Asimov and the female robot

I recently skimmed Asimov’s 1969 story “Feminine Intuition,” the second-to-last-written of the Susan Calvin robot stories. (Written about 12 years after the previous one.)

The first three-quarters of the story is full of eye-roll-inducing stuff like this:

“[…] call it ‘intuitive.’”

“An intuitive robot,” someone muttered. “A girl robot?”

A smile made its way about the conference table.

Madarian seized on that. “All right. A girl robot. Our robots are sexless, of course, and so will this one be, but we always act as though they’re males. We give them male pet names and call them he and him. […]”

“[…] One thing the general public believes is that women are not as intelligent as men.”

There was an instant apprehensive look on the face of more than one man at the table and a quick look up and down as though Susan Calvin were still in her accustomed seat.

A bit later, the first “Jane”-model robot is built, with a narrow waist. Two men discuss that design choice:

“Don’t like it. You’ll be bulging her higher up to give the appearance of breasts next, and that’s a rotten idea. If women start getting the notion that robots may look like women, I can tell you exactly the kind of perverse notions they’ll get[…]”

[…] “Maybe you’re right at that. No woman wants to feel replaceable by something with none of her faults.”

When they perfect the Jane series, they get rid of the narrow waist, but the final Jane-5 model “managed to possess an air of femininity about herself despite the absence of a single clearly feminine feature. […] Her arms were held gracefully and somehow the torso managed to give the impression of curving slightly when she turned.” Also, her “voice was precisely that of a woman; it was a sweet and almost disturbing contralto.”

The designer explains why he chose that voice: “I want people to think of her as a woman; to treat her as a woman; to explain.” (!!!)

Later, the voice is shown to have been a great idea, as described by the designer, when he takes Jane-5 to a planetology center to learn everything she can about planetology: “every man in the place stepped back. Scared! […but] she greeted them routinely. […] And it came out in this beautiful contralto. […] One man straightened his tie, and another ran his fingers through his hair. What really got me was that the oldest guy in the place actually checked his fly to make sure it was zipped. […] All they needed was the voice. She isn’t a robot any more; she’s a girl.”

The designer provides further explanation of the voice thing: “Listen, men respond to voices. At the most intimate moments, are they looking? It’s the voice in your ear.”

…But about 3/4 of the way through the story, famed robopsychologist Susan Calvin is invited in to solve the story’s central mystery/puzzle, and she says to some male characters:

“Feminine intuition? Is that what you wanted the robot for? You men. Faced with a woman reaching a correct conclusion and unable to accept the fact that she is your equal or superior in intelligence, you invent something called feminine intuition.”

And then a bit later:

“It is a difficult choice sometimes whether to feel revolted at the male sex or merely to dismiss them as contemptible.”

So I’m not really sure what Asimov was going for here. Calvin, of course, correctly solves this story’s puzzle, as she always does, which might suggest that all the annoyingly sexist stuff in the first 3/4 of the story was meant to be undermined by Calvin telling the men (and demonstrating) that there’s no such thing as feminine intuition.

And yet… Susan Calvin and Jane are the only on-camera female characters in the story. Jane has only a couple of on-camera lines; mostly she’s described by a man. Calvin doesn’t appear until 3/4 of the way through. Despite Calvin having been an incredibly respected (and feared) figure at US Robots for decades, apparently the company has no other women employees. There are also apparently no women planetologists.

So even if we give Asimov the benefit of the doubt here and decide that he meant this story to reject all the sexist stuff in the first 3/4, we’re still left with worldbuilding that results in only one human woman character.

For that matter, in this entire book of 31 robot stories (The Complete Robot, an omnibus volume published in 1982), I think there are only 12 on-camera named female characters (distributed among 16 of the stories; the other 15 stories have no female characters):

  • A girl named Gloria, and Gloria’s obnoxious mother (“Robbie,” 1940)
  • A wife named Claire Belmont (“Satisfaction Guaranteed,” 1951)
  • A car named Sally and a human woman named Mrs. Hester (“Sally,” 1953)
  • The abovedescribed female robot, Jane (“Feminine Intuition,” 1969)
  • A widow named Avis Lardner (“Light Verse,” 1973)
  • Miss, Little Miss, and Congresswoman Li Hsing (“The Bicentennial Man,” 1976)
  • A doctor named Genevieve Renshaw (“Think!”, 1977)
  • And of course Susan Calvin (“Feminine Intuition” and nine other stories, 1941-1969). (Calvin also appears briefly as a teenager in “Robbie.”)

(Before you ask: yes, there are many more than 12 on-camera named male characters in this book.)


Imo, Susan Calvin deserves far better than Asimov gave her. (I kind of want to write a detailed rant about his characterization of her, but right now I don’t want to spend enough more time with these stories to type up the relevant bits.)

There are a few fanworks featuring her at AO3, but most of them with her name on them are connected to the I, Robot movie rather than to the stories.

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