Pulp Scifi Stories Somehow Had Even Fewer Female Scientists Than You Thought

In Depth

Ah, midcentury America, when even authors responsible for envisioning wild and wacky futures in SPACE could hardly fathom women doing science.

Over at Slate, PhD student Elizabeth Garbee writes about her research into the pulp magazines of science fiction’s midcentury “Golden Age.” She crunched linguistic data from 560 different stories ranging from 1930 to 1965. It’s not particularly shocking that the typical scientist was “a middle-aged or old white man, absorbed in his experiments, defined by his adherence to ‘true’ or ‘good’ science,” etc., etc. But guess how many female scientists she found? Just take a wild guess.

Three. In 560 stories from 35 years’ worth of magazines. Somehow, that’s even worse than expected. And they were: A Nazi-sympathizing, distractingly attractive “lady scientist” who is a genius only “in her own way”; a forbiddingly cold woman described as dreadfully ugly who goes insane; and just a single character who’s female, talented, competent, and not weirdly villainized. (She’s the work of Samuel R. Delany, in Captives of the Flame, by the way.)

But this isn’t merely a depressing stat about what a bummer the 1950s were. Garbee says these popular stories likely continue to shape the way we think about who’s a scientist and who isn’t, and we need to work on revamping that mental picture:

When an author writes a male scientist, he’s just writing a scientist: But when he writes a female scientist, he’s making a statement. If we as a country value a STEM workforce that is strong and competitive through its diversity, if we’re serious about creating a culture of equal opportunity in the sciences, then we still have work to do. Our stereotypical scientist needs a makeover—maybe even starting with his shoes.

Next you’ll tell me astronauts aren’t routinely assigned ray guns.

Contact the author at [email protected].

Images via the Internet Archive’s pulp archive. Amazing Stories,Galaxy Science Fiction, If.

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