The first WisCon in 1977 honored author Katherine MacLean and Amanda Bankier (editor of the first feminist fanzine, “The Witch and the Chameleon”). In a world in which it was considered progressive for most conventions to schedule a single “Women in SF” panel, WisCon bent fannish traditions by scheduling a whole convention’s-worth of panels addressing many feminist and pointedly left-leaning political topics.
WisCon 1 was held on a bitterly cold February weekend on the University of Wisconsin campus. Attendees had to trudge across two frigid blocks between the building where programming took place and the dorm’s sleeping rooms, but everyone had a good time in spite of the icy conditions. Legend has it that the first concom had imprinted upon the 1976 Kansas City worldcon (MidAmericon), which was the first convention that most of these young student fans had ever attended. According to these WisCon founders, this experience accounts for the many-tracked program they created for their first convention whose attendance amounted to barely 200 people. WisCon continues to be known for its unusually heavy, multi-tracked schedule of programming.
The first WisCon was partially subsidized by University of Wisconsin funds during its first couple years, which made sense since most members of Madison SF group were University students in those days. The group had just incorporated as SF3 (The Society for the Furtherance & Study of Fantasy & Science Fiction) and was regularly publishing a feminist SF fanzine called “Janus,” which was nominated twice for a Hugo in the Best Fanzine category. Several of the early WisCon program books doubled as special issues of “Janus.”
WisCon became very successful and popular among fans and professionals interested in discussing feminism and other political issues in connection with science fiction and fantasy. Con committee members graduated from college, started careers, married, had children, signed mortgages, and bought computers. Memberships grew steadily each year and WisCon quickly outgrew its campus facilities and accumulated sufficient funds to run the convention independent of University support. WisCon became famous not only for its unusually political programming focus, but also for its well-stocked hospitality suite, excellent organization, and parties, and for the guests it invited.
Over the years, WisCon invited many fine writers, editors, and authors whose work touched on feminist, gender, race, and class themes. Membership grew slowly but steadily, and WisCon had to move several times to larger hotels that could provide more programming space and a sufficient number of sleeping rooms. In 1995 WisCon moved to the Concourse Hotel which provides excellent program facilities to WisCon; our relationship with Concourse staff is a cordial partnership. WisCon also left its winter spot in the calendar in 1995 and settled on the early-summer dates of Memorial Day weekend. Happily, attendees no longer need to pack fleece-lined boots and mittens, but can plan instead on balmy temperatures and Saturday morning expeditions to the famous Madison Farmers’ Market one block from the Concourse Hotel.
The feminist focus of WisCon has waned and sharpened over the years. WisCon’s engagement with feminism was re-energized at WisCon 15 in 1991 when Guest of Honor Pat Murphy announced the James Tiptree, Jr. Award. WisCon became the Tiptree Award’s greatest ally and supporter. In 2019, WisCon supported the Motherboard in renaming to the Otherwise Award–you can read more about that here.
In 1996, WisCon 20 celebrated the convention’s 20th birthday by inviting Ursula K. Le Guin and Judith Merril, as well as all its past guests of honor. Nearly 750 people attended.
WisCon has grown from a small regional convention to a large, truly international convention, with attendees traveling from all over the world in order to meet other fans and professionals with similar interests. Our convention has grown up to become the annual gathering for the feminist SF community. It also functions as a vibrant meeting place for fans and professionals interested in broader themes of gender, race, and class in Science Fiction and Fantasy.