How to Suppress Women's Writing Analysis

Joanna Russ

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In this witty analysis of the critical reception of women’s literature, Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Joanna Russ explores the social connections of literature and art from a feminist perspective. Russ stresses that her discussion is not a history of oppression; rather, it is an investigation of the ways in which women’s writing has been suppressed, discouraged, and marginalized.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing traces patterns in the suppression of women’s writing, mostly by male critics, drawing on examples from high culture of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries in Europe and the United States. Russ uses the examples of such diverse literary figures as the Countess of Winchelsea, Aphra Behn, Emily and Charlotte Brontë, George Sand, Emily Dickinson, and Anne Sexton to show how societal conditions and expectations are brought to bear on the creative efforts of women writers. Russ also provides illustrations of women artists and musicians to support her argument.

In her analysis of women’s literary marginalization, Russ draws heavily on the work of other feminist critics, especially Ellen Moers, Elaine Showalter, and Virginia Woolf. The text begins with a prologue in which Russ uses her science-fiction background to create an alien society in order to draw a parallel with the earthly conditions about which she is concerned. Each succeeding chapter addresses one of the patterns of marginalization that Russ has identified, explaining how the pattern works to suppress women’s creativity and giving many examples, both historical and contemporary, to support her argument. Chapters at the end of the text address literary women’s response to their suppression (including Russ’s own); a call for a redefinition of cultural aesthetics, which would move culture away from the center toward the margin; and the voices of women of color, who are often excluded from the literary canon.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The humor in How to Suppress Women’s Writing makes the text amusing and easy to read (the title itself makes the text sound like a handbook for insecure male critics), but Russ’s humorous tone throughout masks her serious intent. Like many feminists, Russ uses humor to cushion the impact of her sharp social criticism. This is a scholarly text—each chapter contains a minimum of fifteen footnotes—but its contribution to the field of feminist criticism is not so much in the research, which is largely derivative, but in Russ’s ability to relate the social and material conditions under which women live to the art that they create. Thus, How to Suppress Women’s Writing represents an important movement in feminist literary criticism away from a preoccupation with images of women in literature toward a broader consideration of the impact of society on the production of art. The text tends to emphasize the victimization of women writers over their obvious successes in circumventing suppression, but the reader gains important insight into the ways in which the institutionalization of gender bias can influence what literature is read, how literature is read, and what constitutes the meaning of “literature” and “author.”

How to Suppress Women’s Writing is also important for its insistence on an alternative, more inclusive definition of culture which would include literature and art judged by standards other than the traditional Western, white, middle-class, and male orientation.

How to Suppress Women's Writing

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 12)

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...

(The entire section is 2119 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The Atlantic. CCLII, November, 1983, p. 148.

Christian Science Monitor. February 27, 1984, p. 21.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979. This wide-ranging and groundbreaking work examines the responses of nineteenth century women writers to the male-dominated literary tradition in England. Psychologically rather than socially oriented, this text traces a female tradition in literature.

Kirkus Reviews. LI, September 15, 1983, p. 1049.

Poovey, Mary. Uneven Developments: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988. Poovey’s work is a sophisticated extension of the social perspective used by Russ. In it, she argues that nineteenth century representations of gender were sites of struggle for power and authority between the genders and reads such texts as Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-1850) and Jane Eyre from this position.

Showalter, Elaine. A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1977. A text from which Russ derives much of the support for her study, this book is one of the first analyses of a woman’s tradition in literature. Like Russ, Showalter uses a social and literary approach as she compares women novelists to their female contemporaries in order to trace the complexity of women’s literary relationships.

Spender, Dale, ed. Living by the Pen: Early British Women Writers. New York: Teachers College Press, 1992. This collection of essays traces the literary heritage of early British women writers in order to distinguish that tradition from the male tradition. Includes essays on the women themselves, the topics on which they wrote, and their achievements as artists.

Todd, Janet. Feminist Literary History. New York: Routledge, 1988. In this introduction to feminist literary theory, Todd seeks to defend the early sociohistoric enterprise of American feminist criticism, of which Russ’s text is an example. She refutes the claim of French feminists that this criticism is historically naïve and, while admitting its limitations, attempts to place it within a larger context of feminist literary criticism.