A Geology Lesson
Here, the sea strains to climb up on the land
and the wind blows dust in a single direction.
The trees bend themselves all one way
and volcanoes explode often.
Why is this? Many years back
a woman of strong purpose
passed through this section
and everything else tried to follow.
— Judy Grahn, from She Who
Between the physical death of Joanna Russ and the latest endless lists and discussions about women’s visibility and recognition in SF/F, well-meaning people have come up with the Russ Pledge. Namely, a pledge to acknowledge and promote women’s work.
As recent history has shown, Twitter notices don’t start revolutions, let alone sustain them. Even if they did, I won’t be taking the Russ pledge for the simplest of reasons. I have been implementing it for the last forty-plus years. It’s not a cute button on my lapel. It’s not a talking point in my public persona. I cannot take it off when I take off my clothes. It’s not an option. It’s an integral component of my bone marrow that has shaped my personal and professional life.
Long before her death, Russ had been marginalized for being too prickly, a prominent target of the “tone” argument. Even many women found her uncomfortable — she might annoy the Powers that Be and compromise paltry gains. As if good behavior brought acceptance to boys’ treehouses. As if she didn’t threaten the status quo by her mere existence, let alone her uncompromising stories, essays and reviews. Most people know of The Female Man and How to Suppress Women’s Writing, if only by rumor, but the rest of her opus is just as radical. If you want to have your preconceptions soothed by feel-good feminism, Russ is not your woman.
It’s not surprising that eventually she burned out (“chronic fatigue syndrome”), like most people in equivalent circumstances. She kept showcasing true aliens — women as autonomous beings with agency! — and asking questions outside the box. She kept pointing out that even if you have been “promoted” from field hand to house servant you can still be sold down the river. An uncomfortable reminder for those who keep clinging to the hope of “change from within”, the illusion that being abjectly nice to the ensconced gatekeepers and kicking the more disenfranchised below will ensure decent treatment, or even survival.
Joanna Russ paved the way for all who walk the path of real change not merely with words, but with her body. Like the women in folk ballads who got buried alive so that bridges would stand, she deserves more than pious twitterings now that she’s safely dead. I recognize the good intentions of those who promote this pledge in her name. But enough already with “mistress lists” and their ilk. If people want to really do something, I suggest (and mind you, this is a suggestion, not the forcible penectomy some obviously consider it to be) that they read women’s books. Publish them for real money, as in pro-rate presses – pathetic as pro rates are, these days. Review them in major outlets. Nominate them for prestigious awards. Hire them as editors, columnists and reviewers (not slush readers or gofers) in major venues, in more than token numbers. Teach them in courses.
Unconscious bias is a well-documented phenomenon and is alive and thriving even (especially) in self-labeled “progressive” communities. Women have shown up the arguments for intrinsic inferiority by winning open chairs in orchestras when performing behind curtains and winning major literary awards when hiding behind pseudonyms. But this does not change the dominant culture. And it does not make up for the oceans of creative talent that got lost — suppressed or squandered in anger or hopelessness.
I will let Russ herself have the last word. It’s striking how ageless she remains:
“I know,” I said. “I don’t either.” People think you decide to be a “radical,” for God’s sake, like deciding to be a librarian or a ship’s chandler. You “make up your mind,” you “commit yourself” (sounds like a mental hospital, doesn’t it?).
I said Don’t worry, we could be buried together and have engraved on our tombstone the awful truth, which some day somebody will understand:
WE WUZ PUSHED.”
from On Strike Against God