The Secret Feminist Cabal — Helen Merrick

The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms is a gem of a book. Merrick explores the history of various feminisms in the context of SF/F, charting a history of feminist fandom spanning nearly a century. Like seriously? At one point, she talks about cosplay… in the 1930s.

For me as a reader, a feminist, and a blogger, this was all incredibly powerful. Writing for Hathor is amazing, and I think sometimes we bloggers feel like we somehow invented feminist critique of popular culture. To see concretely that we’re part of an ongoing tradition of fan-produced publications, a tradition extending to the waybacks of the 1920s, 30s, and 40s? That’s powerful, and really gratifying.

Merrick charts a trajectory from the then to the now, talking about mainstream fandom’s response to “femme fans,” the constant conflation of women’s presence in the genre as sexin’ it up, and fandom resistance to broadening the roles of women as fans and writers. What’s really cool about this is that she also highlights the contested nature of feminism during these decades, not shirking away from Marion Zimmer Bradley’s tempestuous comments on feminism, Anne McCaffrey’s Ship Who Sang and its heteronormativity, or the convoluted history of the Tiptree Awards. While this makes for a less than smooth narrative, Merrick does an amazing job of highlighting that all of these voices overlap in both timeline and genre passions. It’s also at times surprisingly funny, as sexist authors and editors get thoroughly served and retract their statements years after they voraciously objected to including women in SF/F.

Merrick concludes with a chapter entitled “Beyond Gender,” which I especially appreciated because of its introducing the many concerns of SF/F feminism, including cyborgs, bodies and technology, bodies IN technology, disability studies, anti-racism work, etc.

I’m not gonna lie — I originally picked this up for my comprehensive exams, and was mostly jazzed because of Merrick’s amazing, incisive, and concise historiography. As I read, I found myself noting both theoretical texts and fiction that I knew I had to read. Merrick’s greatest strength is how accessible this work is — I engaged with it as both a fan and an academic, and realized partway through that Merrick was writing to participate in the grand tradition of SF/F theory crossing from the academy into fandom and vice versa, meaning that she’s writing to both fans and academics. It is the rare text that is able to speak so clearly to both of these worlds.

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