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In honour of the 94th anniversary of Alice Sheldon’s birth, which was a few days ago, here is a review/analysis of the classic science fiction story “The Women Men Don’t See” (1972). Published under her pseudonym (and maybe written by her persona) of James Tiptree, Jr., this is arguably her most iconic story. You can read it here.

Let me start by saying that this is an unbelievably good piece of writing. Tiptree articulated so many means of oppression I could never quite lock down before. I could hardly bear to read it. When I first read this story I took weeks to finish because it kept touching a nerve. I had to keep stopping because I was constantly overwhelmed. Tip was deftly throwing all these experiential truths about women I had innately known but had never heard anyone express, the habits of movement, thought and relating you adopt to live as a woman. When I finished this story, I knew that I had to claim feminism for myself.

It runs thusly. Our hero is an American government agent of some sort, Don Fenton, on a fishing holiday in Mexico. The small plane in which he is travelling crashes, leaving him stranded with Estéban the pilot, a Mrs Ruth Parsons and her daughter, Althea. The way science fiction stories generally have gone after this is that the white man saves the day. It’s obvious that Don thinks this is how things are going to go, too. He grows frustrated when the women neither panic nor respond to his attempts to save them. (‘The women are shaky, but not hysterical.’) Reading, you become aware that the situation is well out of Don’s hands. And then, of course, the aliens arrive. The women end up saving themselves, but you’ll have to read the story to find out how.

Crucial to “The Women Men Don’t See” is the turning of science fiction’s alien convention to feminist use. Women are presented as aliens. Don can only relate to women through preconceived ideas: setting up camp is ‘playing house in a mud puddle’. Surely Ruth must be the ‘Mother Hen protecting only chick from male predators’. Even on the plane before the crash, he thinks ‘The Bonanza jinks, and I look back with a vague notion of reassuring the women. They are calmly intent on what can be seen of Yucatán. Well, they were offered the copilot’s view, but they turned it down. Too shy?’ He can’t see that the women are not what he thinks, and it frustrates him that they can operate outside of a context in which he has power. (Most disturbingly: ‘The woman doesn’t mean one thing to me, but the obtrusive recessiveness of her, the defiance of her little rump eight inches from my fly—for two pesos I’d have those shorts down and introduce myself. If I were twenty years younger. If I wasn’t so bushed’.) Indeed, there are many little references that turn the reader towards this idea of alienation – ‘End of communication. Mrs. Ruth Parsons isn’t even living in the same world with me’ – but of course the crowning moment is when aliens of the outer space variety turn up. Don draws his gun and yells at Ruth to get behind him. When she doesn’t, he slips on an injured leg and shoots her by mistake, reinforcing her difference. Don proves his thought that ‘she’s as alien as they, there in the twilight’ perfectly true.

That’s not the only construction of the other in “The Women Men Don’t See”. When Don and Ruth go off to fetch water, he develops a notion that Ruth is fantasising about Althea and Estéban having sex back at camp. Mother Hen’s little quirks, as he puts it, are really his; it’s for the reader to pick up that Don is projecting his racist, sexist, powerless imaginings. His fantasy is rife with racialised language, the usual meme of the young white woman being taken by the macho brown man. ‘Oh, for mahogany gonads.’ (There’s more to be said about race in this story, but I think I’ll need some co-readers to really pick it apart.)

But it’s the positioning of the audience that makes “The Women Men Don’t See” exceptionally clever and Tiptree’s signature piece. It is only by adopting a feminist reading position that the story clicks. That is, Tiptree asks you to accept women’s accounts of their own experience. You have to realise that Don isn’t the protagonist at all: Ruth is. It’s only then that the structure, the progress of the story falls into place. It’s not that we’re to see Don as bad, or that his experience is invalid. I think Don is there to observe, to tell the story because Ruth has no means of doing so. I think Don’s a shining example of how we can easily, horribly, miss the whole point and merrily shore up oppression. I like what Julie Phillips, Sheldon’s biographer, has to say: ‘… maybe it is about what it says it’s about: the writer’s difficulty in speaking of, or even seeing, women’s experience – including her own.’ But then, as much as being Tiptree allowed Sheldon to say things she couldn’t say as a woman, the persona was horribly limiting as well. She once wrote that ‘I’m getting fairly tired of being a man; so much one can’t say.’

How you read this story depends on how and where you see the author. If you’re relating to Tiptree as he was known at the time of writing – a tough, mysterious man, sympathetic to feminism, if in an odd fashion – it reads like an insightful piece that never quite reaches its zenith. If you’re reading Tiptree as a woman – bright, confused, going ever onward – you can see it as a beautiful, layered game. And then, where is Tiptree in the piece? Perhaps you see him in Don, with his background in intelligence work, love of fishing and stumbling attempts to understand. Then there’s Ruth, the quiet and persistent voice moving around the edges. (I think of Ruth’s voice like one on a badly tuned radio, rarely clear, going to extremes.) I lean towards both, because Alice Sheldon had many ways of relating to herself, and I think this piece must represent her internal dialogue as well as a societal one. There’s just one scene in which we get to hear Ruth’s voice loud and clear, and what she says seems to be a representation of one of Alice’s attitudes – oh, just one, hers was a complex feminism – towards women and our chances. And it’s not pleasant. But if ever there was a classic line, it’s ‘What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.’

While Tiptree cannot envision the end of the patriarchy, she sees escape as a possibility. You see this appear again and again in her writing. In “With Delicate Mad Hands” (1981) the heroine, CP, can only escape patriarchal society by crossing the universe. But, as with many of Tiptree’s stories, love and self-realisation mean CP’s death. “The Women Men Don’t See” is a little different. While we know that Ruth and Althea go on, live their lives, perhaps continue their family, we never get to see what this experience of freedom looks like. And that’s fine and good for the purposes of this story, because its arc belongs as it is. But nowhere in Tiptree have I yet found a beautiful future. Even the utopia in the classic “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” (1974) turns out to be anything but. (But then, I’ve never read an all-woman utopia that actually was. I find Joanna Russ’ Whileaway very discomforting.) This is terribly sad. Tiptree, you and I are stuck here on Earth, in the chinks of the world-machine. There’s no escape for us but what we make of what we have, even if we don’t know what that will look like.

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