It’s a voice I hardly remember not having heard: the writer in the edgy science-fiction anthologies, the voice cool as ice, the material borderline radical. How many times did I read “The Girl Who was Plugged In” (turned later into an episode of Paradox), whose plaintive cyborg “Delphi” predated Blade Runner by decades? Or the moment in “The Women Men Don’t See when the steely narrator tries to reassure a woman that she matters:
“Come on, why doomed? Didn’t they get that equal rights bill?”
Long hesitation. When she speaks again her voice is different.
“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—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.”
Now all this is delivered in a gray tone of total conviction. The last time I heard that tone, the speaker was explaining why he had to keep his file drawers full of dead pigeons.
“Oh, come on. You and your friends are the backbone of the system; if you quit, the country would come to a screeching halt before lunch.”
No answering smile.
“That’s fantasy.” Her voice is still quiet. “Women don’t work that way. We’re a—a toothless world.” She looks around as if she wanted to stop talking. “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.”
“Sounds like a guerrilla operation.”
Frankly, I was never the HUGEST fan of James Tiptree, Jr, despite the Hugos and Nebulas and the knowledge that it was a pseudonym for a woman writer. I was kept at a distance by that detached voice, the same one that long convinced famous male writers like Robert Silverberg that the mysterious writer couldn’t be female, “for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” I’d never thought to buy the 2005 biography by Julie Phillips – I confess i didn’t even go to the extent of reading about it.
If I had, I’d have known that I’ve been looking for her for a long time.
Not that she hasn’t already been in front of my face. In the 1945 manifesto from the American Veterans Committee mentions a “Captain Alice B. Davey, WAC, Armed Forces Advisory Committee” on its list of leaders. But it wasn’t till that hissy fit last week that I started trying to track down if she were someone worth writing about. The answer of course, was more than yes: Major Alice Bradley Davey Sheldon, who her mom called “Alli,” was more of a kindred spirit than I imagined.
I’d been looking for, as I said to friends, “a WAC vet with complex thoughts.” In Alli I also found a writer, a dreamer, a bisexual who described boot camp in her diary:
the long grey-green lines of women, for the first time in America, in the rain, under the flag, the sound of the band, far-off, close, then away again; the immortal fanny of our guide, leading on the right, moved and moving to the music—the flag again—first time I ever felt free enough to be proud of it; the band, our band, playing reveille that morning, with me on KP since 0430 hours, coming to the mess-hall porch to see it pass in the cold streets, under that flaming middle-western dawn; KP itself, and the conviction that one is going to die; the wild ducks flying over that day going to PT after a fifteen-mile drill, and me so moved I saluted them.
Of my characters from this war, she belongs more with John Huston, who withdrew to Mexico in 1980, than with Howard Zinn or William Kunstler or Philip Berrigan. Most of her stories only whispered their social critiques. But she lays it out pretty clearly in “The Women Men Don’t See,” a few exchanges after the one above:
“Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.”
“Do they?” Our eyes meet, but she seems to be seeing ghosts between us in the rain. She mutters something that could be “My Lai” and looks away. “All the endless wars …” Her voice is a whisper. “All the huge authoritarian organizations for doing unreal things. Men live to struggle against each other; we’re just part of the battlefield. It’ll never change unless you change the whole world.”
Alli, you were half right. Thanks for your muscular telling of the paradoxes you saw.
(Many thanks to Julie Phillips, for working so closely to bring her to the world. If I can convey 1/10 of what you have, I’ll consider myself lucky.)