Friday Hoyden: Joanna Russ

Our Guest Poster: Tansy Rayner Roberts is a fantasy writer, mum, blogger and podcaster at the Hugo-nominated Galactic Suburbia. You can find her at and on Twitter as @tansyrr. Her latest trilogy, the Creature Court, is available now in Australia (and in the US, UK and Canada on the Kindle)

“I’m not a girl. I’m a genius.”
– Joanna Russ, The Female Man

Joanna Russ is one of the mighty legends of the science fiction field that everyone needs to know about. As well as writing many important novels and short stories, she was a brutal literary critic, a brilliant academic, an unflinching feminist, and a devastatingly articulate commentator on gender, not only in science fiction but in the history of culture.

“Long before I became a feminist in any explicit way, I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.”
Joanna Russ

A middle aged woman with pale skin and greying hair looks into the camera with her head slightly cocked

Portrait of Joanna Russ from Wikipedia | CCL

Joanna was published from the 1950’s onwards, but her work is most associated with the 1970’s, a decade when female authors and radical feminist authors in particular made a substantial mark on the shape of the science fiction field. Her most famous novel, The Female Man, explored the many lives of the same woman through multiple realities, and became a vitally important feminist text for the women’s movement.

Other works of her fiction include The Adventures of Alyx, which exploded the expectations of fantasy heroes and female characters in fantasy fiction, and We Who Are About To, which examined the way that humans in survivalist mode will fall back on old and damaging gender ideas. Her short story “When It Changed” is about a planet happily populated by all women, and what happens when a spaceship full of men (and women from a society dominated by men) come visiting.

“I think from now on, I will not trust anyone who isn’t angry.”
– Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ is remembered for her anger and her brilliance, but anyone who knew her as a person, or has read her work, is quick to also mention how funny she was, a living breathing rebuttal to the idea of the ‘humourless feminist.’ She wrote with authority on all manner of topics from gothic literature (in the brilliant essay “Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband”) to slash fiction, when she took a keen interest in later in her life.

Despite the many ways Joanna Russ contributed to academia, literary criticism, popular culture and literature, by far her most important work is the slender volume How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which is taught in universities across the world (and should be taught in all of them).

This calm but incisive work outlines, chapter by chapter, the many ways in which our society devalues women’s writing, by systematically coming up with excuses to not consider it worthwhile. (She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it, she wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art, she wrote it, but she shouldn’t have, etc.) It’s one of the most useful and mind-blowing books I have ever read in my life, and one that I find myself most often referring to in day to day conversation. It’s a short, funny, wry rebuttal to the entire canon of western literature, and the way it has been taught.

“For years I have been saying
Let me in,
Love me,
Approve me,
Define me,
Regulate me,
Validate me,
Support me.
Now I say
Move over.”
– Joanna Russ

The worst thing about Joanna Russ’s work, How To Suppress Women’s Writing in particular, is that it was written in 1983 and it is still a relevant and useful text.

To learn more about the astounding Joanna and her work, check out:

Categories: arts & entertainment, ethics & philosophy, gender & feminism, social justice

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3 replies

  1. *hands in feminist card, sadly admits she hasn’t read any Joanna Russ – yet*

  2. Thanks, phew can haz my card back now. *fretting about women of Whileaway now*

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