Tiptree in Context: The Women Men Don’t See (Part 2 of 5)

in Context is a new feature on this blog that examines the works of great science fiction authors in relation to their life experiences. This week-long series of posts will feature a brief biography of the author, followed by an examination of three or four pieces of their fiction. Click here for the introduction to the first featured author, James Tiptree, Jr.

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The first story I want to profile of Tiptree’s works was written midway through her career. Her writing career spanned twenty years, but her greatest works were largely written in the mid 1970’s, right before her true identity was discovered.

In the spring of 1972, Tiptree’s became dismayed with the approach many were taking to femimism. She quoted the NOW chapter newsletter as “sadly childish. My sex sems so trivialized… If one could somehow evolve a race of trained, ‘hard’ women?” Tiptree’s biographer, Julie Phillips, notes that “the more loudly women demanded their rights, the more Alli worried about empathy, thought about mothering, and tried to define feminimity as nurturance.”

During this time, Tiptree penned, “The Women Men Don’t See,” a story about feminism that men could understand. It’s not a story that helps men understand women; it’s a story that helps men understand that they can never truly understand a woman’s viewpoint. This is what the viewpoint character, Don Fenton, learns when his charter plane crashes in Mexico as he is traveling on a fishing trip. A small group of passengers survives and he and a woman named Ruth split off from the rest of the plane in search of water.

As they pace through the landscape of Mexico, Don becomes increasingly agitated when Ruth doesn’t act as he thinks a woman should. He is the man and he feels obligated to protect her. When aliens land nearby, Don realizes that Ruth has entirely different motives than he originally thought.

“The Women…” was rejected by Playboy, Cosmopolitan, and Penthouse before it sold to the first SF editor who saw it, Ed Ferman, and he ran it in the December 1973 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction. One of the things that makes this story unique is that the viewpoint character is not the protagonist at all. He’s not even a side character. He’s an obstacle trying to prevent the real protagonist, Ruth, from achieving her goal. This fact is not evident to the reader at first — one assumes that Don is the hero, saving the helpless woman from a strange creature. Don simply cannot understand that she would want anything different.

Tiptree said “the day when male writers can speak for women is speeding by. Fast.” She feared she would no longer be able to keep up her persona.” At one point she later wrote, “I’m getting fairly tired of being a man; so much one can’t say.” She was right and in 2013 I would never claim to speak with authority for a different sex or race than my own (I tend not to generalize about those sorts of things anyway).

When “The Women…” reached the Nebula Award finals, Tiptree withdrew it from the ballot, saying she wanted to give other writers a chance. But she also feared that the male byline would give the story an unfair edge. Ironically, most of her Hugo and Nebula awards would come after this story. “The Women…” remains today one of Tiptree’s most celebrated works and is a good introduction to her writing.

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