Victoria Pedraza | 9/1/2023
I don't usually read many non-fiction books. I generally prefer the escapism of a novel or a short story. But now and then, I come across essays that are worth reading. "How to Suppress Women's Writing" was published in 1983, and it's a kind of irreverent and sarcastic guide to the different ways that have been used throughout history to deny women's creative ability.
Joanna Russ presents a provocative analysis of the barriers and challenges that have historically hindered the recognition and appreciation of women's literary contributions. The importance of exploring the suppression of women's writing goes beyond the literary sphere; it delves into broader social issues related to gender inequality and the marginalization of female voices.
The suppression of women's writing has its roots in a long history of patriarchal norms and social prejudices. Throughout history, women writers have faced systemic obstacles that limited their access to education, publishing platforms, and readership. Recognized authors such as Mary Shelley, Virginia Woolf, and George Eliot had to adopt male or neutral pseudonyms to navigate the male-dominated literary landscape and gain recognition for their works.
Russ discusses eleven techniques for suppressing women's writing through eleven chapters.
In this chapter, Joanna Russ explores how, throughout history, women writers have faced various forms of prohibition that have limited their ability to express themselves and publish their works. These prohibitions have arisen from social norms, literary institutions, and government censorship. "The absence of formal prohibitions against committed art does not exclude the presence of others that, despite being informal, are very powerful," Russ analyzes how prohibition has led to the invisibility and suppression of women's voices.
These prohibitions manifest in various ways, from the lack of access to literary education to stereotypes and cultural barriers. Let's take, for example, the fact that for much of human history, women had no rights over private property. In the United Kingdom, it wasn't until 1882 that the Married Women's Property Act was enacted, allowing married women to have their own legal identity. This means that prior to this year, the rights to any literary work created by a married woman went directly to her husband.
Russ examines how bad faith has been used to discredit the literary contributions of women. This strategy involves attributing the success of women writers to factors outside their talent and effort, such as chance or luck. By doing so, it minimizes the skill and originality of women writers, undermining their achievements.
This strategy applies not only to women but to any group outside the accepted canon, the "inadequate" groups, whether due to their gender, skin color, social class, ethnic group, and so on. Russ calls it "morally atrocious and terribly stupid," but that doesn't make it any less common.
Denial of Authorship
"What to do when a woman has written something? The first line of defense is to deny that she wrote it." In this chapter, Russ addresses how women writers have faced the denial of their authorship, which involves attributing their works to male influences or denying that they are the true creators. Margaret Cavendish was accused of hiring a scholar to write her work, and those who read my post from a couple of weeks ago, "Female Authors Throughout History," will recall that the authorship of the first writer in history, Enheduanna, is sometimes doubted. This strategy has led to a lack of recognition and a decrease in the value of their literary contributions.
As Russ recounts, some claim that Charlotte Brontë's "Jane Eyre" was written by a brother and a sister, that Mary Shelley (author of "Frankenstein") only provided "a passive reflection of some wild fantasies circulating in the air around her," or that Emily Brontë's "Wuthering Heights" practically wrote itself. Or, if it was written, it must have been more than a woman. Russ tells us that the best compliment Dickens had for his sister-in-law, Mary Hogarth, was that "In her life, she was almost above the weaknesses and vanities of her sex and her age as the sky in which she is now." In short, they’ll say anything to deny that a woman sat down and wrote a book.
Contamination of Authorship
Russ explores how it has been insinuated that women writers' personal emotions or biases have "contaminated" their works, diminishing their artistic and literary quality. This strategy dismisses women's creations by considering them distorted by their personal experiences.
“Okay, she wrote it, but she's crazy for having done it.” This idea may be partly responsible for the large number of female authors who wrote under pseudonyms or anonymously. Intellectual women, according to Otto Weininger, are "very masculine," a comment around which he criticizes the appearance of George Eliot (whose real name was Mary Ann Evans). According to Freud, women's intellectual ability is linked to the desire to acquire a penis, because when it comes to Freud, everything revolves around the penis. Finally, according to Karl Abraham, intellectual women are such because they are incapable of adapting to the feminine role, and of course, they are homosexual.
Russ writes about "Jane Eyre," "Many critics openly admit that they thought if a man had written the book, it would be a masterpiece, but because it was written by a woman, it was scandalous and repugnant." And that quote says it all.
Double Standard of Content
This strategy is used by those too sensible to say, "She didn't write it," or "She wrote it, but she shouldn't have." Instead, they say, "She wrote it, but it's nothing worth reading."
In this chapter, Russ analyzes how a double standard has been applied in evaluating the themes and contents of works written by women. Themes considered "feminine" have been devalued and belittled compared to those considered "masculine," affecting the perception of the quality of women's writing.
Basically, novels written by women often focus more on the character than the plot. They delve, for example, into the feelings of their heroine, but this heroine may never leave her home. Therefore, it is considered an insignificant book.
This is due to the historical context in which women have traditionally operated. The experience is different, the way of seeing the world is different. The knowledge is not lesser, just different. A comment I wrote in pencil on the edge of the page is, "Women are ignorant of the male experience, but the opposite is also true."
In this chapter, Joanna Russ explores how throughout history, women writers have been relegated to specific literary genres or categories considered "feminine." This strategy of false categorization has been an effective way to limit the scope and influence of women writers by restricting their creative expression to specific themes or writing styles deemed appropriate for women.
Genres like romantic novels or domestic literature, for example, were considered more suitable for women, and they were attributed narrower themes and approaches, thus limiting their ability to explore a broader variety of topics and writing styles. This leads to the mistaken belief that women writers can only write about matters related to domestic life or romance, which restricts their impact and recognition.
The imposition of specific literary genres also limited the thematic and narrative possibilities for women writers. They were often expected to adhere to certain archetypes and narrative structures considered suitable for their gender, hindering innovation and literary experimentation.
To make matters worse, these "feminine" themes, such as love, family, and interpersonal relationships, were often undervalued compared to topics deemed more "serious" or "important." This results in a reductionist perception of women's writing, overlooking the depth and complexity of their literary explorations.
Conclusion (for now)
Given that this topic is broader than what I typically cover in my blog, and I believe it's essential to delve into all eleven strategies of suppressing women's writing proposed by Joanna Russ, for now, I leave you with six. I don't want to limit the exploration of each one to a simple paragraph, as the complexity of these strategies deserves a more thorough explanation. Therefore, I choose to divide this topic into two parts to provide a comprehensive understanding. The next post will focus on the second part of this topic, allowing us to explore the remaining strategies in more detail and understand how they have affected women writers throughout literary history.
- How to Suppress Women's Writing (Russ, J) 4th edition, Spanish version, translated by Gloria Fortún