Founding Mothers: The Jeanne Gomoll Interview
By Adrian Simmons
15 September 2008
There were few wizard hats, and no Vulcan ears, but the Concourse Hotel in Madison, Wisconsin crackled with excitement as WisCon 32, the nexus of science fiction and feminism, prepared to convene for its thirty-second year. Fans, writers, and editors had traveled from around the U.S. and the world to partake in the annual three-day event.
It was an excellent turnout for an event born in the smallest meeting room of WorldCon in 1976. Since its inception, WisCon has weathered backlashes, New Wave, Cyberpunk, New Weird, and whatever else the genre could throw at it (and this year it weathered an outbreak of stomach flu). It now hosts two awards and is counted as one of the top science fiction (SF) conventions in the United States. To get an understanding of WisCon's history and development, I talked with founding member Jeanne Gomoll.
Adrian Simmons: So tell me of the early days. How did the idea of a feminist SF convention come about?
Jeanne Gomoll: It started with an SF reading group comprised mainly of students from the University of Wisconsin. I walked into the second meeting of the group. The original people were Janice Bogstad, Phil Kaveny, Hank and Lesleigh Luttrell, and Thomas Murn. Hank and Lesleigh (Couch) Luttrell formed the Missouri SF Association at the University of Missouri's Columbia campus in 1968 and they were trying to start a new group here in town. They were also fanzine publishers. Their fanzine, Starling, had been nominated for a Hugo Award. Everyone in the Wisconsin group was very interested in publishing a fanzine here in town. They put an ad in the UW Student newspaper, Badger Herald, asking anyone interested in working on an SF fanzine to come to the next Madstf [Madison Science Fiction Group] meeting. Meanwhile, I had recently graduated from the University and was very much involved in a feminist reading group.
AS: What time period was this?
JG: 1975. I had been trying to convince my feminist reading group to publish some of the things we had been talking about. I had not been reading much SF recently. I had been really turned off in the later part of high school and college by the really sexist stuff going on in the genre. But when I joined Hank and Lesleigh's group, I found out that there were a lot of women coming into the field and I was really excited. I was also really interested in writing for the fanzine. The new fanzine's name was Janus. What the group really needed was an artist, so I ended up doing most of the artwork and the layout work for the fanzine but also writing some articles. We didn't realize what an unusual thing we had created—that it was one of two political fanzines focusing on feminism. (The first feminist fanzine, Amanda Bankier's The Witch and the Chameleon, published only one more issue after Janus came out.) We got a lot of feedback from people, including letters of comments expressing interest in what we were doing, so we got the idea of doing a convention.
AS: Did the feminist/political angle of the Con come from you or was it there to begin with?
JG: Jan Bosted and I both were in the first science fiction course offered at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and we were both feminists. So we started out with the two of us as the dominant forces at Janus. By the second issue, I was listed as Managing Editor, and in the third issue, Co-Editor. We pretty much drove the convention, though we were completely unaware that there were no other groups like us. We just thought that this was what we were interested in and so that's what we did.
The main push for WisCon came in September 1976, as a result of our experiences at the WorldCon in Kansas City—called MidAmericon (or Big Mac). It was the same year that Ford was a candidate for president. In fact, we were in the same hotel as the Republican convention. Susan Wood was a pivotal figure in feminist SF at the time. From 1970-1973 she co-edited a Hugo-winning fanzine, Energumen with Michael Glicksohn, and she was very strong in terms of promoting women in SF. I first ran into her when she was running a program at the '76 WorldCon on women in science fiction.
The WorldCon committee was very doubtful about her program, but because of her persistence they gave her a spot in the tiniest room at the end of a winding corridor that was almost impossible to find. I got there a little late, and by then it was standing room only. It was packed; I couldn't even get into the room. I had to stand on my tiptoes to see over the heads of the people in the doorway. I could barely hear what was going on.
What happened afterwards was that the panel flowed out into the conversation lounge just outside the program room—thirty or forty people for about three hours. In that time, Victoria Vayne signed us up for the first women's APA (Amateur Press Association).
In my first few issues of the APAzine ("Obsessions"), I made comments to the following people. I do not know how many of them were actually at Big Mac. Names are: Avedon Carol, Victoria Vayne, Susan Wood, Janice Bogstad, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, D. Potter, John Singer, Gina Clarke, Denys Howard, Janet Small, Ctein, Terry Garey, M. R. Hildebrand, Annelaurie Logan, Anna Vargo, Rebecca Lesses, Karen Pearlschtein, Lesleigh Luttrell, Eleanor Busby, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Candice Massey, Carolyn Thompson, Ann Weiser . . . plus quite a few people whom I addressed by only their first names.
Another pivotal event at Big Mac was the lunch/interview Janice Bogstad and I did with Suzy McKee Charnas and Amanda Bankier (editor of Witch and the Chameleon, the first feminist SF fanzine). Suzy later send us draft copies of Motherlines, which we reviewed in Janus.
We got all excited about doing our own convention at that point. We thought we would produce a convention where it wouldn't just be the one token "women in SF" panel. We would have a convention where that subject would be the focus of most of the programming. WorldCon had been the first convention for most Madstf members, and since it had multiple tracks of programming, that's how we organized the first WisCon, even though there were only 150 people at the first one.
AS: So did you do the first WisCon within a year of that WorldCon?
JG: Yes, February 11-13, 1977. The first three or four conventions were assisted financially by the University of Wisconsin. We were able to use the University's conference center, which is now the Pyle Center next to the Memorial Union. And we used the dorms to house people. Later we moved off campus into a series of hotels.
AS: Did you think SF would support a feminist convention or angle?
JG: SF and feminism are the perfect partners. I know whenever I told people that I liked feminist science fiction, the reaction was usually dismissive or confused, at least among people who weren't attending WisCon. When I was reading science fiction in the late '70s, it offered tools for changing the world. I'm just not much of a fan of tearing things down without knowing what you want to build in its place. I also think the methods of changing things should reflect what you're aiming at. On a personal and social level, I think the stages of making changes in your personal life or in society have to start with thinking about what's wrong now and where you would like to end up and what your goal is. I think SF as a tool works perfectly for that. I've never thought it was an artificial connection that puts SF and feminism together.
This was a very conscious thing, even from the very first WisCon. We were doing programs about how anthropology, physics, biology, medicine, and the experience of women in those fields connected with what women were writing in science fiction.
AS: WisCon 32 was this May. Over 30 years, have you noticed any changes in the overall type of writing that you would classify as feminist SF, and whether the audience has grown or shrunk?
JG: I have certainly noticed some trends. During the '70s with so many new women writers receiving major awards, Hugos and Nebulas, it was very "in" to be a feminist. It was the new thing, people were very excited about it, and people talked about it a lot. Then during the '80s, there was a backlash against feminism in general—"this is old news, this is selfish, women were selfish for thinking of themselves in this way"—and feminist SF.
The backlash against feminist SF was that it was "boring." That word was used over and over again, and there was a return to hard science fiction, mostly in the form of punk science fiction, which was often couched as a rejection of what was written in the '70s.
AS: A rejection of feminism itself, or of the writing style of the feminist writers?
JG: I think it was a rejection by the guys who felt they were not getting enough attention, and felt that they were not in the center of things. And that's quite reasonable to want the thing you're really excited about to be in the center. But I connect it a lot to Joanna Russ's book How to Supress Women's Writing. Russ, author of The Female Man, was one of the most outspoken authors to challenge sexism in the SF field, and was one of the leading feminist science fiction scholars and writers. There are, she pointed out, a lot of phrases that have been used against women's writing through history in ways that miss or cover up their accomplishments. And I could see it actually happening to the writers and writing that had meant so much to so many of us in the '70s.
AS: I would suspect that a lot of it comes down to "you've accomplished all this stuff, you don't need to do any more. Those problems are solved now."
JG: Yeah, exactly. The energy in the movement in the '80s was really flagging—both for feminists in general and WisCon in particular. It was disappointing to those of us who had found this discussion interesting and, more than that, important. The problems had not been solved and we were still interested in them. To be continually told that those things—and our roles—were over, was disturbing. I wrote an article called "An Open Letter to Joanna Russ" comparing what was going on to a lot of stuff that Russ had been talking about in mainstream literature. It created quite a stir and has been reprinted on the Internet several times.
The thing that began to move WisCon back towards its feminist roots was the Tiptree Award—an award for SF or fantasy that expands or explores understanding of gender. It was really quite exciting that we had formed this organization (the Tiptree Award) that allowed people to renew their excitement in the kind of fiction that encourages writers to consider cultural and personal relationships between people and the idea of gender as important subjects for speculation. And it pumped excitement back into WisCon.
In spite of the Tiptree Award, I believe that by WisCon 18 there was some question about whether WisCon would continue, and certainly whether it would continue as any kind of feminist convention. I would probably have predicted that the Tiptree would outlive a feminist WisCon at that point.
AS: How is the Tiptree Award tied to WisCon?
JG: At WisCon 15, in 1991, Pat Murphy was our guest of honor. She claims that she and Karen Joy Fowler had put this plan together to propose a prize, mostly as a way to provide an interesting subject for Pat's speech. It was also a reaction to the fact that all of the science fiction awards were named after men. So they named the Tiptree for a man who was actually a woman [i.e. James Tiptree, Jr., the pseudonym of Alice B. Sheldon]. It was announced at WisCon 15, and within a year we had raised one thousand dollars, mostly through bake sales and cookbooks, to fund the award for the next year. It returned to WisCon for several years.
This was WisCon 15 and, like I said, by WisCon 18 we weren't sure how long WisCon would last, but we wanted the Tiptree Award to continue. We thought the best thing to do was to encourage other conventions to invite us to have the awards ceremony at their convention. We had it at Potlatch in Oakland, ReaderCon in Boston, The International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA) in Fort Lauderdale, DiversiCon in Minneapolis, GaylaxiCon in Boston, and the 2003 Eastercon (SeaCon) in England. The idea was that we would create pockets of supporters for the award all over the world.
Now that WisCon seems to have achieved a critical mass, I'm not worried that if the people now running WisCon grow too old or find other things to do then the award would fade away. I think there are enough people committed to both the WisCon idea and the Tiptree Award. Neither the con nor the award is at risk of dying if the current administrators move on.
It was very hard to do the awards ceremony at other conventions. There is all this machinery that has to function. There's the auction, the ceremony, programming, and all the things that have to be there to make it happen. We will still have the award at other conventions, but it will probably mostly happen at WisCon from now on. Nevertheless WisCon is the Tiptree Award's supporter, not its owner.
AS: Have you noticed either a growing or shrinking of the readership of feminist SF?
JG: I have been told by the winners of the Tiptree Award that the visibility of the award and the support by WisCon has increased their readership and made their books more saleable to publishers. Personally, it feels to me that we've escaped the backlash era without having to start all over again. There are a lot of people still very enthusiastic, and I feel that this is going to continue. It's no longer just the next thing, or just the cool thing, but it's something that a lot of people think is important for the long term.
As for the fiction itself, in the late '70s and early '80s feminist SF was dominated by apocalyptic visions. If a writer wanted to alter the world or society, the easiest way to do it was to wipe the world out and start over again. There were a lot of stories that started with a disaster that allowed the characters to create a new community or society from scratch. And now you see much more fiction that doesn't require a clean slate in order to imagine new societies. Writers are more interested, I think, in how to get there from here, even in the author's lifetime. Which I find really exciting.
AS: There is still a lot of fiction about a new society that evolves because we've been hit by an asteroid or some other catastrophe and are forced to change.
JG: Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake is a post-apocalyptic world. Suzy Charnas's series The Holdfast Chronicles (Walk to the End of the World, Motherlines, The Furies, and The Conqueror's Child) envisions a post-apocalyptic world, too. Institutionalized sexism still exists in her world; in fact it is exaggerated. But with a limited population, she is able to consider the problem and create a new world in a way she could not if the whole pre-holocaust world had survived.
Kim Stanley Robinson's Science in the Capital trilogy (Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below, and Sixty Days and Counting) is about the potential disaster of global warming. 60 Days and Counting is actually a positive and hopeful attempt towards a utopia where people of our generation decide to scrap and entirely cannibalize the military budgets for their countries to combat the huge environmental problems in the same way the people in his Mars books terraform Mars to make it habitable for humans. I did not begin reading 60 Days and Counting expecting it would be positive. It is a speculative "how-to" book for getting from here to there.
AS: In the evolution of WisCon, there were, I assume, core feminism issues, but then there are a lot of gender issues—gay, lesbian, transgender issues. Was there any friction about what subjects to include and which to wait on? Was it always all-inclusive or was there a contingent who wanted to be careful and pick their battles?
JG: WisCon 2 elicited mixed reviews. The word "PervertCon" was applied to it—as an insult. But we did have programs about gay issues from the very beginning. I think as a person's politics grow more complex, you inevitably begin to see the links among your personal issues, your group's issues, and other allied groups' issues. This is what's happened to WisCon as an organism.
We've not only spun off the Tiptree Award, but also the Carl Brandon Award and Broad Universe. Now there's a new convention inspired by WisCon called ThinkGalactic. Potentially, there will also be a new award based on class issues. All of us feel that these issues are braided together and certainly people who come to WisCon are not interested in a single issue but are allied around common goals and ideas.
AS: You had talked about a backlash in the '80s; do you ever feel that there have been other backlashes? Anybody protesting outside the hotel or such?
JG: Even now a lot people assume that WisCon and the Tiptree Awards are for women only. Many of the Tiptree Awards have been given to men. I think those assumptions come from an anger and an ignorance about what goes on here. I was walking through the sixth floor hallway (the party floor) and heard two men talking. One guy asked the other, "What is this feminist stuff about?" and the other guy said, "The women are doing all the work." Most people love our hotel and its staff, but the need to clarify what we're about continues.
AS: One reason I ask that is that it seems like there was more security this year, more guys in the bright orange vests. I was wondering whether there had been an incident.
JG: We call them "safety," as opposed to security. The reason they are more visible this time is because for years we had them wear loud Hawaiian shirts . . . but the fashion caught on and people couldn't tell who was on the safety committee and who was just wearing a loud shirt. So they wore vests that more clearly identified them—but they've always been there.
We have the safety people to keep the hotel's security out of our program and party rooms. WisCon has the fewest security problems of any con you can imagine, in terms of either robbery or violence. Our only problem this year has been somebody had too much to drink up in the Governors' Club floors and stumbled into one of the reading rooms. And the safety people helped him up to his room—problem solved. The safety people are there because if the hotel gets a complaint we'd rather they contact us so we can deal with it. And there have been times when WisCon members really needed help quickly—mostly for medical problems. We want them to know where to go for help.
AS: Do you feel that SF reflects what a culture is willing to accept in gender roles, what's becoming a topic for polite conversation?
JG: Certainly, the more people read—and envision futures they hadn't considered before—the easier it is to deal with change. Whether those ideas are acceptable depends on where you are in the country, too. When I was a child, reading science fiction made me expect I would have all kinds of options, in terms of what to be in life. I imagine that for some fans, too, a growing body of fiction that is open about gender and expectations will make it easier for them to find and make choices, to come out as who they want to be.
AS: Have you noticed any kind of reflection of the political landscape at WisCon? Does the audience grow or shrink depending on which party is in power?
JG: Certainly the programming gets affected by current politics. The way we run programming is that if you have an idea for a program, even if you don't want to be on the panel, you can submit the idea. When there are large political events, they are reflected in the program items. Panels focusing on choice and abortion often follow current affairs. The Mideast wars and government attacks on civil liberties have both had a profound effect on WisCon panel discussions.
At other conventions, programming is often designed by a small group, a programming committee. And sometimes those people have great ideas, but if I had to design programming from WisCon 1 to 30, things would have gotten really boring. By staying open to input from all attendees, WisCon reflects current controversies and ideas, and gets us talking about things happening right now.
I haven't seen any change in attendance related to whoever is in power. The two elections that Bush won led to some very heated panels during those years. In fact there were some conservative fans attending the convention just before the last election who felt a little shocked that so many people were so angry about the political situation, and so open about it. But I think those conservative fans have come back. The conversation is fairly rational at WisCon; we've never excluded anybody from coming here for their politics.
One of the controversies of the last few years is how we talk about religion. There were some fairly critical panels that framed religion as a source of or contributor to various conflicts in the world. This led to some interesting discussions, but if people feel excluded or that other people are missing the point we end up having another panel to discuss it again or from a different angle.
AS: Is WisCon still the only feminist SF convention?
JG: In 2006 we changed our title from "the only" to the "the leading" because there is a small group of women in Smith College in Northampton, MA, near Boston. They call their convention ConBust and are primarily interested in media, but they are interested in expanding. Since they are associated with Smith College, they have a lot in common with WisCon, and we have given them some financial assistance. ThinkGalactic did their first convention in July 2007, and they have modeled parts of their convention on WisCon.
We really encourage more conventions like these because we're not planning on growing WisCon past one thousand attendees. We're filling the biggest hotel in Madison as it is, so membership is going to stay capped at that number.
AS: You mentioned that during the '80s you were having doubts about whether to continue. Can you think of any reason the membership was flagging?
JG: We had a big celebration at WisCon 10, where we brought back all our guests of honor. But by number 18, people from the convention committee were getting tired, and I pulled back, too. My philosophy has always been that the people who do the work should make the decisions. And since I had pulled back and wasn't doing as much work as I had, I couldn't demand that the people who were doing the work make the con the way I wanted it to be. WisCon became more of a general interest convention during the '80s. None of our guests of honor were sexist, but they weren't very involved or interested in feminist issues. In fact the focus of WisCon seemed to be gradually changing from science fiction to mystery.
But at WisCon 18 we realized it would be our twenty-year anniversary in just two years. At one of the parties I got talking to people and said we should make one final celebration of what we wanted WisCon to be. To do this we volunteered for positions at WisCon 19 so we could help make the decision on who the guest of honor would be at 20. That's how we do it: the people who work on the preceding convention get to pick the guest of honor for next year. I talked to Ursula Le Guin and found out she was interested in being guest of honor. That was the only year we didn't need to vote on the issue; she was elected by acclamation.
What happened was the group that had been working on the convention for the three or four previous years felt we were attacking them, and by volunteering for positions at 19 they thought we were trying to take the convention away from them. Many of the convention committee quit during the months preceding WisCon 19.
AS: But you did take it over. Well, maybe not take it over, but redirected it.
JG: We did. But the intention was not to take it over permanently, but just to do this WisCon 20 and let it go. But what happened at WisCon 20 was so great that it re-energized us and pushed us to a new level. We'd been attracting around five hundred people, and for 20 we got eight hundred, and membership climbed from there. In the decade between WisCon 20 and 30—you know how a group talks about an endowment, a certain amount of money to become self-sustaining—that's kind of what happened with WisCon, only in terms of people, not money. We had enough people interested in running things, and in attending, that it feels now as though it has become self-sustaining.
AS: Do other literary genres have feminist-centered conventions?
JG: I know some feminists who write romance. There are huge romance conventions, but I haven't heard of any that are any specifically feminist romance conventions.
JG: So where do you think feminism is now?
JG: I think it's at a really precarious point. We're under attack in a lot of ways. The younger generation of feminists is there, thank goodness, and they are working. But it's a scary time. I think especially with the administration and the Supreme Court on the verge of taking away abortion rights and many other civil rights in general—I don't know. . . . The word precarious keeps coming to mind; it could go either way.
AS: Are there some other battles that are going to have to be fought or re-fought, aside from abortion?
JG: The environment and the economy are also in precarious situations. It makes it dangerous to be a poor person, a woman, or a member of a minority. Whenever anything goes wrong, these groups feel the effect first. It's all bound together.
AS: I come from Oklahoma, and when I tell people I'm going to a feminist SF convention, it seems to create a reaction. Like you said, there is a language that is easily available for people who want to discredit or take away the accomplishments of women writers or of feminism itself. How do you combat that? In many ways the word "feminism" has almost become like the word "liberal"—loaded with all of this negative baggage. It almost forces people to come up with a different term. Do you ever consider that?
JG: I don't. Taking away a person's or group's name is a tactic that must be fought. When a group becomes powerful their name gets bad-mouthed. You have to claim the term and celebrate it and sing louder than the other people. This has come up a lot, this idea of post-feminism that assumes the problems that feminism concerns itself with have been overcome, that feminism is no longer needed as a word or a movement, which absolutely isn't true. I've heard of lots of women who don't want to call themselves feminist because of what they think other people think it means.
I believe I have to show people what it means by the way I live and the way I act. I'm not going to accept other people's assumptions or definitions. I also am not going to accept the idea that there is one definition, and that's one of the things I like about how the Tiptree Award defines gender-bending. It means different things through different times and to different panels of judges.
When I was a young girl, women characters who were astrogators or spaceship captains or knew math—that was all I needed to get really excited. Now you need a lot more to make meaningful comments about sexism and feminism and gender. Every panel of judges for the Tiptree Award gets to decide what their definition of "gender-bending fiction" is. We don't care if they come up with a different definition than the previous panel. To me feminism is like that. It depends on where you are in your life but its essence to me is that it supports keeping the maximum number of choices available to everyone. That's a pretty vague definition, but I will not be trapped by people who try to tell me that it means that you have to be rude or selfish, or support this candidate or that, or dress in a certain way, or think according to any canon.
If we took a different name and it became powerful, they'd try to take that away, too.
AS: So what about the future of WisCon?
JG: In the last couple of years we've had more people say they would like to chair WisCon than ever before. A young woman, Nora Jemisin, ran the writers' workshop for the first time, and a few weeks before the convention we were circulating the concom [conference committee] list, making sure we had spelled all the names right. And Nora said that she wasn't with the convention committee—and was surprised she was listed, because she hadn't been elected or anything. I told her that if you had to be elected to be on the convention committee, none of us would be here! It's all done by volunteers. We dropped film several years ago because no one was interested enough in it to volunteer to do it. The people who do the work define the work, just as the people who attend and participate as panelists help determine which panels are done.
I feel that there are enough people who have exciting ideas that WisCon will continue into the future, and that it will continue to be a strong convention. We no longer depend on a small group of people in danger of exhausting themselves.