Personal Essay: "We Are the Fifty Percent" by Rachel Swirsky
When we set out to destroy science fiction with this Kickstarter, we didn't want it to be your ordinary, run-of-the-mill campaign. We wanted it to be full of smashing, crashing women's voices, telling what it really means to be a woman reading and writing science fiction. One of the ways we hope to do that is by sharing a series of personal essays by women about their experiences as a woman in science fiction. The following essay is by the Women Destroy Science Fiction special issue's reprint editor, Rachel Swirsky.
"We Are the Fifty Percent"
Sometimes I catch myself feeling like I only read writing by women. “Ugh,” I think. “That is so skewed.” Then I crunch the numbers.
They are almost always fifty percent.
Sociological research suggests that when women and men speak equally in a conversation, both men and women perceive the women as dominating the conversation. That phenomenon has had a significant influence on my experience as a woman writing and consuming SF.
In 2007, when I started editing an podcast magazine that broadcast previously published fantasy stories, many readers responded with vitriol, angered by the number of female authors and main characters. Of course, at the beginning of the run, we were running a backlog; most of the stories that were going on the air had been selected by the previous male editor. But I was a woman, and a known feminist, and therefore under suspicion for being prejudiced toward women and against men. It spooked me, so I ran the numbers. Over and over again, compulsively, for as long as I edited the podcast, I ran the numbers every few months. Fifty percent women writers. Fifty percent women main characters. It never varied more than five percent in either direction. And still, the entire time, some readers were furious with what they saw as a magazine entirely dominated by women. Partially because of that, I eventually left the position.
At the same time as I entered my editorial position and my was criticized for running work “dominated” by fifty percent women, the podcast’s male-edited science fiction counterpart hadn’t run a story authored by a woman in weeks. No one said a thing.
This kind of thing gets in your brain. Insidious viral memes bury themselves into illogical thought patterns, deceiving one into thinking they are rational. Even though I know from prior number crunching that fifty percent of what I read is by women, I still find myself periodically doubting. So I count again.
Women aren’t supposed to talk as much as men. We aren’t supposed to take up as much space as men do. So when we talk, we must be SHOUTING. When we take up space, we must be EVERYWHERE.
When we’re writing science fiction, we’re DESTROYING it.
Now, of course that’s just the bad stuff. I am deeply grateful toward and indebted to amazing and supportive readers, editors, publishers and critics of all genders, who have been incredibly generous to me and my work.
But still, sometimes I look at the table of contents in an anthology and I see women restrained, demurely, to that unthreatening third, or even less. Present, but not too present. Talking, but not too much.
If our presence will always be perceived as a taint, then let science fiction be tainted. If our speaking voices will always be perceived as shouts, then let us shout.
We’re here. We’re fifty percent of you.
And we deserve some room to bellow.
Rachel Swirsky holds a masters degree in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and graduated from Clarion West in 2005. She’s published over 50 short stories in venues including the NEW HAVEN REVIEW, CLARKESWORLD MAGAZINE, and TOR.COM. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, and the Sturgeon Award, and in 2010, her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” won the Nebula. If it were an option, she might choose to replace her hair with feathers, preferably bright macaw feathers.