Friday Fun: Women's History Month- James Tiptree Jr.
Happy Friday Readers and welcome to the end of the week! Today we are continuing with our jaunt into literary history by highlighting another famous lady author who may or may not have heard of. James Tiptree Jr was a marvel of the science fiction community for the roughly twenty year span of their career. They won Nebulas, Hugo, and even the World Fantasy Award in 1987. And they spent the first decade of their career keeping their identity a secret.
James Tiptree Jr.- International Woman of Sci-Fi
Alice B. Sheldon, born Alice Hastings Bradley, heralded from an intellectual family in Hyde Park enclave, a university neighborhood in Chicago during the early 1900s. Her father was a lawyer and a naturalist and her mother was an author who wrote fiction and travel books. The upside was Alice spent her informative years traveling, visiting Africa for the first time when she was about six or seven.
Alice soon left home to attend school, attending the experimental Laboratory Schools at the University of Chicago at age 10 and then onto boarding school and finishing school. Alice's mother encouraged her to get a career but also to get married and settle down. At 19, Alice did just that, eloping with a man named Willian Davey and dropping out of Sarah Lawrence College since the institute did not allow married women to attend. Unfortunately, Bill was an alcoholic and irresponsible with money, and Alice discovered she did not like keeping house. The couple divorced six years later in 1940.
After her divorce, Alice joined the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps as a supply officer. By 1942 she fully joined the armed forces in the United States Army Air Force as part of the photo intelligence group, where she became an expert in reading aerial photo intelligence and worked her way up to the rank of Major. In 1945, near the end of the war, she met her second husband, Huntington Sheldon, aka Ting. In 1946, after she was discharged from the Army, Alice started a business venture with her husband and finally, got down to the business of writing, publishing her first story 'The Lucky Ones' in the New Yorker under her maiden name Alice Bradley.
In the early fifties Alice and her husband were invited to join the CIA, but the life of a career operative was not for Alice and she left the CIA by 1955 to return to college and pursue a doctorate in experimental psychology.
It was during this time that Alice began to write numerous science fiction short stories. In order to protect her academic reputation, she created the pen name of James Tiptree Jr.
The Tiptree name famously came from a branded jar of marmalade, the 'Jr.' bit was her husband's idea, and the male pseudonym was all Alice's idea, as a male name 'seemed like good camouflage'. Alice published under the name for a solid decade, garnering praise and a solid fan base between reader and author alike for her style and themes. Many of Tiptree's contemporaries were adamant Alice was a 'male author' and the pseudonym worked successfully because everyone knew it to be one and had no cause to dig. Alice herself made no public appearances for anyone to guess the wiser but she did correspond with a great deal of her fans. In 1977 one of those fan letters tipped off the reader that James Tiptree Jr was actually a woman, where Alice slipped in details of her mother's life.
The revelation of her real identity did little to impact her professional career at that point, though it embarrassed a few of her contemporaries who were so adamant about her gender, and Alice continued to use the pseudonym until her death in 1987.
In May of 1987, after years struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, and the increasing ailments of age, Alice and her husband committed a suicide pact, unwilling to wait for the ravages of age to rob them of choice. She shot her husband, called the police, and then shot herself. Police and paramedics arrived on the scene to find the two in bed, still holding hands.
As James Tiptree Jr, Alice left behind a legacy of rich story telling, combining the grittiness of hard science fiction with the cerebral exploration of soft science fiction. She produced some of most start feminist dystopian fiction of her era and explored the tension between free will and biological determination, reason vs sexual desire. Despite her relationship with her husband, Alice professed to having a complicated sexuality.
"I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything, it was always girls and women who lit me up."
Alice wrote about sex in frank tones, sometimes playful, but often as threatening force. She wrote incredibly dimensional characters in her short stories and novellas, not producing a full length novel until much later in her career.
Resources & Further Reading