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How To Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ

March 20, 2018

How to Suppress Women's Writing

How To Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ. University of Texas Press, 2018.

4 stars

A feminist classic from the 1980s using humor to point out the ways in which women have been silenced, especially in the field of literature.

Joanna Russ (1937 –2011) was an American writer and academic who made significant contributions in the fields of science fiction and fantasy and in the development of feminist theory and literary criticism, from the 1960s to the 1980s.  She was among the first women to receive high praise in the male-dominated world of science fiction.  Her radical feminist anger and humor made many of us laugh instead of cry and helped fuel the achievements for women of that era.  Her novel, The Female Man, is a fantasy which reversed the roles of men and women, revealing the ridiculousness of men accepting the lives many women lead.

How To Suppress Women’s Writing was published in 1983. By then more women faculty were entering English departments and introducing more writing by women into college classes.  Vicious arguments about the worth, or worthlessness of women writers were widespread.  Russ’s book stakes out the feminist claims about how women writers have been excluded from the literary cannon. Simply stating the statements of those opposing introducing more women into the literary cannon allows Russ to expose the ridiculousness of the exclusions.

The introduction to this edition of How to Suppress Women’s Writing states that the problems Russ describes still demand our attention today.  Certainly there is abundant evidence that men and women are still not treated equally as writers and literary critics.  The annual statistics on the gender of book reviewers in major journals and the authors they review are appalling.  The underlying problem remains of women and their concerns, in literature and elsewhere, being defined as not worthy of attention.

But I also see another side of the story.  Today universities are recognizing the value of women professors, and women are moving up the ranks of departmental hierarchies—and getting to choose what books are worth teaching.  Inside universities and without, more women are publishing a wider variety of novels. Writing about the same time as Russ, Carolyn Heilbrun said that literary plots were generally about men going on quests and women being rescued.  Today we have lots of excellent books about women on quests.  When I wrote my dissertation about mothers and daughters, I found few novels focusing on that relationship.  Today bookshelves on those topics are overflowing. The same could be said for other woman-to-woman relationships as sisters, friends, and lovers. Today anyone making the comments in public about women and writing that Russ quotes would receive frowns if not worse.  (Sadly the same cannot be said about politicians.)

I found rereading Russ enjoyable, if a bit dated at times.  Readers with more knowledge of books and authors will probably appreciate her most.  Younger readers will find in her book an account of what we have had to fight for and what we must not lose.  I recommend How to Suppress women’s Writing to all readers.

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