March is Women’s History Month! Why? Because it contains International Women’s Day, which commemorates the day that women in Russia started the Russian Revolution by having a bread riot. The soldiers ordered to suppress the riot joined it instead, turning an angry mob into an armed angry mob, and leading directly to the abdication of Tsar Nicolas II and to a chain of events that ultimately created the Soviet Union and the Cold War. While most people who celebrate International Women’s Day worldwide probably aren’t thinking about Star Trek, the actions of women on that day in 1917 led directly to the formation of the Soviet Union and the nuclear anxieties that compelled Gene Roddenberry to create a more optimistic vision for humanity’s future. In Star Trek, the Soviet Union was represented by the Klingon Empire. Only one Klingon woman appeared in the Original Series, but many more have appeared in the licensed novels and in every Star Trek series since. Like all science fiction, Star Trek works by combining reflections on the past and present with its audiences’ hopes and fears for the future. It’s inextricably tangled with the time of its creation. Licensed novels and subsequent series have meant that both the time of Star Trek’s creation and its cast of creators have been broadly defined and diverse. These have allowed for the creation of stories about 23rd-century Klingon women that reflect the anxieties and hopes of 20th-century women writers.
As you might expect, Klingon women are pretty badass. Mara, their only representative in the original television series, is the quietest of the bunch. She describes herself as a hunter. In Vonda McIntyre’s Enterprise: The First Adventure the pirate, Koronin, uses her hunting abilities to steal an experimental spacecraft. The craft’s crew is armed with blasters. Koronin has her inherent ruthlessness, a pet monkey, and a sword. In Melinda Snodgrass’s Tears of the Singers, Kali is the best sharpshooter in the Klingon imperial fleet. Commander Aklein commands the Klingon task-force that battles Orion pirates above the planet Flyspeck in Diane Duane’s Doctor’s Orders. Specialist Katur, one of Aklein’s crew, has the unglamorous task of searching the planet for tabekh, an apparently vital Klingon condiment, which unexpectedly requires her to handle a series of hazards caused by time-manipulating rocks. These women are fierce and unstoppable.
They have to be. The writers who created these characters did not work from a unified vision of Klingon society, but most of them presented the assumption that Klingon brutality encouraged male domination of women. Close association with a powerful man is evidently a pre-requisite for rank and respect for Klingon women. Mara and Kali serve under the command of their husbands. In Tears of the Singers, this arrangement provides Kali with protection from the predatory tendencies of the rest of the crew. Koronin lacks a protective male figure. Instead, she uses the assumption that she is the mistress of the owner of the spacecraft she is stealing in order to manipulate its crew. These relationships carry a high degree of risk. When her husband faces a mutiny, Kali has to contend with the sexual aggression of his rebellious officers until her husband regains control. She’s relatively lucky. When Vladra, a lab tech in Dana Kramer-Rolls’ Home is the Hunter, asserts her loyalty for the wrong man, his enemies throw both of them out of an airlock. More mundane problems can also be perilous. Katur is annoyed to be digging in the dirt, but acknowledges that the work is important because tabekh shortages have led to murders among her ship’s crew. While not always glamorous, the problems these women face are important.
Many of these problems are aggravated by isolation. Klingon women usually appear one at a time. Koronin appears to be the only Klingon woman in the entire sector. Aklein and Katur serve with the same task force, but on completely different missions. Aklein fends off Orion pirates while Katur deals with time disturbances and collects plants. Kali and Vladra serve on otherwise all-male crews. Their isolation is compounded by the assumption that their relationships are primarily opportunistic rather than affectionate. Kali and Vladra are expected to adjust their loyalties to reflect the fortunes and misfortunes of their partners. The men around them refuse to believe in the emotional content of these women’s relationships. Kali’s husband assumes that she will find another high-ranking lover if he loses his ship. Vladra’s superior officer expects her to transfer her affection to someone on the winning side of the mutiny against her partner. They would benefit from the support and expertise of other women.
Why don’t these stories have more than one Klingon woman? I think it would have made them very short. A Klingon woman alone may struggle with the challenges of a situation. However, as Kali notes, they’re not weak and helpless. Although their scope is limited by circumstances and isolation, these characters are indisputably competent. Koronin outwits the guards who arrest her using a trick she has only seen once, while blindfolded. Vladra persuades her commander to negotiate a truce with Kirk. Aklein’s tactical expertise remedies McCoy’s inexperience when they attack the Orion pirates. One Klingon woman shifts the balance of power in a mutiny. Two Klingon women could take over the fleet.
Ellen Cheeseman-Meyer teaches history and reads a lot.