Feminism, Social Change, and Speculative Fiction

The other day I received an interesting response to my blog about the impact of social change in science fiction on readership. The respondent made the point that she felt, contrary to my statements, that fantasy had more social change depicted in it because at least there were more strong female characters in fantasy. Depending on which authors one reads, this is a debatable point, but it raises a more fundamental question. Exactly what are social change — and feminism — all about, both in genre literature and society?

The other day there was an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal, which reported on the study of performance of mutual fund managements. The study concluded that the results from funds managed by all-male teams and those by all-female teams were essentially the same. The funds managed by mixed-gender teams reported significantly less profitable returns. The tentative rationale reported for such results was that mixed-gender teams suffered “communications difficulties.” Based on my years as a consultant and additional years as an observer of a large number of organizations, I doubt that “communications” are exactly the problem. In mixed-gender organizations, where both sexes have some degree of power and responsibility, I have noted that, almost inevitably, men tend to disregard women and their advice/recommendations to the degree possible. If their superior is a woman, a significant number tend to try to end-run or sabotage the female boss. If the superior is a male, because women professionals’ suggestions tend to get short shrift, the organization is handicapped because half the good ideas are missing, either because they’re ignored, or because women tend not to make them after a while. Maybe one could call that communications difficulties, but, as a male, I’d tend to call it male ego and insecurity.

What does this have to do with feminism in speculative fiction? A great deal, it seems to me, because merely changing who’s in control doesn’t necessarily change the dynamics below the top. This is one of the issues I tried to highlight in my own Spellsong Cycle, as well as in some of my science fiction. In “Houston, Houston, Do You Read,” the solution proposed by James Tiptree, Jr., [Alice Sheldon] was to eliminate the conflict by eliminating males. As a male, I do have a few problems with that particular approach.

In Sheri Tepper’s Gate to Women’s Country, the males get to choose to be “servitors” to women or warriors limited to killing each other off, while the “violence” gene [if not expressed in quite those terms] is bred out of the male side of the population.

Ursula K. LeGuin addressed the dynamics of gender/societal structure in The Left Hand of Darkness, suggesting, it seems to me, that a hermaphroditic society would tend to be just as ruthless as a gender polarized-one, if far more indirect, and not so bloodthirsty in terms of massive warfare.

In the end, though, the question remains. In either fiction or life, is feminism, or societal change, about a restructuring of the framework of society… or just about which sex gets to be in charge?