– by Chris Lombardi

It’s a voice I hardly remember not having heard: the writer in the edgy science-fiction anthologies, the voice cool as ice, the material borderline radical. Not a writer I much liked at first, but the stories stayed with me: “The Girl Who was Plugged In” (turned later into an episode of Paradox), whose plaintive cyborg “Delphi” predated Blade Runner; “The Women Men Don’t See,” one of whom asks the alien invaders to take her away when they come, rather than leave her on Earth.

When I read those stories the first time, I was young – and didn’t at first hear the echoes not only of a woman but one who’d been around the block a few times. If I had, I would not have been as confused about James Tiptree, Jr. as famous male writers like Robert Silverberg were. Silverberg wrote in the 1970’s that the mysterious writer couldn’t be female, “for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”

Look closely at this bit of the latter story, and see if you hear those echoes.

“Come on, why doomed? Didn’t they get that equal rights bill?”

Long hesitation. When she speaks again her voice is different.
“Women have no rights, Don, except what men allow us. Men are more aggressive and powerful, and they run the world. When the next real crisis upsets them, our so-called rights will vanish like—like that smoke. We’ll be back where we always were: property. And whatever has gone wrong will be blamed on our freedom, like the fall of Rome was. You’ll see.”

Now all this is delivered in a gray tone of total conviction. The last time I heard that tone, the speaker was explaining why he had to keep his file drawers full of dead pigeons.
“Oh, come on. You and your friends are the backbone of the system; if you quit, the country would come to a screeching halt before lunch.”

No answering smile.
“That’s fantasy.” Her voice is still quiet. “Women don’t work that way. We’re a—a toothless world.” She looks around as if she wanted to stop talking. “What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.

“Sounds like a guerrilla operation.”

TiptreebookcoverIn truth, the “guerrilla operation” was her life – the life of Major Alice Bradley Davey Sheldon, who her mom called “Alli,” and the subject of a 2005 biography by Julie Phillips, “James Tipree, Jr: The Double Life of Alice B.  Sheldon.”

By “double,” Phillips is speaking of Sheldon’s 22-year career as the mystery figure of the science-fiction genre, in which “he” won Huge and Nebula awards by the bushelful before being “outed” by someone who finally tracked down the 61-year-old retired WAC officer living in Virginia.

But where Phillips sees double, I see triple: a woman who re-invented herself at least three times, each time remaining a step ahead of the country she loved.

The first time, it was by impulsively marrying at 18 a man she met at her debut, William Davey, leaving behind her rich and famous parents–lawyer Herbert Bradley and author Mary Hastings Bradley — who had taken her to Africa In 1921. The New York Times called a pigtailed seven-year-old Alli  “the First White Child Ever Seen by the Pigmy Tribes.”

I caught up with her after her second reinvention, in 1943, when she joined the Women’s Army Corps.

Not at the time, of course: but this year, as I was doing research for an unrelated book project, I  found references to “Captain Alice B. Davey, WAC, Armed Forces Advisory Committee.”  Her unfortunate early marriage over, Davey was off to basic training in Fort Des Moines, Iowa — where, she wrote in her diary, boot camp felt like poetry:

the long grey-green lines of women, for the first time in America, in the rain, under the flag, the sound of the band, far-off, close, then away again; the immortal fanny of our guide, leading on the right, moved and moving to the music—the flag again—first time I ever felt free enough to be proud of it; the band, our band, playing reveille that morning, with me on KP since 0430 hours, coming to the mess-hall porch to see it pass in the cold streets, under that flaming middle-western dawn; KP itself, and the conviction that one is going to die; the wild ducks flying over that day going to PT after a fifteen-mile drill, and me so moved I saluted them.

She remarried in the army, after meeting Col. Huntingdon “Ting” Sheldon in Europe. A dear friend of mine, when I told her I’d learned that Tiptree/Sheldon was a WAC, thought I meant the 1990’s feminist Women’s Action Coalition, which was not as far off as she thought.

Sheldon really thought that by pulling their weight in fighting against Hitler, women were going to get closer to equality — more so, at least, than the jeers she had received before the war ended. Phillips describes men howling at the more than 13,000 women applying at recruiting stations: “Are you one of them Wackies?”

But not enough changed, not even for Sheldon as a writer. She got one extraordinary short story, “The Lucky Ones,” published in the New Yorker under her name. Then she disappeared for over 20 years — until reappearing in 1969 as James Tiptree.

“James’s” stories won every award possible in the genre, which then as now appealed mostly to men aged 15-30. Would the editors have even looked at them, if they’d known the author was a 54-year-old woman? She knew better, and so do we.

In interviews about the book, Phillips said she “fell in love” after reading a few of Alli’s letters. As a woman approaching 50 and just now feeling at all affirmed as a writer, I feel the same way. Tiptree’s stories may only whisper their social critiques. But we hear it pretty loudly in “The Women Men Don’t See,” a few exchanges after the one above:

“Men and women aren’t different species, Ruth. Women do everything men do.”

“Do they?” Our eyes meet, but she seems to be seeing ghosts between us in the rain. She mutters something that could be “My Lai” and looks away. “All the endless wars …” Her voice is a whisper. “All the huge authoritarian organizations for doing unreal things. Men live to struggle against each other; we’re just part of the battlefield. It’ll never change unless you change the whole world.”

Alli, you were half right. Thanks for your muscular telling of the paradoxes you saw. And many thanks to Phillips, for working so closely to bring her to the world.

Join the conversation

  • Women's Voices For Change December 26, 2008 at 4:33 pm

    Julia – The circumstance of her death are so hard, they deserve another post: one about aging, and depression, and love. Was I being dishonest not mentioning it here?

    Reply
  • Julia Kay December 26, 2008 at 4:25 pm

    Thanks again for bringing the multi-faceted life of Tiptree to our attention. Is she still alive, is she still writing?

    Reply