Pulp Fiction: Feminism in retro literature | campus.sg

Before there were paperbacks, pulp fiction were the primary source of reading material for the working classes in the USA from the 1900s to the 1960s. ‘Pulp’ was the cheap wood pulp paper they were printed on, and stories were usually sensational, lurid, or lowbrow. At their peak, they could sell up to a million copies. 

Pulps often sport colourful covers worthy of framing, and genres included everything from sci-fi to superheroes. Because pulps were often seen as inferior literature, they weren’t really censored, so stories often addressed what at the time were deviant topics like murder and sex.

These juicy stories were a guilty pleasure, and female characters often represented the women of their time: they were either dames or virgins, forced to fulfill the perfect role of housewife-mother, and punished for being sexual or daring. While that was the status quo of the era, female writers took to pulp fiction to subvert the culture. 

The beginning of feminism

Fiction proved to be a great outlet for female writers to depict women as anything other than weak damsels or domestic beings, most of them written way ahead of their time.

During the 30s America suffered from the Great Depression, and Faith Baldwin’s Skyscraper (1931) tapped into male anxieties about women taking away jobs. In it, Lynn, a successful young woman in banking, meets Tom and they both want to get married, but in doing so, she could be fired from her job. It’s a classic love vs. career dilemma women still face today.

A popular genre during this era was noir, or crime. Typical male-written crime novels often featured hard-boiled male detectives saving overly-fragile dames, but Dorothy Hughes’ In a Lonely Place (1947), upturns all these conventions with her uncanny grasp of the connection between violence and misogyny.

In the story, Dix Steele is a jobless, ex-WWII fighter pilot. Hoping to recapture that feeling of power once again, he murders women, whose penetrating gazes threaten his masculinity. While he manages to evade authorities, he is eventually outsmarted by two women – his best friend’s demure wife Sylvia and his “bitchy” neighbour Laurel. Unlike other books of their kind, this one doesn’t blame his female victims for being too sexual.

Sci Fi Feminism

Perhaps no better genre of fiction lets writers explore ideas of feminism better than sci-fi, where imaginary worlds allow them to construct their own ideals. 

Leslie Stone’s The Conquest of Gola (1931) is about a matriarchal society of brilliant females who are perfectly capable of defending their land from a contingent of Earth men, while in C.L. Moore’s Shambleau (1933), the main character Northwest Smith is an intergalactic smuggler who becomes a female alien’s object of sexual desire, and has to be rescued from her clutches. The book explores the root cause of sexism and misogyny as a fear of female sexuality and empowerment.

Ursula Le Guin’s visionary The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), set on a planet of ambisexual beings who alternate between male and female, is sci-fi’s most famous examination of gender roles and identities, as seen through the lens of an Earth man.

Exploring gender identity

In the 1950s, pulp began to embrace lesbian fiction thanks to the successes of Women’s Barracks by Tereska Torres (1950), a “frank autobiography of a French girl soldier”, and Spring Fire (1952) by Vin Packer, a story about a college freshman and her sorority sister.

Up until this point, most lesbian pulp were written by men for the titillation of other men, painting lesbianism as an “illness” that ends in death or insanity; some women were “saved” by men who helped them realise they were heterosexual all along. In fact, the laws at the time only permitted the publishing of lesbian pulp if they contained those endings.

Female writers brought authenticity to this taboo topic, bucking the trend. Claire Morgan’s The Price of Salt (1952) is a story of two women whose mutual attraction led them both to reject the men in their lives. The Girls in 3-B (1959) by Valerie Taylor focuses on three working girls who rebel against domesticity, tackling sexual assault, workplace sexism, and unwanted pregnancies; one of them finds happiness with another woman.

The end of an era

The pulp era brought about the golden ages of detective fiction, science fiction, and lesbian fiction – and sowed the seeds for feminism. While the women in the stories may seem tame by today’s standards, one has to take into account the societal perceptions of being a woman back in the day. The books were written way ahead of their time, and paved the way for the modern feminist literature we have today.

For more articles on gender, check out Issue 65 here.

by Nina Gan