I personally enjoy reading Heinlein, but the argument has been made to me that "All of his women are basically men." I have also heard it said that he basically tried to write forward-thinking literature (from a gender-equality perspective) and failed miserably. Can anyone back this up (or refute it)?
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I was searching around for some well-cited academic analysis and/or non-fiction Heinlein might have written that could clarify his intentions and beliefs relevant to feminist criticism and came upon this question. I can't do much more than round out the perspectives on Heinlein's general portrayals (as being mostly positive) with some canonical examples that highlight some of the (arguable) negatives.
I've edited this answer some over the years as I've read more Heinlein and to try to clarify the context of my answer. But I have taken it back to bare bones. This may make it easier to misunderstand, but as some misunderstandings are deliberate, there's little I can really do to prevent that.
Despite the claim that "Heinlein's women are basically men," Heinlein repeatedly emphasizes in much of his work that men and women are innately different in the workings of their minds and emotions due to their biological sex. The TL;DR is that, despite a perceptively positive slant, Heinlein frequently depicted differentiation between men and women and reasoning for it "suspiciously similar" to traditional sexism.
Digressing momentarily to my opinion, I don't think the positive aspects of Heinlein's portrayals of women are to be found in either the absence of sexist stereotypes or in deeply nuanced characterization (that wasn't his strong point). Rather, Heinlein's narratives seem to say that many hallmarks of traditional gender roles are due to biology. But the take also seems to be, "So what?! If men can work, invent, govern, and fight under the influence of their hormones, so can women." This is not a bad message.
If that is the message. It's not clear if the gender essentialism in Heinlein's characters and plots comes from a traditionally sexist mindset, or if it was meant to cater to it, or maybe meant to say that different people will naturally have different perspectives and that their sex will influence those perspectives. Meaning is hard to pin down, thus my interest in Heinlein's own takes on his own meaning.
Sexist Memes in Heinlein
The following are canonical examples of "suspicious" portions that could appear to be sexist (and mostly, I think, disprove that "his women are basically men"). There are vague spoilers throughout. The majority cite narration, plot events, or dialog. The last cites a letter Heinlein wrote to a publisher. I haven't read as much of Heinlein's YA; maybe check out Heinlein's Female Troubles, which focuses on his YA.
His characters do suggest that sex affects the work women are fit for in less civilized societies--for their own good, of course--and aren't always "proven wrong." (Farnham's Freehold, The Number of the Beast, Time Enough for Love). Traditional sexist memes invoked: "Nature over nurture" and "Women need to be protected."
Also it is clear that, in Heinlein novels, all women are "naturally" inclined to desire children and to nurture them, unless they have been traumatized (Friday, Stranger in a Strange Land, Podkayne of Mars). Traditional sexist meme invoked: "Women are naturally maternal."
He wrote a couple of women who said that women get the most horny when they think about pregnancy and enjoy sex the most when pregnancy is a possibility (To Sail Beyond the Sunset, I Will Fear No Evil). Traditional sexist meme invoked: "Women's sexuality has ulterior motives."
Plot events suggest that women are so overwhelmingly attracted to powerful men that, without regard to their partners' feelings, they will deliberately seek out and nurture cuckoo's eggs if a sufficiently desirable mate appears (To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Time Enough for Love). Traditional sexist memes invoked: "Women will trade up to more powerful caregivers" and "Women are faithless."
Some characters seem to support the notion that the most feminine women are frequently a little vapid--although the justification might be their preoccupation with the very serious matter of creating the next generation (Stranger in a Strange Land, Number of the Beast). Traditional sexist meme invoked: "Women are silly."
Several women narrate that they are smart: smart enough to realize that, as women, it doesn't best serve them to flaunt their intelligence. Instead, they can deliberately let men think they are stupid and benefit from this because the men will do things for them while simultaneously underestimating them (To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Podkayne of Mars, Friday). Traditional sexist memes invoked: "Women are manipulative" and "Women use sex against men."
He writes of much older men who are attracted to barely pubescent girls (and vice versa) and implies via narration that this is very natural on both ends. Compounding this, girls as young as 12 are implied to have sufficient maturity to pursue this choice. How? The girls come back few years older and get laid (The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, Time Enough for Love). Traditional sexist memes invoked: "Men are way into young girls, but why shouldn't they be when the young girls pursue them" and "Women mature faster than men."
One novel suggests post-menopause is the best time to seek a career for women (To Sail Beyond the Sunset), since they no longer have better things to do. Traditional sexist meme invoked: "Building a family is the dream for women". Remember, in traditional sexist stereotyping, babies are always the most important thing for women. They are (or, one supposes, should be) important for men too, as members of the human species--but are so much more especially important for women that women can't/shouldn't/won't do anything else.
One narrative justifies a character abandoning his wife of many decades--in the process attempting to deprive his children and ex-wife of the vast majority of their communal money and property in favor of his new, young wife and his new stepchildren--on the rationale that he's just doing his duty by his new wife (To Sail Beyond the Sunset). Traditional meme invoked: "The domestic/caregiving role has no value compared to breadwinning."
Some of his female characters judge others who do not conform (especially to the obsession with motherhood), implying that all right-thinking, truly feminine women will sympathize and agree with their perspective--that any who don't are unnatural and unfeminine (To Sail Beyond the Sunset, I Will Fear No Evil). Traditional sexist meme invoked: "Women are catty."
At least one of Heinlein's juveniles, if you take Heinlein's own word in a letter to his editor, may be a parable for mothers who focus too much on their careers and too little on their children (Podkayne of Mars). Unless he was being sarcastic in the letter...dot dot dot. Traditional sexist meme invoked: "Bad mothers are ruining the world."
Most of these appeared in multiple novels, but they only scratch the surface of Friday and I Will Fear No Evil.
SPOILERS for Friday
There is a notorious rape in Friday. She does literally say that the best option for a rape victim is to try to enjoy it. On the other hand, she indicates that it's more pretending, says she can consider this because she is trained, and that it is a psychological tactic to lower her rapists' guard to aid her escape. On the other other hand, she also mentions finding one of the rapists almost pleasant and later marries him. On the other other other hand, she kicks his ass first and makes him admit to his crime (although OOOOH his apparently genuine remorse is overshadowed by, "you were so sexy I couldn't help it").
END SPOILERS for Friday
SPOILERS for I Will Fear No Evil
There are definitely some creepy overtones and unpleasant implications in the events of I Will Fear No Evil. To wit, an old man's brain gets transplanted into his beautiful young secretary's body: her body is now literally his and yet she's still in it. Her personality lingers in the body with awareness. She cedes control to him, however. Over time, the sex of his body changes how he thinks and feels: he becomes she. In some cases, what would have been offensive to him as a man became acceptable to her as a woman--even being talked down to and sexually harassed.
END SPOILERS for I Will Fear No Evil
On a closely related note, there are also noteworthy things in Heinlein's treatment of LGBTQIA+ characters. For example, he portrays homosensuality positively (Galahad, Mike the Martian), but wrote at least a couple scornful asides about homosexuality. Also, he portrays a certain amount of gender fluidity positively (Mike the Computer, Joanne Eunice, Slipstick Libby), but also seems to say it's dysfunctional if one's behavior doesn't match relatively traditional behavior deemed appropriate for one's sex.
I hope my examples show that Heinlein's work can come off as regressive today for good reasons. Still, I do personally think any writeoff of it as bad for/at women is as inaccurate as any vaunting of it as great for/at women.
As to the man himself, there's no doubt that some of the ideas he explores were ones he agreed with, but it's not clear from the novels alone which ones.
First and foremost, I'd point you at Spider Robinson's essay on the matter in Requiem.
Then I'd suggest that you read Podkayne of Mars or Poor Daddy or The Bulletin Board.
Heinlein's female characters pick their own life paths and often choose to have both family and careers. They have aspirations to accomplish things in life and better themselves, they pursue education throughout their lives and work hard to fulfill the obligations that they have voluntarily assumed in life.
What was the problem again?
Now let's take
"All of his women are basically men."
Heinlein's works are full of smart, capable, empathetic, independent, strong willed women who are often wise and always know what they want and don't let men (or other women, for that matter) deter them from striving after those goals.
So, if someone complaining about this says that these traits make the female characters "men", then ... doesn't that amount to claiming that these are traits that are primarily masculine? Are you sure that this is a "feminist" position?
And if that is not the complaint, then has the author not portrayed women as having as many of the best qualities of humanity as his male characters?
Who's supposed to be the misogynist here, again?
Lets name some of these characters, shall we
- Podkayne Fries in Podkayne of Mars (protagonist)
- Hilde Burroughs & Deety Carter in The Number of the Beast (co-protagonist and both Ph.Ds)
- Maureen Johnson in To Sail Beyond the Sunset (protagonist, Ph.D.)
- Margerethe Graham in Job
- Sadie Lipschitz AKA Hazel in The Cat Who Walks Through Walls
- Friday Jones in Friday (protagonist)
- Ishtar in Time Enough for Love (Administrator of the Howard Clinic on Secondus and a clinical therapist)
- Barbara Farnham nee Well in Farnham's Freehold
- All the female characters in Tunnel in the Sky and in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
and on and on, I'd have to dig through my pile to find all the names.
I should note that Heinlein's female characters are rarely typical, but then neither are his male characters. Instead they tend to be unusually intelligent, highly educated (either formally or by voracious reading), broadly or deeply accomplished (or both), able to distinguish facts from guess and from wishes, and able to do what needs doing for the duration of the emergency.
I'd sure like to live up to that standard.
Although the answer by dmckee is outstanding, it is never-the-less incomplete. People who argue that Heinlein was sexist or lacked proper forward thinking forget about a couple of critical details.
The first is that he was born in 1907. He grew up in a time and a society that had certain views about women - what they should be like, and what they were capable of. Women in society have come a long way since 1907. Some of the significant parts of those advances have come since 1988 (the year he died). It is unfair to Heinlein to judge his "forward thinking" against modern standards - rather judge him against the standards he grew up with - those that existed prior to his 20th birthday.
Another thing to consider, is that he graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1929. When I was in the military in the 1980's, women were still, to an extent, second class citizens. Even today, most of the high ranking generals are still men. So, you can imagine that the Navy of the 1920's and 1930's wasn't exactly a bastion of feminism.
Consider the time frame in which his most well known works were published. The "juvies" were all written in the 1940's and 50's. Starship Troopers was published in 1959 and Stranger in a Strange Land came out in 1961.
Finally, I think it's important to keep in mind that Heinlein's writing is not necessarily an indication of his personal beliefs. Consider this remark in the Heinlein article in Wikipedia:
Heinlein's first novel published as a book, Rocket Ship Galileo, was initially rejected because going to the moon was considered too far out
Heinlein was a commercially successful writer and, at times, that required him to compromise for the sake of publication. Look at the publishing history of Stranger in a Strange Land.
So, while it might be true that Heinlein's works contain elements that seem antiquated by modern standards, we should also take into consideration not where he ended up, but rather how far he managed to get from where he started.
Is the question really "and/or?" The question of whether there is a generally accepted critical response to his work seems to me to be very different from, and much more general than, the question of whether there is a generally accepted feminist response.
Assuming that the question is really and/or, then others have discussed the feminist response, so I'll say a few words about general critical response. I'm not pretending that this is comprehensive, expert, or up to date. Web searches turn up some interesting-looking stuff that I don't have access to, e.g., Dickinson, "What is One to Make of Robert A. Heinlein?" and Sullivan, "Heinlein's Juveniles: Still Contemporary After All These Years."
Science fiction doesn't generally attract the kind of critical attention received by non-genre literature. Ditto for young adult (YA) fiction. A lot of Heinlein's best writing, and arguably the portion of it that had the greatest influence on baby boomers, was YA science fiction novels, and therefore it was pretty much ignored critically.
There is a book by Alexei Panshin, Heinlein in Dimension, from 1968. This was written when Heinlein was at the top of his game and had shifted his focus from YA to fiction explicitly written for adults. James Blish writes in his introduction to the book:
On the one hand, [Heinlein] is so plainly the best all-around science fiction writer of the modern (post-1926) that taking anything but an adulatory view of his work seems to some people ... lese majeste [...] On the other, much of his major work gives the impression of being a vehicle for highly personal political and economic opinions, so that a critic who disagrees with these views may find himself reacting to the lectures rather than the fiction.
Panshin describes Heinlein (p. 8) as already being in "a period of decline and increasing alienation" from 1959 to 1968. Summing up (p. 189), he says,
It is clear right now that even if his career were to be over, Heinlein would retain a historical place in company with Wells and Stapledon.
Heinlein's work from 1970 on is at best controversial. A sample of negative critical response to work from this period is this review of The Number of the Beast by Dave Langford. Jo Walton calls one novel from this period "Heinlein's Worst Novel."
William H. Patterson, Jr., and Andrew Thornton have written "The Martian Named Smith: Critical Perspectives on Robert A. Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land."
Some critics simply find Heinlein dated, e.g., Jonathan Strahan in this review of Glory Road.