In the wake of empowering hashtags like #metoo and #distractinglysexy, Isaac Asimov’s reputation has been under scrutiny. When I first started this project more than ten years ago, there was some awareness that statements by Asimov and others about the lack of women in science fiction before 1970 were inaccurate, but for the most part, his verbal and physical abuse of women went undiscussed. When I visited the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center to read Asimov’s letters, I was so naive to his history that I felt a bit of shock. In truth, he left plenty of documentation of his behavior, yet until recently it failed to gain attention.

For people who think of science fiction as an inclusive and supportive community but do not often participate in fan gatherings, the reports of the hostile environment at conventions and other public events are alarming. It was only until recently when the distaste of some fans for the mainstream efforts to make diversity more apparent that the seemed acute. These reports call into question the culpability of major authors in the genre – and at the same time, may implicate their writing in the promotion of sexism in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

One of Asimov’s attempts to break out of his pristine reputation was the publication of The Sensuous Dirty Old Man in 1971. The book jacket employs arch secrecy to “protect” the author’s reputation, but it did not last long; Asimov’s authorship was almost immediately known. The book seems to be a spoof on the 1969 bestseller, The Sensuous Woman, by “J,” which was an earnest effort to affirm healthy sexuality. Mocking “J,” the blurb on the dust jacket says the book is a counterattack against “lying propaganda” that says “passion is over at forty”: “With utter frankness, A. touches on every angle of the dirty old man’s art – the stare, the leer, and the grin … And what of the touch? The careless arm about the shoulder, the fatherly squeeze about the waist, the gentle uncle-is tweak.” Although it might seem like a joke, these actions were openly perpetrated by Asimov.

In recent years, a renewed concern for sexism in STEM has put Asimov’s biography into a new light, raising questions of what to think about his writing. This has concerned me as I have been revising Chapter 6 of my book, which is devoted to Asimov. Asimov is a titan from the early years of U.S. science fiction: as an immigrant of Jewish descent, he spoke out against the prevailing tendency to think that the future would be dominated by Anglo-Saxons. What, if anything, are we to do with the information that has been available for decades about Asimov’s groping and other harassing behavior?

Every good literature student is admonished to avoid the so-called intentional fallacy. Professors ask students to avoid thinking of authors’ biographies, separating the work of artists from their supposed intentions. This protocol has benefitted many science fiction authors, including Asimov, but then again, Asimov made harassment part of his public persona. It’s time to think about why Asimov felt it necessary to write unapologetically about his harassment, and in addition, how it impacts the history of science fiction as a whole. His place in the world of science, in addition to his stature in science fiction, also provides an opportunity to understand the culture that inhibited diversity, equity, and inclusion in engineering and science for most of the twentieth century.

Sexism in STEM

When I first started teaching at an undergraduate engineering school in 2001, I was surprised by the backlash to even basic lessons about inclusive language (i.e., not referring to an unknown person with the male pronoun “he”). As I had learned, language reforms in the 1980s prohibited such sexist language, but twenty years later, my teaching was met with disdainful and well-rehearsed rebuttals from some students. During the Obama administration, renewed attention to recruiting and retaining more women and people of color in STEM made the issue a national priority again.

To me, the difference was palpable. Starting around 2012, I was asked by school administrators to help prepare grant applications for diversity in STEM. Beginning in 2015, I was invited many times to make presentations about diversity, inclusion, and equity to students in a first-year engineering course and a selective summer undergraduate research program. (Some of the ideas from my presentations and STS classes can be found in an anthology published by Springer).

In spite of the earnest efforts of many people, the percentage of women in STEM still lags far behind their representation in the workforce overall. These days, it is clear that the underrepresentation is a result of culture and not related to the aptitudes or interests of women.

This topic made national headlines in 2015, when Nobel Prize winner Tim Hunt made a comment about women in science. As reported by The Guardian, he said: “Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.” Hunt, a British biochemist who was a member of the Royal Society, was speaking to journalists in Seoul. He was reported to say that he advocated for gender segregation in laboratories. Faced with a backlash, he said that his “light-hearted ironic remarks” should not have been taken seriously.

Shortly after these comments were in the news, a cartoon by Ben Jennings was tweeted by the I newsletter (which was at the time affiliated with The Independent newspaper). It was frequently retweeted under the #distractinglysexy hashtag.

Individuals decried Hunt’s behavior, and it became a topic on Twitter, with women and their allies clapping back — some in mock seriousness with the supposed problems caused by gender, others with pointed statements about sexist microaggressions.

The hashtag is still active:

A defender of Hunt pointed out that he prefaced his comment self-deprecatingly, encouraging women to participate in science “despite monsters like me.” Characterizing the remarks as “warm and funny,” though, only increased the ire of people who were all too familiar with microaggressions, even from someone like Hunt who purported to support women in science. Hunt soon resigned from his post at University College London.

Revisiting Asimov in the Wake of Distractingly Sexy

Asimov, himself a professor of biochemistry and a self-proclaimed popularizer of science, fits into this debate, adding historical depth to it. He often proclaimed that he was a supporter of women, much like Hunt has done. It may have been true in some cases. It is also true that Asimov, like other figures from the golden age of science fiction, worked hard to provide a human element to science and engineering. Because of Asimov’s seemingly untouchable reputation as the humanist who reflects on the future, until recent years it was apparently difficult to reconcile Asimov’s behavior with his public reputation.

Those days are over, though. I noticed a laudatory article in Nature about Asimov was corrected after the day it was published: “Correction 29 January 2020: This article originally omitted to note that Asimov harassed women. It has now been corrected to include this point.” David Leslie (no relation to the present author), who is the ethics fellow at the Alan Turing Institute in London, wrote glowingly about Asimov’s effort to raise the public’s understanding of science. He says that Asimov was “nurturing ingenuity and insight through exploration, learning and communication was an ethical imperative and crucial for human progress.”

The correction to David Leslie’s hagiography seems to be a brief parenthetical statement. After Leslie note that Asimov rejected “Campbell’s fascist politics and belief in racial superiority,” there is a side note: “(It must be noted here that Asimov had his own egregious behaviour: the unapologetic harassing of women.)” Although it is clearly unacceptable to write about Asimov without acknowledging the accusations and his own public admissions, rethinking how Asimov reveals the century-long effort to push women out of science is a harder task.

I am grateful that people feel the power to write back and complain. Two months after the original article, Nature published a letter that calls out the journal’s tepid reaction. Lauren Lehmann writes that the “brief aside” is better than not mentioning his “long history as a serial groper.” Nevertheless, she continues, “As a woman in science as well as a fan of science fiction, it gets pretty wearing to keep reading about these great men who just happened to regularly assault women. Particularly so in this case, in which Asimov is praised for his ethos and vision for humanity.” Clearly, as historians and critics of science fiction, we have a lot more work to do so that we don’t perpetrate microaggressions against women in science.

I’ve noticed several posts on social media have also called into question Asimov’s character:

  • Alec Nevala-Lee (7 January 2020), “Asimov’s Empire, Asimov’s Wall”: “Over the course of many decades, Asimov groped or engaged in other forms of unwanted touching with countless women, often at conventions, but also privately and in the workplace.” He has previously addressed this topic in his book Astounding (HarperCollins 2018). For instance, Nevala-Lee writes, “there was also a less attractive side to his fame. He was still pinching women’s bottoms, prompting a friend’s wife to snap, ‘God, Asimov, why do you always do that? It is extremely painful and besides, don’t you realize, it’s very degrading.’ Yet he did nothing to change his behavior.”
Nevala-Lee includes this photograph with his blog post: Isaac Asimov the Kiss again, Nycon 3 (1967). Photograph by Jay Kay Klein / Regents of the University of California.
  • Jay Gabler (14 May 2020), “What to Make of Isaac Asimov, Sci-Fi Giant and Dirty Old Man?”: “As a self-conscious, sexually inexperienced young man, Asimov learned that his lightning wit was a social lubricant. From early on, he sprinkled titillating quips into his banter, using his physical ungainliness to frame his lascivious persona as a colossal joke.”

Dr. A: an Amiable Neanderthal?

I admit that, when I first started writing about Asimov, I was unsure to say about the reports of his harassment of women. I knew about his collections of dirty jokes, and a colleague in fact gave me a copy of one that she purported was written about her. It was not until I started researching the challenges to improving diversity in STEM that I realized how the history of science fiction could be a case study about the stubbornly low levels of women in STEM, even as other sectors of the job market began to diversify after the 1950s.

It is a curious fact that, starting around 1971, Asimov began to cultivate a public persona as a dirty old man. 1971 was difficult year for him; his divorce from his first wife was covered in Boston newspapers, and his longtime editor John W. Campbell died. It was also the year that he published The Sensuous Dirty Old Man, using the pseudonym “Dr. A.” This decade would also be a time when science fiction would start moving into university courses – and the time new wave writers and critics derided golden age writers like Asimov for their aseptic, asexual stories that seemed to turn away from humanity to support a cold rationality. Perhaps the new persona was an effort to liven up his earlier fiction, or as a way to make a break from his married life in Boston, or even to afford him new speaking opportunities a modern spokesperson for the sexual revolution.

Whatever the reason, evidence about Asimov’s harassing behavior has been hiding in plain sight. One place to find it is in newspaper reports from the 1970s, which include comments about his womanizing. For instance:

  • A 1973 portrait in the Washington Post comments that Asimov, then 53 years old, cultivates a “self-image of a dirty old man” (Joel Dreyfuss, “Asimov: Intellectual Protrusions,” 22 Oct. 1973, p. B1).
  • In 1976, a report about Asimov’s attendance at a seminar notes that in the first hour, Asimov has “kissed six pretty girls” and “recited four quite good limericks about people at his table. The author concedes that some attendees “were not amused,” but the author also says the banter must be playful because he is “desperately in love with his wife, New York psychiatrist Janet Jeppson” (Michael Kernan, “Isaac Asimov: Savant of Science Fiction, Lover of Limericks, Master of Mysteries,” Washington Post 27 July 1976, p. B1). 
  • In 1979 the Boston Globe notes his “unabashed chauvinism” and reports that one secretary in a publishing house says he’s an “amiable Neanderthal” – and the author reflects that maybe it’s easy to forgive a genius (Jeff McLaughlin, Boston Globe 20 January 1979, p. 8). 

These stories give his abusive sexuality an obvious position without weaving together the need to popularize science with the image of man who touches women too much.

Another source of information comes from Asimov himself, who wrote about his behavior. From his own writing, it is clear that his verbal and physical assaults predate the Dr. A. persona that was described in newspapers. In the second volume of his autobiography, In Joy Still Felt (1980), he recounts meeting Janet Jeppson, whom he would later marry, at the 1956 World Science Fiction Convention. She asked for an autograph; he asked about her profession. When she tells him that she’s a psychiatrist, he quips, “good … let’s get on the couch together” (p. 66). Later, Asimov writes, “I didn’t even know I had offended her at the time” but Jeppson, for her part, remembers that she walked away never wanting to see him again (Joy, p. 116). Fortunately, for Asimov, her brother was one of his students and put in a good word for him, paving the way to their marriage.

In his description of 1959 WorldCon, Asimov writes unashamedly of his exchange of kisses for autographs: 

I loved autographing. Some writers cut down on their labors by refusing to sign anything but hard-cover books, but I have never refused anything and will sign torn scraps of paper, too, if that is asked of me.
   When I am feeling particularly suave during the autographing sessions, which is almost all the time, I kiss each young woman who wants an autograph and have found, to my delight, that they tend to cooperate enthusiastically in that particular activity (Joy, p. 175).

Archival sources have been long been available, but they were not always consulted, to add further depth to these reports. In 2012, an exhibit by the Rare Books & Special Collections Department of the Northern Illinois University Libraries honored the return of the WorldCon to Chicago. They included letters from their collections between the organizers and Asimov. Asimov was asked to make a presentation about “The Positive Power of Posterior Pinching.” In a 14 December 1961 response, Asimov writes that “I could give a stimulating talk that would stiffen the manly fiber of every one in the audience.” Asimov deflects, however, but adds in a postscript that he would be sent in the direction of a “girly show.”

Stephanie Zvan wrote about this exhibit, extrapolating on how this correspondence reveals the hostile environment of the time. “Everybody knew, and not only was it not stopped, but it was encouraged. Tee-hee. Isn’t it funny.” A commenter on this post, Marcus Ranum, says that at a WorldCon in Boston in 1980 he threatened Asimov for groping his girlfriend in an elevator, but he and not Asimov, who was 60 at the time, was kicked out of the convention.

In 2019, I took the opportunity to review the Judith Merril papers, which are held by Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. I was surprised (maybe I shouldn’t have been) to see a series of letters between Merril and Asimov about an anecdote he wanted to include in his autobiography. In 1952, apparently, Asimov’s brother-in-law visited him in Boston, so Asimov took the opportunity to make a trip to New York City. He met with his editor and also saw Merril, who had divorced their mutual friend Fred Pohl. Faced with a long subway ride to an apartment where he was staying, Asimov complained to Merril; she offered to allow him to say with her.

In the first volume of his autobiography, In Memory Yet Green, he says he expects a “husband’s privileges” if they spend a night together. She agreed, according to the autobiography, causing Asimov to run off. He says he tells this story because Merril herself often tells it, explaining to people that if anyone should accept his “gallant suggestions to the ladies,” he would run off. It is clear from the correspondence in 1978, though, that it is Merril who requires him to add a footnote to the text. She tells him to add that he

"was known, among other things, in those days (to editors' secretaries, etc.) as 'the man with a hundred hands.' Being a non-drinker, it was his habit at parties to become very drunk on everyone else's first drink. On this occasion, the third or fourth time his hand groped my ass, I reached out to clutch his crotch. He never manhandled me in vain again.

The final quote in the autobiography is slightly different, omitting the professional status of the women involved and other people’s drinking (and Asimov’s feigned intoxication):

“Asimov was known in those days, to various women, as 'the man with a hundred hands.' On this occasion, the third or fourth time his hand patted my rear end, I reached out to clutch his crotch. He never manhandled me in vain again.”

In his cover letter to Merril, asking her to approve the final footnote, Asimov explains that he has little remorse for his actions and says that he wishes he had taken her up on the offer. He confides to her, sounding somewhat like a former president of the United States:

"I am still known as 'the man with the hundred hands' and the more famous I get the more reluctant the young ladies are (ha, ha) to make a scene. And all I can say is that any girl who thinks (these days) she can't fend me off by clutching my crotch is just asking for it, that's all."

Merril is an important of my book project, From Hyperspace to Hypertext, and I devote Chapter 8 to her.

The Editor with 100 Hands

After Asimov died, author Connie Willis occupied his editors’ corner with an editorial for Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine entitled “The Women SF Doesn’t See” (October 1992). With a twist on the title of Alice Sheldon’s famous story, she writes about the “Women Who Weren’t There.” She does not attack Asimov directly – too soon for that, perhaps – but in the absence of the amiable neanderthal, the editor with 100 hands, she makes a point of saying that the story that there were no women in science fiction before the 1970s is just false. She mentions the many women writers who inspired her, including C. L. Moore, and thanks Judith Merril who provided a space for good writing, regardless of the author’s gender.

Asimov played a role in revising the history of science fiction so that women were not included and this misconception lasts until today. For this reason, while writing about Asimov and science fiction today, I am not so interested in writing a caveat to the story; as Lauren Lehmann said in her reaction to the article in Nature, it seems to be worthless to say “oh and also Asimov is known to have harassed women in his public life.” It seems disingenuous, as well, to say that one can deplore the actions of Asimov and others even though we can still enjoy their writing. The connection between their behavior and their writing needs to be illuminated and understood as part of the project to support diversity, equity, and inclusion in STEM more generally.

It’s not interesting or worthwhile to blame or exonerate Asimov from charges of sexism. Instead, I take the opportunity to analyze his fiction and career to show how a new definition of masculinity was so tightly to the conduct of science that it seemed natural for an environment dominated by men was necessary for progress in STEM. In my chapter on Asimov, I consider two parallel issues:

1. DEI in STEM

Asimov was a science student at a time when the practice of STEM was increasingly tied to notions of gender. The representation of the male personality that is naturally suited to science and engineering in his stories, then, reveals prevailing attitudes as much as it shows how science fiction played a role in reinforcing that role.

In the 1930s, Asimov attended the prestigious, sex-segregated Boys High School in Brooklyn, whose graduates include many famous people (such as composer Aaron Copland, novelist Normal Mailer, footballer Allie Sherman). In addition, there are many graduates who made a mark in STEM: mathematician Morris Kline, who took a break from teaching during World War II to contribute applied mathematics to research on radar; physicist Benjamin Lax, who also worked on radar during World War II but went on to help the development of semiconductors at MIT’s Lincoln Laboratory; developer William Levitt, who designed the iconic U.S. suburb Levittown; psychologist Abraham Maslow, famous for the eponymous hierarchy of needs paradigm, and Alexander S. Wiener, who discovered the Rhesus (Rh) factor in blood. Asimov’s career was illustrious: he supported the war effort as a researcher at the Philadelphia Naval Yard from 1942 to 1945 and was drafted into the Army, earning the rank of corporal. He went on to earn a Ph.D. and became a professor at Boston University School of Medicine in 1949.

Through his writing, he has left us an invaluable portal into the co-construction of gender and science in the first half of the twentieth century. By studying his fiction, one can learn a great deal about the history of science and engineering, particularly with the regard to the social construction of gender.

2. Gatekeepers of Science Fiction

After establishing himself as a writer, Asimov became a spokesperson for science fiction. In 1953, he wrote an essay, “Social Science Fiction,” for an anthology edited by Reginald Bretnor. Starting in 1962 with an anthology of winners of the Hugo award, he also becomes an editor. In this role, he served a gatekeeper function. Scholars like Eric Leif Davin (Partners in Wonder, 2005) have pointed out that statements by Asimov and others about the lack of women in golden age fiction are erroneous; I study several of the prominent women before 1970 in my book.

The examples I provide in this chapter won’t surprise anyone too much. When given the choice of authors to include in his anthologies, they are almost always men. When he does not have a choice, as with the Hugos anthologies, his editorial comments replicate the public sexism he exhibited at science fiction events. Part of this exclusion of women, one can say, has something to do with Asimov’s assumptions about gender and science. Certainly, as I document elsewhere, Asimov was not unique in the role he played to write women out of the history of science fiction on supposed assessments of merit.

An important finding of this chapter, though, is the failure in the way the science fiction community implemented its version of the Enlightenment public sphere. From the early Gernsback days, authors thought of themselves as a community into which anyone could enter, a place where ideas were judged on their own merits. For many of us, this is still the promise of the genre: a place where all are welcome to participate, regardless of social status or reputation.

The behavior of Asimov and others, though, limits the power of the public sphere metaphor. We have documented examples of their repellant behavior, and others have written about how they stayed away from notable people in the field at public gatherings to protect their bodies. That does not mean that the women stayed away from Asimov did not have a voice in the field – and I offer many examples of women who played an important role in the genre’s development – but it does help to explain why Asimov, Pohl, and others were convinced that there were few women in the early days of the genre. Although their statements were taken at face value for generations, we can now benefit from new scholarship that points out an alternative history.