A Man for All Seasons – Bending genders, sexual politics and Heinlein

Was Robert Heinlein a misogynist? Writer MJ Kobernus takes a long hard look at the Grand Master of Science Fiction, and comes up with some surprising conclusions.

Recently on Goodreads, there was a wide-ranging discussion on the work of R.A. Heinlein. As he is one of my favourite authors, I took a keen interest in the conversation, the general consensus of which resulted in him being roundly condemned for chauvinism, if not outright misogyny.

As a fan, this saddened me, since I rate him as a fine writer. I felt that many of those speaking out had failed to understand a fundamental point about Heinlein; that he was not stating his own desires or interests, but was using the theme as a vehicle to provoke the reader into questioning society’s arbitrary standards, social mores and rules. That is the Heinlein I know.

But was he a misogynist? I don’t think so. When you consider the historical perspective of his work, there were few male writers who did more for women in Sci-Fi. That is not to say that any criticism of his characterisation of women is unwarranted, but generalising to the point where he is labelled in the most negative terms, based on only one or two books in a career that spanned five decades seems a bit harsh.

I began reading his books in my teens, and at that time, I was not aware of any particular agenda on Heinlein’s part. However, in retrospect, I can see that he consistently attempted to subvert prejudice in many of his novels. This is most clearly seen in his treatment of women (we’ll get to that later) but he tackled a good many subjects that required sleight of hand to ensure their publication in the conservative, separate but equal America of the 50s.

Unusually for the literature from that period, and especially for Science Fiction, there is a broad diversity of minorities represented in Heinlein’s books. In Tunnel in the Sky (1955), the book’s hero is Rod Walker, a young, black student. Heinlein was subtle in his description of Rod. I suspect this was due to two reasons. First, at that time the buying public would not be interested in reading about a ‘black boy,’ but also, and I think that this was Heinlein at his Machiavellian best, readers that identified with Rod would get a wakeup call when it became obvious that he was black. Pulling the rug out from under his reader’s metaphoric feet was a trick that Heinlein employed in order to get the reader to think, to question and maybe even to evolve.

This was a method that he employed again in one of his best-known novels, the 1959 epic, Starship Troopers, where the main character was Asian. Yes, Johnny Rico was from the Philippines and spoke Tagalog. Don’t believe me? Read the book.

Okay, so he wrote about minorities. What about the criticism that Heinlein failed to create roles for women that allowed them to be as creative, intelligent, resourceful, and tough as men? This came as something of a surprise to me. Even more surprising was that these views were often arrived at from reading only one, or perhaps two of his novels. And at the top of the list of Heinlein books to cause offence? Stranger in a Strange Land from 1961.

 It does not require a very close reading of Stranger to discover what the fuss is all about. There are, no question, some extremely patriarchal attitudes on display here. One infamous line stands out, spoken by a female character:

“9 times out of 10 when a woman gets raped it’s partly her own fault.”

This serves to encapsulate not just the misogyny of the time in which the novel was written, but if you would believe his accusers, that of Heinlein himself. Personally, I am not sure that the writer need necessarily have the same point of view as any of his/her protagonists. After all, there are any number of books with characters who hold pernicious attitudes, or do bad things. Are we to take it that these are the genuine desires of the writer? Hardly.

I recognise that the Feminist movement began to gain serious traction not long after Stranger in a Strange Land was published, but at that time, no-one objected to the book for its patriarchal attitudes. Rather, they responded, quite spectacularly, to the ideas of free love and self-determination that were expressed in the novel. In fact, Stranger was viewed as a radical opposition to the patriarchal attitudes of the day and was later embraced by the Hippy movement who saw it as encapsulating many of their ideals, including that of equality between the sexes.

As one reads the novel, you might become uncomfortable with the obvious sexism displayed by some of the male characters. However, this is undermined by Valentine Michael Smith, the Martian, who ultimately shows a better way and teaches that sex is about sharing and growing closer, learning to ‘grok,’ rather than dominance and possession. In my opinion, the sexism existed merely as a vehicle to allow Heinlein to demonstrate an alternative path.

As a writer, Heinlein was a visionary. But he lived during a period of social change, so his work might reasonably be expected to reflect that. After all, much of what he did was social commentary, so for him to not comment on gender politics would be unexpected. And he does not disappoint. His female characters are driven, career oriented, highly educated and entirely capable of living life on their own terms. The fact that they choose to do so in the company of men may well be what irks some readers of his writing.

Recently, I came across an interesting article about Heinlein, where Gary Westfahl suggested that in his later life, Heinlein was actually satirising the genre in which he was the undisputed master. Westfahl argues that Heinlein became more and more satirical, to the point where the titles of his books even contained obvious clues to his intention. The 1984 novel Job: A Comedy of Justice was followed by The Cat Who Walks Through Walls: A Comedy of Manners (1985); and his last novel, To Sail Beyond the Sunset: Being the Memoirs of a Slightly Irregular Lady (1987).

If Heinlein was subverting the very genre he had helped create, then it would be expected that he would do his level best to ensure that the apple cart, if not turned over, would at least be given a good, solid nudge. This might explain some of the extreme attitudes displayed in his later work. For example, when a female character is subordinate to a male character, even deferring to him when he is clearly wrong, the automatic assumption is that the man is a chauvinist, and the woman is guilty of failing to exert her God given right to equality. While the former may be true, it is the latter point that is interesting. In my opinion, this is Heinlein at his best, as he peels away the hypocrisy rampant in the society he knew. Far from being the case that the woman ‘agreed’ because the hairy chested ape was her protector, it is rather because she was concerned with protecting her man, in particular, his fragile ego. Heinlein delighted in demonstrating that the ‘weaker’ sex was often more pragmatic, capable and driven than their counterparts.

In the pulp era of the 30s-40s, women in Sci-Fi were not much more than decorative ingénues whose main task was to look pretty, admire the hero and scream when the alien/body/fungus/slime, etc, appeared. But Heinlein’s novels contain female characters that not only challenge their male counterparts, but are capable, intelligent, brave and resourceful to the point that that the man is almost superfluous. I say ‘almost,’ and it is here that some people may have an issue, since Heinlein was clear on one point, and that was that men had a role for which they were uniquely equipped.

One might take the view that Heinlein himself was a product of his times, yet his writing reflects very modern depictions of women. As early as 1951, in The Puppet Masters, Mary is described by the main character, Sam, in glowing terms. However, when he greets her:

“She stuck out a hand. It was firm and seemed as strong as mine.”

Heinlein presents Mary as a beautiful woman, but she is more than that. A capable agent, she is instrumental in defeating an alien menace, and ultimately travels to Titan as part of the team sent to destroy the threat of alien invasion.

Yet as strong as her character is, there is no shortage of patriarchal and blatantly sexist attitudes. But are they Heinlein’s, or his characters’ who, let’s face it, represent 1950s American men? I believe Heinlein was deliberately demonstrating extremes of attitude in order to reveal hypocrisy. In fact, I contend that he was allowing these characters free reign to present their biases in order to act as a foil for the female characters who would ultimately undermine them.

In the same year as he wrote The Puppet Masters, Heinlein published a collection that contained a piece that represented one of the first attempts to write a truly feminist Science Fiction story: Delilah and the Space Rigger. In this tale, a woman, Gloria, goes to work on the construction of a space station. Naturally, there are conflicts, and as the only woman, she is subjected to considerable pressure, not least of which is to quit and go home where she belongs. However, she perseveres, and proves herself to be at least equal to the men she works with, finally leading to her acceptance amongst the rough and ready crew in a male dominated industry. This story, relatively early in Heinlein’s career, is often overlooked and yet reveals a writer who considered gender politics to be important and frequently wrote about it in a positive, if occasionally provocative manner.

Fine, I hear you saying. So he wrote about women. But did he write well? What of the accusation that Heinlein only created two-dimensional female characters? In this article, Rah, Rah, R.A.H! Robinson declared that,

“Examination shows that Heinlein’s female characters are almost invariably highly intelligent, educated, competent, practical, resourceful, courageous, independent, sexually aggressive and sufficiently personally secure to be able to stroke their men’s egos as often as their own get stroked.”

What he is saying, I think, is that Heinlein’s women often do not need men, but simply like them. They want to have men around. In his future world where the gender playing field is even, Heinlein believes that men and women would find common ground.

Modern readers may not be satisfied by his portrayal of women, yet in the context of his own loci in time and space he was challenging societal mores by creating women who were as smart, tough and lusty as the men he wrote about.

Many of his female characters are strong women. To say otherwise would be a disservice to womankind. This is nowhere better seen that in the 1963 novel, Podkayne of Mars. In the story, the eponymous heroine dies to protect an alien baby, in an act that the original publisher felt was far too brutal and insisted on changing. Later editions have Heinlein’s original ending. I may be wrong on this point, but I do not think a Sci-Fi novel featured a female main protagonist before Podkayne.

Or how about ‘Peewee’ from the 1958 novel, Have Spacesuit, Will Travel? Peewee is an adolescent girl, but proves herself to be more capable and intelligent than her older companion, the teenaged Clifford. He wants to protect her, but quickly find that it is she that saves him.

Some might say that Heinlein’s best defence is no defence at all. To paraphrase Popeye, ‘he is what he is.’ Personally, I think he is both a product of his time and a visionary. Heinlein grew up in a world vastly different than our own, where institutionalised prejudice and racism was normal, even moral. But in a body of work comprising more than 30 novels, and numerous short stories, he demonstrated again and again that there were other paths to follow. His writing changed and matured over the years, and whether or not he really did satirise his genre, he consistently shone a light on prejudice throughout his career. If he failed to portray women convincingly, it was not for lack of trying. Misogynist? I don’t think so.


main image, book covers © Goodreads & Bob Eggleton


MJ Kobernus has written four novels, the first of which, The Guardian – Blood in the Sand, is available on Amazon.


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