Ethics and Morals, Human Wave, passion

Gold-Plated Misogynist

That’s what she said. It was in a comment thread online, after a friend of mine had shared a Robert A Heinlein quote. I looked at it, shook my head, and wondered when the man who was accused of being too pro-women in the era he wrote in, had become a woman-hater. It’s not true of course, but people will just say things with nothing to back them up, and unless you question them, observers have no way of knowing they are flat-out lying. 

“Whenever women have insisted on absolute equality with men, they have invariably wound up with the dirty end of the stick. What they are and what they can do makes them superior to men, and their proper tactic is to demand special privileges, all the traffic will bear. They should never settle merely for equality. For women, “equality” is a disaster.” ― Robert A. Heinlein

RAH wrote women who were strong, competent, and happy being women. I have admired Star from Glory Road for her fierceness and dedication to her duty. I put to you Hazel Stone, who is no man’s – nor woman’s! – weakling. Wyoming Knott, in Moon is a Harsh Mistress for goodness sakes. How can you read Heinlein’s work and then dismiss these women as another person in that thread did as ‘oversexed secretaries’ unless you are deliberately being obtuse and lying? 

When I asked that question in a group of people who actually enjoy Heinlein’s work, I was reminded to go look at Spider Robinson’s essay on Heinlein. It had been a while since I’d read it, and even in 1980 when it was written, the accusations were being thrown about his work. 

(2) “Heinlein is a male chauvinist.” This is the second most common charge these days. That’s right, Heinlein populates his books with dumb, weak, incompetent women. Like Sister Maggie in “If This Goes On—”; Dr. Mary Lou Martin in “Let There Be Light”; Mary Sperling in Methuselah’s Children; Grace Cormet in “—We Also Walk Dogs”; Longcourt Phyllis in Beyond This Horizon; Cynthia Craig in “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”; Karen in “Gulf”; Gloria McNye in “Delilah and the Space-Rigger”; Allucquere in The Puppet Masters; Hazel and Edith Stone in The Rolling Stones; Betty in The Star Beast; all the women in Tunnel in the Sky; Penny in Double Star; Pee Wee and the Mother Thing in Have Space Suit—Will Travel; Jill Boardman, Becky Vesant, Patty Paiwonski, Anne, Miriam and Dorcas in Stranger in a Strange Land; Star, the Empress of Twenty Universes, in Glory Road; Wyoh, Mimi, Sidris and Gospazha Michelle Holmes in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; Eunice and Joan Eunice in I Will Fear No Evil; Ishtar, Tamara, Minerva, Hamadryad, Dora, Helen Mayberry, Llita, Laz, Lor and Maureen Smith in Time Enough For Love; and Dejah Thoris, Hilda Corners, Gay Deceiver and Elizabeth Long in “The Number of the Beast—.[1]

 

Brainless cupcakes all, eh? (Virtually every one of them is a world-class expert in at least one demanding and competitive field; the exceptions plainly will be as soon as they grow up. Madame Curie would have enjoyed chatting with any one of them.) Helpless housewives! (Any one of them could take Wonder Woman three falls out of three, and polish off Jirel of Joiry for dessert.)

 

I think one could perhaps make an excellent case for Heinlein as a female chauvinist. He has repeatedly insisted that women average smarter, more practical and more courageous than men. He consistently underscores their biological and emotional superiority. He married a woman he proudly described to me as “smarter, better educated and more sensible than I am.” In his latest book, Expanded Universe—the immediate occasion for this article—he suggests without the slightest visible trace of irony that the franchise be taken away from men and given exclusively to women. He consistently created strong, intelligent, capable, independent, sexually aggressive women characters for a quarter of a century before it was made a requirement, right down to his supporting casts.

 

Clearly we are still in the area of delusions which can be cured simply by reading Heinlein while awake.

I am particularly fond of that last line. Clearly those who are still  flinging mud have slipped dreamlessly into a delusion so deep they might never be able to get back out again. When the woman who had first made the titular accusation was questioned by multiple voices in startlement, she finally admitted that she knew it to be so, because she had read it in Asimov’s biography. Wait a minute, was my reply, you mean that man that Eric Leif Davin in his recent book Partners in Wonder wrote this about? ” Isaac Asimov is on record for stating that male fans didn’t want females invading their space.  According to the letter columns of the time, it seems that the only fan who held that opinion was… Isaac Asimov.  A number of males fans welcomed their female counterparts.  As did the editors, something Davin goes to great lengths to document.” (You can read more on the women that other women ignore here at Keith West’s blog) So this woman has taken a known misogynist’s claim that another man is a misogynist without questioning and swallowed it whole. 

This, boys and girls, is why we do our research and do not take a single point of data as truth, just because it fits what we want to see. The final point I will address is one brought up in the thread, albeit with a misspelled name, so I am not quoting it. Heinlein wrote of Gillian from Stranger in a Strange Land that she was a nurse, and made a hobby of men. I’m not sure if the objection was to ‘nurse’ which was a solidly female profession in the time Heinlein was alive and writing, and a very respected one, as well. I suspect the objection was the making a hobby of men. Frankly, my dear, if you have not yet met a woman whose hobby is men, then your life has been a very sheltered and innocent one. Pick up any celebrity rag in the supermarket checkout line and you can look into the airbrushed eyes of a half-dozen of them. Is this misogyny on my part? No. Like Heinlein, I am very interested in people. People are not always nice, and perfect, and noble. Heinlein’s trenchant observations of human nature are a big part of why I enjoy reading his work so much. His characters are real, vivid, fully formed… which means that they are not always conformable to the ideals. Just like real people. 

Heinlein had, as is evident from his work, a very high regard for women. But he did not perch them on so high a pedestal as to not see that some women are not perfect. Just like the woman who threw out the accusation against him of being a gold-plated misogynist isn’t perfect. Blinded by her ideals, she seeks to topple a man who helped write some of her freedoms into existence. But he’s a mere old white man, and conveniently, dead, so he cannot defend himself. So I will take up a little of that defense in honor of a man I never met, and further, his beloved wife who by all accounts was a wonderful woman who doesn’t deserve to be backhanded along with her husband.  

 

14 thoughts on “Gold-Plated Misogynist

  1. Heinlein was misogynistic only if you consider one of his most consistent claims incorrect: he believed, his characters believed, and his female characters usually said, that most women liked being women and liked being feminine (as femininity was defined in the culture of his time, including dressing up, makeup and perfume, and enjoying male attention).
    As all of this is true of me, I have no problem with seeing these attitudes as ones a self-assured, independent, intelligent and highly competent woman could have, and should be allowed to have…. without anybody calling her a sellout (or worse).
    I don’t recall his having any openly out-and-proud Lesbian characters, but I don’t remember his having any openly out-and-proud Gay characters either; of course, that would have been a brutally hard sell in his day, and such a character probably never would have seen print.
    I suspect Heinlein’s memory has a touch of Kipling Syndrome. Kipling was a man who paid a very high price for treating non-Caucasians as fully human, and as fully worthy of respect as any Britain-born white. He is is now seen as racist because his work helped pull us into a world where the unconscious biases he fought all his life are no longer tolerable.

    1. And Kipling is even nearer to my heart than Heinlein, his were the tales that I grew up reading – not the Jungle Book, although it was part of it. But Kim, most particularly, and his poetry.

      1. Anybody who can read Kipling’s Kim and not see the love Kipling had for India (and its diversity) is a fool.

        It’s noteworthy that in India, Kim is considered a Great Book of India.

    2. He did have some gay or at least bi, male characters that were iirc hinted to like men more in Time Enough for Love or Number of the Beast. He also basically had Lazarus Long say not for me and that he gets a almost visceral reaction to it that he blames on growing up in turn of the century America.

        1. You can watch Heinlein’s views on homosexuality evolve.

          In Stranger, Jubal gives Mike rules for avoiding passes, refers to gay men as “poor inbetweeners”, and reflects that they likely wouldn’t be offered water anyway. In a book allegedly setting out to challenge everything, that’s a pretty poor showing.

          In I Will Fear no Evil, there’s the judge and his friend, clearly a male gay couple, who are shown with no mocking or outrage or fear. They’re still somewhat “other” and at a distance, but they’re not demonized that I could see.

          In Time Enough for Love, Gallahad and (the chief rejuvenator) agree to “seven hours of ecstacy” which sounds like something including sexual activity without settling what their genders are. Gallahad asks, and she asks if it matters, and he says roughly “I suppose not”. (However, the effect is then somewhat spoiled when they both express pleasure at discovering they are in fact a heterosexual pair).

  2. It’s amazing how time changes things.

    Heinlein certainly wasn’t any sort of traditional “misogynist” as I understand the concept. He was well ahead of his age-cohort in many areas of social change, including rights for women. He actively sought women engineers to work in his group during WWII, for example.

    Arguably The Rolling Stones has a very large subtext for more rights for women. In a book very explicitly published for boys in the early 1950s, he includes a discussion about the “glass ceiling”, acknowledging it as a problem for Hazel Stone, with never the slightest suggestion that it’s unusual for a woman to be a competent engineer. (And in the discussion of naming their ship, the one real historical personage suggested to name it after is Susan B. Anthony, too; which for me makes the other discussion of discrimination against women in the book clearly part of a plan, not just accidental.) Pushing this information into teenage boys in 1952 is the sort of thing that has lead us to our current social position.

    Our current position is one where people can reasonably view gender roles in Heinlein’s books as limiting and possibly not suitable for children. What’s revolutionary at one time is overly conservative two generations. That’s a good thing, to my mind — in this case. What Heinlein worked for for women was, IMHO, badly needed. And we’re not in anything close to an ideal situation yet, more work is needed.

    On the other hand, what Heinlein was to a degree that sometimes annoys me quite a bit was a biological determinist. He thought sex roles were more firmly based on biology than I and most modern people do. This is a standard part of the basic American (more widespread than that, but as an American it’s what I know best) misogynist package, and I can understand people triggering on it and quickly deciding anybody showing it was a problem.

    I find it sad, and outright annoying, to see an author who I see as having been in the vanguard of working for more individual rights, accused of being on the wrong side of that issue and others close by. I think it’s not true.

    However, I do see the point that the discussion on these issues has moved on to the point where much of the good part of Heinlein’s radical ideas are widely taken for granted, and the places where he was wrong, and the places where we’ve moved forward from the advances he championed, now look rather unfortunate.

    1. ” He thought sex roles were more firmly based on biology than I and most modern people do. This is a standard part of the basic American (…) misogynist package, ”

      I think there is a difference between citing biological differences as misogyny and citing them because common sense and reality insist upon it. And also, “triggering on it” is a choice to “skim until offended” instead of considering another point of view. “Women aren’t as smart as men” is in some sense absolutely true. In *what* sense it is true is a matter of further discussion. If someone has a mental break-down at that statement so that the “further discussion” never happens, we could also add “women are emotional and irrational,” and point to the evidence before us.

      What we have in modern times are Things That Must Not Be Said. And “Sounds Like” and “Skim Until Offended” are enough for proof that the TTMNBS have been violated. This… is why we can’t have nice things.

  3. I don’t think Heinlein’s a misogynist, and I’m a big fan (more of his so called ‘juveniles’, but overall he’s fantastic) but I’ve got to say, though it may not be a popular opinion, that Glory Road read to me like a long sex fantasy. What’s this, ex-soldier McMainCharacter, you’ve just been approached by the most beautiful busty blonde in the world who needs *you* and only you for a glorious mission. And she wants to sleep with you? What’s that? She’s insisting you sleep with the sexy farmer’s daughter because it’s just how it’s done here? (In sexy fantasy land) What’s that, she’s Queen of the Galaxy and now you’re King? Boom.

    (Events in story may have settled in transit. Details may have shifted)

    I couldn’t take it seriously when I read it as a teenager and it’s one of the few of his I’ve never re-read.

    1. Sarah –
      That isn’t a wildly off base reading of “Glory Road”, sure. However, this is a book that takes a fantasy trope and both fulfills and subverts it. You left out the part where Our Heroine basically uses Our Hero for her own ends, keeping him in the dark the whole time the better to manipulate him — not least by means of The Sex. Not that he isn’t ripe for the plucking. As Heinlein puts it in a rather lyrical passge:

      “What did I want?

      I wanted a Roc’s egg. I wanted a harem loaded with lovely odalisques less
      than the dust beneath my chariot wheels, the rust that never stained my sword.
      I wanted raw red gold in nuggets the size of your fist and feed that lousy
      claim jumper to the huskies! I wanted to get up feeling brisk and go out and
      break some lances, then pick a likely wench for my droit du seigneur — I
      wanted to stand up to the Baron and dare him to touch my wench! I wanted to
      hear the purple water chuckling against the skin of the Nancy Lee in the cool
      of the morning watch and not another sound, nor any movement save the slow
      tilling of the wings of the albatross that had been pacing us the last
      thousand miles.

      I wanted the hurtling moons of Barsoom. I wanted Storisende and Poictesme,
      and Holmes shaking me awake to tell me, “The game’s afoot!” I wanted to float
      down the Mississippi on a raft and elude a mob in company with the Duke of
      Bilgewater and the Lost Dauphin.

      I wanted Prester John, and Excalibur held by a moon-white arm out of a silent
      lake. I wanted to sail with Ulysses and with Tros of Samothrace and eat the
      lotus in a land that seemed always afternoon. I wanted the feeling of romance
      and the sense of wonder I had known as a kid. I wanted the world to be what
      they had promised me it was going to be — ”

      And about that sexy farmer’s daughter — although it doesn’t happen this time around (for reasons), on any other visit Our Heroine would be spending the night with the sexy farmer. Also, though Our Hero does get the girl (she pays her debts and seems genuinely fond of him), it turns out that being the Consort of the Queen of the Galaxy? Not all it’s cracked up to be.

      I’m not one of those who think Heinlein could do no wrong, but maybe you should consider a re-read of this one,

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