I Want to be the Time-Traveler, Not His Wife

That the book title The Time Traveler’s Wife even exists speaks to a problem in a meta-sense. It’s telling that, right in the damn title of one of the most celebrated books of last decade, one of the most classic and defining science fiction subgenres intersects with the problematic way fiction is marketed to women — that is, in terms of their relationships with men. (Both common title constructions The ___’s Wife and The ___’s Daughter, in which ___ is a dude virtually 100% of the time, can be burned with fire now. Editors and marketers, please do better.) And in spite of its huge success, it’s a novel frequently excised from genre conversations because of its romantic subplot. Girl cooties in our time machine, oh noes! This book — or rather, the dialogue and signals around and about this book, more than the text itself — is symbolic of erasure on so many levels that it hurts my brain even worse than it chaps my ass.

Where are the women time-travelers?

I’d wanted to write a post highlighting all the books in this subgenre I could find that featured female protagonists. And what I’ve found is that… there aren’t many. Octavia Butler’s Kindred, which I haven’t read yet; Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander, which is — no other way to say it — rapey. This isn’t to pick on any of these books specifically, as I adore The Time Traveler’s Wife and am purposefully making my way through Butler’s oeuvre as slowly as I can bear, as she’s my science fictional shero. But I think there’s something missing in the field as a whole when the most preeminent examples of female protagonists in these stories are raped or enslaved — or not even the true protagonist in the first place, but the spouse of one.


Science fiction is about possibility, about our dreams for the future. Many girls dreamed of space exploration — well, I’m agoraphobic, so that’s right out. Perhaps because I’m also a history geek, time travel has always been my most fervent genre-related dream. It’s funny that the only novel I’ve read that really speaks to it is a fantasy novel — Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo, in which the protagonist Paama, gifted with the entropic power of the gods, is taken on a tour of the past to learn what she would do wielding the force of chaos. Along the way she makes choices about whether and how to intervene in wars and plagues, to determine the fate of whole city-states as well as one lost boy.

It’s the usual case that when asking “Where is this thing I want?” you can find it, at least some of it, in short fiction. The first issue of Uncanny Magazine includes a story, “Celia and the Conservation of Entropy” by Amelia Beamer, in which a woman time-travels to see her deceased grandfather. I’ve often thought of my relationship to my dad and how inextricably it’s tied to my love for sci-fi, how my earliest weekend babysitters were stormtroopers, and how one of the small, personal moments I’d want to see is him watching the moon landing, which he did when a good decade younger than I am now. Genevieve Valentine’s “Insects of Love” is one of those magical realism-esque time travel stories with alternate timelines and possibilities, in which a woman tries to save her sister; I read it quite a while back and found it gripping, but never wrote about it because the story is smarter than me. In “First Flight” by Mary Robinette Kowal an elderly woman forms a friendship with a man in the past that will transcend the century between them.


And perhaps my favorite science fiction short story of 2014, “Makeisha in Time” by Rachael K. Jones, confronts the erasure of black women from history. Makeisha blinks out of the present only to live a whole lifetime at some random point in the past — whether that’s a few minutes before she drowns in the ocean or an entire adult lifespan in which she builds empires:

Makeisha has always been able to bend the fourth dimension, though no one believes her. She has been a soldier, a sheriff, a pilot, a prophet, a poet, a ninja, a nun, a conductor (of trains and symphonies), a cordwainer, a comedian, a carpetbagger, a troubadour, a queen, and a receptionist. She has shot arrows, guns, and cannons. She speaks an extinct Ethiopian dialect with a perfect accent. She knows a recipe for mead that is measured in aurochs horns, and with a katana, she is deadly.

She faces a present in which in all of her past contributions, as well as all of the contributions of women she’d known from her many lifetimes, are attributed to some nonexistent dude. As her present life falls apart around her, she finds that the answer was inside her all along.

The intimate and personal, the grand and sweeping — women are so frequently erased from time: the past, the future, and this small subgenre that bends the points between. But they don’t have to be.

This is a start.

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13 Responses to I Want to be the Time-Traveler, Not His Wife

  1. romeorites says:

    Kivrin from Doomsday by Connie Willis is another one. And she is pretty damn cool. We need a female Doctor and with recent Who storylines this could be a thing that will hopefully happen much sooner. Great post and love the title.

  2. SO MUCH YES. I have read and really enjoyed Marie Robinette Kowal’s story, and I’m going to look into the other ones you pointed out. Thank you so much for writing this insightful post!

    – Kritika @ Snowflakes & Spider silk

  3. Yes, KIVRIN. I started out hating Doomsday Book because I was listening to it, and I didn’t like the reader, but then became obsessed. That time travel story is directly related to historical research (as in, that is why she’s going back in time), which might make it even more right up your alley. I personally loved how they attempted to recreate the clothes and teach her the language, and how their knowledge ended up panning out in comparison to the actual clothes and language of the time.

    You could also argue for Hermoine in HP with her time turner, but really, I find that too tangential and brief to qualify as “female time traveler story.”

    Holy whoa (sorry, this comment is becoming long, but I got curious and started poking around myself) lookie lookie: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Girl_Who_Leapt_Through_Time

    And here’s one that was originally written in German, but has been translated into English: Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/8835379-ruby-red

    Can’t speak to the quality of the last two though, as I havent read them. Gier is really popular over here though.

    That is still far too few time travel stories featuring women, when you look at how fucking huge the genre is. Geezus fuck, it should be easy to think of time travel stories with women, not a fucking research odyssey.

    Anyway, great post. Needed to be said. As I already mentioned on twitter, those titles chap my ass too.

    • cecilykane says:

      Thank you! You know, I’ve always been able to see the marketing purpose for those titles, because it’s basically saying “woman main character!” and “relationships!” all in one tiny package — which means I inevitably like those books. Plus, the “____” besides being a dude often signifies the genre/plot, which… well. So the fact that it’s such an effective marketing signal to women while also serving effectively to erase women makes me issue a colorful stream of invective in my head. Or aloud. (Speaking of which, I know I can count on ya if I come up short in the post profanity quota. :P)

      Thanks for the researchin’! I just went to my usual databases and found nooooothing, It’s pretty absurd.

      • HA. I am more than happy to fulfill all profanity quotas anytime.

        Good point with the titles being rather neat marketing packages, and rather fucked up one’s…let’s erase the people this book is maybe sort of about! WTF.

        Yeah my thought was, ok maybe people giving a shit and talking loudly about women doing this or that in SFF stories is too new to find a good list that way. So I looked up time travel stories in general and then scanned them for ones with female protags.

      • OH GOD I just wrote “one’s” soooorry. It was a typo I SWEAR

  4. Brilliant post! There really is a lack of women in time travel fiction who actually do the time travelling. I haven’t read them yet, but I know YA novels Ruby Red, Time Riders and Timebomb all feature female protagonists who time travel. 🙂 I haven’t read Outlander yet, though I have heard it’s a little rapey, nor have I read Kindred, but I really want to! Makeisha in Time sounds really cool – I’ll have to check that out!

    I once saw an interview with Audrey Niffenegger – unfortunately I’ve got no idea where I saw it now – and she talked about how she decided to write about a time traveller’s wife because she wanted to tell the story of the people who are left behind rather than the people who do the time travelling. As much as I can sort of understand where she’s coming from, it could have been just as easy to write The Time Traveller’s Husband – in fact, given what you said at the beginning of your post about titles (which happens ALL THE TIME in historical fiction, a genre I’m a huge fan of) that would have challenged a lot of stereotypes. Let’s see how a male romantic interest would handle being left behind while his wife went time travelling.

    Anyway, this was a fantastic post. 🙂

    • cecilykane says:

      Thank you! I didn’t know that bit about the inspiration behind TTW — that makes a lot of sense. Very insightful point about how it could have just as easily been the husband left behind. While my overarching complaint is with the field as a whole rather than this one book (which I loved), there are already lots of stories about women getting left behind during wars and such in historical fic. No particular reason to do that with time travel.

  5. R. A. MacAvoy’s THE BOOK OF KELLS might fit the bill too. Jo Walton talked about the book on Tor awhile back: http://www.tor.com/blogs/2010/12/knotwork-and-custom-ra-macavoys-the-book-of-kells. One of my favorites of MacAvoy’s.

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  7. Pingback: Women in SF&F Month: Cecily from Manic Pixie Dream Worlds | Fantasy Cafe | Reviews of Fantasy and Science Fiction Books

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