Six Pioneering Women Creators of Speculative Fiction: Exhibit Highlights

March 3, 2023 | Isabel

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Speculative fiction (science fiction, fantasy and horror) is usually seen as a boy's club. But women have been contributing to these genres for just as long. Women have taken part in every level of the creation of speculative fiction, from writing to editing to illustrating.

The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy is celebrating these women in an exhibit running from January 16 to April 1, 2023. People like Mary Shelley, who invented modern science fiction at age 18. Or Judith Merril, the founder of the collection and an internationally-renowned editor. Discover these women and many more at the Speculating Women exhibit.

Unable to come in-person or missed it? Read on to learn more about six of the featured women.

Women in Disguise Case
Women in Disguise case from Speculating Women: Pioneers of the Fantastic, an exhibit at the Merril Collection.

Six pioneering women of speculative fiction

Begum Rokeya (1880–1932)

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was a feminist thinker, educator and activist from the country now named Bangladesh. She went by the name Begum Rokeya and was celebrated for her work promoting women's education and liberation. She founded a school for Muslim girls in Kolkata that still operates today. She is also the author of several books.

Her feminist utopian novel Sultana’s Dream was first published in 1905 in The Indian Ladies Magazine. The story depicts a technologically advanced society called “Ladyland." In this world, traditional gender norms for men and women are reversed.

Books by and about Begum Rokeya at TPL.

Sultana's Dream

Clare Winger Harris (1891–1968)

Harris started publishing short stories in the 1920s, usually featuring female lead characters. She was the first American woman to publish in science fiction magazines under her own name. In this traditionally male-dominated industry, women often wrote under pen names. Some women chose to and others were told to use a man’s name by publishers. It was believed that science fiction published under a man’s name would be better received by the public. Today, some women authors continue to disguise their gender by using initials or pen names.

Stories by Clare Winger Harris at TPL.

Harris  Away From the Here and Now
Away From the Here and Now: Stories in Pseudo-Science. Harris' first anthology. This copy on display in exhibit. Available to read in the Digital Archive.

Mary Gnaedinger (1897–1976)

Mary Gnaedinger was the first woman to be the lead editor of a science fiction publication. She edited all 81 issues of Famous Fantastic Mysteries over its 15 year run, from 1939 to 1953. But her name originally wasn’t mentioned. Instead, the publication information and introduction simply credited “the Editors.” It wasn’t until the December 1951 issue that “Mary Gnaedinger, Editor” was stated on the publication page.

Read more about Mary Gnaedinger in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.

Famous Fantastic Mysteries 1.1 and 14.1
The first and last issues of Famous Fantastic Mysteries.

Andre Norton (1912–2005)

Andre Norton was a pseudonym used by Alice Norton. She is called the Grande Dame of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Norton originally planned to write juvenile historical fiction and felt that a male-sounding name would appeal to young, male readers. She legally changed her name to Andre Alice Norton in 1934, soon after she started writing.

In 1952, Norton turned to science fiction and wrote the novel that would make her famous — Star Man's Son, 2250 A.D. She went on to write many celebrated works of science fiction and fantasy. These include the long-running Witch World series and the very first Dungeons and Dragons tie-in novel.

Books by Andre Norton at TPL.

Octavia Butler (1947–2006)

Octavia Butler is one of the most important science fiction authors. Her books tackle themes of Black social justice, women’s rights and climate change. She was the first science fiction author to receive a MacArthur Fellowship (or “Genius Grant”). Butler died suddenly from a fall outside her house at age 58. But, her stories live on and gain popularity as the issues they address continue to be relevant. Her work is studied all over the world.

Books by Octavia Butler at TPL.

Parable of the sower and Parable of the talents
Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents, with cover art by Paul Lewin. This dystopian duology is set in California ravaged by rampant inequality and climate change. The first book was adapted as a graphic novel and a movie version are in development.

Julie Bell (1958–)

Julie Bell is a self-taught artist. She later married her mentor, fantasy artist Boris Vallejo.

Bell created the cover art below with only four years of experience in painting. She is best known for her sensuous semi-nudes and her innovative technique of painting metallic surfaces.

Books featuring Julie Bell at TPL.

Bell  Hard curves

Authors in discussion

On Wednesday, March 29 at 6:30 pm, we’ll be hosting Chinelo Onwualu, Julie Czerneda and Michelle Sagara for a panel discussion. They will share their experiences as authors, editors and booksellers of speculative fiction. Discover more about this free event. Everyone is welcome to attend and no registration is required.

Women in Speculative Fiction_Banner image

More early women writers available online in our Digital Archive

The Digital Archive features PDF ebooks of items in Toronto Public Library’s collections that are out of copyright and in the public domain. These ebooks are always available to download! The following women are all early writers of speculative fiction.

Madeline Yale Wynne (1847–1918)

American writer, artist and metal smith. Lifelong partner of artist Annie Cabot Putnam. Wynne turned to writing late in life and her supernatural stories have been mostly forgotten. Her story "The Little Room" is regarded as her best work. It is often compared to the later feminist horror story “The Yellow Wall-Paper,” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman.

Digitized books by Madeline Yale Wynne.

L. Adams Beck (1862–1931)

Pen name of UK-born author Elizabeth Louisa Moresby. She settled in Canada in 1919 after living abroad in China and Japan. Her writing drew on ideas from the occult, featuring narratives about reincarnation.

Digitized books by L. Adams Beck.

Inez Haynes Gillmore (1873–1970)

American feminist author, journalist and activist. She was a war correspondent in Europe during WWI and wrote many works of fiction and nonfiction. Her fantasy novel, Angel Island, follows a group of men who encounter an island of winged women. Their attempts to take over do not go as planned.

Digitized books by Inez Haynes Gillmore.

Marjorie Bowen (1888–1952)

Pseudonym of the British author Margaret Gabrielle Vere Long, who also wrote as Joseph Shearing. She is renowned for her supernatural horror. All told, she wrote over 150 books in her life in many different genres.

Digitized books by Marjorie Bowen.

Margery Lawrence (1889–1969)

English author and illustrator who wrote fantasy, horror and ghost stories. Her best known work is Number Seven, Queer Street. The book is a collection of tales from the casebook of Dr. Miles Pennoyer, who finds occult cures for his patients’ ills.

Digitized books by Margery Lawrence.

Katharine Burdekin (1896–1963)

British author who wrote science fiction with a feminist bent. Burdekin also wrote under the name Murray Constantine. Her most famous novel is Swastika Night, an alternate history set after the Nazis win World War II.

Digitized books by Katharine Burdekin.