In her book “How to Suppress Women’s Writing” (https://utpress.utexas.edu/books/russ-how-to-suppress-womens-writing), Joanna Russ discusses methods that society uses to undermine the work of women writers.
The excerpts that follow below describe “some unpleasant possibilities” (Joanna Russ’ words) of the kinds of treatment to which the works of women writers could be subjected.
Note: The name of the writer about whom Russ speaks is included in cursive after each paragraph, except for the last one.
From Joanna Russ’ “How to Suppress Women’s Writing”:
If a woman writer presents herself as a public, political voice, delete this aspect of her work and emphasize her love poems, declared (on no evidence) to be written to her husband—Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
If a woman writer is frank about heterosexuality, delete any of her work that depicts male inadequacy or independent female judgment of men—Aphra Behn.
If a woman writes homosexual love poetry, suppress it and declare her an unhappy spinster—Amy Lowell.
If you still have trouble, invent an (unhappy) heterosexual affair for her to explain the poems—Emily Dickinson.
If a writer is openly feminist, delete everything of that sort in her work and then declare her passionless, minor, and ladylike—Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea.
If she is not easy to edit, writes ten-act plays about women going to war to rescue their men, plays about women’s academies becoming more popular than men’s academies, and endless prefaces about men, women, sexist oppression, and the mistreatment she herself endures, forget it; she’s cracked—Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle.
If she writes about women’s relationships with women and “women heroes” (in Hacker’s phrase), print a few of her early lyrics and forget the rest—H. D.
If she writes about women’s experiences, especially the unpleasant ones, declare her hysterical or “confessional”—Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton.
If she carefully avoids writing about female experience and remains resolutely detached, polished, impersonal, and nonsexual, you may praise her at first, then declare her Mandarin, minor, and passionless—Marianne Moore.
I think it no accident that the myth of the isolated achievement so often promotes women writers’ less good work as their best work. For example, Jane Eyre exists, as of this writing, on the graduate reading list of the Department of English at the University of Washington. (This is the only PhD reading list to which I have access at the moment. I mention it not as a horrid example, but because it is respectable, substantial, and probably typical of first-rate institutions across this country.) Villette does not appear on the list. How could it? Jane Eyre is a love story and women ought to write love stories; Villette, “a book too subversive to be popular,” is described by Kate Millett as “one long meditation on a prison break.”
We include many of the writers discussed above and others in our Free Library:
- Anne Askew
- Jane Austen
- Anna Laetitia Barbauld
- Aphra Behn
- Anne Bronte
- Charlotte Bronte
- Emily Bronte
- Elizabeth Browning
- Emily Dickinson
- Margaret Cavendish
- H. D.
- Catherine Parr
- Christina Rossetti
- Mary Shelley
- Anna Finch Winchilsea
Among Jane Austen’s works, note “Juvenalia” – “astonishing Kafkaesque stuff” in Russ’ description. Juvenalia includes the History of England, which Austen wrote at the age of 15. It was intended as a satire on history books’ pretensions to objectivity. In jest, Austen refers to herself, on the title page, as “a partial, prejudiced, & ignorant Historian”. Of Catherine Parr, the last wife of Henry the 8th, she comments: “The Kings last wife contrived to survive him, but with difficulty effected it.” We wrote about Catharine Parr in one of our earlier posts (Anne Askew and Catherine Parr; John Foxe and David Hume). She has a particular significance among women writers as the first woman to have published a work in English under her own name.
As discussed in our earlier post, Anne Askew (the first writer on our list above), a contemporary of Catherine Parr, was accused of heresy, arrested, tortured and asked to implicate Catherine, “the kings last wife”. Anne chose to be burned at the stake, despite she would have been granted a pardon, had she renounced her protestant faith and provided a ”testimony”, of the kind that was asked of her, about the Queen and her entourage. Owing to Anne’s silence, Catherine avoided prosecution, and an execution that would have been likely to follow.
Within a few months of Anne’s execution on 16 July, 1546, Catherine wrote The Lamentation of a Sinner, her intensely personal third work. The Lamentation was circulated in manuscript and subsequently published in print in November 1547. It was Catherine’s previous work, Prayers or Meditations, printed in 1545, that was the first book published in England and in English by a woman under her own name. Catherine’s first work was published anonymously.
Scholars cite different “firsts”. The Revelations of Divine Love (Folder Literature of the Sacred), written by Julian of Norwich in the 14th century, is another “first” book written by a woman in the English language. However, the Revelations may have been intended, at least initially, as a private diary of personal experiences. Julian had received visions of Christ’s Passions during a severe illness and wrote about them after her recovery. As an anchoress who spent most of her life in seclusion, she is thought to have preferred to write anonymously. Her writings, originally in Middle English, were preserved but little known till hundreds of years later. The Book of Margery Kempe, written in the 1430s, is the “first” autobiography in the English language. Margery could not write. She dictated her autobiography to scribes. In it, she told the story of her spiritual struggles, visions, mystical experiences and pilgrimages (some of which she had discussed with Julian). Margery’s book was also lost for centuries. (For the “firsts” that preceded Julian and Margery, see the Interesting Resources section below). Catherine Parr was the “first” in a way that differed from the preceding “firsts”. She wrote after the invention of the printing press. She wrote intending to publish. She wrote in English and not in Latin. All this suggests that she wanted to write for a wide readership. She wrote for ordinary people in a country where she lived.
Catherine’s “surviving”, that had been enabled by a tragedy, did not last long. Approximately a year after the publication of The Lamentation, she died from complications of childbirth.
Anne’s work, The Examinations, an account of her interrogations and torture, is thought to have been written over the few weeks between her arrest (2nd and last) and torture in June and the execution in July. The Examinations is likely to have been altered by her publisher, John Bale; scholars sometimes refer to his edition of The Examinations as the Askew-Bale text. John Bale began to circulate the Examinations, in the early months of 1547, after Henry the 8th’s death.
As discussed in our earlier post, two hundred years after the events, a renowned philosopher, David Hume, wrote about the tragically intertwined lives of the two women writers, Anne and Catherine, in his History of England. Austen wrote her ironic sentence forty years later still. Her “contrived to survive” and “with difficulty effected it” conceal great suffering and sacrifice.
It is probably not Hume that Austen had in mind when she pretended to be an “ignorant” historian; however, note that Hume’s History, even though it was seriously intended, unlike Austen’s, was a royalist history.
Explore the new additions to the Library, but also study the newly added writers’ biographies. Often, women writers were constrained in their choices of subjects. Sometimes they were the sole providers for their families and had to write in a style that met the demands of the day, to guarantee sales. The public writing career of Anna Laetitia Barbauld was cut short by vicious reviews after she had dared, in what became her last published work, the poem Eighteen Hundred and Eleven, to criticise Britain’s involvement in the Napoleonic wars.
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Quotation from HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING by Joanna Russ
Copyright (c) 1983. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press.
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