In the Science Fiction of the 1930s and the 1940s, I’ve always been amazed at the sheer number of covers featuring beautiful, scantily clad young women being carried off by bug-eyed monsters. The women in these stories are always weak and helpless, meekly clutching their hands together, waiting for some muscle-bound macho male to save them. It never seemed to occur to the average male reader back then that this view of women was not only patronizing. It was demeaning and contemptible.
I was happy to see the Science Fiction community turn this around. The genre was definitely ahead of the curve. For example, Meta, in Harry Harrison’s Deathworld (written in 1960), is a woman with a unique genetic inheritance that makes her incredibly strong. Not only beautiful, she is skilled and accomplished, able to face any challenge. In a bar room scene, early in the book, she gives fair warning to an obnoxious drunk who’s groping her. “Touch me one more time and I will break your arm,” she warns him. One minute later she does exactly that. Throughout the book Jason DinAlt, an amusing male anti-hero, jumps behind her when the trouble starts. Or in those reckless moments when he tries to leap into the fray, she just brushes him aside with one hand and warns him to stay out of the way.
Later on in the genre there are more rounded portraits of women. For example, there is Amanda Morgan in Gordon Dickson’s The Spirit of Dorsai. She is brilliant, gifted and one of the leaders on the planet Dorsai. With a ragtag army composed of women and children, she beats back an armed invasion of Dorsai. She defends her home world with grit, guile, gumption and pure courage. There are not many men or women who can compare to her.
In more recent times, the fabulously gifted Stephen Baxter has a host of strong women in his novels. In Manifold: Origins, for example, Emma Stoney survives on a deadly world by traveling with a pack of savage, slope-headed anthropithecines. With toughness, intelligence, and amazing courage she more than holds her own in their primitive society.
I can only hope that someday our society will catch up with these women in science fiction. When the percentage of women in the Senate and the House reflects the percentage of women in the general population, the world will be a better place.
When I think of those lurid covers of the 1930s and 1940s, I have a fantasy about going back in time and presenting Thrilling Wonder Stories with my own cover. It would show a triple breasted, female, bug-eyed monster carrying off a handsome young man. There would be a look of abject horror on his face and he would be wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts.