How to Suppress Women's Writing Critical Essays

Joanna Russ


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

While admitting that women have not been subject to formal prohibitions against writing, as were black slaves in America, Russ nevertheless asserts that the informal prohibitions of poverty, lack of leisure, lack of education, and “climate of expectation”—the belief in traditional gender roles, which placed women in the home—were instrumental in preventing women from writing. Many women, particularly in the nineteenth century, were financially dependent on their families or their husbands; their household duties as either daughters or wives left them little if any time to write; and if they still expressed a willingness to create literature, the pressure of gender roles was brought to bear upon them—artistic creativity was a masculine ability not to be attempted by women.

Most of the text, however, is devoted to an identification and analysis of the practice of what Russ calls “bad faith,” a term borrowed from philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. One displays bad faith by perpetuating the status quo in order to maintain discrimination. Women who insist on writing despite informal prohibitions are met with one or more of the following patterns of bad faith: denial of agency, pollution of agency, double standard of content, false categorizing, isolation, and anomalousness.

Denial of agency is used to refute a particular woman’s claim of authorship by asserting that the work in question was written by a man, that the text wrote itself, that the “masculine” part of the woman did the writing, or that the woman writer is “more than a woman.” Mary Shelley, for example, is denied authorship of Frankenstein (1818) by a male critic who asserts that she was simply a repository of ideas that were circulating “in the air around her.” Similarly, critics generally agree that Emily Brontë lost control of Wuthering Heights (1847) and wrote an entirely different novel than she had intended (that is, a “good” one).

Pollution of agency calls into play traditional gender roles; a woman who writes is unfeminine, ridiculous, or immoral. Jane Eyre (1847), published pseudonymously by Charlotte Brontë, was judged by critics to be a masterpiece if written by a man, degrading if written by a woman. Russ contends that the designation of much twentieth century poetry by women as confessional, or highly personal and therefore shameful, is a contemporary version of the nineteenth century charge of impropriety against women writers.

The double standard of content privileges male experience over female experience and renders women’s lives and experience invisible. Russ points out that critical assessment of Wuthering Heights changed from positive to negative after Emily Brontë’s authorship (and gender) became...

(The entire section is 1140 words.)