Where in the heck did I hear about How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ? If you wrote a blog post about her in the past couple of months, do let me know. Anyway, Russ was an influential science fiction writer in the 1970s, so I’d been aware of her for a while and always meant to read some of her books. (The most famous is The Female Man.) Then, somewhere, I came across a mention of her nonfiction literary-analysis book How to Suppress Women’s Writing and knew it would make for a great Feminist Friday post. It’s basically a “guidebook” to all the methods used to discount and devalue women’s writing. The cover gives a pretty effective summary of what the book is about:
That’s roughly the course of the book, but here’s the table of contents in more detail (pasted from Wikipedia):
1. Prohibitions: Prevent women from access to the basic tools for writing.
2. Bad Faith: Unconsciously create social systems that ignore or devalue women’s writing.
3. Denial of Agency: Deny that a woman wrote it.
4. Pollution of Agency: Show that their art is immodest, not actually art, or shouldn’t have been written about.
5. The Double Standard of Content: Claim that one set of experiences is considered more valuable than another.
6. False Categorizing: Incorrectly categorize women artists as the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, or lovers of male artists.
7. Isolation: Create a myth of isolated achievement that claims that only one work or short series of poems is considered great.
8. Anomalousness: Assert that the woman in question is eccentric or atypical.
9. Lack of Models: Reinforce a male author dominance in literary canons in order to cut off women writers’ inspiration and role models.
10. Responses: Force women to deny their female identity in order to be taken seriously.
11. Aesthetics: Popularize aesthetic works that contain demeaning roles and characterizations of women.
From the beginning, Russ talks productively about conscious discrimination versus ignorance and social norms, which is very necessary in this conversation. As soon as you start pointing out sexism, people say it’s unintential, it’s only one example of a mistake, etc., but those things are just distractions from the point. It leads into one of Russ’s more famous quotes:
“At the level of high culture with which this book is concerned, active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is so far from neutral. To act in a way that is both sexist and racist, to maintain one’s class privilege, it is only necessary to act in the customary, ordinary, usual, even polite manner.”
Then, each chapter clearly shows how the different strategies work and interact to make female writers practically invisible, and uses quotes from other writers and commentators across time periods to show that these issues are endemic and intersectional, not just accidents. She has a wide scope of knowledge and thorough understanding of these authors and how they’ve been treated. She’s got statistics about how often women are included in anthologies, and what’s said about them in comparison to male writers. There’s a place for the kind of personal stories we see in feminist memoirs, but without this kind of systematic analysis, all the tactics Russ describes come immediately into play.
The most surreal example was, for me, Charlotte Bronte. She wrote Jane Eyre. I always vaguely thought that was the only thing she wrote. No, she wrote several other novels, and Jane Eyre isn’t even her best. That seems to be Villette, a novel which in the 1980s wasn’t available in the US, and which is, according to one quote, a meditation on a prison break. When I looked it up for more details, all I found was commentary on which characters might represent Bronte’s unrequited love interests. Because Jane Eyre can be read as a romance, that’s the one critics chose to address, and pretend it represents Bronte. And when they do talk about Villette, they minimize it and act like it’s Bronte’s romantic frustration rather than a good novel about anything. All the things Russ talked about were happening right there in front of me.
The book deals mainly with the canon of literature and poetry, but also has examples from scifi/fantasy, art history, and other relevant categories. Dealing with the canon means that this book has hardly aged at all. If it were to be written now, there might be discussion of the modern middle-grade and YA markets with authors like J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer, or the growing success of straight-to-ebook romance books by women. There are some genres where female writers are the default, but those genres are considered less important and less serious. I’d be interested in continuing the discussion up to the present day, and looking at updated statistics, but even so there’s nothing “missing” here. If the statistics have improved, it isn’t by much, and people are still using all the same tactics to devalue women’s contributions.
Russ’s writing is clear, relevant, and accurate. This is the kind of book you read so that you can put things into words yourself. So you can call things out, if only in your mind, instead of just being vaguely upset by them. It’s a frustrating book because all this is still the same, but that’s what makes it so useful, too. Highly recommended.