Bookish Birthdays: James Tiptree Jr.

James Tiptree Jr
George Eliot (Mary Anne Evans) is perhaps the most famous example of a woman writing using a male pen name, but like J.K. Rowling and her crime writing alter ego Robert Galbraith, it wasn't long before she was unmasked.

Eliot’s most famous work, Middlemarch, was published long after the public knew she was female. A more interesting case is that of James Tiptree, Jr, whose birthday we celebrate here.

Tiptree’s first professional sale came in 1968: “Birth of a Salesman” in Analog magazine, edited by the legendary John W. Campbell.

Though that story garnered little interest, Tiptree’s writing rapidly improved. Over the following nine years he produced a succession of spectacular stories, winning multiple, high profile awards. He corresponded enthusiastically with fellow authors and fans. Yet no one ever met him.

It was assumed he had to keep his true identity secret. Rumours that Tiptree might be female were rejected because, as Robert Silverberg put it, his writing was “ineluctably masculine”. In 1977 Tiptree was revealed to be a pen name of Alice B. Sheldon.

As a teenager, Alli, as she preferred to be known, rebelled against her wealthy parents, eloping with William Davey. The marriage didn’t last, and with America entering WWII she joined the Air Force, becoming an expert in analyzing aerial reconnaissance photographs. This led her to a job in the CIA in 1952.

In the meantime she had married Huntington (Ting) Sheldon, her former commanding officer. On leaving the CIA in 1955, Alli went to university, receiving a doctorate in experimental psychology in 1967. Then she re-invented herself as a science fiction writer, and a man.

While many photographs show her as a beautiful woman, and her writing is fiercely feminist, she hated the lack of freedom that her gender enforced.Both Eliot and Rowling appear to have adopted a male identity purely as a strategy. Sheldon’s relationship with her gender and sexuality was far more complex. While many photographs show her as a beautiful woman, and her writing is fiercely feminist, she hated the lack of freedom that her gender enforced.

She married twice, but confessed to a strong sexual attraction to women. She loved the title, Major Davey, which she had in the Air Force. When Tiptree’s identity became known she worried about being unable to write again if she could not do so as him.

We can only speculate, probably inaccurately, what she might have done with her life had she been born in these more gender fluid times. Her biographer Julie Phillips told me:

“The paradox with Alli is that when she became someone else in print, she began writing more openly about herself. The letters that “Tip” wrote to fellow writers, including Harlan Ellison, Joanna Russ, and Ursula K. Le Guin, are profoundly honest and may be her greatest body of work. The disguise could be frustrating, but for a while it made it possible for her to say things she couldn’t say as herself.”

Gender issues were central to Tiptree’s fiction. “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” tells of some astronauts who fall through time and find Earth run by women. “The Girl Who Was Plugged In” is about using pretty young women to sell products.

In “The Women Men Don’t See”, a man marooned in the jungle by a plane crash is astonished to discover what the women with him think about men. - Don Fenton claims that things are improving. Hasn’t the Equal Rights Bill been passed? Ruth Parsons will have none of it.

“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish — like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”

Alli seemed to view men and women as alien species living side by side but unable to communicate. Only she, a liminal creature with a foot in both camps, could see the truth.

In 1991, Pat Murphy and Karen Joy Fowler created a literary award to reward imaginative examination of issues of gender. Murphy told me:

“Twenty-two years ago, many science fiction writers were still imagining a future in which men flew the rockets and women helped out. That wasn’t the future that interested me. I helped found the Tiptree Award to reward those writers who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society. By telling stories that can change people’s views of the world, I believe we can change the world itself.”

Ruth Parsons, despairing of women’s place in our world, chose to leave it forever. No alien visitors have offered to take Murphy and Fowler away, so they and many other women like them are fighting instead. Let’s honour Alli by joining them and proving Parsons wrong.

Cheryl Morgan

For more about Alice Sheldon’s life there is a fine biography of her: James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips. It won a Hugo, and a National Book Circle Award. The best collection of her short fiction is Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.

On September 18th, at a conference in Brighton, Cheryl Morgan will be giving a paper about interrogating the gender identities of people from history. Alice Sheldon will be one of the examples.