Yeah, I’m really sorry that this article is so late that it is only coming out after Women’s History Month is already over. March was admittedly busy, but these ladies did not deserve my tardiness and I apologize.
But it is very important to highlight and show the many innovations that women have brought to geek culture, from the literal invention of science fiction to redefining how we see the world.
So, today we’re looking at the influences of some of the greatest women (both real and fictitious) involved in geek culture. These are geeks of Women’s History Month.
The Women of Science and Science Fiction
First up we have the woman who literally invented science fiction: Mary Shelley. During her life, she was often overshadowed by her poet husband, Percy, but it is her work on the gothic novel Frankenstein that has made her famous.
Just in case anyone doesn’t know, Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus is the story of a scientist named Victor Frankenstein who uses electricity to animate and give life to a dead body. Horrified at his creation, Frankenstein flees, forcing the Creature to take care of itself in a world that hates and reviles him.
The story came about during a competition between Mary Shelley, her husband and his friends (including the legendary Lord Byron) to see who could create the best horror story. Not only did she win, but Mary created a new genre that blended the fantastic with real-life science (shortly before she wrote Frankenstein, scientists had discovered that sending electrical signals through a dead body would make it twitch). Not only that, but it is still one of the most famous books in English and a staple of Gothic, Horror, and Science Fiction genres.
One final fun fact: her mother (who died shortly after giving birth to her), a woman named Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote one of the first feminist pieces of literature in the English language.
We already mentioned her in our article on Black History Month, but she more than deserves to be mentioned again.
Best known for her portrayal of Lt. Uhura on Star Trek: The Original Series, Nichelle Nichols was also hugely influential in the space program at NASA. After Star Trek was canceled, Nichelle helped NASA with their efforts to recruit minorities and women.
And it was hugely successful!
Among many others, she recruited Sally Ride, the first female American astronaut, and USAF Colonel Guion Bluford, the first African-American astronaut.
Listen, Sally Ride is awesome. She was the third woman overall but the first American woman in space, at the time also the youngest astronaut, and an accomplished physicist and overall badass.
Recruited in 1977, she became the first American woman in space by going up in the Challenger Space Shuttle on June 18th, 1983 in a mission to deploy two communications satellites. She went on another flight in 1984, but by that point, she was already an international star and had accumulated a total of 343 hours in space. Her third scheduled mission was canceled after the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986.
After the disaster, Sally Ride took a job at Stanford University then later as a professor of physics at the University of California, San Diego. She may have turned down two offers to become a NASA administrator, but she always stayed involved in space exploration, becoming the director of the California Space Institute.
The big thing though, is what she inspired. She inspired every little girl out there to dream for the stars, and the equality experienced by women like Nichelle Nichols in Star Trek seemed like it could be a reality with Sally Ride.
She died in 2012 from cancer in her home in La Jolla, California. Her last will and testament recognized Tam O’Shaughnessy as her partner of 27 years, making her not only the first woman but also the first known LGBTQ individual to go to space.
Ride, Sally Ride.
Carrie Fisher—From Princess to General
In 1977, the world was introduced to a low-budget homage to Akira Kurosawa films, Westerns, and the serial movies of the 40s and 50s. That movie was Star Wars and it remains one of the most financially successful movies of all time.
It also featured the young Carrie Fisher, the daughter of Hollywood big-shots, who played a space princess. But she was different from the fairy tales and the swashbuckling adventures that inspired George Lucas. While strikingly beautiful and definitely in need of saving, she at one point grabs a gun to shoot at the bad guys while doing more to help the rescuers escape than they did.
I know, I know. You guys are already very familiar with Princess Leia. Her hair is one of the most iconic looks in movie history, and her story as the daughter of Darth Vader who goes on to become the staunchest enemy of the Galactic Empire is inspiring.
Now, whatever you think of the Sequel Trilogy, you have to admit that it was pretty awesome to learn that Leia never stopped fighting against tyranny in the galaxy, going on to found and lead the Resistance against the First Order. I’m a little disappointed that she was the only one to keep up the fight, but that’s an old discussion now that doesn’t bear repeating.
Sadly her onscreen struggles varied from the very real ones she had in life. Carrie Fisher struggled with bipolar disorder, and in an attempt to self-medicate became addicted to drugs. She spoke candidly about her struggles and became an advocate not only for mental health and addiction but also for women’s and animal rights, LGBTQ rights, and AIDS research.
She died from cardiac arrest in 2016.
Carol Shaw, Dona Bailey, and Roberta Williams
These three women are the female pioneers of the videogame industry.
First up is Carol Shaw, who worked for Atari from 1978 to 1980 and Activision from 1980 to 1984. Six years later, she retired. What allowed her to retire so early was her development of River Raid, published by Activision in 1982 for the Atari 2600 game console. The scrolling shooter was very successful and garnered Shaw several awards.
Next, we have Dona Bailey, who joined Atari in 1980 (she and Carol Shaw never met) and was the creator of one of Atari’s most popular games ever: Centipede. Centipede was a groundbreaking coin-op arcade game that, in addition to its unique color palette, also had a large female player base—something almost unheard of at the time.
Finally, we have one of the most famous and influential videogame designers of all time: Roberta Williams. Together with her husband Ken, she co-founded the videogame company Sierra On-Line in 1979 (later Sierra Entertainment). She was the writer of several graphic adventure games, but also went on to create the King’s Quest series in 1984 and Phantasmagoria in 1995. After leaving the videogame industry in 1999, she continued to write and has written several novels. She also announced a possible return to creating video games in 2021 with a game called The Secret.
All of these women were pioneers in the videogame industry but were also the object of ridicule and sexism at the time. Misogyny was a large contributing factor in forcing all of them to leave game design, but I think that history has shown just how competent and brilliant they really were.
We now get to another icon in women’s roles Geekdom. We all know her best by watching both her and her onscreen character, Hermione Granger, grow up in the Harry Potter movies.
Even as a young actress, Emma Watson stole every scene she was in and was the idol of every little girl who ever watched the movies. And how couldn’t she be? Hermione was the brains of the operation and was the great logical, no-nonsense foil to the boys. And let’s not forget the beautiful punch she gave to Draco Malfoy. Perfect!
Her portrayal of Hermione was magnetic, and in her post-Harry Potter career, she continued to do a lot of work in film and tv, most popularly with her portrayal of Belle in the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast.
But perhaps her biggest achievement has been away from the silver screen. Emma Watson has been an outspoken activist and an advocate for women’s rights, racial equality, and many other causes. As a UN Women Goodwill Ambassador, she helped launch the HeForShe campaign, which urged men to help champion the cause of gender equality. Because of this, and other reasons, she was listed in 2015 as being one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine.
Another woman who made the list of 100 most influential people (this time in 2013) is Jennifer Lawrence. While she first jumped into the spotlight in 2010’s Winter’s Bone, we all know her best as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games series and Mystique in the X-Men series.
Let’s talk about her Katniss Everdeen. Katniss was something new, both in Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal and in the character itself. She took no nonsense and showed that she could be just as ruthless as the men while being twice as cunning. As an actress, Jennifer Lawrence refused to lose weight for the part, despite pressure from the movie’s executives.
It’s been ten years, and the movie is still a cultural phenomenon. It made almost 700 million dollars in revenue worldwide, becoming the top-grossing film with a female lead. The movie was also a refreshing divergence from the normal action heroines who are often extremely (and almost comically) objectified for male viewership.
As with Emma Watson (who is exactly four months older than her), Jennifer Lawrence is also an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, in particular reproductive rights.
The fictional women who inspire us all
Now it’s time to take a look at the fictional women who inspire us. The characters and actresses in the previous list all belong here too, but for simplicity’s sake, we won’t be going in-depth about them. So, while I won’t mention Lt. Uhura, Princess Leia, Hermione Granger, or Katniss Everdeen, rest assured that they do belong here as well.
First up, we have Usagi and her superhero alter-ego, a Japanese high school student from the wildly popular anime, Sailor Moon.
Honestly, Sailor Moon checks off just about every item on the “magical girl” trope. And it is so cool!
There are a number of things about the anime in general that I’d like to highlight, but I think the most important thing to discuss is Sailor Moon herself. Usagi is a normal girl—albeit one who is accident-prone and a crybaby—until she is transformed with the power of the Silver Crystal. But even then, she is initially hesitant about her own worthiness, and can at times act really dumb, but she always remains incredibly determined and charming despite her flaws.
The anime, and the manga too, were also really cool in its depiction of LGBTQ issues and even gender fluidity (even though these were censored for American audiences). And all of that during the 90s, too.
Is there a more potent feminist icon in Western culture than Wonder Woman? Small wonder, Wonder Woman is awesome. The daughter of Zeus, she was raised by all-female Amazon warrior women to become one of the greatest superheroes in the world. Not only did she join the Justice League but she stands toe to toe with heavy hitters like Batman and Superman.
There are a number of other great things about her, but I want to talk about how she was created. Created during the second world war, Diana Prince was set to be the female and DC’s response to Captain America.Like him, Wonder Woman was often shown fighting against Nazis and other fascists. Over time, her enemies became bigger and she got to do battle with Ares, Cheetah, Circe, and others, many of whom came from Greek mythology.
But the thing that I really want to mention is what happens during her adventures. At the same time that we have Superman flying off to save Lois Lane every five minutes, Wonder Woman is often captured and taken prisoner only to later break her own chains and free herself.
Remember, this was during the 1940s, so breaking the “damsel in distress” trope was huge. And as meaningful as the symbolism is today, it was even more powerful then.
The Joker’s one-time girlfriend is a great example of what happens when you write a female character with her own agency: people love it. Originally written as the Joker’s girlfriend for Batman: The Animated Series in 1992, she quickly became a fan favorite and a regular on the show as well as getting her own series of comic books, tv shows, movies, et cetera.
Originally voiced by Arleen Sorkin, Harley Quinn was not supposed to be a recurring character but, due to Sorkin’s fantastic voice work, she became a favorite of both the fans and the show’s creators.
One of the things to develop from Harley Quinn’s story is her eventual rejection of needing the Joker (after, you know, he betrays her and tries to kill her and all that). She goes on to be with Poison Ivy and both of them seem quite happy with each other.
So, by this point, we can all agree that DC does a pretty good job with women, especially with this example: Raven.
The daughter of the demon Trigon, Raven was always the coolest of the Teen Titans. And the strongest. I mean, Robin (another character with a bird name) was cool and all, but he never almost destroyed the world!
It was really great that they gave that level of power to a girl, but that they also made her incredibly deep. As Trigon’s daughter, she has deep issues to work through but it never gets in the way of her job as a superhero. She is always calm and composed and ready to help out her friends no matter what… even when her demonic heritage (and sulky personality) alienates her from the others.
But she always comes back, and she always beats her father’s influence on her soul. She is the poster child for escaping toxic and abusive family members.
No discussion of fictional geeky badass women would be complete without the woman who “is no man.”
Eowyn, for those of you who don’t know, is a character in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Originally intended as a romantic interest for Aragorn, Eowyn is the niece of the King of Rohan and is herself a talented shieldmaiden and the equal in war of her brother Eomer.
Feeling abandoned by her uncle, brother, and Aragorn, Eowyn dresses as a man and takes the Hobbit Merry with her on the ride to relieve the city of Minas Tirith. While there, she and Merry rush to the aid of her fallen uncle and come face to face with the Witch-King of Angmar. The Witch-King tells her that it was prophesied that no living man could kill him, to which she replied, “I am no man,” and promptly kills him with the help of Merry.
While there are few, Eowyn is not alone among Tolkien’s heroines, but she is definitely the coolest. Unwilling to be told how to behave, she forged her own destiny and rode to war with the men. While recovering after her battle with the Ringwraith, she met the new steward of Gondor, Faramir, and recognizing a kindred spirit in each other, they fell in love in one of Tolkien’s most beautiful passages.
Eda Clawthorne the Owl Lady
I cannot emphasize enough how great Disney XD’s The Owl House is! As of writing this article, the show is halfway through its second season and it is so good.
A large part of the show’s success is its depiction of women and LGBTQ issues, and while I could go on and on about the show’s protagonist Luz, I’d like to instead focus on her mentor, Eda the Owl Lady.
Voiced by Wendie Malick, Eda is a fugitive from justice for having defied the Emperor’s laws to join a Coven, a sort of club for magic users that is actually a sneaky way to limit and curb the magical abilities of its members. She is also the victim of a curse that turns her into a horrible owl monster. This curse eventually drains her of her magical ability, something that she had excelled at since she was a child, and left her with no power.
This is when the show gets good as Eda, formerly the magical mentor of Luz Noceda, now has to learn “human magic” from her apprentice. It’s a tough and rocky road for her as she has to rediscover who she is without magic.
And one of the best parts about the whole thing, and why she needed to be on this list, is that Eda is well past middle age. It’s so rare to show older women rediscovering themselves and dealing with their own issues that are separate from the issues of the main character. And kicking ass! Never forget how much ass that old lady kicks.
A final shout-out
It has been eight years since Gamergate first took over online platforms. I could spend this time and talk about how horrible it was for these women who were threatened to the point of fleeing their homes, or I could talk about the villains, or I could even talk about how the problem of online harassment still exists. But I’m not going to do that.
To be clear, I am not in any way minimizing what happened to those women, nor am I in any way excusing the people who made their lives a living hell. But those people don’t deserve to be remembered. And we’re here to celebrate women.
Zoe Quinn, Brianna Wu, and Anita Sarkeesian
Zoe Quinn is a video game developer and writer who was first launched into the spotlight with their game Depression Quest in 2013, a “choose-your-own-path” game that deals with the issues affecting people with depression. In addition to being involved with other games, they also have an impressive list of credits as a comic book writer.
Because of their experiences with Gamergate, they co-founded Crash Override, a private network to assist the victims of online bullying. In addition to that, they published the memoir Crash Override: How Gamergate (Nearly) Destroyed My Life, and How We Can Win the Fight Against Online Hate in 2017. Their professional website is unburntwitch.com.
While they do not identify as a cis-gendered female, Zoe Quinn’s work and everything that they endured still garnered them a place on this list.
Another videogame developer and programmer was Brianna Wu, the CEO of the independent game studio Giant Spacekat. She is also credited as being the head of development for their game Revolution 60, which featured female protagonists, was released in 2014 on iOS and was considered one of the 10 best indie games that year at the Pax East conference. In addition to her work in video games, she has also run for Congress twice in 2017 and 2020. If I lived in Boston, I’d vote for her. With the pandemic winding down, I hope she’s able to run again.
After Brianna Wu was targeted, she helped set up a legal fund to help others fight against online harassment and offered cash rewards to help find and prosecute the people who had sent her death threats. But despite being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, she has become a vocal proponent of forgiving the people who tried to destroy her.
Finally, we come to the Canadian feminist videogame critic Anita Sarkeesian, who is best known for her series Tropes vs Women in Video Games, which examines the depiction of female video game characters. That series was so successful that it really changed the dialogue in videogame development and forced videogame developers to really look at how they were portraying women. As a public speaker, she has also appeared on TEDxWomen, XOXO Festival, and even on The Colbert Report.
Sarkeesian has also written a book along with Ebony Adams called History vs Women: The Defiant Lives That They Don’t Want You to Know. Her website is anitasarkeesian.com and she founded the Game and Online Harassment Hotline, a free non-profit service to help others.
There are so many more women who have contributed to, if not straight up invented, the things we all love than I had time to talk about. With Women’s History Month over, let’s honor the many women who have paved the way for both men and women to enjoy the geeky things that we all know and love.
Happy Women’s History Month, Geeks!
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