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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge

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:

“Leaning her silly, beautiful, drunken head on my shoulder, she said, “Oh, Esther, I don’t want to be a feminist. I don’t enjoy it. It’s no fun.”

“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:


from On Strike Against God

18 Responses to “Why I Won’t Be Taking the Joanna Russ Pledge”

  1. LauraJMixon says:

    Well said, Athena. Well said indeed.

  2. Ruth says:

    I have been reading or rereading Russ’ books since I heard of her death. It’s really too bad everything she wrote is still so relevant. I loved this post.

  3. JGStewart says:

    “Unconscious bias is a well-documented phenomenon and is alive and thriving even (especially) in self-labeled “progressive” communities.”

    It’s my (perhaps flawed) understanding that this is exactly what the Russ Pledge is meant to address–it’s a way to surface those biases, to remind myself that they exist, and that *I* have them. It’s not meant to be a “cute lapel button” (though doubtless there are plenty who will use it as that and nothing more), but rather a prompt to examine my choices and actions a bit more critically. Repetition becomes habit, habit becomes thought, and perhaps one day the dessicated husk of that unconscious bias can finally be tossed aside.

    I can only speak for myself–but until it’s “an integral component of my bone marrow” too, I’ll take all the tools I can get in combating my own biases. That’s why I am taking the Russ Pledge.

    My $0.02.


  4. Athena says:

    Laura, Ruth, thank you.

    JG Stewart — if so, hie thee to SF Signal and other suchlike places and engage with the people there.

  5. Sue Lange says:

    Intelligent commentary on this most misunderstood of movements.

  6. Sue Lange says:

    I tweeted a link to this blog post and someone pointed out that chronic fatigue syndrome is not the same as being burnt out. Do you want to expand on that?

  7. Sue Lange says:

    Also, for JG and others such as myself that have applauded the Russ Pledge, I don’t see this statement as someone trying to talk us out of taking the Russ Pledge. I see it as someone stating “jump in, the water’s fine.”

  8. John Stevens says:

    My internet access was curtailed by technological failure and deadlines, so the first I heard of this was from your email to me, Athena. Thanks very much. I think you are spot-on and the loooong conversation over at SF Signal’s Mind Meld about this is definitive proof of that. I certainly agree with the principle behind the idea, but I’m not sure that a pledge is going to do the trick. I think Christie Yant’s contribution over there shows the entrenched nature of bias; what changed her perspective was having to read more broadly, and paying attention to her assumptions. I can already see from the discourse that a pledge is not changing anyone’s mind.

    You highlight a very important aspect of using Joanna Russ in this manner: her life and writing were much more radical than this pledge would indicate, and she paid a great price for what she did. And I say this as someone who sent in suggestions to the Mistressworks list and agrees in principle with the idea behind what has become a meme. What Joanna Russ did was more than create inspiration for a meme; she changed lives. I don’t know the best way to honor her for that, other than take her work and ideas seriously and constantly interrogate what I write and read.

  9. Athena says:

    Sue, I used shorthand in that particular sentence. When you are no longer in the first flush of youth and start having health problems plus hold down a demanding full-time day job (as Russ did), it’s increasingly hard to summon the stamina for such battles. I know this from personal experience, as well as knowledge of other people’s lives. Russ reportedly said she stopped writing fiction because she had finished saying what she wanted to say. But I recognize bravado when I hear it.

    John, it is as you say. I also sent suggestions to the Mistressworks list, hopeless hopeful that I am. I’ve been sending out such lists all my life, and I still see no budging when I look at the various statistics. There is another issue linked to this, what I call the Patrick Leigh Fermor syndrome: the same thing (re)done by a member of a dominant group gets an order of magnitude more recognitions and accolades than when it is done by an Other, from changing a diaper to participating in guerilla warfare during an occupation to recommending books by women.

  10. Caliban says:

    Beautiful and deeply eloquent.

    I particularly appreciate it because, as Athena knows, I took a couple of writing courses from Russ in the late 1980’s at the University of Washington. She was prickly and political and also gracious and generous. And there was no contradiction; she could treat people at individuals while simultaneously calling out structural inequalities, something that many people today seem unable to do.

    I also thought her writing brilliant. Simply brilliant.

  11. Anil Menon says:

    Great piece, Athena. When I first read the title, my gut reaction was “why not take the pledge, dammit.” I now understand why you made the decision you did.

    However, symbolic actions do occasionally serve to bring like-minded people together. They inform, inspire & recruit. For example, I’m thinking of readers who may have never heard of Russ, but could be reached through a call, a challenge, an endorsement. True, we shouldn’t be a need to issue a special call to read women writers just as there shouldn’t be a need to issue special calls for breast cancer research or organ donation. But silence often leads to sins of omission even as it seeks to avoid sins of commission. Since we must sin, might as well be noisy and give the neighbors something to think about too.



  12. Athena says:

    Calvin, I envy you. I wish I had met her, she sounds remarkable.

    Anil, I like the noise analogy! I agree that it may bring Russ to the attention of the young uns coming up behind us. Consider this essay part of the noise. Another point (there are many layers to unpack in this) is that Russ is much too important to become an “internet meme”. It’s like learning history by reading cereal boxes.

  13. When I came up with the Russ Pledge, I certainly didn’t mean to reduce Russ to an internet meme! For one thing, I believe she’s irreducible: she was a giant. She still is: her non-fiction is (sadly) not outdated.

    Like you, I’ve been talking about this bias for decades. I wish we didn’t have to. I wish we didn’t need to keep introducing others to the notion with whatever tools are to hand.

    But we do. And I thank you for talking about it.

  14. Athena says:

    Thank you for talking about it also, Nicola. Like you (and Russ herself), I wish I didn’t have to to fight this particular battle. I would prefer to spend my finite capital in other ways.

    But we don’t choose this kind of war, it comes upon us.

  15. Sue Lange says:

    Here’s another thing: the Russ Pledge isn’t just about women’s writing, it’s about Russ herself because she gets left off prominent lists of great sf writers. These lists always try to include a token woman (usually Ursula). Why is it never Russ? (to say nothing of the other greats) Is it really because she was radical and paid a price for it? Seems like we’d be worshipping her like we do all radicals in the generations following their…well, maybe we’re going to start doing that now that she’s gone.

  16. Athena says:

    Yes, indeed. I made that point indirectly in the article. Although Le Guin became more radicalized as she got older, and more so in her essays than her fiction, Russ was radical from the get-go in both domains. So she paid the price while she was alive by being marginalized (except to be pointed out as passé “extreme” feminism, occasionally taught in despised academic women’s studies courses). Now it’s safe to put her on a pedestal, since she is safely silent.

    The time of her death coincided with a resurgence of these discussions in the SF/F community. So although the Pledge is a way to remember her and continue fighting for her cause, it underlines how little her cause has progressed — and how little it highlighted her when it could.

  17. requireshate says:

    Thank you. This articulates metric fucktons of stuff I want to say but haven’t quite found the words for–the final quote in particular resonates strongly: we aren’t feminists because we “enjoy” it in the sense that we want to go out and castrate men for fun and profit, but that it’s a political thing that must of necessity be taken up for our own sake. And not wanting to take it up is like cutting your own oxygen supply, which isn’t very healthy for anyone.

  18. Athena says:

    Thank you for coming by! I read your blog with great interest. As for feminism, that’s exactly right. Those who intone piously that we live in a post-feminist world are clearly inhabitants of a parallel universe. Pity it’s a fantasy one.