Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Quote of the Day: Intersectionality

If, as a member of an oppressed group, I take a stand against that oppression and decide that I will work against it, it doesn't make any sense to work only for my own personal interests. It doesn't make any sense for me to only fight for marriage equality when there are other queer people losing their jobs for being queer or killing themselves for being queer because THAT'S how much they hate themselves. (If you are unfamiliar with my usage of the word "queer," it goes like this: "queer" used to be a derogatory term aimed at LGBTQ people. It has since been liberatingly reclaimed by LGBTQ people to generally refer to that which is not heteronormative. The non-heteronormative part is why I like to use it-- it's shorter than LGBTQ and also rhymes with "cheer.") The people within my oppressed group that are more oppressed than I are more oppressed for reasons that inevitably have to do with issues of money/class and race. That is how I understand intersectionality. It's all connected. And it doesn't make any damn sense to forget about other oppressed peoples while I work my own way out of oppression because that doesn't do anything to end oppression-- it only ends MY oppression. It only moves oppression around-- shifts it from one group to another. Meanwhile, the dominant group stays dominant while the system they sit atop says, "suckeeeers!!!" And by forgetting and/or not recognizing the other oppressed, I become the oppressor. I'm not down with this. This is what "no one is free when others are oppressed" means to me. No one is better than anyone else.
-- Jennifer Luu, 2010 Equality Rider

Monday, 18 January 2010

Worrals of the WAAF

Worrals of the WAAF is clearly a feminist icon - feisty, independent and a pilot. According to the Gad, Sir! Comics blog:
Captain W E Johns had written and published no fewer than eleven (prose) books about Flight Officer Joan Worralson of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, starting with Worrals of the WAAF in 1941, previously serialised in Girl’s Own magazine. Like her more famous male predecessor, Biggles, Worrals was a pilot known by an abbreviation of her surname, had a sidekick nicknamed after her physical appearance (“Frecks”, rather than “Ginger”), and showed an alarming propensity to stumble on spy rings while on routine missions. There was no romance, Worrals’s family never showed up, and she acted for King and country rather than personal interest.
She's plucky, intelligent, independent and in charge of her own plane - what's not to like?

The author of the Worrals books, W. E. Johns, also wrote the Biggles books, of course, and several science fiction novels. His politics were clearly different from other children's writers of the era, as according to Wikipedia:
Unique among children’s writers of the time, from 1935 Johns employed a working-class character as an equal member of the Biggles team - "Ginger" Habblethwaite, later Hebblethwaite, the son of a Northumberland miner (we never learn his real Christian name, and he proclaims himself a Yorkshireman once or twice).
Other less-famous characters created by W. E. Johns include commando Captain Lorrington "Gimlet" King; aviatrix Joan "Worrals" Worralson (essentially a female Biggles, created at the request of the Air Ministry to inspire more young women to join the Women's Auxiliary Air Force); and pioneering astronaut (ex-RAF, naturally) Group Captain Timothy "Tiger" Clinton, who first rocketed into space in 1954.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Women alchemists

Women alchemists were not just the soror mystica of their male counterparts, but researchers in their own right. For instance, the bain-marie was invented by a female alchemist, though exactly which one is disputed:
According to culinary writer Giuliano Bugialli, the term comes from the Italian bagno maria, named after Maria de'Cleofa, who developed the technique in Florence in the sixteenth century.
Alternatively, the device's invention has been popularly attributed to Mary the Jewess, an ancient alchemist traditionally supposed to have been Miriam, a sister of Moses. The name comes from the medieval-Latin term balneum (or balineum) Mariae—literally, Mary's bath—from which the French bain de Marie, or bain-marie, is derived.
According to The Jewish Alchemists, Maria the Jewess was an ancient alchemist who lived in Alexandria—although this would seem to contradict the tradition that she was Moses' sister: Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 334 BC, while Moses is thought to have lived around 1450-1200 BC.

There is a website devoted to women alchemists, including Sophie Brahe, Anna Maria Zieglerin, Marie Meurdrac, Katherine Boyle Jones and Margaret Cavendish. The author of the website, Robin L Gordon, also has a forthcoming book, Searching for the Soror Mystica.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Lesbian separatist ants

Mad Science reports that there is a female-only species of ant.
Technically these ants reproduce asexually, not through some kind of Nicola Griffith-style lesbian parthenogenesis. They are, however, one of the only known all-female animal species. Who is to say whether it wasn't some lesbian urge that caused them to diverge from other ant species and give up sperm altogether?
I am reminded of the ant society in T H White's The Once and Future King.
Males = Not-Done.
There were no words for happiness, for freedom, for liking, nor were there any words for their opposites — there were only two words for qualifications, Done and Not-Done — which applied to all questions of value... Their life was not questionable, it was dictated...

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The changing face of marriage

I've just been watching a fascinating documentary on BBC iPlayer about the history of British marriages in the last fifty years. It shows how much marriage has changed. Kirsty Young interviewed lots of couples and marriage guidance counsellors to explore the changing concept of marriage: from an institution to a relationship.

One significant factor was the availability of divorce, which meant that people actually had to work at it rather than taking it for granted, and that they could escape miserable and failed marriages. But until the Divorce Reform Act of 1969, a divorce was still quite difficult to obtain; one or other party had to be at fault. After that, separation could be grounds for divorce. By seeing marriage as a terminable arrangement, this completely changed the way people viewed marriage: it means that the quality of marriage matters, and it is socially acceptable to end one.

The Second World War had a huge impact; there were 30,000 divorces in 1946 (more than three times the pre-war numbers) because people's expectations of marriage had changed, and many people had had affairs while they or their partners were away, or both parties had simply changed in the intervening years since they had last seen each other.

Then there was the advent of marriage guidance (the National Marriage Guidance Council was formed in 1946). The NMGC promoted the concept of companionate marriage — the idea that the partners are equal and provide companionship for each other.

Another significant change was women going out to work. In the early 50s, only one in five women worked. This changed fairly rapidly in subsequent decades. At about 25 minutes into the documentary, Kirsty Young takes a pot-shot at that idiot John Bowlby, who placed having a mother in full-time employment on the same level as war and famine in the scale of calamities that might befall a child.

The increasing availability of contraception also had an effect, together with increased expectations of sexual fulfilment. Until the "sexual revolution", people often had little or no sexual experience when they got married, so had no basis for comparison to know if their partner was any good in the sack. Reliable contraception allowed them to gain pre-marital sexual experiences; and also meant that they could choose whether or not to have children. And increased availability of knowledge about sex (orgasms and so on) meant that expectations were raised, and extra-marital affairs became more common. Prior to that, they were pretty clueless about sex; a NMGC survey in the early 50s found that only one in three couples had a fulfilling sex life. A 1958 NMGC booklet, Sex in Marriage, pointed out that some couples, once they get closer, might like to try having sex with no clothes on; and pointed out that some women might need more than orgasm before they were satisfied. (Hurrah - multiple orgasms!) People were also clueless about conception and contraception - at the beginning of the 1960s, one in five women were already pregnant when they got married. Many others died of botched abortions.

Feminism also had an impact, encouraging women to expect economic, intellectual and sexual freedom, and legal and social equality. Men started to help with the housework, or with pushing the pram or holding the baby in the late 1950s. (The next programme in the series deals with feminism and sexual liberation.)

Education (including sex education) improved massively, making people better informed about life and about the choices available to them.

All of these factors mean that marriage at the end of the twentieth century was a completely different concept than it was at the beginning of the century. So, if you are one of those people who thinks that same-sex or polygamous marriage would change the concept of marriage beyond all recognition, you are closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Only women bleed

I see radical lesbian feminist philosopher/theologian Mary Daly has died. The blog-obits have varied between the naffly saccharine (from the Pagans, as per: 'May you rest in the sweet arms of the Goddess and have good joy of the Summerlands!' kind of thing) and the excoriating, taking Daly to task for her failings, perceived or actual. (There's a hilarious piece over at Melissa McEwan's on Daly, in which McEwan, having come to praise her, contorts herself into a flailing ecstasy of right-on self-abasement in the Comments once she's told that Daly was once nasty to transsexuals.)

It's rather difficult to write about Daly, as a man, without being accused of bigotry. A keynote of her playful style was the making of very extreme statements forte con brio which might or might not have been merely throwaway. In this she was like a kind of philosophical performance artist of woman-rage, but the line she trod between radical art-speech and radical hate-speech was, sadly, a narrow one. I'm not sure becoming a kind of mirror-image Tertullian really did her, feminism, or the world much good in the end, nor how deliberate a pose it was. But more on this anon.

Credit where credit is due: Daly wrote some wonderful, profound, clever things that totally put the bomb under the 'kyriarchy' (great word, all credit to her). Beginning with work on the great Jesuit intellectual Jacques Maritain, she moved into skeweringly accurate analyses of patriarchal religious structures, especially in her early works like The Church and the Second Sex and Beyond God the Father. These did much to enable women and men alike to see the hierarchies of institutional Christianity as contingent and Kafkaesque, and in them she laid bare---with lacerating, scornful wit---how deeply that religion's pompous absurdities of practice are in fact rooted in the murky bowels of its theology. (A metaphor Daly would have liked, that.) I find this a tenable if intellectually-unsubtle view, but then Daly was never really interested in nuance: her favourite word was 'BIG!'. I respect Daly a great deal for her refusal to bill herself as any kind of dutiful patriarchal daughter, utterly rejecting any concession, and, sometimes, using language with a kind of bubbling, fierce humour. And may her name be forever blessed for the wonderful coinage academentia: don't we all just know what she meant.

Unfortunately, she then began a period which lasted until her death in which she gradually lost touch with the world around her whilst claiming to see it ever more clearly. As Lord Shaftesbury remarked, '[T]he most ingenious way to become foolish' is 'by a system.' For a deeply learned woman, Daly's scholarship became erratic: she clung, for example, to the notorious 'nine million women' figure for the number of deaths in the early modern Witchcraze, and completely ignored the emergent and specifically radical feminist scholarship of the 1980s which demonstrated that her view of the witch trials was simply mistaken---a note of intellectual high-handedness with other women scholars which sadly came to blight her work. She was not in any way a competent historian (except perhaps, once, of the Church) but ultimately a kind of philosophical propagandist; when history becomes martyrology and persuasion is replaced by propaganda---in however prankish a spirit and in however good a cause---then the scholar ensures the eventual academic evanescence of their own work, because it will have to be redone properly.

This propaganda settled into the form of a radical feminist Manichaeism, in which the world is divided down the middle into men (bad, intrinsically disordered, violent, oppressive and 'necrophile') and women (good, intriniscally oriented correctly towards life and each other, peaceful, oppressed and 'biophile'.) One of the saddest things to watch, as one reads Daly's later works, is the way that the first category grew ever more capacious and the second shrunk ever further as the ideological strictures tightened. By the late 90s, 'women' had come to mean radical feminist lesbians, or, as Daly might have put it, only Positively Revolting Hags who had Crone-ologically seen through the patriarchal pompenile parades, rejected intercourse in favour of Outercourse, and had joyously up-risen into Quintessential Be-ing. As her remaking of the dictionary, Websters' First New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, makes plain, Daly was, alas, no Joyce when it came to wordplay. The experience of being trapped in the book's thuddingly-repetitive, elephantine punning makes me feel like Victoria Wood's wonderful character Kitty, a formidable Manchester matron of decided views, who tells us:

--She said, 'Kitty, do you like fun?' I said, 'No, I don't!--I had enough of that in 1958 when I was stuck in a lift with a hula-hoop salesman.'

(As Daly might have said, 'We may be overthrowing the patriarchy, but I want it to be fun fun fun.') As her throught developed, she appointed herself the arbiter of who of who was not 'a real woman' according to her own exalted criteria, eventually defining which women were and were not worthy of a feminist revolution. Sex-workers, transgendered women, Christians, straight women who enjoy straight sex, mothers of boys, women who love their male relatives, women who have undergone male-derived kinds of psychotherapy---all were eventually excluded in Pure Lust as 'imitation males.' Men, of course, had to go too, via a shady and unspecified process of 'decontamination'. I find it astounding that a woman of Daly's obvious intelligence felt able to use that term in a post-Holocaust world, in which it is a clear and sinister synonym for 'extermination.' As she said:

If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore.

Change 'males' to 'Jews', 'blacks', or 'gays' and see how it reads. Whether or not she meant this statement seriously, and whether or not anything can be said on the grounds that it's merely playful, philosophical free-association, Daly struck here a genuine note of wistful Stalinism once too often for my liking.

There are a variety of questions that can be raised about Daly's career, beyond the infamous banning of male students from her advanced classes; on the latter, I can see her point, but on the other hand it's little better in my opinion than the ghastly Islington registrar Lilian Ladele refusing to perform Civil Partnerships: in other words, whatever wacko views you feel it incumbent upon you to hold, you have to perform the job you were employed to do fairly. I find it striking that Daly told women to leave the Church en masse, but continued to work for a Jesuit university for over three decades. Intellectually, the main problem is her apparent inability to conceive that there might be other axes of oppression beyond men vs women, and that perhaps class, education, race, and economic status might just possibly complicate such a simplistic binary. It mystifies me that such a sophisticated thinker could be so tin-eared at times. Hers was ultimately not a flexible mind; her intellectual style closely resembles that of that Eagleton-coined atheist pushmi-pullyu, 'Ditchkins', i.e. Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchkins. Whereas Ditchkins sees religion itself as an irredeemably corrupting influence on the human mind and writes from a position of withering intellectual certainty, Daly saw the kyriarchical forms of religion as the monstrous leviathan to be slain by herself as a labrys-wielding female Marduk. Both often hit the target and hit it hard; both are often guilty an obtuse lack of imaginative sympathy and intellectual manoeuvrability.

There were other problems: the issues about Daly's unedifying fear and loathing of transsexual women (to whom she implied actual violence should be done) have been well picked over on the blogosphere, as has womanist poet Audre Lorde's famous open letter accusing Daly (in polite terms) of a privilged, colonialist and unconsciously racist mindset and methodology---to which Daly apparently never publicly responded. I'll let you hunt those out for yourselves should you wish to do so.

All in all, I'm glad feminism has moved beyond Beyond God the Father, as it were, jettisoning Daly's utopian flights of fantasy and lurid lesbian neo-hierarchies, despite her importance. Daly once wrote: 'I urge you to sin. But not against these itty-bitty religions, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism – or their secular derivatives, Marxism, Maoism, Freudianism and Jungianism – which are all derivatives of the big religion of patriarchy. Sin against the infrastructure itself!' I find in this---Maoism and Marxism aside---a recipe for the reductive suicide of human culture, and an extraordinary sense of intellectual contempt deriving from unconscious feeling of vulnerability to pollution. (She could have done with thinking about Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger a bit harder.) For Daly, there is no point even thinking about, say, the three-thousand year old legacy of Hindu culture, spirituality, literature, art, ritual, architecture, medicine, or philosophy: it is merely an instantiation of the patriarchy. (Someone had better pop Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty a note through.) I find myself questioning whether Daly was really learned enough in, for example, Buddhism or Jungian thought to pronounce them valueless and 'itty-bitty' in this way. Judging by her basic lack of attention to them and the historical errors of her scholarship, I rather doubt it. As she gradually lost interest in any account of literature, psychology, biology, history, or religion which conflicted with her stark worldview, she became increasingly ideologically self-marooned; a great loss to the world, as she had an exceptional mind.

There's one term in particular that I do wish that she had picked up from Jung: enantiodromia, that is, 'the tendency of polarised extremes to come to resemble one another via a process of compulsive unconscious compensation.' Ultimately, Daly was an extraordinarily powerful and yet limited thinker, who took the tools used to construct patriarchal religion and analysed them in great and mordant detail. Alas that she went on to use those tools to erect a house of mirrors, which came strangely to reproduce the original patriarchal edifice. By being hierarchically exclusivist, by claiming privileged access to truth, by erecting purity laws about sex and by anathematizing dissent, Daly created a house in which every surface reflected only her own face. In the end, perhaps the best---and the worst---that I can say about Mary Daly is that after a lifetime's striving in the service of feminist thought and nine or so books, historically she won't even be as important as Camille Paglia, another lesbian feminist and her thorough-going ideological opposite.

Anyway, despite my misgivings above, rest in peace, Mary.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Female spies

Sarah Emma Edmonds was a remarkable woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union cause in the American Civil War. She
enlisted in a Michigan volunteer infantry company as Franklin Thompson, successfully evading detection as a woman for a year. She participated in the Battle of Blackburn's Ford, First Bull Run / Manassas, the Peninsular Campaign, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Sarah Edmonds sometimes served as a spy, "disguised" as a woman (Bridget O'Shea) or as a black man.
Aphra Behn was one of Britain's first professional woman writer, author of plays and novels, and also a spy.
She was reportedly bisexual, and held a larger attraction to women than to men, a trait that, coupled with her writings and references of this nature, would eventually make her popular in the writing and artistic communities of the 20th century and present day.

By 1666 Behn had become attached to the Court, possibly through the influence of Thomas Culpepper and other associates of influence, where she was recruited as a political spy to Antwerp by Charles II. Her code name for her exploits is said to have been Astrea, a name under which she subsequently published much of her writings. The Second Anglo-Dutch War had broken out between England and the Netherlands in 1665.[3] She became the lover to a prominent and powerful royal, and from him she obtained political secrets to be used to the English advantage.
The Women's History site at About.com has a massive site about female spies, including American Civil War spies, Second World War spies, and Cold War spies. Times Online has a detailed site about the Special Operations Executive, including Lise Villameur, Pearl Witherington, Odette Hallowes, and Yvonne Cormeau. And not forgetting Violette Szabo.

Saturday, 9 January 2010


Some second-wave feminists insist that there is something essentially female about women; that men are the oppressors; and that the patriarchy is everywhere, insidiously sending its messages of subjugation wherever you are, like a giant phallic panopticon.

I remember in the late 1980s going to join the lesbian society at university, and when I asked why they didn't have a joint society with the gay men, the response was, "They may be gay, but they're still men." (So yeah, obviously part of the patriarchal conspiracy, just by virtue of having tackle. Right.) (Most universities now have a joint LGBT society.) As you can imagine, this was one of the formative experiences that made me a third-wave feminist.

Many second-wave feminists propagate the myth of an ancient matriarchal or matrifocal society. Now, don't get me wrong, I do think this is a rather lovely idea (at least a matrifocal society would be - I'm not sure that matriarchy would be any better than patriarchy), but I doubt that it was ever actually a reality. Though it must be said that there are societies which retain traces of matrifocality, for example those cultures that count descent through the female line, like the Jews do.

What we do know is that from about 500 BCE onwards, there was suddenly a reaction against sex, and particularly sex with women. Celibacy and male friendship were in, and women were out. This phase was particularly virulent until about 500 CE, when it began to abate. Unfortunately, the middle and latter part of this period coincided with the rise of Christianity, which is why that religion was so anti-women. Some of the writings of the Church in this period are eye-wateringly misogynist. Of course, this general negativity towards sex and the body must also have adversely affected men.

In this 14th century illustration from a copy of Euclid's Elements, a woman is shown holding a compass and square, teaching geometry to a group of monks.

In fact, the fortunes of women have fluctuated quite dramatically during the last 2000 years. During the 14th century, women could own property and businesses (which is why we have surnames like Brewster, a female brewer, and Webster, a female weaver, because surnames were formalised in the 14th century). Women could also learn Latin, and obviously therefore many were also literate. Nunneries were not just places of seclusion, but communities of learned women. Things weren't 100% rosy for medieval women, but they were definitely looking up. But then the Reformation created problems for women, because the Virgin Mary and female saints could no longer be venerated, and the Divine was seen as exclusively male. Suddenly, women were very much back to being second-class citizens again.

The view of women as utterly crushed by patriarchy denies agency to women, portraying us as passive victims. Our ancestors were just as capable of feminism as you or I. Take Christine de Pizan, for instance, Europe's first professional female writer, who wrote The Book of the City of Ladies, an important feminist work of the early 15th century:
By 1405, Christine de Pizan had completed her most successful literary works, The Book of the City of Ladies and The Treasure of the City of Ladies, or The Book of the Three Virtues. The first of these shows the importance of women’s past contributions to society, and the second strives to teach women of all estates how to cultivate useful qualities in order to counteract the growth of misogyny ... Christine’s final work was a poem eulogizing Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who took a very public role in organizing French military resistance to English domination in the early fifteenth century. Written in 1429, The Tale of Joan of Arc celebrates the appearance of a woman military leader who, according to Christine, vindicated and rewarded all women’s efforts to defend their own sex (Wikipedia)
Life was hard in the medieval period for everyone; I would rather have been an upper-class medieval woman than a male serf, thank you very much. There were still misogynists around, but some women did have and wield power.

In the seventeenth century, a small army of women marched on Parliament to demand the vote. In the eighteenth century, women again had some economic power and a measure of sexual and intellectual freedom. Things took a down-turn again in the nineteenth century with the construction of middle-class womanhood (the "angel of the house") and the pathologisation of women's sexuality. But then along came first-wave feminism (at last) to campaign for legal rights and suffrage.

Furthermore, focussing on how women are oppressed under the current system obscures the complex hierarchies of race, class, and sexuality. It also obscures the ways in which men are constrained and bounded by gender stereotyping.

First let's look at how race, class and gender intersect. In the typical hierarchical view (circa 1930), a straight white upper-class man would be top of the heap. Just below him would be the straight white upper-class woman and the straight white upper-class gay or lesbian. Just below them would be the white middle classes, followed by well-to-do Asian and Black people (though perhaps the white working classes, being quite racist, would have regarded themselves as above any non-white person). So it would simply not be true to say that men were always regarded as superior to women — it depended on their race and class. Of course, all this is deeply uncomfortable to contemplate — it's not pleasant trying to get inside the mind of a sexist or a racist or a homophobe or a snob.

Second, let's look at how "patriarchal" attitudes affect men. Men are not supposed to dress in certain ways (no skirts, dresses, frills, make-up, nail-varnish, or anything remotely "feminine" — even moisturiser is viewed with suspicion); they are not supposed to show much emotion, and especially aren't allowed to cry. They are not supposed to be interested in "feminine" pursuits - botany, needlework, jewellery-making — even religion and spirituality are seen as a bit "feminine". Men must be taller than their girlfriends; they must not have girls' names (ever noticed how any boy's name that gets given to girls suddenly ceases to be regarded as a boy's name?) Masculinity is hedged about with so many taboos and prohibitions, it's no wonder that men are confused and insecure about it.

If we want to liberate women from the "patriarchy", therefore, we also need to liberate men from it. Otherwise, how can it be completely dismantled?

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Alternative history

And talking of alternative history, check out this fabulous blog entitled Woolf and Wilde, which presents
vintage photographs of men together (and sometimes women together) circa 1880 to 1950, a longtime passion of mine.

I pair the photos with text to narrate what, in my imagination, the couples might be saying, doing, feeling. Text is drawn from poetry, fiction, letters, lyrics and my own writing. Assembling these Imagined Histories creates a gay ancestry of sorts that I have always longed to know — even if I have had to make it up myself. This is the lineage I wish had been passed down to me like so much treasure, like other cultures do to honor a common identity.
ride me like a waveNot only is this a beautiful idea, but some of the pictures are wonderful, and the poetry is good as well (with selections from e e cummings and Walt Whitman, among others).

Here's my favourite so far - how luscious!

I wonder what the sitters of these photos were really thinking? Some of them certainly seem quite gay and lesbian - and who is to say that they weren't? There was a thriving lesbian and gay underground in the late nineteenth century, with toms and mollies and their own special clubs.

You can also follow Woolf & Wilde on Twitter, which was where I discovered them when they kindly followed me. It's rather like the telegraph craze of the 1890s, don't you think?

science fiction

I love science fiction. All of it. From space opera all the way to hard SF, stopping off at planetary romance, what-if scenarios, alternative histories, and social science SF, and so on and so forth.

Science fiction is a great way to think about the world in a different way - imagining what it would be like if this or that aspect of society, or evolution, or the environment, were different. You might think it's about the future, but it's actually a commentary on the present.

SF is a wide-ranging genre which includes a number of different approaches. Essentially the question being posed by an SF novel is "What if...?" This may be speculation about the possible impact of a certain technology, as in Ursula K le Guin's stories of the Ekumen, where nearly-as-fast-as-light space travel is possible, and she explores the socio-psychological impact of time dilation, amongst many other issues. It may be the socio-psychological impact of a different social, psychological, or economic state of affairs than exists at present, as in Ursula K le Guin's The Dispossessed, the story of an anarchist planet. It might be an alternative history, as in the excellent Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson, which explores a reality in which Europe is Muslim.

SF is much more than merely nerdy "toys-for-the-boys" space opera - it is a literary form in its own right, and one which mainstream writers are increasingly exploring. For example, Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, Never Let Me Go, is about clones; Margaret Atwood's classic The Handmaid's Tale, and her more recent novel, Oryx and Crake, are clearly SF, even though their authors deny it. Many SF writers are beginning to be taken seriously as literati, for example Neil Gaiman's excellent book American Gods has received favourable attention from critics.

Reading SF (especially Ursula Le Guin) pretty much formed my entire world-view.

There are many other fine female SF authors. Here are just a few book reviews to whet your appetite.