Ada Lovelace Day 2010: Alice Sheldon

Posted Thursday March 25, 2010 by John Gunders in |

Oops, nearly missed Ada Lovelace Day, but it’s still the 24th in some parts of the world, so I guess I’m OK.

Like last year’s post, I’m interpreting the rules of the event rather liberally. My subject was not a scientist nor a technologist, although she did hold a PhD in experimental psychology. And for much of her public career, many people didn’t even realise she was a woman.

Alice Sheldon is, of course, better known as science fiction novelist and short story writer, James Tiptree Jr.

Sheldon was a graphic artist and journalist before joining the US army in 1942 where she worked in photo intelligence, and after the war worked with the CIA for three years, apparently working under cover in the Near East for a time.

In 1956 Sheldon enrolled in a BA at American University, worked for a time as a graduate tutor before graduating with a PhD from George Washington University in 1967. After that she started writing science fiction under the pseudonym James Tiptree Jr. She claimed that she took the name deliberately to hide her gender:

“A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I’ve had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation.” (Profile, Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, April 1983, via Wikipedia)

It was generally known that “Tiptree” was a pseudonym, and there was some speculation about Tiptree’s gender, especially given the themes of much of the writing, such as the treatment of women in “The Women Men Don’t See,” (Warm Worlds and Otherwise, 1975) and themes of sexuality in “And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill’s Side,” (Ten Thousand Light-Years from Home, 1973), as well as many others, but most people assumed that the reclusive author was male. Robert Silverberg rather famously made an ass of himself by asserting that on the basis of writing style Tiptree could not possibly be a woman (“Introduction,” Warm Worlds and Otherwise, 1975).

The question that interests me here is why such a credentialed and talented writer found if necessary to hide behind a male pseudonym. George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans), the Victorian novelist, is said to have taken a male pen name in order to ensure that her novels were treated seriously, not as merely feminine romances, but by 1968 there were well established women science fiction writers, and Ursula Le Guin and Anne McCaffrey had both won Nebula Awards. On the other hand, Alice Norton legally changed her name to Andre Norton in 1934 in order to be more marketable to the male dominated fantasy fan communities, but that was thirty years before. Certainly, female authors were (and remain) a minority, but there is little evidence that they were taken less seriously than their male colleagues. In fact, once Sheldon’s identity was revealed in 1976, she went on to win another Nebula (her third—she also won two Hugo Awards).

Ada Lovelace Day exists to address the systemic sexism in the science and technology industries. It is my observation that this sort of affirmative action is less necessary in the arts (disagree with me in the comments, if you want), but is sufficiently entrenched in society that Sheldon felt it necessary to be seen as a man rather than carry the torch for a new generation of women writers. Scientists generally don’t have the option to hide behind a pseudonym, and therefore must address sexism and prejudice as well as strive for excellence in their profession.

So, happy Ada Lovelace Day, and best wishes to all of Ada’s daughters and sisters.

Your Comments

  1. Matthew Smith writes:

    Posted: 25 03 2010 - 03:33 | Permanent link to this comment

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