Sf and Gender Module Week 7: Joanna Russ and the feminist movement

* by Mr Andy Sawyer

"What Can a Heroine Do?"

Widens the scope of "The Image of Women in Science Fiction" (Vertex)

"Culture is male". The hegemony of the patriarchy. What kind of possible stories are there for women? Russ suggests that many of the standard stories in our culture are stories about men and marginalise women. Note Gwyneth Jones's response to the "positive women" written by contemporary males like Colin Greenland (reprint of Khatru symposium).

Sf is seen as a possible solution to the problem (although within the sf community she is equally critical of sf's lack of "real" women).

The influence on Russ and other feminist sf writers of the American women's movement of the late 1960s is direct: they were part of a generation radicalised by the civil rights and student movements and offended/disappointed by the masculinist tone of activists (Stokely Carmichael's alleged joke that "the position of women in the movement is prone.")

"Shulamith Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex: the Case for Feminist Revolution (1970), for instance, suggested a whole catalogue of social and biological changes which ought to take place, allowing the freeing of women from the tyranny of reproduction, for instance, which had obvious potential for science fiction writers." Edward James, Science Fiction in the 20th Century. Other important writers included Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique (1965), Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (1971) and the Australian Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch (1971).

The point is that social/sexual relations are not "given" and it may be desirable for them to be changed.

"Unlike some theoretical positions -- for example, deconstruction or phenomenology -- feminist theory has developed as part of a consciously political project. Quite simply, feminism works to achieve social justice for women. It aims to render obsolete the patriarchal order whose hegemony has meant inequality and oppression for women as the 'others' of men. In other words, feminism desires nothing less than to change the world." (Veronica Hollinger, The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction).

In "The Image of Women in Science Fiction", note Russ's point that in futures described in the works of, e.g. Clarke and Asimov the present-day social relations are presented "and that world is never questioned". (her emphasis)

Note also the reference to "Ladies' magazine fiction" -- "in which the sweet, gentle, intuitive little heroine solves an interstellar crisis by mending her slip" -- usually seen as a reference to Zenna Henderson's "Subcommittee". See Farah Mendlesohn's response to "Subcommittee" in "Gender, Power and Conflict Resolution", Extrapolation, Vol 35 no 2 (Summer, 1994): "Gender is not the story, but it does act both as driver and container of the plot."

"When It Changed"
First published in Again, Dangerous Visions, 1972

The anxious reaction of the narrator to the presence of the domineering men, and of:
"Did you know that sexual equality had been re-established on Earth?"

The story may be seen as a starting point which is reworked in The Female Man, which considers how to move beyond that point. See Russ's afterword to the story in Again, Dangerous Visions or on scifi.com

"In my story I have used assumptions that seem to me obviously true. One of them is the idea that almost all the characterological sex differences we take for granted are in fact learned and not innate."

See James Tiptree, Jr "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", in which the same scenario of an all-female society visited by men is replayed.

"The Last Man" (Wallace G. West, first published in Amazing, Feb 1929) as an example of the "woman only" world redeemed by the presence of a man.

Note how this "female" world is a hive world (see John Wyndham's "Consider Her Ways" which Russ discusses in "The Image of Women in Science Fiction". Secondary sexual characteristics have been lost -- "narrow-flanked, flat-breated workers". The story is entitled "The Last Man" -- but isn't there a "Last Woman" described in it as well? For a later example of the "woman only" world from a "male" perspective, see Poul Anderson, Virgin Planet.

Jeanne Corteil, Demand My Writing: Joanna Russ / Feminism / Science Fiction
Joanna Russ, How to Suppress Women's Writing
Joanna Russ, To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction

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