How Fantasy Made Me a Feminist
This is a guest post from Margaret Kingsbury. Margaret’s short stories and poems have appeared in Devilfish Review, Pulp Literature, Nonbinary Review, and Expanded Horizons. She and her saxophone-playing husband live in Nashville, TN where Margaret teaches college English as an adjunct and works at a used bookstore. Her pets are her books. You can follow her on Twitter @MargaretKWrites and she blogs at margaretkingsbury.com.
Little Margaret cut her adult-reading teeth on Cruel and Unusual by Patricia Cornwell and Cujo by Stephen King – in fifth grade. Odd choices? Well, my favorites as a ‘child’ had been Goosebumps and Fear Street, so it seemed like a natural first choice to read adult horror and thrillers, Mom’s favorite books. But however my childhood tastes ran, Cujo gave me nightmares, and I didn’t understand Cruel and Unusual. I ransacked Mom’s bookshelves for more options, but her true crime books and Peter Straub collection did nothing to assuage my reading thirst, and instead frightened the socks off me.
Where to turn? What to read next? The Babysitter’s Club just wouldn’t do anymore.
So I wandered over to Dad’s bookshelf, and it’s there I discovered one of many reading passions. Fantasy. And not just any fantasy – feminist fantasy. (Great thanks to all the feminist parents out there.)
First up was By the Sword by Mercedes Lackey – Dad’s absolute favorite novel. In By the Sword, I read about two badass feminist warriors armed with magic and a sword that seeks to right women’s wrongs. Having grown up listening and reading King Arthur tales, these were exactly the kind of knights I was looking for – Might for Women’s Rights! I quickly tore through all of Dad’s Valdemar novels, then bought all the missing ones I could find from the used bookstore near my grandparents’ house. While not the subtlest of series, the Valdemar novels stoked a righteous rage against patriarchy in me.
I needed more.
Book covers helped me discover more feminist fantasy. I searched the fantasy sections of bookstores seeking women on the covers, though avoiding the scantily clad variety (I turned to my oldest sister’s and grandmother’s bookshelves to learn about sex, but that’s a story for another day). Book covers led me to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover novels. While some pretty devastating stuff has come out about MZB in the last few years, her novels, despite her lifestyle, are decidedly feminist. I would eventually discover The Mists of Avalon – her feminist Arthurian legend novel – but I began with The Saga of the Renunciates. The Renunciates are a band of female Amazons on the planet Darkover. Freed from the chains of patriarchy, they support themselves through trade and by developing their own skills. This trilogy shows different types of patriarchal societies – the obviously abusive Dry Towns, the passive ‘we protect women’ Darkover, and the supposedly equal Terra. It taught me the nuances of patriarchy and sexual repression, and I soon devoured the entire series.
Honestly, I probably would’ve become a feminist anyway. Around the same time, Mom introduced me to Jane Eyre and Rebecca, which, unlike her horror and true crime books, enraptured me. I fell deeply and madly in love with those novels, rereading both many times throughout my life (in addition to other novels by Charlotte Brontë and Daphne du Maurier). In a family of feminists, becoming one would’ve been a hard thing to avoid, but it’s through fantasy that I felt the first stirrings.
Warriors and magicians and lovers, Amazons and space travelers and survivors, these fantasy women were my first feminist heroes.
What books inspired you to become a feminist?