There’s an academic Bujold study coming out, which is good. But this is what it’s about, which is nonsensical:
Acclaimed science fiction scholar Edward James traces how Bujold emerged from fanzine culture to win devoted male and female readers despite working in genres–military SF, space opera–perceived as solely by and for males.
“Garsh, I’m an academical press, so very steeped in literature. And that’s why I’ve never heard of anybody named Leigh Brackett or Catherine Moore or Andre Norton, or 75% of the Star Trek novelists, or Rebecca Meluch who lived right down the pike, or Elizabeth Moon. Yup, there weren’t any other women writing space opera or military sf, and never mind that Bujold read all these books growing up, and so did her readers.”
(See, I hope this is just a really stupid blurb by the university press, and not a preview of the book as parade of ignorance.)
I would actually argue that space opera was almost exclusively a female-written genre during the Eighties and early Nineties, and that male writers came back to it mostly because of David Weber and the huge success of Honor Harrington. And since most people noted at that time that it was C.L Forester meets Anne McCaffrey telepathic partnership, I would argue that David Weber knew the audience he was aiming for was one formed by female authors.
But I don’t think women writers were cut out of space opera in any way. What I recall is that Eighties/Nineties space operas (by women and men) often included romance. The popularity of this strand led to romance publishers putting out sf romances, which became sf and fantasy and paranormal romances. After several years of experimentation, sf/f publishers started putting out huge numbers of paranormal romances with a few sf romances mixed in, while space operas largely lost their romance tinges because publishers didn’t want romance there.
(And then self-publishing allowed anybody to put this stuff out, solely according to personal preference, which is where we are today. Goodness knows what the numbers are, and who would even try to figure it out?)
As for military sf — well, Star Trek was military sf, and so were many seminal works of written sf. The amount of realism about combat and the naval experience that was included differed among different female authors, but the same applied to male authors. Star Trek explicitly drew from C.L. Forester’s Hornblower and from Patrick O’Brien’s then-less known books, and many Star Trek authors read them for inspiration, and then tackled similar themes, trying to meaningfully depict the burden of command, military justice, being a prisoner of war, and the like. The popularity of space opera seems to have allowed contemplation of resuming writing military sf of a less bleak nature than Drake’s pre-Leary/Mundy work; and indeed, Baen released several “cheery” military sf works by both men and women in the late eighties and early nineties. The Sassinak co-written books featuring Anne McCaffrey with women co-writers Nye and Moon were typical of this. But McCaffrey’s first Dragonrider trilogy was also more or less military sf, but set in a world where the war was against Threadfall, and her Ship Who Sang stories dealt with military issues. She wrote a military-set Gothic/mystery romance or two, which wasn’t surprising because her dad was military. One of the first sf books Andre Norton wrote back in the 1950’s was Star Guard, which was military sf, and her Sword trilogy was comprised of a good chunk of military fiction, and many of her heroes had WWII experience and post-WWII assignments.
I could go on and on like this, and I’m sure I could go trawling through people’s pulp collections to the same effect, if I wanted to go back further. It used to be very typical to have your sf hero or heroine have WWI experience; and before that, in the scientific romances, it was typical to give them military/war experience in the US Civil War, or the UK Boer War, or in Indian-fighting in the Old West or the Old Northwest or the Northwest Frontier of Canada. (If you want someone to have a variety of useful skills, this is a good shorthand way to provide them.) But I’ll stop here.
Bujold is remarkable because she is a Darned Good Writer. She would be remarkable in any company of writers, male or female or little gray alien.
But though she has planted fields in her own unique way, plenty of people had planted there before her. She did not break new ground. Nor was she the only woman in those fields during the dawn of her career. Quite the opposite, as my paperback bookshelves tell me.
UPDATE: I forgot to mention Jo Clayton’s Seventies/Eighties Diadem series from DAW Books. There were nine books of it, it focused on the space opera/planetary adventure perils and triumphs of a single female character, Aleytys; and it was a blend of Seventies/Eighties historical saga romance with Seventies feminist sword and sorcery tropes. (She traveled around to low-tech planets seeking alien artifacts. Unlike Lara Croft, she got captured or raped or enslaved every book, practically, and then she killed all the rapists with her magic alien-tech crown. I think her thief boyfriend survived all the books, although I don’t really remember.) As with every other sf/f book I came across in a library or open bookshelf, I read them all even though I didn’t like them. My impression was that they sold like hotcakes. Anyway, the series ran from 1977-1986, and she wrote many other sf/f books until her too-early decease.
UPDATE: I haven’t even mentioned C.J. Cherryh, who was probably the Eighties’ most prominent author in both space opera and hard sf. Captain Signy Mallory of Downbelow Station? Military sf. The Pride of Chanur series? Space opera. The Morgaine series? Stargate: SG-1 on horses, years before Stargate was even invented. Serpent’s Reach? SF horror. Cherryh is still alive and writing and popular, so it’s silly of me to forget her! Cherryh has won three Hugos and was nominated seven times (1979 (nom for Best Novel, won for Best Short Story), 1982 (won Best Novel), 1983, 1986 (nom for Best Novel and Best Novella), 1989 (won Best Novel)). She also won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 1977.
Less happily, one must remember that the now-notorious pedophile and child abuser Marion Zimmer Bradley’s entire Darkover series was technically space opera as well as planetary adventure. It was wildly popular and influential during the Seventies and early Eighties, and was a focus of female fandom. Bradley was nominated twice for Best Novel in the Hugos, in 1963 and 1978. Both were Darkover novels.