Joanna Russ: Science fiction writer, feminist, & lesbian
In a field dominated by men during her time, Joanna Russ not only broke the glass ceiling in turns of writing science fiction but also offering a critique of the genre.
A radical feminist and academic, Russ is now known for her unique, seminal thinking while also being an entertaining science fiction novelist who wrote challenging stories loaded with passion and wit.
What’s more, she was an out lesbian who was not afraid to let the world know who she was, while the few women who wrote SF during her time had to hide using male pseudonyms (like Alice Sheldon a.k.a. James Tiptree, Jr.).
Joanna Russ: The dreaming child
Born on February 22, 1937, Joanna grew up in the Bronx section of New York City.
The child of two teachers, Evarett and Bertha, she began writing fiction at a young age, filling countless notebooks with stories, poems, and drawings.
She was chosen as one of the top Westinghouse Science Talent Search winners while a senior at William Howard Taft High School.
Later on, she graduated from Cornell with a bachelor’s degree in English where she had studied under Vladimir Nabokov in 1957.
She got a master’s degree from the Yale Drama School for dramatic literature and playwriting in 1960. From there, she went to teach in several universities before becoming an English professor at the University of Washington.
In 1974-75, she was a fellow for the National Endowment for the Humanities.
However, before that, she was already writing science fiction stories, having published her first story, “Nor Custom Stale,” in 1959 in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Joanna Russ: Writing with passion
By the late 1960s, Joanne started attracting the attention of the SF world as she became not only known for her stories but also her non-fiction works like literary criticism and feminist theory.
She started winning science fiction genre awards like the Hugo and the Nebula, but she also received mainstream recognition for her academic/critical work.
“Provocative, uncompromising and brave, Russ was not content merely to chronicle women’s issues but to open the debate to include a frank examination of women’s weaknesses,” Christopher Priest wrote in The Guardian.
Citing reviewers’ comparisons of her to Jonathan Swift, Priest said Russ “was extraordinarily successful and stirred up much engaging controversy, especially among fellow (ie male) SF writers.”
Her feminist leanings showed up in her late 1960s stories of Alyx, a female assassin from history. But her most famous novel, The Female Man, was published in 1975.
She had written this book six years earlier after she had publicly declared herself a lesbian.
Her essays were later collected into books like Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts (1985) and To Write Like a Woman (1995). Likewise, she also wrote a nonfiction book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983).
Joanna Russ: Her lesbian work
It was Joanne’s most famous work, The Female Man, that made an impact as an LGBT work.
The novel, about four genetically-identical women in four different social contexts in different parts of history, examines facets of the author herself.
“The Female Man made a huge impact on me and on other lesbian feminists. Many male reviewers viciously attacked the book at the time of publication. No wonder some found the book so threatening. It challenged traditional notions and beliefs about gender in a way that few feminists had managed to achieve in theoretical works,” wrote Julie Bindel, an English writer and feminist.
“The power of the plot lies in the way the reader is invited to see men’s dominance and superiority over women as ludicrous, and as stranger than (science) fiction,” Bindel added.
Joanna also wrote a study of Willa Cather and her lesbianism, which had been considered a taboo subject.
In 2011, Joanna died at the age of 74 from complications due to a stroke in Tucson, Arizona.
“In the America in which she came of age, Ms. Russ was triply disenfranchised: as a woman, a lesbian and an author of genre fiction who earned her living amid the pomp of university English departments,” Margalit Fox wrote in Joanna’s obituary in the New York Times.