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How to Suppress Women's Writing

How to Suppress Women's Writing

A provocative survey of the forces that work against women who dare to write.

New edition is now available here.

September 1983
This book is out of print and no longer available.
160 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 |

By the author of The Female Man—a provocative survey of the forces that work against women who dare to write.

  • Prologue
  • 1. Prohibitions
  • 2. Bad Faith
  • 3. Denial of Agency
  • 4. Pollution of Agency
  • 5. The Double Standard of Content
  • 6. False Categorizing
  • 7. Isolation
  • 8. Anomalousness
  • 9. Lack of Models
  • 10. Responses
  • 11. Aesthetics
  • Epilogue
  • Author's Note
  • Afterword
  • Notes
  • Index

Nebula Award-winning writer Joanna Russ is the author of such popular novels as The Female Man, We Who Are About To, and On Strike Against God.


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GLOTOLOG, n., stand. Intergalactic, current:

Dominant sapients Tau Ceti 8 noted for the practice of frument, an art form combining aspects of Terrestrial hog calling, Martian slipping involuntarily upon the ice, and Uranian drof (lovingly nurturing the growth of slowly maturing crystals by enfolding them in all eight of one's limbs). Frument, an activity highly valued by the Glotolog, is performed (according to official histories of the practice) almost exclusively by the Whelk-finned (or "Pal-Mal") Glotolog. Extra-Glotologgi students of the art have found evidence of considerable contributions made by Crescent-finned, Spotty, or Mottled individuals, but historians of frument (who are almost always of the Whelk-finned form) tend to either ignore such efforts or condemn them as mediocre, lacking in structure, of technical interest merely, or, above all, na poi frumenti ("lacking in the proper spirit of frument"). Without the all-necessary poi frumenti, according to one famous Glotologgi critic, frument loses its artistic character and becomes "merely a lot of inartistic hollering, all the while belly-whopping about in a meaningless and foolish manner on uncontrollably slippery surfaces" (Frument Kronologa, q.v. ).

It is a traditional and widely held Glotolog belief that the behavior and outward appearance of the Spotty, Crescent-finned, Spiny, and Mottled Glotolog—as well as their relative non-success at the practice of frument—indicate that the central essence (or nerd) of these types differs from that of the Whelk-finned Glotolog, whose superior essence (super-nerd) enables it to constitute not only the artistic but also the social and economic aristocracy of the planet and thereby to enjoy advantages too numerous and varied to be listed here.

Needless to say, Intergalactic science has found among these typically self-deluded brachiopods only the usual minor differences, reproductive and chromatic, which have little direct bearing on behavior and certainly not the overwhelming importance ascribed to them by the Glotolog.

Thus "Glotologgish" has recently entered Intergalactic slang as a synonym for ridiculous self-deception bolstered by widespread and elaborate social fictions leading to the massive distortion of information. Thus:

Na potukoi natur vi Glotologi ploomp chikparu ("You claim that your subordinate classes are green by nature, yet once during every diurnal period you immerse them in chikparu juice; you are behaving Glotologgishly.")—Aldebaran 4.

Shloi mopush gustu arboretum, li dup ne, voi Glotolog! ("When the female weevil displays unusual competence in climbing the tree, you avert your eyes and claim it is a male weevil; how disgustingly Glotologgish of you!")—Dispar 2.

GLOTOLOG, n., colloq. Intergalactic, current:

Information control without direct censorship.

If certain people are not supposed to have the ability to produce "great" literature, and if this supposition is one of the means used to keep such people in their place, the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which such people are prevented from producing any literature at all. But a formal prohibition tends to give the game away—that is, if the peasants are kept illiterate, it will occur to somebody sooner or later that illiteracy absolutely precludes written literature, whether such literature be good or bad; and if significant literature can by definition be produced only in Latin, the custom of not teaching Latin to girls will again, sooner or later, cause somebody to wonder what would happen if the situation were changed. The arguments for this sort of status quo are too circular for comfort. (In fact such questions were asked over and over again in Europe in recent centuries, and eventually reforms were made.)

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. If properly done, these strategies result in a social situation in which the "wrong" people are (supposedly) free to commit literature, art, or whatever, but very few do, and those who do (it seems) do it badly, so we can all go home to lunch.

The methods indicated above are varied but tend to occur in certain key areas: informal prohibitions (including discouragement and the inaccessibility of materials and training), denying the authorship of the work in question (this ploy ranges from simple misattribution to psychological subtleties that make the head spin), belittlement of the work itself in various ways, isolation of the work from the tradition to which it belongs and its consequent presentation as anomalous, assertions that the work indicates the author's bad character and hence is of primarily scandalous interest or ought not to have been done at all (this did not end with the nineteenth century), and simply ignoring the works, the workers, and the whole tradition, the most commonly employed technique and the hardest to combat.

What follows is not intended as a history. Rather it's a sketch of an analytic tool: patterns in the suppression of women's writing.

In considering literature written by women during the last few centuries in Europe and the United States (I'm going to concentrate on literature in English, with some examples drawn from other literature and from painting), we don't find the absolute prohibition on the writing of women qua women that has (for example) buried so much of the poetic and rhetorical tradition of black slave America, although many of the same devices are used to trivialize the latter when it does get written down; James Baldwin's "long line of great poets, some of the greatest poets since Homer"' can be easily dealt with by a majority culture in which what is written down is what counts. The fragments that remain are dealt with largely by simply ignoring them, though when such things do surface, more sophisticated methods—to be discussed below—come into play. (For example, education was at first against the law. Then, after emancipation, it became rare, inferior, and unfunded. Such is progress.)

But some white women, and black women, and black men, and other people of color too, have actually acquired the nasty habit of putting the stuff on paper, and some of it gets printed, and printed material, especially books, gets into bookstores, into people's hands, into libraries, sometimes even into university curricula.

What do we do then?

First of all, it's important to realize that the absence of formal prohibitions against committing art does not preclude the presence of powerful, informal ones. For example, poverty and lack of leisure are certainly powerful deterrents to art: most nineteenth-century British factory workers, enduring a fourteen-hour day, were unlikely to spend a lifetime in rigorously perfecting the sonnet. (Of course, when working-class literature does appear—and it did and continues to do so—it can be dealt with by the same methods used against women's art. Obviously the two categories overlap.) It's commonly supposed that poverty and lack of leisure did not hamper middle-class persons during the last century, but indeed they did—when these persons were middle-class women. It might be more accurate to call these women attached to middle-class men, for by their own independent economic exertions few middle-class women could keep themselves in the middle class; if actresses or singers, they became improper persons (I will deal with this later), and, if married, they could own nothing in England during most of the century (1882 was the year of the codification of the Married Woman's Property Act). The best an unmarried lady could manage was a governess-ship, that anomalous social position somewhere between gentlewoman and servant. Here is a Miss Weeton in 1811, who, rescued from oblivion by Virginia Woolf in Three Guineas, "burned to learn Latin, French, the Arts, the Sciences, anything"—a desire perhaps exacerbated by her duties as as governess, which included sewing and washing dishes as well as teaching. Thirty years later we find the author of Jane Eyre paid twenty pounds a year, "five times the price of laundering a governess' not very extensive wardrobe" (four pounds a year was deducted for washing) and "about eleven times as much as the price of Jane Eyre," according to Ellen Moers in Literary Women. According to M. Jeanne Peterson, Mrs. Sewell, writing in 1865, equated the salary of a nursery governess with that of a lady's maid, that of an informed but not accomplished governess with that of a footman, and that of a highly educated governess with that of a coachman or butler. Emily Dickinson had no money: she had to ask her father for stamps and for money to buy books. As Woolf puts it in A Room of One's Own: Villette, Emma, Wuthering Heights, "all those good novels," were written "by women so poor that they could not afford to buy more than a few quires of paper at a time upon which to write." As for the leisure that, one would suppose, attended this odd kind of poverty Emily Dickinson seems to have had it (although she participated in the family housekeeping and nursed her mother during the latter's last illness), but according to biographer Gordon Haight the time of the famous Marian Evans (later to become George Eliot) was demanded, through her late twenties, for managing the household and caring for her dying father, she "nursing him night and day ... looks like a ghost." In 1859, after ten years in lodgings, the famous novelist and George Henry Lewes bought a house; hers were "the responsibilities of housekeeping—buying furniture ... finding and managing a servant, ordering meals—a task which Lewes sometimes undertook to leave her free to work." Marie Curie's biographer, her daughter Eve, describes her mother's cleaning, shopping, cooking, and child care, all unshared by Pierre Curie and all added to a full working day during Madame Curie's early domestic years, which were also the beginnings of her scientific career.

Nor does the situation change much in the twentieth century. Sylvia Plath, rising at five in the morning to write, was—as far as her meager work-time went—fortunate compared to Tillie Olsen, a working-class woman, who describes the triple load of family, writing, and full-time outside job necessary for family survival. Olsen writes:

When the youngest of our four was in school ... the world of my job ... and the writing, which I was somehow able to carry around within me, through work, through home. Time on the bus, even when I had to stand ... the stolen moments at work ... the deep night after the household tasks were done.... there came a time when this triple life was no longer possible. The fifteen hours of daily realities became too much distraction for the writing. I lost craziness of endurance.... Always roused by the writing, always denied.... My work died.

Olsen also quotes Katherine Mansfield:

The house seems to take up so much time.... So often this week you and Gordon have been talking while I washed dishes.... And after you have gone I walk about with a mind full of ghosts of saucepans and primus stoves.... And you [John Middleton Murry] calling, what ever I am doing, writing, "Tig, isn't there going to be tea? It's five o'clock."

Mansfield continues, blaming herself: "I loathe myself today" and asks for Murry to say "I understand."' (She does not ask for help.)

It is also Olsen, in her heartbreaking biography of Rebecca Harding Davis (in Davis's Life in the Iron Mills)," who studies, detail by detail, the impossibility of being artist, full-time house keeper and mother, and full-time family breadwinner. In 1881, Davis writes her son, Richard Harding Davis, "Not inspiration, practice. A lasting, real success takes time and patient, steady work" (p. 149). But she herself, as Olsen makes clear, did not, and could not, take her own advice: "Often there were only exhausted tag-ends of herself in tag-ends of time left over after the house, Clarke [her husband], the babies, for a book that demanded all her powers, all her concentration. Sometimes she had to send off great chunks unread, unworked, to meet the inexorable monthly deadline" (p. 129). It is perhaps no accident that George Eliot, the Brontës, and Christina Rossetti were childless, and Elizabeth Barrett effectively so (one child, late in life, and servants), or that Davis:

... accepted unquestioningly that ... it was Clarke as a man who should be enabled to do his best work, while her ordained situation as a woman was to help him toward that end: to be responsible for house, children, the proper atmosphere for his concentration and relaxation. (p. 138)

A contemporary writer, Kate Wilhelm, says this:

... there were so many pressures to force me into giving up writing again, to become mother, housewife, etc.... My husband was sympathetic and wanted me to write, but seemed powerless.... I realized the world, everyone in it practically, will give more and more responsibility to any woman who will continue to accept it. And when the other responsibilities are too great, her responsibility to herself must go. Or she has to take a thoroughly selfish position and refuse the world, and then accept whatever guilt there is.

Unless a woman knows she is another Virginia Woolf or Jane Austen, how can she say no ... ? It is generally expected that the children, the house, school functions, husband's needs, yard, etc. all come first.... to reverse that order ... is hard. Nothing in our background has prepared us for this role."

If time is vital, so is the accessibility of materials and training. This may not seem as much of a factor for writers as it does for painters, but if women have never been denied the possession of grade-A bond paper and lead pencils, that may be only because such a prohibition would be impossible to enforce. The history of debarring women from higher education is too well known to need repeating here. What may not be generally known is that the debarring, in modified form, sometimes continues. For example, when I entered Cornell University's College of Arts and Sciences in 1953 I entered (unknowingly) under a female quota. When I entered the college again as a faculty member in 1967 the quota had been increased to 50 percent, and when I left in 1973 the college was in the midst of a battle over whether to abolish the quota altogether and, for the first time in history, to allow female entering students to outnumber male (since the girls competing for places in the freshman class had better academic qualifications, by and large, than the boys).

Certainly in fields where access to materials and training could be controlled, they were. As Karen Petersen and J. J. Wilson point out in Women Artists, the two female founders of the Royal Academy in England (Mary Moser and Angelica Kauffmann) are not present in person in John Zoffany's group portrait of the academy's founders, The Academicians Studying the Naked Model, but are there "only in portraits on the wall, as they were forbidden by law and custom to be in the studio with a nude figure, male or female." (No other women were allowed into the academy until 1922.) We find, in the next century, that although women could study from plaster casts of the antique, in 1848 "the nude statuary gallery of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts was open to women only between ten and eleven on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays." By 1883 in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Thomas Eakins' "Ladies Modeling Class," "forbidden access to nude human models," studied anatomy from a cow.

But even though paper and pencil are easier to obtain than canvas and paint, even if one can deal with the matter of time and all the familial obligations that are assumed to come first, even if formal education is not formally denied, there is still that powerful intangible known as climate of expectation. Here in 1661 is Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea, blessed with leisure, wealth, and (according to Virginia Woolf) an understanding husband:

Alas! a woman that attempts the pen
Such a presumptuous creature is esteemed,
That fault can by no virtue be redeemed.

And here is Dorothy Osborne's comment on Winchilsea's contemporary Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle, also leisured, wealthy, and "married to the best of husbands": "Sure the poore woman is a little distracted, shee could never bee soe rediculous else as to venture at writeing book's and in verse too, if I should not sleep this fortnight I should not come to that."

In 1837 Charlotte Brontë wrote the then poet laureate, Robert Southey, asking his opinion of her poetry. Southey answered "that it showed talent" but "advised her to give up thoughts of becoming a poet": "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life and ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure will she have for it, even as ... recreation." Brontë replied:

I carefully avoid any appearance of pre-occupation and eccentricity... I have endeavored not only attentively to observe the duties a woman ought to fulfill but to feel deeply interested in them. I don't always succeed, for sometimes when I'm teaching or sewing I would rather be reading or writing; but I try to deny myself.

Somewhat later Ellen Glasgow took the manuscript of her first novel to New York City to a "literary advisor" (that is, agent) who told her, "You are too pretty to be a novelist. Is your figure as lovely in the altogether as it is in your clothes?" He then attempted to rape her, letting her go "only after I had promised to come again, and he had kept not only the manuscript but [my] fifty dollars.... I was bruised, I was trembling with anger." A publisher to whom she then took her manuscript made no such assault; instead "he wanted no more writing from women, especially from women young enough to have babies. . . . 'The best advice I can give you ... is to stop writing and go back to the South and have some babies.... The greatest woman is not the woman who has written the finest book but ... the woman who has had the finest babies.'"

In 1881 Leslie Stephen, the father of Virginia Woolf, wrote of George Eliot that she had "a certain feminine incapacity for drawing really masculine heroes" (italics mine). Virginia Woolf's husband, Leonard, married to a literary artist and extremely supportive of her and her work, could nonetheless remark to Modern Language Association past president Florence Howe, when she was past thirty, "Why does a pretty girl like you want to waste her life in a library?"

The discouragement is a part of a general discouragement of female learning that is still prevalent; it's not surprising, therefore, to find a twenty-two-year-old student of Florence Howe returning to college after previously dropping out without either of her actions making "a ripple in the family's life." They only had "discussions about whether she really ought to return ... it would be a waste of money." The same family "greeted her brother's dropping out with alarm" and "had given a huge party" to celebrate his reentry. Howe adds, "diverse stories reported ... the education of women was ... unimportant compared to the education of men." Elizabeth Pochoda found the same message conveyed to her even after she got into a prestigious women's college; she remarks, apropos of the students' embarrassment at and fear of dedicated and original female thinkers like Suzanne Langer:

sexual privacy was ... above all a persistent reminder of the unreality of intellectual pursuits.... these were borrowed robes, and only a fool would wear them beyond the confines of the theatre.

Here are statements collected by women graduate students in sociology at the University of Chicago in 1969 from some of their professors:

"Any girl who gets this far has got to be a kook."

"The admissions committee didn't do their job. There is not one good looking girl in the entering class."

"They've been sending me too many women advisees. I've got to do something about that."

"We expect women who come here to be competent, good students; but we don't expect them to be brilliant or original."

"I know you're competent and your thesis advisor knows you're competent. The question in our minds is are you really serious about what you're doing?" This was said to a young woman who had already spent five years and over $10,000 getting to that point in her Ph.D. program.

Discouragement usually takes less obvious forms; I remember a writing student weeping in my office not because her family opposed her writing but because they thought it would keep her busy until she got married: "Nobody takes it seriously!" (including an all-male writing class that laughed at her for writing a "Hermann Hesse story"—her words—with a female protagonist). A contemporary of mine, who has now published two novels, said bitterly that her father was more impressed by her hobby of macramé (which "takes the brains of a flatworm") than by her first book. And here is Kate Wilhelm again:

the family ... [will] think it's cute or precocious, or at least, not dangerous, when a woman starts to write stories.... What I got from my in-laws was that line that it didn't hurt anything, kept me home nights, and didn't cost anyone anything.... no one ... thought it was anything but a passing fancy. ... It's the condescension that's hardest to take.... My first husband never read a word I wrote until after I left him. He knew it was all trivial.

Editors may tell female authors to whom they owe money "that I should ask my husband for more" as contemporary novelist Quinn Yarbro reports, or ask them (as Phyllis Chesler was asked) what they want to spend it on. Or house guests may interrupt a wife's writing as a matter of course (Yarbro again—"He is growing angry because I am putting this before him") while the husband completes the artwork the guest has commissioned. J. J. Wilson comments not only on the expectations surrounding the painter Carrington during her lifetime but on those still held by modern critics:

... an atmosphere of expectation prevailed around him [Lytton Strachey].. . . everything was arranged so that the future great man could produce.... No one seems to have these sorts of expectations for you, Carrington; indeed all the expectations still seem to be that if you could just have gotten your sex life straightened out, you'd have been fine.... in a ménage where Lytton Strachey was accepted by all as The Creator, where Ralph Partridge's difficulties in finding a suitable career absorbed everyone's energies, a kind of credibility gap grew up around your image of yourself as a painter.

Sometimes the message that women cannot or should not be artists is very open; indeed it takes the form of advice from the specialists who treat problems in living. Anaïs Nin was told by her psychoanalyst, Otto Rank: "When the neurotic woman gets cured, she becomes a woman. When the neurotic man becomes cured, he becomes an artist.... to create it is necessary to destroy. Woman cannot destroy." A later (also male) analyst had to work hard to counter the destructiveness of this advice.

One would like to think such "expert" advice vanished decades ago. But here is Yarbro talking about her adolescence:

Going to a shrink ... in 1959, when all us females were going to get married and live in the suburbs. Because I didn't expect to (two years on crutches ... You don't get dates on crutches) ... and because I was actually planning a career in high school.... the shrink told me that I was denying my femininity ... and that I was envying the male penis, what I needed to do was get laid and pregnant and I'd be fine.

Perhaps most daunting of all is the discovery that the same message can be conveyed by the very high culture to which the neophyte artist aspires. Novelists' female characters, like painters' female nudes, can discourage. Lee R. Edwards, a contemporary scholar, recalling her college education, says flatly: ". . . since [no] women whose acquaintance I had made in fiction had much to do with the life I led or wanted to lead, I was not female.... if Molly Bloom was a woman, what was I? A mutant or a dinosaur."

And here is Adrienne Rich:

all those poems about women, written by men: it seemed to be a given that men wrote poems and women ... inhabited them. These women were almost always beautiful, but threatened with the loss of beauty, the loss of youth.... Or they were beautiful and died young, like Lucy and Lenore. Or ... cruel ... and the poem reproached her because she had refused to become a luxury for the poet.... the girl or woman who tries to write ... is peculiarly susceptible to language. She goes to poetry or fiction looking for her way of being in the world.... she is looking eagerly for guides, maps, possibilities; and over and over ... she comes up against something that negates everything she is about.... She finds a terror and a dream ... La Belle Dame Sans Merci ... but precisely what she does not find is that absorbed, drudging, puzzled, sometimes inspiring creature, herself.

Cultural messages can obliterate even the concrete evidence of female experience recorded by female artists and do so very young. Novelist Samuel Delany reports a conversation with a twelve-year-old who "had devoured all six books of Jean Rhys; she is a pretty bright kid! "

Me: What kind of books do you like?

Livy: Oh, well ... you know. Books about people.

Me: Can you think of any women characters in the books you read that you particularly like?

Livy: Oh, I never read books about women!

The tragic point is that even a twelve-year-old already knows that women are not people.

One especially lethal form of discouragement occurs when the injunction to be not-a-creator not only saps time, energy, and self-confidence, but is built so thoroughly into the woman's ex pectations of herself as to constitute a genuine split in identity. Critic and poet Suzanne Juhasz finds Sylvia Plath suffering the split in extreme form: "the exaggerated nature of her suffering ... resulted from ... [living in] the fifties, New England, the middle class." Juhasz continues:

There is ... no need to take sides in the debate that often occurs between the pretty girls and the smart girls as to who had it worse. They both did.... for the bright young woman, and especially in American high schools of the fifties, there was only one way to validate the possession of an intellect, by proving that one was as... "normal" as everyone else (for normal meant, of course, pretty and popular).

Juhasz adds: "She needed to be good at everything because in that way she could be everything: woman and poet." In short, Plath needed to be perfect, but (like every human being) could not be. One way to be perfect remained: "There was perfection in death."" So we have:

The woman is perfected.
Her dead
Body wears the smile of accomplishment ...

and Plath's suicide at the age of thirty-one.

Adrienne Rich speaks of her college years and "the split I even then experienced between the girl who wrote poems, who defined herself in writing poems, and the girl who was to define herself by her relationship with men."

Anne Sexton appears to have felt the same kind of conflict of identity; in 1968 she said in an interview in The Paris Review:

All I wanted was ... to be married, to have children. I thought the nightmares, the visions, would go away if there were enough love to put them down. I was trying my damnedest to lead a conventional life, for that was how I was brought up, and it was what my husband wanted of me.... The surface cracked when I was about twenty-eight. I had a psychotic break and tried to kill myself.

Six years after the interview she tried again—and this time she succeeded. Discouragement can hardly go any farther.



“A quirky, irreverent, iconoclastic, idiosyncratic piece of work. It catalogues all the various attitudinal problems and misconceptions ...that allow us to disregard or even discard the artistic productions of women. By defining these patterns so clearly and succinctly, Russ holds a mirror before us—a mirror in which we can see ourselves anew.”
Annette Kolodny

“A book of the most profound and original clarity. Like all clear-sighted people who look and see what has been much mystified and much lied about, Russ is quite excitingly subversive. The study of literature should never be the same again . . .”
Marge Piercy

“Extraordinary and original ...feminist literary criticism rarely explores the social context in which literature is selected for posterity. This, Russ does persuasively, movingly, and in the finest of critical traditions.”
Phyllis Chesler