Utopian science in science fiction by women: Notes from Frankenstein’s Daughters


Previously I mentioned Jane Donawerth’s book, Frankenstein’s Daughters, which contains a long, fascinating chapter on “Utopian Science in Feminist Science Fiction”. It’s one of the rare discussions of feminist SF that foregrounds the ‘science’ in SF, instead of rolling up science fiction with fantasy, horror, slipstream, magic realism etc as one of multiple imaginative strategies for critiquing patriarchal and oppressive social orders.

When I originally read it, I took a slew of notes, which I thought I’d post. Comments in square brackets are mine; otherwise all the rest is Donawerth’s. See all the books!

Conventions of science fiction

  • masculinist science, inscribes women as objects of study, not scientist-subject
  • representation of women’s identities (as aliens)
  • history of male narration

culture defines science as a masculine endeavour – women respond by imaginative creation of utopian science [not altering culture? is it possible to alter culture and not alter science?] – coming up with a similar paradigm:

  • participation in science as subjects, not objects
  • revised definitions and discourse of science
  • inclusion of women’s issues in science
  • treatment of science as an origin story that has been feminized
  • re-conception of human-nature relationship
  • ideal of science, subjective, holistic, relational, complex

Participation of women in science

  • Mitis (physicist), Gvarab (physicist), Takver (biologist) – The Disposessed (Le Guin)
  • Jeanne Velory (physicist and astronaut) – Barbary (Vonda McIntyre)
  • Hellene Ariadne (nanotechnologist) – Light Raid (Cynthia Felice, Connie Willis)
  • Mary (biologist, communications specialist) – Memoirs of a Spacewoman (Naomi Michinson)
  • Kira (biologist, physician) – Cloned Lives (Pamela Sargent)
  • Margaret (computer expert) – Up the Walls of the World (James Tiptree Jr)
  • Varian (veterinary xenobiologist – Dinosaur Planet: Survivors (Ann McCaffrey)
  • Marguerite Chase (physician) – The Wall around Eden (Joan Slonczewski)
  • Vivian Harley (chemist, astronomer) – “The Menace of Mars (Clare Winger Harris)
  • Mildred Sturtevant (scientist) – “The Astounding Enemy” (Louise Rice, Tonjoroff-Roberts)

Extending the definitions and changing the discourse

“the boundaries of science are mapped onto the boundaries of masculinity” in Western science

referring to the work of Hilary Rose

  • communication as a science in Memoirs of a Spacewoman, The Bloody Sun (matrix science), After Long Silence (Sheri S. Tepper – communication through music), Woman on the edge of Time, Native Tongue, Triad (Shiela Finch), Hellspark. Communications (traditionally assigned to woman), given legitimacy as science and directed nonhierachically to all species
  • relation to nature – “the web of nature” in Woman on the Edge of Time, the Door into Ocean.
  • science as one of the roads to truth rather than the only one – The Ragged World (Judith Moffett) – female geneticist with AIDS, chooses her field, her experiment, her way of relating to her subjects of study.
  • A Door into Ocean – removes gendering, since all scientists are female. science is part of the home, and therefore invisible to the invaders, and the home as part of the environment
  • science as a social endeavour and social investment – Women on the Edge of Time, Godsfire (Cynthia Felice)

Women’s issues in science

1. alternatives in reproduction
2. disputes with sociobiology

  • combining ova – “When it Changed” (Joanna Russ), A Door into Ocean
  • cloning, with heterosexuality and biological birth discouraged – Solution Three (Naomi Michinson)
  • in-vitro conception and extra-uterine gestation – Woman on the Edge of Time
  • artifical insemination – The Gate to Women’s Country
  • androgyny – The Left Hand of Darkness (Le Guin)

women freed from control by heterosexual relationships – women freed, and allows for more equitable distribution of childcare – writers explore positive and negative consequences, effect on personal relationships

  • refutations of sociobiology – The Handmaid’s Tale, Native Tongue (and sequels), the sex-role reversal novel, eg, The Pride of Chanur, The Shore of Women, Leviathan’s Deep, Double Nocturne, Xenogenesis (several of which look to liberate males from biological stereotype of inferiority)

Science as an origin story

women SF writers offer feminized versions of science as origin story; science not a body of facts dispassionately accumulated, but “as social movements threaten social order, scientific theories emerge that implicitly defend status quo” (Ruth Bleier).

  • challenge to nineteenth century evolutionary theory, female as primary sex, social evolution towards altruism natural – Herland (Gilman)
  • challenge to Darwinism, contemporary, removing competition – Penterra (Judith Moffett)
  • multiple origin stories, in conflict with each other – Emperor, Swords, Pentacles (Gotlieb), Becoming Alien (Rebecca Ore)

Partnership with nature in subjective, relational science

male scientists viewed nature as potentially unruly woman to be mastered and penetrated. nature associated with women. vs female view of women’s nature and identification with Nature, need for connection rather than domination

  • partnership with nature, limits to questioning and growth – Breed to Come (Andre Norton), Penterra (Judith Moffett)
  • men’s and women’s view of nature in divergence – The Shore of Women (Pamela Sargent)
  • valuing subjectivity in science – The Garden of the Shapes (Sheila Finch)
  • scientists trying to establish connection with aliens to protect from exploitation and destruction – Dinosaur Planet Survivors, After Long Silence, Hellspark
  • intuition of value – Up the Walls of the World, An Exercise for Madmen (Barbara Paul)
  • empathy as a science – Witch World series, Darkover series, The Wanderground (Sally Miller Gearhart), Serpent’s Reach (Cherryh)
  • ethics in science [most if not all]
  • a vision of science as sustainable, not based on scale, in much of women’s science fiction – Herland, Women on the Edge of Time, A Door Into Ocean
  • emphasis on science in decentralized, non-hierarchical society, operated as craft industry – problematic for recent women novelists, who seem to be anti-science reactionaries to typical SF fans – Always Coming Home, A Door Into Ocean

Detailed discussion, pulling themes together, of Memoirs of a Spacewoman, Under the Canopy (Barbara Paul), “Bloodchild” (Octavia Butler)


  • Donawerth J. Frankenstein’s daughters : women writing science fiction. 1st ed. Syracuse  N.Y.: Syracuse University Press; 1997.
  • Donawerth J. Utopian Science: Contemporary Feminist Science Theory and Science Fiction by Women. NWSA Journal. 1990 Autumn;2(4):535–57.
  • Rose, Hilary. Love, Power and Knowledge: Towards a feminist transformation of the sciences. Bloominton: Indiana Univ Press, 1994
  • Rose H. Dreaming the Future. Hypatia. 1988 Spring;3(1):119–37. (on presentations of science in SF)


One thought on “Utopian science in science fiction by women: Notes from Frankenstein’s Daughters

  1. Paula

    This looks like one helluva good read. I’ll have to get my hands on a copy. And on the sources. And write another. Well, my summer just got booked!

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