so many different perspectives, as well as fields from fandom to academia to science to criticism, spanning continents and nearly a century of activity, I think she does as best a job as she possibly can at presenting a coherent, engaging and utterly engrossing narrative. This book is readable and fascinating for the fan, the academic, or anyone with even the slightest interest in feminism & SF. (The fact that it was a nominee for the 2010 Hugo for Best Related Work, too, is revealing of how much it can speak to a fan and reader.)

There are more threads to be contributed to this narrative, from here and into the past and future, by all readers who interact with it and have their own experiences with SF feminisms. I think that if you-the-reader give it a try, you’ll enjoy it—and it’s remarkably cool, at least for me, to learn about the history/herstory of SF and its fandom. Good book, and I’d like to see more in the same vein, examining other angles that didn’t make it into this one.

Lee Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.


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