Heinlein’s Women: Role Model Characters in the Heinlein Juveniles by D. A. Houdek
I’ve been running a Heinlein website since 1997. The most frequent question I’m asked by women and girls reading my site is, “Was Heinlein a sexist?”
Yes, I do believe he was, but not in a bad way.
I started reading Heinlein when I was eight or nine years old, at a time in the 1960s when it was still assumed that girls and women would play certain roles and take certain jobs—be secretaries, not engineers, study home economics, not calculus and physics. As a young girl reading the Heinlein juveniles, stories mainly about boys and young men and their adventures in space, I never felt excluded. I never felt that these stories couldn’t be about me, or that I could be the one having the adventures in space and on the frontier worlds. I took Heinlein’s views of women to heart—I took the math classes, did the farm work, roofed buildings, worked on my own car, went to college in engineering, where I was the only female in my engineering classes for two years. I went on to work in an area that, when I started, was almost entirely male-dominated. I credit my parents for never trying to stop me from doing anything I set out to do, and I credit what I got from Heinlein’s books, particularly the juveniles with their ingrained attitudes about the roles and abilities of women.
Behind those adventuresome boys in the juveniles are a wealth of women playing roles of strength. There are women pilots, numerous engineers, researchers, doctors, soldiers, explorers, and a description Heinlein uses frequently, whizzes in math. The women and girls in Heinlein’s books are always good in math, better than the men and boys—none are of the Barbie-math-is-hard type.
By nearly every boy main character is a female character who is stronger, smarter, and more skilled. The female characters don’t have to be the main character to have an impact, and a powerful one. I dare say that the female characters and attitudes portrayed in the Heinlein juveniles have a stronger impact on the reader for being in the background, for being presented in a “of course that’s the way it is” unquestioning sort of way.
And overt appearances can be deceiving. Some of the books that seem to be the most male-dominated actually have the best pro-female messages.
Rocket Ship Galileo (1947)
This is a book with an almost exclusively male cast of characters. The only females appear briefly at the beginning and are the mothers of the boys who set out to go to the moon in their experimental space ship. Yet what shining examples of Heinlein women these boys’ mothers are!
Art’s mother, Grace Cargraves Mueller, is presented as a woman who got her husband out of a Nazi concentration camp, then raised her son as a single mother since he was a baby. She then decides to let her son go ahead with their dangerous project.
Ross’s mother, Martha Jenkins, is the one who makes the decision to let him go to the moon while her husband is refusing. Martha sits quietly, crying as a mother might be expected to do when her son is being sent into immense danger, but she breaks into the discussion, making the decision that Ross should go to the moon, saying, “…this country was not built by people who were afraid to go. Ross’s great-great-grandfather crossed the mountains in a Conestoga wagon and homesteaded this place. He was nineteen, his bride was seventeen… I would hate to think that I had let the blood run thin.”
Space Cadet (1948)
Curiously, I place this as one of the best examples of Heinlein providing a strong role model or message on the strength of females. It’s curious because it’s easy to see this as a book that has no females in it. Space Cadet is about a male-dominated military society and military organization that appears to have absolutely no women in it at all. It’s the men who are the military, the scientists, the explorers. The story positively drips with machismo… that is, until, our bold young lads arrive on Venus.
On Venus, the young men in the story are stranded, stuck, and have to be rescued by the all-female indigenous race. The ruler of the Venerians is a female, as are all the scientists, and soldiers. Their males—never seen—are rumored to be small and helpless. This matriarchal race is, of course, far more advanced in science and technology than the patriarchal humans, something the stranded boys have a hard time recognizing at first, but the boys catch up and stand in awe of the females’ capabilities.
The role model characters don’t have to be human for the message to be valid and powerful.
Farmer In the Sky (1950)
This is a book about pioneers and farmers, subjects near to Heinlein’s heart and life experiences. His family came from pioneer stock over generations. He knew intimately the role and importance of women as vital elements in any pioneering endeavor, as well as their critical roles on farms.
An interesting aside came up in the panel discussion about Ginny Heinlein and this story—she was a knowledgeable horticulturist who provided Robert Heinlein with the technical information on creating soil and bringing a farm to life from bare rock, that makes this story so rich and believable.
Among the women in this story are:
Molly Kenyon Lermer, Bill’s step-mother, she was an engineering draftsman who became a farm pioneer. She’s resolute and courageous.
Peggy Kenyon, little girl who Bill grew to respect. Peggy exemplified the pioneering spirit of staying and going onward even in the face of death.
Captain Hattie, a cranky old woman, is the only space ship shuttle pilot on the planet of Ganymede.
Gretchen Schultz—“How could I talk to a girl who wasn’t a colonial… Take Gretchen, now—there was a girl who could kill a chicken and have it in the pot while an Earthside girl would still be squealing,” Bill says of her with admiration. Notice how Gretchen seemed always to be ahead of him in evaluating their relationship.
Between Planets (1951)
Don Harvey’s mother, Dr. Cynthia Harvey, is a planetologist/archaeologist “All civilized persons know of them and their work.” Also a key player in the cabal.
Isobel Costello—dominates Don totally
Little Buttercup (Venerian dragon)—integrating chemist
Madame Curie (Venerian dragon)
Again, the characters don’t need to be human to make a statement.
The Rolling Stones (1952)
This is indisputably the Heinlein juvenile with the greatest wealth of strong female characters.
Edith Stone, the boys’ mother, is a physician, and, though quiet, is the dominant decision-maker in the family. She’s fearless and cool.
Hazel Stone, their grandmother, had been an engineer at the Atomic Energy Commission. “I saw three big, hairy, male men promoted over my head and not one of them could do a partial integration without a pencil,” she said. Hazel was also a pilot, a revolutionary, and a writer. Hazel Stone was the quintessential character embodying the traits Robert Heinlein saw in his wife Ginny.
Meade Stone was the boys’ older sister. “She could get a job with Four Planets tomorrow if they weren’t so stuffy about hiring female pilots, ” Hazel said of her. And Meade is co-piloting the Rolling Stone in the last scene.
Starman Jones (1953)
Ellie Coburn, turns out to be a chess champion who was playing down so as not to crush the dumb male ego, “has it ever occurred to you, the world being what it is, that women sometimes prefer not to appear too bright.” Heinlein’s female characters frequently dominate the males, yet do it in a way that isn’t overt, that preserves the fragile male ego. At some point the men usually get over it and realize how much they like strong, confident, capable women.
Maggie Daigler was a soft society lady who “had put away her jewels, drawn dungarees from ship’s stores, and chopped off her hair. Her nails were short and usually black with grime.”
The Star Beast (1954)
What can I say… pretty much the theme of the whole book is about female domination of the dumber, weaker males.
Betty Sorensen, smarter than John Thomas Stuart, and dominates him completely.
Lummox turns out to be a female who rules her species and was the senior person in the, “raising” John Thomases project.
Tunnel In the Sky (1955)
A solid example of Heinlein’s view of the abilities and equality of men and women. Male and female high school student are on an equal par in the life/death survival test. The women survive better than the men, with the bulk of the stupidest fatal mistakes being done by the men. Among the many strong female characters in this story are:
Helen Walker, Rod’s sister, assault captain in the Amazons, an all-female military unit that sounds not at all dainty.
Jack (Jaqueline) Daudet, that Rod takes as male at first, clearly doing far better than Rod or Jim.
Caroline Mshiyeni, as tough as they come, smart, strong, confident, Captain of the Guard.
Add to the sound female role models and attitudes in this book, the bonus of a racially integrated cast where minority characters aren’t presented as anything other than characters. As well as Caroline Mshiyeni, the main character, Rod Walker, was black. Bear in mind, this book was written in 1955.
Time for the Stars (1956)
The heads of the entire research project into the twins’ telepathy are females, Dr. Arnault, with a degree in science, and Dr. Mabel Lichtenstein, “boss of the research team and world famous.”
Among the numerous important female characters on the ship, Janet Meers stands out. She’s a relativist/engineer who “was a lightning calculator. ” Again, Heinlein’s women characters are superior in their math skills.
Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)
Mother Shaum, business woman, ran a taproom, lodging house, and rescued Thorby, the male main character.
Dr. Margaret Mader, anthropologist, scientist
The Free Traders—all Chief Officers were women
Mata Kingsolver, (Free Trader), mathematician, computer operator, fire controlman
Starship Troopers (1959)
Starship Troopers is another of the “best” examples Heinlein’s positive female role models in the juvenile novels. While, like Space Cadet, it’s about manly men in a manly military, all the Navy spaceship pilots are female—they’re better at math. They also have the virtue over male pilots in that women pilots always come back to recover the men in their charge.
Podkayne of Mars (1963)
I’m a bit iffy on this book and the main character. Poddy may be a good role model for boys reading, but I think she’s less so for girls. In talking with numerous other female Heinlein fans at science fiction convention panels, this book is rarely selected as a favorite of woman readers, yet almost invariably selected by men as the Heinlein juvenile they think woman would most like. Women readers, myself included, tend to feel Heinlein fell short in this portrayal and that Podkayne is, frankly, a bit annoying. Nevertheless, there are many other strong female characters around her.
Poddy’s mother, “Master Engineer, Heavy Construction, Surface or Free Fall”—rebuilt the moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos
Girdie—who turns out to be tough and smart
Mrs. Grew—old cheery lady who turns out to be the primary villain, and one of the wickedest in Heinlein’s books.