Our origin: The Tiptree Award

In February of 1991 at WisCon (the world’s largest feminist-oriented science fiction convention), award-winning SF author Pat Murphy announced the creation of the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award, an annual literary prize for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. Pat created the award in collaboration with author Karen Joy Fowler. The aim of the award is to seek out work that is thought-provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating.

The award was named for Alice B. Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. By her impulsive choice of a masculine pen name, Sheldon helped break down the imaginary barrier between “women’s writing” and “men’s writing.” Her stories were eagerly accepted by publishers and won many awards in the field. Many years later, after she had written some other work under the female pen name of Raccoona Sheldon, it was discovered that she was female. The discovery led to a great deal of discussion of what aspects of writing, if any, are essentially gendered. Pat and Karen selected the name “Tiptree” for the award to illustrate the complex role of gender in writing and reading. Pat remembers: “We wanted to create an award that pointed out the absurdity of those who kept saying ‘but women can’t write science fiction.’ Naming the Award after James Tiptree, Jr. allowed us to celebrate Tiptree’s powerful writing and influence on the field—and at the same time, the name let us laugh at those who had dismissed women’s writing and yet had happily embraced Tiptree’s work as unquestionably masculine.”

From 1992 until 2018, under the guidance of the Tiptree Motherboard, the Tiptree Award was given each year to works of science fiction and fantasy that expanded and explored our understanding of gender—with a new jury each year working to determine what “expand and explore” would mean to them.

In 2015, the Tiptree Award organization expanded by creating the Tiptree Fellowships for emerging creators who are using speculative narrative, including visual, sound, and performance arts, to change the way we think about gender in its intersections with other systems of identity and power.

Becoming “Otherwise”

As the Tiptree Award became an established part of the sff world, members of the community began to raise questions about the appropriateness of the name “Tiptree.” Alice Sheldon ended her life in 1987 by killing herself and her husband, Huntington Sheldon, who was physically disabled. In 2019, disabled fans and writers publicly asked the Motherboard to consider renaming the Award because of the name’s association with Alice Sheldon’s act. After a period of extended consultation, the Motherboard agreed that this was the right thing to do, and the Tiptree Award became the Otherwise Award.

At the time of the name change, we published an extended explanation of our decision to change the name, including links to several analyses of the circumstances surrounding the Sheldons’ deaths.

A line of connection to our history remains in the new name through the title of Tiptree’s 1975 short story collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise, although this was not among the Motherboard’s reasons for choosing the name “Otherwise.”

Beyond the name, the traditions that have grown up around this award are very important to us. These include:

  • Open nominations, where anyone can nominate any work (including their own) at any time of the year and at no cost.
  • Celebrating the many exciting works that arrive each year, not just one or two.
  • Searching out small presses and new voices from inside and outside the traditional genre borders.
  • Supporting emerging creators with our Fellowship program, where each year’s Fellows help to choose those who will be honored the following year.
  • Funding our program activities primarily through communal efforts (like bake sales, T-shirt sales, and auctions) that transparently reflect your support.
  • Inviting (and funding) winners to come to WisCon, where they address us with a speech.
  • Our WisCon rituals of song, tiara, art, and chocolate.
  • Space Babe.

All of these will continue, and we hope that the Otherwise name will inspire new traditions.

We consider everyone who has won a Tiptree Award, been named on the Honor or Long List, or awarded a Tiptree Fellowship, to be retroactive Otherwise honorees. Whether you describe your achievement with the Tiptree or Otherwise name—or with both—is up to you.

Past Motherboard members

The current Motherboard members are listed on a separate page.

Here are the former members, all of whom have contributed to shaping the award:

  • Alexis Lothian
  • Debbie Notkin
  • Delia Sherman
  • Ellen Klages
  • Jeanne Gomoll
  • Jeffrey D. Smith
  • Karen Joy Fowler
  • Liz Henry
  • Pat Murphy