Joanna Russ

In my time I have met rather a lot of authors, some of whom are very famous. I have even, to my delight, shared a breakfast conversation with Samuel Delany. But one person I have never met is Joanna Russ. Possibly that’s just as well, as I would have been utterly terrified of her. Now, of course, I will never get the opportunity.

I will leave obituaries to people who knew Russ well, such as Timmi Duchamp.

For trans people Russ is less of a heroine. She came up through second wave feminism, which was rampantly transphobic, and parts of The Female Man faithfully reflect the then orthodox view that trans women were “really” men trying to replace women with compliant sex slaves.

However, as Roz Kaveney noted on Twitter, unlike some of her contemporaries, Russ was willing to engage with trans women and try to understand them. As a result, her views about them changed markedly, and she publicly apologized for her earlier antagonism.

One of these days I will re-read The Female Man and write about it. In the meantime, however, here are a couple of things to think about.

While Russ might have been re-cycling the transphobic views of Janice Raymond, to a teenage trans girl the prospect of being given a macho-ness test in school that you could fail and, as a result, be required to live the rest of your life as a woman, does not seem like oppression, it seems like potential relief from torture.

The sex slave thing, of course, comes later. Teenage girls of all sorts are not always that sensible about the future that waits for them in a patriarchal society. What Russ missed, however, is that by the time they are adults the Changed will have no more illusions. Most of them will be ardent feminists.

3 thoughts on “Joanna Russ

  1. Given the dates it was probably Robin Morgan or Germaine Greer rather than Raymond, whose style and pretentiousness would probably have irritated Russ. It is easy to forget how widespread anti-trans views were even in the early 70s – though it took Raymond to turn it all into hate speech.

    1. Thanks. I think The Female Man was published before The Transsexual Empire, but I know that books can take years to write and sell, so it is hard to know who might have influenced whom.

  2. I only read The Female Man for the first time this year, and while I don’t doubt that transphobia was absolutely genuine when Russ first put it there, reading it now — in mental dialogue with the Joanna Russ of 1975 — that transphobia came across to me as one more way (and not the smallest) in which Alice/Jael and her world were fundamentally broken — one more reason to, with Janet, cry for her. I like to think that reading is closer to where Russ ended up; I’m sorry I never got to talk to her about it.

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