When it Changed: Women in SF/F Since 1972 Recap

The following report was written by 3rd year PhD student Emma French who contributed to running the conference. Emma’s research is focused on the intertextualities between literary fantasy and the tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons (D&D). She can be found on twitter at howlsmovinglib.

The keynotes from this conference can be viewed here:

When it Changed Conference Recap

By Emma French

The 2nd-4th December 2022 saw the hosting of ‘When It Changed: Women in SF/F since 1972’, an online conference organised collaboratively by the Science Fiction Foundation, the Centre for Fantasy and the Fantastic, and the Games and Gaming Lab at the University of Glasgow. This conference marked the 50th anniversary of Joanna Russ’ landmark short story, and celebrated contributions to the genre by women and people from other marginalised backgrounds that are indebted to her legacy. Paul March-Russel and Kate Heffner pulled together a wonderful conference filled to the brim with papers from international fans, scholars, and fiction writers. My academic work on an area of contemporary fantasy that is grappling with its own legacies of sexism and racism. This conference was a nice and welcome reminder of SF/F’s long history of creative practitioners, academics, and fans who have also come up against similar issues, grappled with them through their beautiful creative work, and made real and tangible changes to the field that are still felt today. As both Lisa Yaszek and Cheryl Morgan noted in their keynote speeches, while it can feel very isolating to be in a period of backlash marked by 2009’s Race Fail, 2013-2017’s Sad Puppies, and current transphobia within UK genre fiction today, even just a brief look back at history can show that these periods of feminist growth and resultant backlash have always happened. And when they do, those leading the backlash are nearly always in the minority, and eventually overcome. With 2022 feeling like a very hostile place, this affirmation of a slow bend towards an inclusive genre full of diverse voices and creative potential was much needed! 

The conference was filled with wonderful and inspiring papers and panels, focusing on the history of Russ’ contributions and the work of her contemporaries; current work within Science Fiction and Fantasy that grapple with the same issues they faced; as well as certain topics very particular to our current moment in 2022. In particular, a major thematic focus on maternity, the female body, and reproductive rights emerged, in the wake of Roe vs. Wade. There were also several papers discussing trans and genderqueer representations, presenting an inclusive definition of womanhood. ‘Panel 5: Vandana Singh’ and ‘Panel 7: The View from Brazil’ spotlighted non-white perspectives on the genre and its major canonical works, alongside many papers discussing whiteness within SF/F and its associated fan communities, addressing a previously elided or evaded discussion of race within the field. 

‘When It Changed’ also hosted three excellent keynotes from Professor Lisa Yaszek, Hugo-award winning critic and publisher Cheryl Morgan, and Professor Joy Sanchez-Taylor. Yaszek’s talk, ‘A Brief History of Gender and Genre in the SF Anthology’, traced the history of feminist debate and thought in Science Fiction from 17th-century author Margaret Cavendish to the present day. In her conclusion she noted that, while there are occasional periods of backlash and ‘steps back’, ‘yet we continue to thrive’. Morgan’s keynote focused on measurable data, discussing the diversity present within the Hugo Awards finalists and winners, as well as the structural inequalities in the collation and curation of Science Fiction and Fantasy and its history that can result in women’s writing being suppressed. While this data seemed to present a positive trend towards more focus on women and those from other marginalised identities, Morgan ended on an interesting and important counterargument, that an industry becoming ‘women’s work’ can often indicate that it is becoming undervalued, ‘and so, the struggle goes on’. 

In contrast, Sanchez-Taylor’s talk focused less on the SF/F’s historical trends and instead on the history of a single case study: the female figure of the ‘witch’ or ‘bruja’ in fantasy and science fiction. Sanchez-Taylor highlighted innumerable works of contemporary fantasy that have begun to revise this trope, including Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, and Zoraida Cordova’s Labyrinth Lost. 

However, Sanchez-Taylor also closed her talk with a call to action and activism within academia itself, advocating for the support of the work and publications of female scholars, particularly women of colour and caretakers. 

All three keynotes, and many of the panels, ultimately served to remind me that if we wish to continue to uphold the cause of feminism within academia, fan communities, and genre publishing, it is nothing less than a collaborative effort. We must all be mindful to promote and elevate works by women, queer voices, and people of colour, either by citing them in our research or teaching them in our classes and curriculum. We must celebrate the awesome, original, and honestly just fun stories that such a diversity of perspectives produces, and be mindful of how we can use our own power and privileges to help others.

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