Formidable Foresight in Suffragist SF

This is an outline of my talk from the SFRA Conference in June 2017 hosted by the University of California, Riverside.

Formidable Foresight in Suffragist SF: Olive Schreiner’s “Three Dreams in a Desert” and Alice Fuller’s “A Wife Manufactured to Order”

In the current moment, science fiction has returned to mainstream political relevance. “A Wife Manufactured to Order” and “Three Dreams in the Desert” are nineteenth-century stories by women that flesh out the textual origins of politically-engaged SF. These examples of suffragist speculative fiction critique gender inequality from the standpoint of New Women in the Victorian world. Published in magazines and leaflets, these stories were marketed to a broad, progressive readership.

“A Wife Manufactured to Order” by Alice Fuller was published in The Arena in 1895. The Arena was a liberal magazine that investigated social problems like child labor, poor working and living conditions in American cities and presented essays and creative works that engaged social reform. In “A Wife Manufactured to Order” the dapper male protagonist must confront his own sexism and emotional needs after purchasing a beautiful gynoid (female robot) who fails to satisfy him.

“Three Dreams in the Desert” by Olive Schreiner was first published in the Woman Suffrage Leaflet 1889 and then as a longer stand-alone short story, “Three Dreams in the Desert under a Mimosa-Tree” by a Boston printer in 1897. The Women Suffrage Leaflet was a publication of the American Women’s Suffrage Association located in Boston. Schreiner, a writer from South Africa, was read broadly by progressive women in America. “Three Dreams in the Desert,” set in Africa, is a sweeping fantasy of the many ages of humankind that ends in a promise of gender equality and harmony “in the future.”

What can these stories tell us? What do they do?

• Use speculation to tell the uncomfortable truth

• Make demands of their contemporary society

• Speak to both male and female audiences

Why are they still important now?

• Expand our backward understanding of SF

• Re-situate the argument in history that SF is a political genre

• Voice demands that are still relevant in 2017

What can be done with them?

• Republish with critical notes

• Incorporate into university syllabi

• Use in critical recovery monographs on nineteenth-century women’s SF

Bibliography of Texts under Discussion

Fuller, Alice W. “A Wife Manufactured to Order.” The Arena, vol. 13, July 1895, pp. 305-312.

Schreiner, Olive. “Three Dreams in a Desert.” Women’s Suffrage Leaflet, vol. II, no. 27, September 1889, pp. 1-3.

These texts and many more like them are available from this online annotated reading list:

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