“Some of the strongest women in SF are right here,” said Lee Martindale as she opened the “Strong Women in SF” panel on Saturday at 2:30PM in Hyatt Embassy A–B. The panelists did not disappoint. After brief introductions, each of the five women gave their definition of what constituted a strong female character. Elizabeth Moon prefers a character with what she termed agency—a woman who self-generates the plot and takes responsibility for her choices, even if those choices are not the best ones. Panelist Amy Herring, who writes as Louise Herring-Jones, identified strength of character as an essential trait and added that most women who are mothers are inherently strong because of their protective capacity.
Regarding physical strength, Esther Friesner noted that women can be strong without having to flex their biceps, a trope that has been overdone in the past. She prefers female characters who take action—not necessarily of the physical variety—changing themselves and the world for the better. With a nod of agreement, Martindale said, “men were men, and women were good screamers.” She also said that the best female characters she had ever read were written by Moon. The audience gave a cheer of approval.
When asked how she came up with her Heris Serrano character, Moon said that she wanted to write a rollicking space opera to escape the grief of her mother’s passing. At the time, Moon thought it was a shame she couldn’t write a tale with horses and spaceships. Her friends asked her why not, and she decided to go for it. Moon feels that Serrano takes the easy route as long as possible and so isn’t necessarily her strongest female character.
Panelists listed the strongest female character from their own fiction. Herring chose her nurse [Harriet Knorr] in her short story “Moundville Revisted” from the anthology Ruins Excavation, because she shows “grace under fire” while dealing with racism in the South in 1906. Friesner went with her Himiko heroine from Spirit’s Princess, who endures untold difficulties yet surmounts all obstacles to become the ruler of her people. Kelley Swilley Ceccato, who writes as Nan Monroe, chose Nichtel, her outcast rat-shifter, because she has the strength to be her true self.
They also discussed favorite heroines from other writers’ works. The list included Snake from Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, Jane from Faith Hunter’s Jane Yellowrock series, Kivrin in Connie Willis’s Doomsday Book, Priscilla Hutchins from Jack McDevitt’s Academy series, Tiffany Aching from Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, Karin Murphy from Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, and Cordelia Vorkosigan from Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vokosigan Saga series.
Moon said we need more strong women in science fiction “because that’s the reality of life.” Friesner noted that boys had plenty of role models when she was young, and she always wanted to play those parts. As a child, Moon’s friends often told her, “You can’t always be Robin Hood.” Herring proposed the need for more overall diversity in characters. She’d love to see Denzel Washington or Idris Elba as the new James Bond. Friesner pointed out Marvel Comic’s new Thor and Loki are both female. “Femininity is a socially-defined concept,” Moon added. It’s wrong to think that a strong woman must be an anti-woman, the opposite of femininity.
The panel wrapped up with a list of some additional books that feature strong female characters: Soulless series by Gail Carriger, The Color of Distance by Amy Thomson, Sunshine and Deerskin, by Robin McKinley, The Native Tongue Trilogy by Suzette Hayden Elgin, and anything by Kate Elliot.