Young People Read Old SFF

The Women Men Don't See

James Tiptree, Jr.

Young People Read Old SFF

12 Oct, 2017

As previously noted, James Tiptree, Jr. — Alice Sheldon — was one of the more remarkable voices in disco-era science fiction. When I solicited suggestions for Phase Two of Young People Read Old SFF, a number of older readers suggested Tiptree in general and the Nebula-nominated1 story The Women Men Don’t See” in particular.

I have no idea how my readers will react to this story but I am sure they will react. Few people are ever neutral to Tiptree’s prose. But I’ve been sure and wrong before, so let’s see what they thought.

1:“Women” didn’t lose but it also did not win. It was withdrawn by Tiptree. 

As a disclaimer, this story was recommended by a friend as a good (one of the best even) Tiptree stories, but I hadn’t read it yet.

It was odd to read of the Quintana Roo area being empty, flat and barren. I went to a resort there a few years ago, and the whole coast seems filled with resorts, buses and tourists.

This story involved lots of looking up terms, and I wished I was more familiar with the Spanish language and the Mexican culture.

Overall, I’m not exactly sure if I liked this story, but it did make me ponder, so that’s a positive.

Most of my experience with feminism is one of struggling and fighting, so this story of quiet feminism is unusual to me. I like this story for expressing what it feels like not to be noticed, to be so unassuming that people have a hard time noticing you’re there. This reminds me of much of my childhood and teenage years when I blended into background with baggy clothes and shy, awkward body language.

As an adult, I haven’t cared about standing out — that is, I don’t shy away from demonstrating who I am. I have gradually gone from being a girl that men don’t see to a woman that men do see, which feels very strange. I’m always suspicious of people who pay attention to me based on what can only be my appearance and shallow first impression. Sometimes I wish I was a woman that men don’t see — it gives you a kind of unique freedom to do whatever you want when no one is watching you.

I suppose that’s the point of this story. Having an elevated status in men’s eyes may have its advantages, but it can be awfully constricting. But having little to no status in men’s eyes means living quietly in the liminal areas of society. Damned if you are, damned if you aren’t.

And also: aliens. Aliens as strange to the narrator as these unassuming women. It was fitting.


This was weird and slow and racist. Also sexist. The whole thing was uninteresting in general, the pacing was glacial, and the main character was a maddeningly horrible person who can seemingly only thnk about sex and whose first thought upon meeting aliens was to attack them and steal their stuff.

I’m still lost as to whether Parsons was some kind of spy. I guess the narrator was one, on his way to help install a more business friendly government somewhere in Central America.

I didn’t enjoy this story. I got the subtext of women live in an alien world ruled by men who are the only reason bad things happen, and that could make for a good and thought provoking story. This was not that story.


The Women Men Don't See started out with the same feeling as the last Tiptree story we read. A story told from the perspective of a man, on a Mexican fishing vacation, his internal monologue running with sexist and racist commentary that, as a modern and enlightened fellow, he doesn't feel the need to share with the other characters in the story.

The story reads a little dreamlike, which makes it hard to follow at times. I've understood that the plane has crashed and the four passengers are trying to survive. But what happens after the initial crash landing turns into a blur.

This story has many of the same elements as the last Tiptree story we read. A guy who seems to think he knows best, a woman who surprises him and is much more open-minded, and a gun held by the male protagonist that causes more problems than it solves, given the circumstances. All this told in a tone that feels a bit over the top. It feels like Tiptree doesn't give the men in her stories enough credit.

As I was reading the story, I admit, I started skimming. I thought that maybe the tone was appropriate in the 1970s, when everyone had more old-fashioned ideas about gender and what women were capable of, but that to the modern reader, the tone and the narrator's opinions just seemed dated. And then I read this paragraph:

"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."

And then I thought about some of the things happening in the world in 2017. And I proceeded to appreciate the rest of the story.


I feel like I need to start off this review by saying that I know who Tiptree is.

That said, I am definitely not the target audience for this. I have absolutely zero wish to spend that many words in the head of a racist misogynist who is constantly startled that women are as or more competent than he is. I can definitely understand running away with aliens to get away from him.

I encounter men like this just by existing in the world. I am really not interested in their internal monologue while they come to grips with the idea that women are people and can cope without them. I don’t need to listen to a guy consider how he isn’t at all a threat while also considering raping a woman (he never considers her consent for a second). I can acknowledge that this story is a part of a discussion about gender roles and how they are viewed, which comes from a particular time in feminist history, while still saying that this is absolutely not for me.