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The Outpost

Women of Geekdom
By Theresa Potratz
Published April 05, 2021
women of geekdom

Gene Rodenberry, George Lucas, and Stan Lee are respected names in Geekdom. We know and respect their contributions. Do we know of the women of geekdom? At Orange Nebula, we believe representation matters. We know there are so many unsung heroines. From board game developers to artists, to creating worlds we get to interact with women all over the world have ushered in opportunities for us to immerse in creativity, but do we know their stories? 

To honor the contributions of women and how they have impacted the world(s) we love hanging out in, I decided to focus on six women. Most of these women we haven’t heard of. There are a couple that we have. In future posts, I hope to expand on their exploits and do a deeper dive into their lives and share how each of them inspires me. 

Ada Lovelace – Victorian Era Algorithm Writer

Daughter of one of the greatest English poets, Lord Byron, Augusta Ada Lovelace was born in 1815. A month after Ada’s birth her parents separated. Ada’s mother raised her. To understand Ada Lovelace, we need to first understand Lord Byron. 

Lord Byron

Admittedly, when I think of Bryon’s poetry, I imagine bucolic scenery, grand manors, and rigid social structures. Basically, I picture Byron as a fixture of a boring aristocratic society, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Given the state of entertainment in the early 1800s, it’s more apt to imagine Byron as the Billy Idol of his time. 

Continuing with the rock star theme, Bryon caused a stir when he studied at Cambridge. When the school’s rule against dogs prevented him from bringing his dog Smut, he adopted a bear. That bad boy attitude continued with Byron reportedly keeping a coffin in his living room and drinking from skulls. 

Did I say Billy Idol? Maybe more Ozzy Osborne or Marilyn Manson. 

Daddy’s Girl

Surprising literally no one, Lady Lovelace was not about to let Ada develop any of Byron’s insanity, as she viewed it. To prevent it, she encouraged Ada’s studies of math. 

At age 17, Lovelace met Charles Babbage who served as a mentor and continued to teach her. Babbage created the first computer. Lovelace was fascinated by it and tasked with translating a write-up on the machine by Luigi Federico Menabrea, into English Lovelace’s article was three times as long as the original with Lovelace’s exposition and implications of the machine. 

Lovelace used her intellect to create the first algorithm to accompany Babbage’s machine. 

Lucille Ball – Startrek Producer

You know that black and white show featuring a comedic redhead (later the show went into color) and her Latinx husband? While a bulk of the readers do hale from the US, the “I Love Lucy” show is where most of us recognize Lucille Ball. What many may not know is Ball’s connections to ensuring Star Trek was successful. 

Ball owned Desilu Productions. Her company produced not only her show but the “Andy Griffith Show,” and the “Dick Van Dyke Show.”

When pitched the first pilot, Ball misunderstood, believing the show centered around a cast of USO performers during WWII.

That initial pilot episode titled, “The Cage,” flopped, but NBC did the unexpected and asked for a second one. Ball financed both despite her board of directors voting against it, believing the studio couldn’t afford the budget for the show.  

Mary Shelly – Life-Giver of Scifi Genre

Readers of the Outpost may already be aware of my affinity for Frankenstein and know my preference for the creature over the creator. Shelly’s greatest work, Frankenstein, while a fine example of gothic literature is the first of its kind as a piece of science fiction. 

As an English major, I revel in gothic lit like Dracula, Jane Eyre, and “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gothic literature is known for terror, suspense, and self-destruction. We see all of these elements prominently in Frankenstein. We watch Victor Frankenstein create life and flee in terror. He keeps grieving the loss of family members who all die because of Frankenstein’s refusal to love his creation or provide a companion for him (the creature). 

What causes Frankenstein to stand out from other works like Dracula and Jane Eyre is the introduction of science. Previous gothic work pulls from folklore, superstition, and the darkness within men’s souls. 

Shelly weaves in, at that time, cutting-edge science. 

Even more fun, Frankenstein was initially created as a ghost story told among friends when she and her husband were hanging out with Lord Byron (see above for more information about the kind of character he was) and Lord Byron’s physician, John Polidori.   

Emma Orczy – Original Masked Vigilante

Born in Hungry in 1865, Baroness Emma Orczy would develop into the person who created superheroes. As a small child, she lived through a peasant uprising where her family’s estate was burned down prompting her family to flee. 

Pulling from the traumatic events from her childhood, she wrote The Scarlet Pimpernel in 1901. Engulfed in the story, she completed it within five weeks. She didn’t publish this work initially. Instead, it was adapted into a stage production by her husband.

In 1905, when the production took off and was well-received, Orczy published the book. Ten sequels came afterward. 

Orczy’s hero wasn’t Superman. He didn’t have powers, but as Alan Sizzler Kistler points out, neither did Batman or Ironman. A superhero by definition has a set costume, a mission to fight evil, and often has a secret identity. 

Orczy’s imagination crafts all of that for us.

Bjo Trimble – Re-Energizes Star Trek 

Lucille Ball isn’t the only woman to rescue Star Trek. 

Trimble loved science fiction. In the late 1950’s she revitalized the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society. She bonded with her husband over their shared adoration of the genre. For the Trimbles, they appreciated Star Trek’s departure from the standard kill all of the aliens in their sight that many sci-fi programs used.  

Then in 1968, Star Trek found itself in trouble. NBC decided to cancel the show at the end of the second season. 

Bjo and John Trimble found themselves on set watching the filming of an episode seeing the crestfallen actors only show their feelings once they exited their scenes. Driving home they concocted their plan. They called Gene Roddenberry to ensure he was amenable to the scheme.

They started a letter-writing campaign, where fans of the show wrote President Ford to name the first space shuttle the Enterprise. Does anyone remember those chain letter emails in the 90s? That same premise was used well before the invention of the internet. The Trimbles and Roddenberry used a fan mail service to contact fans and ask them to forward the request to write President Ford to ten other people. Bjo and John’s work resulted in 200,000 letters flooding Ford’s office and the space shuttle went from being named Constitution to Enterprise.

Marcia Lucas – Was Star Wars’ Only Hope 

The cultural phenomenon that is Star Wars would not have been as impactful without Marcia Lucas. So why do we not know about her input? Well, her marriage to George Lucas lasted from 1969 – 1983. 

Before meeting George Lucas, Marcia polished her skill working for Martin Scorsese and Michael Ritchie. Marcia Lucas knew how to make an audience fall in love with characters. She knew that merely by starting the film in medias res, or in the middle of the action, viewers get sucked into the story. 

Before Lucas edited the first movie, Luke and Obi-wan watch Leia’s holographic message from R2, then have some lightsabers play, before going to help her. Apparently, that lag between Leia’s call for help and discussion about  actually going to aid her came off as heartless. 

Lucas advocated reshooting the scene to allow us to have the version we see today. After Obi-wan shows Luke the lightsaber. Then they see Leia’s message and discuss helping her. 

It was Marcia Lucas’ idea to kill Obi-wan as well. During rewrites, George Lucas was struggling with closing out the first act. Marcia suggested killing Obi-wan. This addition made the storyline less about the robots and provided a stronger call-to-action for our protagonist. 

It’s because of her we cheered during the trench run. The original sequence of events lacked the tension. She warned George, “If the audience doesn’t cheer when Han Solo comes in at the last second in the Millennium Falcon to help Luke when he’s being chased by Darth Vader, the picture doesn’t work.”

We miss out on hearing her contributions since their marriage dissolved in 1983 when Return of the Jedi was re-released. Of course, no one wants to credit their ex.

Raising the Women of Geekdom 

Looking at these six women who have made Geek culture what it is, we see very different storylines. In the case of Ada Lovelace, we see a mother who went against cultural norms in hopes to raise a daughter who didn’t share in her father’s “crazy lifestyle.” Lovelace allowed her love of mathematics to fuel her work with Charles Babbage’s early computer. She saw the potential and let that creative energy fuel her. 

Defenders of the Stars 

Star Trek needed two women to be what we know and love. The first woman who provided for the show she didn’t understand it at all. Lucille Ball’s board of directors voted against funding the first pilot. She went against their judgment taking a risk on the show. When NBC turned it down but asked for a second attempt, Ball’s production company funded that second pilot despite again getting turned down by the board of directors.

Ball didn’t turn a blind eye to the show going over budget, but she didn’t interfere much, believing in Roddenberry.

Later Star Trek would rely heavily on its fan base when NBC canceled it. Without Bjo Trimble creating a campaign to get the space shuttle named after the show’s space vessel, we wouldn’t have the entirety of the TOS.   

Star Wars wouldn’t be what it is without the work of Marcia Lucas – who took the work of her husband and reconfigured it in ways that built up the tension and caused us to fall in love with the characters. 

Writing the Way Forward

Two of the arguably greatest genres, superheroes and science fiction, were created by women. 

Mary Shelly took the basics of classic gothic literature and paired it with the advancements in science she saw happening all around her. Medicinal cannibalism was a surprisingly common practice and anatomists were paying top dollar for bodies to dissect to learn more about medicine and teach the next wave of doctors. These concepts rattled around her brain until she merged these thoughts with tragic heroes who through their own flaws invite their own downfall. 

Baroness Emma Orczy pulled the pain from her childhood to create a masked figure who would stand against injustice. Without any powers, he relied on the secrecy of his alternate identity to right the wrongs he saw. Without her, there would be no Marvel universe. 

History holds many more stories of women who inspired greatness. The world we see wouldn’t be the same without their input. Without reaching back and telling their stories we run the risk of losing their contributions. We have the ability to inspire everyone by telling the stories of women who faced adversity. When the entertainment industry (and well most industries) is male-dominated, it’s important to ensure their narratives are also shared.

Heck, don’t stop reading about the women of geekdom, check out these incredible artists.