Strong Women Characters in Early Heinlein

Strong Women Characters in Early Heinlein

by G. E. Rule (Geo Rule) ©2003

  This article is based on a presentation given by me at BayCon 2003, May 24, 2003, in a panel discussion by Heinlein Society members on Heinlein’s Women characters. My portion of the discussion was on the portrayal of Women characters prior to 1942 when RAH met his third wife, Virginia, who is often credited as the role-model for many of his later strong women characters. My point was to show that he was using strong women characters from the beginning (which is not to deny that Ginny was the model in many cases later on). Other panelists were Bill Patterson, Robert “Doc” James, David Silver, and Deb Houdek Rule. Deb pretty much stole the show, but then she is the “most qualified” to discuss the subject! 

The version given below is slightly expanded from that given at the Con, with good lines stolen from fellow panelists (Thanks!) in some instances. The whole “Magic, Inc.” section was added when an audience member mentioned it as a good example of what I was trying to show.  I’d remembered it mostly as an EPIC-inspired political shenanigans fantasy, but when I went back to look, darn if the audience member wasn’t right. As Deb pointed out in her section, this was one of Heinlein’s great strengths  –he had a great ability to “teach under the radar” on subjects that were only peripherally connected to the story at hand, and so subtly that you usually didn’t catch him at it unless you were on the lookout for it.

There is no doubt that remarkable woman, Ginny Gerstenfeld Heinlein, was the model for many of Heinlein’s later strong and talented women characters.  It isn’t my purpose to attempt to disprove that truth. My co-panelist Doc James (author of “Regarding Leslyn” available in the Heinlein Journal, issue 9) will tell you that Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein was a model for some of the strong characters in the period I am about to discuss. I don’t deny that either.  All I am trying to show is that RAH was writing strong women characters right from the beginning of his published career. He liked strong, competent women. 

Let There Be Light” (1940 Super Science Stories; “Lyle Monroe” after Campbell turned it down for being too sexy –does not appear in all copies of the “Chart”, but Douglas & Martin and their sunscreen does. Published by a young, wet-behind-the-ears editor by the name of Fred Pohl.)

If you don’t know what Heinlein’s “Future History” is, then you need to buy a copy of “The Past Through Tomorrow” (which contains most of the Future History) and “The Man Who Sold the Moon” (which includes “Let There Be Light”) and find out what all the shouting is about.  Polls of science fiction aficionados consistently place RAH’s Future History as one of the great achievements in SF history. A thematically connected series of stories that assumed and built on each other while being entirely separate at the same time, it was a bold concept for its time.

The Future History was co-founded by a woman. Mary Lou Martin is a bio-chemist and ecologist with “enough degrees for six men”, so many that her soon-to-be-partner Archie Douglas assumes “he” is going to be an old man, and can tell that “he” is a “heavy-weight” in scientific circles.

“Figure like a strip-dancer”, blond, blue-eyes. Sassy. Lots of sex-appeal.

She initiates the contact with Douglas, traveling 1,500 miles to work with him after reading one of his articles on “cold light”. She makes the conceptual breakthrough “why can’t we cut a crystal that would have a natural frequency in the octave of visible light?” that leads to the “Douglas-Martin sunscreen”. She pulls, prods, and bullies him into completing the engineering. Finally, she is the one that realizes that the only way to beat the big power companies who are trying to throttle them with lawsuits is to make all the details of their discovery public to the whole world.

You’ll notice that the poor girl still doesn’t get top-billing, however. Maybe we should start an online petition to change the name to the “Martin-Douglas Sunscreen”!

The raw material of the Douglas-Martin Sunscreen is clay, available anywhere.  The cheap, abundant, and efficient power, heat, and light provided by the Douglas-Martin Sunscreen is the technological foundation for the rest of the Future History.

“Magic, Inc” (1940, Unknown, Robert A. Heinlein)

An out-and-out fantasy about what would happen if magic was just another part of the world, much like science and technology. The hero, Archibald Fraser, is a building supplies contractor. The story revolves around the ubiquitous use of “commercial magic”, with Heinlein showing a great deal of inventiveness in how magic could be used profitably for very mundane purposes. This story is usually remembered as a “political shenanigans story”, with Heinlein clearly using his experiences as a lieutenant in Upton Sinclair’s EPIC organization in the 1930’s. This background provided most of the details of parliamentary procedure and techniques of political skullduggery used in the maneuvering to gain or forestall monopolistic control of the magic that most businessman required to keep their businesses profitable.

Amanda Todd Jennings is a “white witch”, described as grandmotherly and “ninety years older than Santy Claus, and feeble to boot”. She is also an incredibly strong and determined woman who is the real hero of the story. Her command of the denizens of the “half world” (gnomes and such) and Hell itself is very impressive. In one remarkable scene she makes Satan himself back down:

“Satan Mekratig,” she said slowly, “do you wish to try your strength with me?”

“With you, madam?” He looked at her carefully, as if inspecting her for the first time. “Well, it’s been a trying day, hasn’t it? Suppose we say no more about it. Till another time, then—“.

He was gone.

Mrs. Jennings characterization made me want to do some research on Heinlein’s grade-school teachers in search of her model. Her handling of the Gnome King reminded me of nothing so much as a surly third-grader being brought to heel.

Sally Logan is a political insider at the state capitol, who gets her way by knowing everyone and everyone owing her a favor. She never accepts political patronage jobs, and is highly respected because of it. Another main character, Joe Jedson, describes her to Archie Fraser as “combining the shrewdness of Machiavelli with the great-hearted integrity of Oliver Wendell Holmes”. After meeting her, Archie describes her thusly:

I had unconsciously expected something pretty formidable in the way of a mannish matron. What I saw was a plump, cheerful-looking blond, with an untidy mass of yellow hair and frank blue eyes. She was entirely feminine, not over thirty at the outside, and there was something about her that was tremendously reassuring.

She made me think of county fairs and well water and sugar cookies.

And she also knows where all the bodies are buried at the state capitol and who dug the graves. Possibly she was handling the shovel on more than a few of those jobs herself.

In talking about Sally Logan, Joe Jedson describes why he prefers her to many other women in politics. One must remember that this is 1940 we’re talking about, but the following description is very informative:

Sally isn’t a woman politician, she is simply a politician, and asks no special consideration because of her sex. She can stand up and trade punches with the toughest manipulators on the Hill. What I said about women politicians is perfectly true, as a statistical generalization, but it proves nothing about any particular woman”.

“It’s like this: Most women in the United States have shortsighted, peasant individualism resulting from the male-created romantic tradition of the last century. They were told that they were superior creatures, a little nearer to the angels than their menfolks. They were not encouraged to think nor to assume social responsibility. It takes a strong mind to break out of that sort of conditioning, and most minds simply aren’t up to it, male or female.

“Consequently, women as electors are usually suckers for romantic nonsense. They can be flattered into misusing their ballot even more easily than men. In politics their self-righteous felling of virtue, combined with their essentially peasant training, resulted in their introducing a type of cut-rate, petty chiseling that should make Boss Tweed spin in his coffin”.

“But Sally’s not like that. She’s got a tough mind which could reject the hokum”.

“You’re not in love with her, are you?”

“Who, me? Sally’s happily married and has two of the best kids I know.”

One could read the above passage as an attack on “most women” in politics, circa 1940, but I suggest that a much more accurate reading would be a profound admiration for strong, competent women with enough character to reject pervasive patriarchal societal stereotypes without losing their femininity in the process.

While the purpose of this essay is to look at strong female characters in Heinlein’s work prior to 1942, I simply can’t leave “Magic Inc.” without looking at Heinlein’s handling of race in this story as well.

Dr. Royce Worthington is a “witch-smeller”, sort of an anti-witch. He is impeccably dressed and speaks with “a cultured British voice, with a hint of Oxford in it”. Archie describes their first meeting:

My office girl brought in his card a half hour later. I got up to great him and saw a tall, heavy-set man with a face of great dignity and evident intelligence. He was dressed in rather conservative, expensively tailored clothes and carried gloves, stick, and a large brief-case. But he was black as draftsman’s ink!

I tried not to show my surprise. I hope I did not, for I have an utter horror of showing that kind of rudeness. There was no reason why the man should not be a Negro. I simply had not been expecting it.

One suspects “an utter horror of showing that kind of rudeness” is the author speaking for himself as well. Sexism and racism have often been linked, and as a corollary, anti-sexism and anti-racism are also often found together. Dr. Worthington is a native African, and Archie ruminates on stereotypes founded on African-Americans:

We white men in this country are inclined to underestimate the black man –I know that I do—because we see him out of his cultural matrix. Those we know have had their own culture wrenched from them some generations back and a servile pseudo culture imposed on them by  force. We forget that the black man has a culture of his own, older than ours and more solidly  grounded, based on character and the power of the mind rather than the cheap ephemeral tricks of mechanical gadgets.

Strong, in-your-face stuff for 1940.

“If This Goes On–” (1940, Astounding, Robert A. Heinlein)

One of the most celebrated of Heinlein’s stories, and a cornerstone of the Future History, “If This Goes On—“ describes the overthrow of a theocracy that has replaced constitutional democracy in the United States. The rule of the “Prophet Incarnate” uses religious superstition and advanced science—carefully restricted to governmental use—to control the population. Meanwhile, the “Cabal”—based in part on Free Masonry and in part on the secret societies active in Heinlein’s own Missouri during the Civil War—works to overthrow the Prophets and restore the U. S. Constitution.

Heinlein’s protagonist is the twitterpated choirboy, John Lyle. Lyle is a West Point graduate and newly made “Legate” (read 2nd Lieutenant) in the “Angels of the Lord” stationed at the Prophet’s palace in New Jerusalem. Lyle becomes infatuated with the Virgin Sister Judith. “Virgin” is her condition as well as her title, and she–and Lyle—become horrified when her true duties to the Prophet Incarnate become unmistakably clear in a very earthy manner.

If written up by the official historian of the Cabal, Sister Maggie Andrews would be the real hero of the story. It is she, another of the Prophet’s wives, who precipitates the crisis early in the story that moves Lyle, his worldly-friend Zebadiah Jones, and Sister Judith from peccadilloes to treason. When a clandestine meeting between Sister Judith and Lyle is discovered by a spy, it is Sister Maggie who attacks the spy and kills him; quickly and quietly by sticking a blade between his ribs.  She vouches for Lyle to her brethren in the Cabal, saving his life when many of them are not sure they can take a chance on a young man who is so clearly deeply indoctrinated in the rightness of the Prophets’ rule. While the others are safe in the arms of the Cabal, it is Sister Maggie who ventures out to see if the authorities have discovered that they are the culprits –a job that easily could have resulted in an excruciating death at the hands of the Grand Inquisitor.

While Sister Maggie is not well-educated nor trained because of the society she lives in, she is another of Heinlein’s supremely competent women, fearless and clear-eyed in a crisis.  After leaving her undercover work, she becomes “Sergeant Andrews” with the Cabal and works for the final overthrow of the Prophet.

It is interesting to note the difference between Zebadiah Jones and Sister Maggie in the early part of Heinlein’s story.  Zebadiah is highly intelligent and trained, and clearly understands the immorality and basic sickness of the society in which he lives.  He is the wise City Slicker to John Lyle’s Country Cousin. He knows about the Cabal, and knows that Sister Maggie is a member of it. Yet when the story opens he isn’t doing anything concrete to oppose the regime, except to play the game to his own advantage in a sardonic above-it-all manner.  That is until Sister Maggie’s actions precipitate the crisis that forces him to confront the situation and make a choice.

Heinlein rewrote this story in 1953, and an interesting difference between the two is that in the earlier story Heinlein allows Lyle to marry the inconsequential piece-of-fluff Judith.  In the later story, Sister Maggie becomes John’s wife, in spite of her checkered past (we are told she had many affairs once the Prophet “was through with her”).  We are also told that that her personality chart shows a dominant personality that “looks like the Rocky Mountains!”

“–We Also Walk Dogs” (1941, Astounding –Anson MacDonald)

General Services Corporation will provide any service (except murder) for a price.  Grace Cormet is an “aristocrat of resourcefulness” that handles the special customers with the highest credit ratings and most outrageous requests. Married, she does not use her married name, but instead stays “Miss Cormet”. Cool, unshakeable, terrifically competent. She immediately recognizes the serious nature of an unusual request from a Planetary Official and decides on her own authority to disregard company policy.

Not particularly sexual (from what we can see), but she is willing to be so if the job requires it. A natural brunette with a dark complexion (a tip-off that she is modeled on Leslyn MacDonald Heinlein), she dies her hair blond and bleaches her skin to influence a government official whose “weakness is blonds” to fulfill one mission. Her boss regards the makeover as “stupendous”, but she immediately returns to natural when it is no longer necessary. Grace Cormet leads GSC’s successful effort to invent a “gravity-shield” and secure incalculable advantages to Earth (and, oh yeah, General Services Corporation too).  Just another successful commission for GSC and Grace.


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