Thursday, 5 May 2011

Joanna Russ dies aged 74

Writer and critic Joanna Russ has died peacefully in Arizona after suffering a series of strokes. She first came to prominence in the late 1960s in a science fiction world largely dominated by men. She is lauded as being one of the most outspoken authors to challenge male dominance in the field and won several major awards in it. She was also a prominent feminist essayist.  Her best known works are The Female Man (1975),  and - a book which was very important to me when I was trying to work out how to write - the scathingly brilliant How to Suppress Women's Writing (1984). I quoted from it in my thesis:

...As Joanna Russ wrote...“undoubtedly one response to Women can’t write is not to”... There is ample evidence that prior to the 1980s at least, women authors made up only a very small proportion of canonical lists in Western literary higher education. Russ found between 5 percent and 8 percent, although "the personnel change rather strikingly".[1]

In other words, having once made it onto a list of Great Authors Worth Studying, women don't stay there - they are replaced by another tiny handful of different women. Much of what she wrote in that book still holds true today. Read her.

[1] Russ, How to Suppress Women's Writing, p. 79. In Silences, Tillie Olsen came to a well-supported similar conclusion that the usual ratio was one in twelve. Florence Howe recalled how she and a young male teacher redesigned the required sophomore course in English literature at a women’s university: “We chose a series of “major” and “universal” works…in which there appeared not a single woman author nor a single admirable woman as central character”.  She also notes that “there was until 1969 no social context in which [her students] and I could find support” for a different approach. Florence Howe, ed., Women and the Power to Change, Carnegie Commission on Higher Education Research Series (New York: McGraw Hill, 1975), pp. 147, 50. This is pretty much the kind of teaching of "English literature" I encoutered at university in NZ in the 1960s.


anthea said...

Thanks Anne. I'd also recommend Amanda's post on Joanna Russ at

Psycho Milt said...

I've still got two or three of her works in my bookcase, including The Female Man. Her stuff was great, really hard-hitting - must read them again.