Sunday, July 18, 2010

How to Suppress Women's Writing

How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ is a marvelous book that examines the systematic ways that women artists have been suppressed by society and critics. Russ's book is a very readable, accessible polemic against the suppression of women artists (not just writers, but artists, actors, musicians, etc) and explains the various ways that women's work is undermined:

She didn't write it.
She wrote it, but she shouldn't have.
She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.
She wrote it, but "she" isn't really an artist and "it" isn't really serious, of the rigth genre - i.e., really art.
She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.
She wrote it, but it's only interesting/included in the canon for one, limited reason.
She wrote it, but there are very few of her.
Aside from verbalizing some of the frustrating questions I've been asking myself lately, Russ presents example after example of brilliant women artists and the denial of their place in the canon. She counts representations of women in anthologies, cites old criticism of books, most amusingly when a book is first published under a male pen-name and later revealed to have been written by a woman - like Emily Brönte's Wuthering Heights. After the shocking revelation of the artist's sex, her writing was compared " a little bird fluttering its wings against the bars of its cage." When it was understood to be written by a man, it was described as "powerful and original", "bestial, brutal, indeed monstrous."

Women's experience (sometimes but not always the subject of women's writing) is often rejected out of hand. Writes Russ:
Many feminists argue that the automatic devaluation of women's experience and consequent attitudes, values, and judgments springs from an automatic devaluation of women per se, the belief that manhood is "normative" and womanhood somehow "deviant" or "special." ... Not only is female experience often considered less broad, less representative, less important, than male experience, but the actual content of works can be distorted according to whether the author is believed to be of one sex or the other.

Naturally, she addresses Linda Nochlin's extremely influential 1971 article "Why have there been no great women artists?" in which Nochlin writes, "There are no women equivalents for Michelangelo or Rembrandt, Delacroix or Cezanne, Picasso or Matisse..." Russ answers that with, "...there is the statement "no great women artists" in a century that has produced Georgia O'Keeffe, Käthe Kollwitz, and Emily Carr, to name only those I happen to like."

Russ ends the book with a challenge to the reader to consider their own prejudices and rejections, while freely admitting that her own book doesn't adequately address the suppression of other minority writers, particularly black women writers and other writers of color and non-Western artists.

I came away with a long list of writers I want to explore more, here are a few:
The Countess of Winchilsea, Anne Finch
Margaret Cavendish
Jane Marcus, Art and Anger
Eve Merriam, The Club
Anna Letitia Barbauld
Jane Elliott
Lady Anne Lindsay
Lady Carolina Nairne
Aphra Behn
Charlotte Brontë's Villette
And, thanks to Russ, I got that Dorothy Sayers recommendation I've been waiting for: Gaudy Night - review coming soon! Let me know if you're familiar with the writers above.


Amy said...

Love your review, I was also a huge fan of this book and can't stop gushing about it any time I get the chance. I also found it tongue-in-cheek funny too, though the only other person I know who read it didn't agree at all. Did you find it funny at all?

Special K said...

Yes, I did! thanks for reading!