This excellent book is the missing link (though obviously it hasn’t been missing at all to those who’ve known it for thirty years), between Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Mary Beard’s Women & Power. Published in 1983, it is a perfect blend of feminist insight and great intellectual clarity, and is a remarkable synthesis of western feminist critical scholarship surging forward on the wave of intellectual excitement that arose in the 1970s. It’s also a damn good read, full of anecdotes to make you gasp and rage at the same time. It’s focused on Russ’s own discipline of literature in English: although I’ve been teaching and researching that subject for over thirty years, reading this (shamefully, for the first time) had me making lists of the works by women I now want to read that I had not heard of before.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh is one of them. I’ve wanted to read and then teach that poem for years, but had been subtly deterred by its absence from the canon, the lack of interest my overlords had in it compared to, say, ‘My Last Duchess’ or those mechanical Sonnets from the Portuguese. Russ’s take on that would be that Aurora Leigh had been designated as not being from the right genre, or was anomalous, the only one of its kind: both were enough to remove it entirely from the ranks of ‘proper’ literature as taught in the proper universities.
This is what I love about How to Suppress Women’s Writing: Russ’s forensic analysis of the reasoning behind the exclusions and the sweeping away of women’s writing simply because it is by women.
Russ’s stages are:
She didn’t write it. (Downright denial in the face of the evidence.)
She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have. (Take that woman’s pen away and get her back to the kitchen.)
She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (What women write about is not worth reading.)
She wrote it, but ‘she’ isn’t really an artist and ‘it’ isn’t really serious, of the right genre, ie really art. (What women write about cannot possibly be art because women don’t create art.)
She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. (A one-off, it’s a fluke. Frankenstein wrote itself.)
She wrote it, but it’s only interesting / included in the canon for one, limited reason. (It’s about her husband. Or her father. Who probably wrote most of it.)
She wrote it, but there are very few of her. (Jane Austen was the only 18thC woman to write a novel.)
She wrote it, but she doesn’t fit in. (She’s not one of Us.)
It is simply appalling that even in my own lifetime (and I am merely in my 50s, I am hardly old), women’s writing was routinely trimmed and excluded from what might have been taught, because it wasn’t written by men, or wasn’t written in the way that men write, or was not about the things that men seemed to think were important. Thankfully, my embarrassment at having fallen for that patriarchal trap in my past was partly assuaged by the coincidental fact of my own research in this area. In one of my recent articles I exposed the routine exclusion of women’s writing in one particular field, symptomatic of a far wider phenomenon that ought to have shrivelled up and died a hundred years ago. That it continues means we must fight harder, and more strategically to achieve parity in what is taught, and available in print, for all students to read.
How to Suppress Women’s Writing has recently been reissued by the University of Texas Press, but you can still buy the original Women’s Press paperback second-hand (I found mine in an Oxfam bookshop not long ago.). It is essential reading if you are studying women’s writing, in any field (engineering, biology, poetry, law), and especially if you’re working on literature and gender studies.
2 thoughts on “Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women’s Writing”
There’s also the way that a select handful of women sit in the canon as exceptions to prove the rule, and who then take so much attention (the excitement of finding that there were early twentieth century women to read who weren’t Virginia Woolf). It’s even worse in the History of Art, it’s only been in the last 5 years or so that there seems to have been a real effort to find those missing women artists and give them some visibility again. This sounds excellent
I’ve never even heard Russ’s name and somehow I feel guilty about this, although I am a great deal older and tireder than you, Kate (74) and am not an academic. There is a parallel perhaps with those people who say if you say you remember the ’60s you probably weren’t there. In my own life I was reaching a stage where I was achieving in relation to the outside world at the time this book was published. But …
Apart from reading the book when I locate it, I shall note the stages you list and keep it by me as a litmus. Here I am, trying to keep up with new publishing, and all the time there is a tidal wave of stuff building up at my back!
What Russ appears to be saying seems closely to reflect women’s experience in the graphic arts: painting makes the headlines, but I think of the May Morris exhibition at Walthamstow this year and reflect on how the number of people who would recognise William Morris’s name would far outstrip that of his daughter who actively contributed to the design process and the business, as well as writing substantially about her father after his death.