[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]
Have you ever heard of Emmy Noether?
I hadn’t, not until recently. In elementary school I learned about Marie Curie, the famous lady physicist and chemist, who was of course an exception to the rule that almost all of the groundbreaking work in the sciences was done by men (until our enlightened present age, of course). But nobody mentioned Emmy Noether, the groundbreaking lady mathematician even Einstein admired.
Nor did they mention most of the women on this list.
We all understand, of course, that the exceptional women in history are just that: exceptions. Just because Elizabeth I ruled England for nearly forty-five years doesn’t mean European queens regularly held such power. Just because Aphra Behn was a famous playwright doesn’t mean women played an equal role with men in English literature. Just because Hannah Snell was an eighteenth-century Marine doesn’t mean women were a regular part of the British military before the modern day.
But the more I read of history, the more I find myself tripping over these “exceptions” at every turn. Elizabeth Murray, suo jure Countess of Dysart, was an integral part of the Sealed Knot conspiracy to return Charles II to the throne. Kate Warne was employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and helped thwart an assassination plot against Abraham Lincoln. “Bluestocking” was an insult in Victorian society because of a backlash against the Bluestocking Society of the Georgian period, which included a large number of educated — even influential — women scholars.
It isn’t just about women, either. We’ve all heard of Frederick Douglass, but how about Benjamin Banneker? People like him don’t make the headlines of history . . . but that doesn’t mean they weren’t there, and that their contributions to the world were unimportant.
When we talk about people like this — the exceptions to the rule — we aren’t scrounging through the dust-bin, trying desperately to find tokens we can hold up as a sop for women and minorities. We’re taking off the filters that make us dismiss those people as tokens. No, women weren’t fifty percent of the scientists in past centuries; it’s true that men did dominate that field. But it’s sheer laziness and sloppy thinking to assume that “dominance” = “total control,” while writing off anybody who wasn’t a white male as an “assistant” or “secretary” or “wife.” Many of them were scientists in their own right, partners to the names we know, their efforts denigrated at the time or (very often) by later historians who couldn’t imagine that a woman (or a black man, or) might actually do anything of substance.
And the few whose efforts are too great to brush off in that way? Why, they’re exceptions, of course. Which means it would be foolish of us to use them as a model.
I say, to hell with that. We need to learn to see these people in their proper context. Despite the restrictions placed on them by society, women did find ways to participate in science and politics and literature and intrigue and war. So did various minorities, even when society tried to block them at every turn. Once we understand that, we can give them their proper place in fiction, too, and stop apologizing for our “unrealistic” female protagonists in fantasy worlds, or writing them out of those worlds entirely. Real people found ways to be exceptions to the rule, over and over and over again. It’s only realistic to show the same in fiction.