Feminists are always annoyed when someone asks, “Why aren’t there more great women writers?” After all, the question implies, women in recent centuries have been allowed the opportunity to educate themselves by reading; little girls have the advantage of early verbal facility; even people without money can probably get hold of the minimal tools a writer needs. Furthermore, the question suggests, many women (unlike most men) have not even had to work for income; they could afford to indulge in literature. So why have they not produced more? The answer, Joanna Russ says, lies in the cultural trick of defining great literature so that women do not write it. In How to Suppress Women’s Writing, she draws on her own experience in the largely male world of science fiction and on the feminist scholarship of the past fifteen years to classify and name the devices our culture has used to diminish recognition of women’s literature.
Scholars of various persuasions have been taking a hard look at the literary canon for some years. What is the process by which it is agreed that some books are universally admired? Who defines a classic? What makes a book great? Who decides which books remain in print in editions cheap enough to use in classrooms? Which authors are anthologized? Which are significant enough to be the subjects of graduate dissertations and scholarly reputations? Who ranks the attributes of literature? What values are espoused by saying that tragedy is the most noble dramatic form? What worldview finds irony and ambiguity valuable and sentiment or moral instruction worthless? Why is war an appropriate subject for great poetry and childbirth an embarrassment? Why do most anthologies of “world classics” include only token representation from Africa and Asia and not even that from the indigenous literature of the Americas?
A good many of the answers are also in general circulation. For one thing, the profession of teaching and criticizing literature was established (by men) during the nineteenth century, at a time when the profession of writing literature was, in the United States, dominated by women. Judith Fetterley has suggested that the territory at the center of fiction—the realistic novel about social relationships among ordinary people, with plots and characters that engaged large numbers of readers—was so firmly in women’s hands that men’s novels could grow only at the peripheries, among the wilds and whales and ambiguities. Scholars appreciated this unpopular literature because it was difficult enough to need critical intervention before readers could appreciate it, thus making scholarship a necessary profession. A considerable amount of the information that can be used to subvert traditional judgment is also available in books such as Ellen Moers’s Literary Women (1977), Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977), Nina Baym’s Woman’s Fiction (1978), Tillie Olsen’s Silences (1978), and Janet Sternburg’s collection of reflections by contemporary women authors, The Writer on Her Work (1980).
Russ assembles a generous handful of the arguments that have been used to trivialize women’s literary work and names each with a witty and memorable phrase. She argues that our culture has exercised control without direct censorship; she does not believe any deliberate conspiracy keeps women from creating literature or prevents critics from recognizing the literature women produce—but she does believe that cultural biases at every level (including simple, innocent, blindness) have the same effect as a conspiracy:In a nominally egalitarian society the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which the members of the “wrong” groups have the freedom to engage in literature (or equally significant activities) and yet do not do so, thus proving that they can’t. But, alas, give them the least real freedom and they will do it. The trick thus becomes to make the freedom as nominal a freedom as possible and then—since some of the so-and-so’s will do it anyway—develop various strategies for ignoring, condemning or belittling the artistic works that result.
The first way to suppress women’s writing is by prohibition. Laws are unnecessary—illiteracy, poor education, poverty, lack of leisure, the constant fragmentation of attention that results from duties to family, house, and children are some of the more obvious prohibitive forces. More subtle is the climate of expectation—the tacit permission which the culture gives males to be geniuses (though they may expect to be eccentric or unhappy) as opposed to the suspicion that, for a woman, writing is simply a means of wasting time or trying to evade other duties. Many of these external forces, and the self-censorship that grows from them, are movingly detailed in Olsen’s Silences; they do, indeed, silence women, and they also silence men who are born in the wrong class or at the wrong time.
Because, as Russ says, “some of the so-and-so’s will do it anyway,” she next analyzes the techniques that have been used (perhaps unconsciously) to trivialize the work that...