How to Suppress Women’s Writing: Some reflections

If you’ve been on Twitter recently, you may have seen a post like this one floating across your Newsfeed.

This post arises in direct response to the review of a book, The Future is Female, an anthology which came out last year and which focuses on women writers from the 1920s to the 1960s, many of whom are now forgotten in the canon of science fiction. In the review published by The New York Review of Books, Nicole Rudick acknowledges the necessity of such an anthology, and simultaneously provides a scathing takedown of the editor’s intentional disregard of the role of gender politics in isolating and marginalizing these creators.

It is disingenuous to ignore the subtleties of sexism and patriarchal tradition, particularly in a genre perceived to be a man’s world even into the 1960s. In their epistolary friendship, Tiptree and Russ frankly discussed matters of sexuality, gender, and power. “Growing up in the 1950s was growing up in disguise,” Russ wrote. “I remember it as a period in which all sorts of strange and arbitrary standards were forced upon me. In order to remain alive I had to disguise myself even from myself… it ends up being not an act but a schizoid split in your very soul.” The feeling of having to write as someone else while writing as yourself was a refrain in her communications with Tiptree: “To learn to write at all, I had to begin by thinking of myself as a sort of fake man, something that ended only with feminism.”

A Universe of One’s Own

I’ve been recently reading Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, a fascinating book which details all of the ways that women are forgotten in literary canon, so this conversation came at a really timely moment for me. One of the things that Russ discusses in her book is the way that history conspires to forget women writers who do make it to publication. Russ’ work has led me to realize just how easy it is to forget who my literary mothers are, while focusing on my literary fathers. I had originally planned to write this post as a catalogue of all of those mothers, just as Elizabeth Bear (one of those selfsame mothers) has done in her tweet. I owe a debt to these women. They have inspired me to love words, and to see that I, too, can write them. I am sure I have left someone out of my list. I am sure I have more amazing writers to add, writers I haven’t met yet.

Martha Wells, Elizabeth Bear, Laurie J. Marks, Julie Czerneda, Vonda McIntyre, Jane Yolen, Anne McCaffery, Seanan McGuire, Paula E. Downing, Robin McKinley, Tamora Pierce, Mercedes Lackey, Madeleine L'Engle, N.K. Jemisin, Catherynne M. Valente, Robin Hobb, Kameron Hurley

But there is a broader conversation happening that I think needs to be covered here. Beyond me reciting these names like a mantra, no matter how dear that mantra is to my heart, I think it is incredibly important to recognize that I, alone, cannot be the one having this conversation. After all, we as a society have had it before.

And today, once again, society has this idea that women who write science fiction are a strange and interesting breed. In other words, today the community is having the same conversation it had in the ‘70s about women writing science fiction.

Women Rise in Sci-Fi (Again)

In her book, Russ states that one of the ways that we work to forget women writers is in creating a parallel and lesser canon that is studied only by those interested in writing by women. In order to be sure that women are not forgotten again in this new age, the canon must be integrated. And that means that it can’t just be women like me talking about other women. We need men to recognize women’s work as well. We need to be on the same shelves, in the same anthologies (at rates higher than the demoralizing 12 percent cited in Russ’ work), not just in special anthologies like The Future is Female (though we need those, too). Yet all too often that integrated canon becomes increasingly skewed, erases people.

I don’t have answers for that. But I hope that we can learn from our past. I hope that we can continue to recognize that we need stories of all kinds to really imagine our futures.


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