‘the women who were not to be ignored’
By David Medlen
I first heard of the Vertical Horizons femme fan group and their fanzine through a series of chance events. At the 2000 Swancon Convention the con bag contained a free back issue of Van Ikin’s magazine Science Fiction. Flicking through it I came across a grainy photo of a smiling woman in a costume with a note in the text that she was Norma Hemming a gifted author of the 1950’s. At that time Norma Hemming had been out of print for forty years but I was intrigued enough to try and track down information on her stories and life. As I researched her life I found it intertwined with the story of women in Australian science fiction in the 1950s.
Women have always been part of Australian science fiction since Catherine Helen Spence wrote Handfasted in 1879 and Henrietta Dugdale’s A Few Hours in a Far Off Age (1883) to M. Barnard Eldershaw’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1947) but that has not always been reflected in fandom. Yes there had been some women, such as Jean Roberts who treasurer of the Futurian Society of Sydney in 1943, and Laura Molesworth who was the librarian for the group. Yet strangely these same women were barred from ordinary membership of this same club! There seemed to have been a casual sexism while common in society at the time is hard to believe today. The January 1942 issue of the Futurian Observer noted that …”most of our friends in the Futurian Society have not a high opinion of the intelligence of females.” Things had started to change in the 1950’s with increasing numbers of female fans with one 1952 survey of one club’s members showing that one in seven fans were women. Graham Stone noted in his annotations to an Australian fan history that (they were) ‘women on the scene who were not to be ignored’.
The catalyst for change was the first Australian science fiction convention in Sydney in 1952. In a wider sense it brought together science fiction readers who had no idea of the fan community but it specifically galvanised female fans. Laura Molesworth felt “… that the Convention was a wonderful success if only because it brought other female fans here into contact.” Of special note was Norma Hemming revealing her professional writing identity. Graham Stone wrote in his convention report “… it came as a surprise that the N.K. Hemming” of Thrills (Incorporated) is the N.K. Hemming of New Worlds, and an actual person, Norma K. Hemming. Why doesn’t someone tell us these things.” As very few fans were professionally published at the time in Australia let alone female fans this would have been inspiring.
On the Monday after the convention five women attended an all male member Futurian Society meeting as ‘guests’. Rosemary Simmons asked that she should be eligible for membership. The members were deeply divided and a heated debate led to three votes with the final one allowing Rosemary Simmons to join. The debate not only discussed allowing women full membership but had brought discrimination of all types into focus. A motion was then passed stating that “this Society makes it clear… it does not discriminate on the grounds of race, creed, party or sex…”. The following week Norma Hemming was able to join the Society without opposition.
In addition to breaking down barriers in existing clubs, femme fans
sought their own voice through their own society and fanzine, both
called Vertical Horizons. An explosion of talent and passion resulted. Norma Hemming continued to be published professionally and in fanzines as well as writing plays for conventions produced by a theatrical troupe run by Christine Davision and Nikki Gore. Norma Williams published under her own name in semi-prozines such as Forerunner and as Veronica Welwood overseas in the professional publication Authentic Science Fiction. Rosemary Simmons, Laura Molesworth, Norma Hemming and Norma Williams all participated in writing and/or editing Vertical Horizons and other fanzines. Others joined in the social meetings organised by the group and the theatrical events.
Sadly the group and fanzine lasted only a few years. In 1955 Laura Molesworth announced the group’s cessation. Christine Davison had died and the bitter in-fighting in other fan groups had started to poison the Sydney fan scene. Norma Hemming eventually moved to Melbourne and died at the tragically young age of 30 in 1960. Many of the members moved away from the fandom and the group became a note in fan histories. The most tangible relic of the group is its newsletter and while it contained news and reviews like any other fanzine it also contained essays of great passion about being female fan. I could select highlights from a number of articles to illustrate this but instead I think this essay by Mrs L.M. Chalmers from the final issue is such demonstrates this better than anything I could edit.
An Addict Confesses All.
Now before I unbare my soul… I’ll make a bet that not one s.f. reader can get away from the fact that he reads the stuff from escapist motives. I’ve tried to talk myself out of it, but I can’t convince myself, except when I reach the conclusion that I am searching for something. But to be sure, ’tis the same thing, begad, for what should I be escaping from, unless I would be would be after escaping to somewhere I could find escape from the thing I was escaping from in the first place, begorrah.
Now taking this escape theory, and examining it closely, we find the main impulse to [escape] stems from one’s own inability to face up to that reality, and the realisation of one’s failure to do so.
Now you can take me. (as for myself, I’ve had me.) By nature, doubting, analytical and cynical, I just can’t believe in anything wholeheartedly. That is commendable, no doubt, in a research worker, but for an ordinare person it’s darned awkward. I’ve always got to have reasons, proofs and motives lined up. My faith in human nature is NIL, and I’m not at all enamoured of the general level of intelligence of the average person. Worse still, even read up all the available information on various religions, past and present, and have exploded to my satisfaction all the cherished myths and dogmas as superstitious hogwash. So having found man and god wanting, I have to depend entirely upon myself, which is very tiring. It is also very awkward going around with one’s tongue in one’s cheek all the time… You try it and see!
(Of course, when my tongue gets tired I take it out of aforesaid cheek, in the privacy of my family circle, where my husband administers doses of Egoboo when required.)
It is very nice to go to teacher, to mummy, to the minister, to God… and say “You work this out for me”.
But when you have no faith in any of them, and when you are tired of facing up to life… where to turn?
Since I have no belief in the hereafter, since I do not believe in an immortal soul and since I am seeking the answer to the riddle that has plagued man since the world began, namely “Why are we living, and where are we heading?”, and because I don’t think much of the present lunatic asylum we call our civilisation, I have to get comfort from the future.
I cannot pin my “faith” in the future, because my nature will not admit an acceptance the word implies. But I can build my hopes on the future. I can hope that man will evolve into a more intelligent being and a more civilised one. And I can hope for the banishment of social and physical ills. And of course, great technical advances. So that it is the sociologists, the doctors and scientists in all fields that I depend on. And in science fiction I meet these men who shape the world of the future.
I read S.F first and foremost because I have rejected the present and need a vastly superior future to live in — even an imaginary future. I read S.F. for stimulation, having a faint powdering of information on matters scientific. I read it also for knowledge because the more famous S.F. authors are in most cases the cream of intelligensia — and they build an imaginary but by no means fantastic world, and deal with possible future inventions in a logical and plausible manner. I read it for Egoboo, so I can sneer to my heart’s content at the natterings of hash merchants. (Alas, too many of ’em.)
And lastly, I read for relaxation. (This is where we came in, isn’t it?)
That “relaxation” is a smooth way of getting over the fact that one needs to escape from reality. I do love a fairy tale. And I am sick of being a strong silent female. I want to escape from myself…
Gimme that S.F. mag and let me escape, quick.
— Mrs L.M. Chalmers
*Note “Egoboo” is not a typo. It is a fan term of the time indicating the good feeling from being complimented, usually for voluntary fan work but I could not find exact definition.
I am delighted that Sajbrfem has chosen the name Vertical Horizons for this fanzine as it honours a group of women who were not to be ignored and I hope it will inspire another generation of fans to be men and women who are not to be ignored.
Anon, Take a look at yourself (1952) Notes and Comment Sydney : Ken Martin and Vol Molesworth, No.2, p.1-3
Crozier, Ian J. [4th Convention report] (1955) Etherline Mentone, Vic.: Melbourne Science Fiction Club, No. 47, p.6
Huet, Kim [Letter 26th January 2009] (2009) Mumblings from Munchkinland No. 27 p.12 http://efanzines.com/MFM
McMullen, Sean, The Golden Age of Science Fiction (1998) Science Fiction: A review of Speculative Fiction Crawley, W.A.: University of Western Australia Vol. 12, no. 3, pp.3-28
Molesworth, Vol, A History of Australian Fandom 1935-1963 (Annotations by Graham Stone) (1994-95) Mentor No. 82-87 http://efanzines.com/Mentor/
Nelson, Chris, Rosemary Simmons and the Femme Fan Group (2008) Mumblings from Munchkinland No. 26, pp.4-10 http://efanzines.com/MFM
Stone, Graham B., First Australian Science Fiction Convention (1952) Stopgap: A Letter, Circular or Publication Sydney, N.S.W.: Graham B. Stone, Mar./Apr., p.43
Vertical Horizons. 1-5 (1952-1953) Bexley N.S.W.: Rosemary G. Simmons