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James Tiptree, Jr

James Tiptree, Jr (August 24, 1915 - May 19, 1987) was the pen name of science fiction author Alice Sheldon. She later also wrote under the pseudonym Raccoona Sheldon. Tiptree/Sheldon was most notable for breaking down the barriers between perceived "male writing" and "female writing" - it was not publicly known until 1976 that she was a woman.

The child of a prolific travel author and a naturalist/explorer, Alice Sheldon travelled the world with her parents from an early age. She was a graphic artist and a professional painter, and an art critic for the Chicago Sun[?] until World War II. Sheldon was married to William Davey 1934-1941.

In 1942 she joined the US military and worked in the Air Intelligence[?] division. In 1945 she married her second huband, Huntington Sheldon[?], and she was discharged from the military in 1946, at which time she set up a small business in partnership with her husband. The same year her first story ("The Lucky Ones") was published in the The New Yorker. In 1952 she and her husband were invited to be involved in the establishment of the CIA, a position she resigned from in 1955 as she wished to attend college.

She studied for her bachelor of arts degree at American University (1956-59), going on to achieve a doctorate in Experimental Psychology[?] in 1967. Unsure what to do with her new degrees and her new/old careers, she began to write.

Sheldon adopted the pseudonym of James Tiptree, Jr. in 1968 because "I was tired of always being the first woman in some damn profession..." (The name "Tiptree" came from a jar of marmalade.) The imposture was successful until the late 1970s, possibly aided by a misunderstanding that it was intended to protect the professional reputation of an intelligence community official.

When asked for biographical details, Tiptree was forthcoming in everything but gender. Many of the details given above (the Air Force career, the Ph.D.) were mentioned in letters she wrote. Readers were permitted to assume gender, and invariably they assumed "male".

When all was revealed, two prominent science fiction writers suffered some embarrassment. Robert Silverberg had written an introduction to Warm Worlds and Otherwise, arguing on the basis of selections from stories in the collection that Tiptree could not possibly be a woman. Ursula K. Le Guin had prevented Tiptree from adding "his" signature to a petition by female science fiction authors, believing Tiptree to be a man. Both acted understandably under the circumstances, and both felt compelled to defend their positions later in print.

The revelation of her sex had no adverse impact on people's opinions of her talent. In 1977 she won the Nebula award for her grisly novella, "The Screwfly Solution[?]".

Sheldon continued writing under the Tiptree pen name for another decade. On May 19, 1987, Sheldon took the life of her 86 year-old blind and bedridden invalid husband, and then took her own. They were found dead, hand in hand in bed, in their Virginia home; the suicide note Sheldon left had been written years earlier, and saved until needed.

The James Tiptree, Jr. Award is given in her honor each year for a work of science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender; funds for the award are raised in part by bake sales.


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