Last reviewed: June 2018
February 22, 1937
Bronx, New York
April 29, 2011
Joanna Russ successfully used science fiction to develop feminist alternatives to myths of male heroism and dominance. In both her fiction and her critical writing, she defended a strong feminist position. The daughter of two teachers, Evarett I. Russ and Bertha Zinner Russ, Russ was born and grew up in the Bronx district of New York. In 1957, she received her BA in English literature from Cornell University and three years later an MFA in playwriting and dramatic literature from the Yale School of Drama. Russ was married from 1963 to 1967, and in 1977, after teaching at various universities throughout the United States, she joined the English department at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Russ’s fiction created a stir in the field of science fiction in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Her angry, confrontational stories triggered intense debates and had significant influence on other writers, as well as introducing feminist issues into mainstream science-fiction writing. Before the publication of her first science-fiction novel, Picnic on Paradise, Russ wrote short fantasy pieces about a female Phoenician assassin struggling in a male-dominated world; in the novel Russ decided to abduct her heroine to the future, where Alyx once again combats machismo while trying to lead to safety a group of tourists stranded on a planet where no advanced technology can be used.
In her 1972 essay “What Can a Heroine Do? Or, Why Women Can’t Write,” written after And Chaos Died (in which a gay male protagonist comes to terms with a race of telepaths), Russ defends science fiction as the only genre that allows a woman writer to avoid the antifeminist requirements of so-called mainstream literary female characters, who are passive, submissive, and objectified.
As a writer of science fiction and fantasy, Russ deliberately turned generic conventions on their heads. The Female Man, perhaps Russ’s most consequential work, promptly won the prestigious Nebula Award for the year’s best science fiction. Here, she employs the common science-fiction device of alternate universes to present four heroines who live in worlds where the status of men ranges from being extinct to being the enemies in a merciless gender war. To survive in her world, which closely resembles Russ’s America, the central character, Joanna, decides that she has to become the female man. By contrast, her assassin-counterpart Jael fights the men who have subjugated other men and turned them into sex dolls; Jael, however, indulges in sexual acts with her willing slave Davy—a satiric crux of the narrative, when the most male-oriented genre of them all, pornography, is claimed by a woman writer.
Russ’s declared desire to present feminist alternatives created female characters who go through rites of passage of which style and form deliberately mimic traditional narratives. Thus Irene of Picnic on Paradise resembles Alyx in The Two of Them, where the male helpmate is killed almost incidentally and where the relations between the female agent and a native girl are the sole emphasis.
On Strike Against God, a narrative focused on a lesbian love relationship, is a radical continuation of Russ’s strategy; We Who Are About To . . . is a story of despair about a group of humans stranded on a barren alien planet striving to survive. Kittatinny: A Tale of Magic is written to provide young girls with a positive female figure for the genre of fantasy. Russ’s short fiction, which was collected and published in the 1980s, constitutes a body of feminist stories designed to replace, or at least complement, male-oriented texts. Often considered her most successful early short story, “When It Changed,” which is set on the same planet as The Female Man, won the Nebula Award in 1972. A later story, the moving novella “Souls,” in which a twelfth-century female saint seeks to protect her medieval abbey against brutal Viking invaders, won the Hugo Award in 1982.
As a feminist critic, Russ resolutely engaged in the battle of the women’s movement against a male-serving world. In her radical reclamation of all literary genres for women, she did not exclude pornography, and she continued to praise the potential of science fiction as a medium through which women can gain an authentic voice of their own. The importance of her contribution to criticism in the field was recognized in 1988 by the Science Fiction Research Association, which awarded her its Pilgrim Award. In the 1990s she published more material on feminism and lesbianism, issuing the collections To Write Like a Woman, in which she again examines literary preconceptions and biases, and What Are We Fighting For?, in which she denounces the turn in the women’s movement from political to cultural and personal issues.
In further recognition of Russ's contribution to discussions regarding the development of feminist science fiction, in 2007, a collection titled The Country You Have Never Seen was published that includes several of the essays, reviews, and letters she composed on the subject throughout her career. Russ died from complications of a stroke on April 29, 2011. She was seventy-four.