I’ve been thinking about this point on and off since early February, when I attended a SF convention called Potlatch and a panel called Women Ruin War, The Gendering of MilSF.
A man in the audience asked if there were any female combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan who are writing genre fiction.
He kept asking this question again and again.
By repeating his query, he implied that no female writer could write with authority about war, combat or the military without having served.
I found this attitude incredibly frustrating.
But there were several con-goers who were clueless about their own close-minded attitudes regarding diversity of gender, ethnicity, culture, etc.
I thought: Why do we have to keep fighting this battle?
And I responded to the man asking about female combat veterans.
If my memory serves, I stood up and said something to the effect of:
There are a number of women who aren’t serving in the military who are writing with authority about military and combat. They are conflict journalists covering wars around the world.
To say a woman must serve in a combat to effectively write about anything military, denigrates the accomplishments and talents of women who are write effectively about war and the military.
And then, he asked, again, if there were any female combat veterans writing milSF.
Obviously, he didn’t get my point.
It’s a little naive for readers to assume that a writer has done everything his or her characters have.
It’s incredibly presumptive to require any writer to experience firsthand everything he or she writes about. How would an SF writer experience alien contact or space travel? Where would a mystery writer hide all those bodies?
Would someone ask Larry Niven to live in low gravity? Would we minimize George R.R. Martin’s work with snarky comments because he’s never hatched his own dragons or lost a sword hand? No.
Yet some readers continue to demand firsthand experiences from female writers of speculative fiction, especially of women writing milSF. Hard work, well-crafted prose, research, empathy, talent, imagination, and accurate, passionate and credible portrayals of characters and situations aren’t enough for these fans.
I hope to see the end of this battle.
Maybe that day will come when today's teenagers who grew up with Suzanne Collins’ character Katniss as their hero raise their own children. Maybe that day, the battle for equality will be over, at least in our corner of the world.
Maybe one day, the readers who insist that milSF writers need combat experience will realize that women have been on the frontlines writing about combat for decades, including 127 women covering World War II, (See the U.S. Department of Defense and Nancy Caldwell Sorel's The Women Who Wrote the War.)
Since WWII, female conflict journalists have covered combat at Vietnam, Afghanistan, Libya, Cuba, Iraq, Bosnia, Egypt, and Iran, just to name a handful of countries. They have risked their lives, been maimed, kidnapped, held hostage and even killed, just like their male counterparts.
Our modern sense of the world and war has been shaped by female journalists. CNN's Christiane Amanpour told us about the first Gulf War and the conflicts in Bosnia. NPR’s Anne Garrels took us into Baghdad at the very start of most-recent Iraqi war. She took us to the frontlines with marines in Fallujah. Most recently, Buzzfeed focused on 12 female photojournalists worthy of watching, including conflict journalists Lynsey Addario, Paula Bronstein, Erin Trieb and Andrea Bruce.
These women write about war and the military.
I am grateful to these women who go into danger and under fire to find these important stories and make them come alive with their words, sounds and images. I celebrate their craft, their commitment, their empathy, and their courage.
And I don’t insist they join the military or write SF.