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.