A Letter to Marion Zimmer Bradley

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Title: A Letter to Marion Zimmer Bradley
Creator: Joanna Russ
Date(s): Summer 1976
Medium: print
Fandom: Darkover, feminism, science fiction
Topic:
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A Letter to Marion Zimmer Bradley was printed in The Witch and the Chameleon #4/5.

It is the last of the many formal responses to Vonda McIntyre's review of Marion Zimmer Bradley's book, Darkover Landfall. See the excerpts of this review, as well as many other responses at Darkover Landfall reviewed by Vonda N. McIntyre.

See excerpts from some of the longer letter responses to the review at The Main Letters.

Since the zine series ceased with the issue this letter was printed in, MZB did not have a chance to respond in this venue.

Some Topics Discussed

  • very little of the long essay is about Darkover Landfall, but instead about feminism in general
  • "I wish I could castigate Bradley as a sexist which would make everything so easy! But clearly she's not. I do have a horrible feeling, though, that much of what she says in her letter is exactly what I would have said in or about the winter and spring of 1968, which is when I first met feminism."
  • "[Bradley] hasn't yet begun to analyze what "sexist" means, beyond direct denigration"
  • the letter is much more conciliatory than previous comments by Russ, something Russ acknowledges

Excerpts

The trouble with a fanzine is that everything gets printed out of phase. We're really carrying on a conversation here, and when I read Marion Zimmer Bradley's letter, I was ashamed of my own, which is too flip and sounds heartless. Well, it comes from reading too much GBS [1] as a teenager. Besides, then I hadn't read Bradley's letter in WatCh4,' which I've just done, in admiration for her hard work, her grit, her honesty, and her bravery. I find myself in a bind, though, because there are things I don't agree with in her letters and these make me restive. So I will try to talk about them without pushing my own Anger button, and trying not to do so to anyone else. (This is what Darkover Landfall did and one reason I got so nasty In my previous letter.)

Two things Bradley seems to have come up against in the women's movement and she's quite right to scorn them are the class snobbery and what there's really no name for, but one might call it "motherhood-snobbery". I remember at Cornell when this whole business of feminism burst over our heads and we had our first big conference (the first one I ever knew about); everybody talked about jobs and everybody scorned "housewives". We knew this wasn't really where it was at, but were so blinded by sexism (one of the tenets of which is that motherhood isn't a real job) that all we could do was throw ourselves vehemently in the opposite direction to the one we'd been pushed into and insist (basically) that we wanted to live "like men".

That lasted about a year. It's not so much that the movement, by and large, has changed, as that it has disentangled itself from its very first reactions to sexism.

The other thing Bradley Is talking about, as I see it, is class snobbery, and that probably won't go away nearly as fast. Housework is a lot pleasanter than many other jobs, among them not only farm work but a lot of factory work. Still, housework has one thing seriously wrong with it that other jobs don't do, several things although these are not innate in the work itself, which (as somebody said recently) is the economic, equivalent of running a small business, and has some of the advantages of a small business, i.e. pacing yourself as you please, arranging your own time, etc. But there are two things desperately wrong with housework, and it's these that drive a great many women batty. Nobody pretends that housework is physically hard (though with small children it's a pretty full day, especially if one keeps to fairly high standards of neatness and cleanliness). What is bad is that housework Is (1) isolated and (2) unpaid. To many, if not most, jobs you've at least got mates who are more than four years old, you've got participation in community gossip, news, friendship, in short all the things women used to have in housework before the last two hundred years or so, when housework stopped connecting you with other people in the community and became solitary confinement (Philip Slater's phrase).

Also, until quite recently, a lot of productive-—as distinct from cleaning-up and consumption work was done at home. This is no longer true. The job used to have all sorts of connections with the larger community which it no longer has. And except for Bradley (and Emily Bronte, by the way, who also enjoyed it and found it mixed well with writing) it ends up isolating people who are not creative-artists-hermits. The even worse objection is that it is unpaid, unregulated, with no limits on it, bargaining power that can vary from emotional blackmail to rational persuasion to zilch, and for most women (whose husbands make not much money) the bargaining power a housewife has outside the traditional customs of what she should and should not do, is not much. To be outside the money economy in a society that to a money economy puts you in a very difficult and sometimes very bad position.

I don't like saying this, but I can only understand Bradley's statements that science fiction is not sexist (in many ways fan groups are much less so than most of this country, that's certainly true) or that editors have no sexist prejudices or make no sexist choices by assuming either that she hasn't yet begun to analyze what "sexist" means, beyond direct denigration, or that, having made her life a successful, achieving one in spite of much flak from the world (I would think that being a lesbian, she's had to stand much impertinent curiosity, much dehumanization from straight people, and many many pressures) she doesn't want to look at what sort of a world can demand that you combine the qualities of the woman who climbed Everest, Amelia Earhart, Althea Gibson, and God knows what, simply to live.

I believe Bradley when she says she's never written anti-feminist propaganda. If that means consciously and deliberately, of course she never has. But she has indeed written much that's anti-feminist and so have I. Being feminist or anti-feminist isn't something you do in a neutral situation; the situation is already anti-feminist (sometimes women's privileges via-a-vis men, or some women's privileges are the most anti-feminist things of all) and in order to avoid being anti-feminist, one must make an effort and be conscious of wanting to avoid being anti-feminist.

There is an odd sort of individualism, if that's the right word, in Bradley's letter. It means both being an individual and valuing individuality (which I agree with and heartily approve of) but it also seems to mean the view that the world is a neutral sort of place, a collection of individuals all pursuing entirely unrelated ends, and if there are taboos or prejudice or oppression, that's somehow an accident, which benefits nobody, and for which there is no reason. So whatever choice you make is a strictly personal choice, with no political or social meaning. For example, I find it hard to believe that the reason so many homosexuals in science fiction do not put anything about homosexuality into their work is not "a matter of taboo". It is natural for writers to write about what interests them and to draw materials from their own lives; if homosexuals don't do this, there must be a reason. I think the reason is clear. The social penalties attached to being a homosexual are so great that you have to be either extraordinarily innocent or extraordinarily bold and committed to a public crusade, to publicly announce or even hint that you are one of that monstrous, despised (etc.) group. This is not a matter of editors' individual prejudices (which do vary) but a matter of how badly you are going to be penalized for doing something. True, saints and heroes may go ahead and do it anyway, but one cannot build a whole society out of saints and heroes, even If there ware many of them (they are or necessity very limited people as well as very talented ones). And what is any human being to live in, if not a whole society? That is why our societies are so lousy; because to do anything that is obviously and morally right and demanded by the situation, or simply to live a good human life, demands that one fight for twenty years and get badly scarred. If one cannot do this, either out of weakness or common sense, then the world is forever deprived of those who are weak (and talented, maybe more so than those of us who are tough enough to do it) as well as those who are saner than the rest of us.

I wish I could castigate Bradley as a sexist which would make everything so easy! But clearly she's not. I do have a horrible feeling, though, that much of what she says in her letter is exactly what I would have said in or about the winter and spring of 1968, which is when I first met feminism. Maybe it is a matter of temperament whether or not one sees the part of the glass that's half-empty or the part that's half-full. I think it may be a matter of how much past pain one is willing to face. No doubt if I can face more pain, it's because I have had less of it to face. I do feel that, having made sacrifices (including part of one's own personality) to get what one wanted, there's a strong human tendency to Insist that the sacrifices were necessary. The most heartfelt anguish I've ever heard was from a poor woman Judy Merril was backing into a corner with consummate (but rather heartless) skill, proving to her that premarital chastity was nonsense, whereupon the woman recalled her own adolescence and said, horrified and grieving, "You mean I didn't have to do any of that?" Well, she did have to. At the time. But humanly speaking, her particular, chaste adolescence was not done for any positive reason and was a waste and a mess. I feel that something of this sort is at work in Bradley's letter along with, I should quickly add, an impressive honesty and feminism.

But I do think there's a tendency to something I can only find a name for in Chairman Mao's book, of all places; I think he called it the fear of winning. In order to be free to win, you have to understand exactly where you come from, which means facing how appalling and abominable this has been, and how much you have been diminished by the forces that have acted upon you. As Bradley says, you must pay the price, and the price of freedom to win is an understanding of just how much you have indeed lost. But by underestimating how much you have lost, and how arbitrary and wasteful this is, you underestimate the necessity for change, and hence (I think) the strength of the forces making for change, and hence end up saying that it will take a very longtime, that bigots just are, and so on.

I can't really put all this together, but I think that sexism as an issue will be settled fairly soon not completely, by the way, but by what Riesman calls "restriction by partial Incorporation"-—that is, settled enough to take the pressure for change off—and that the broader issue, of which feminism is a part, will tum out to be class, eventually class differences between nations. (I believe racism will turn out like sexism, comparatively defused within this country in about eighty years or so.) Then: God knows. It's very painful, but far from happening slowly, it's probably happening very fast. I hope we can all take one step and one step and one step and then one day look up and say "Hey! I've really gotten somewhere."

I hope I haven't been nerdy or flip or sarcastic. I think Bradley's letter is very worth talking about. Unlike, for example, poor Poul's.[2] Can we quietly omit, such stuff in the future? He's a nice man in a personal way but it's hopeless; I feel like a rock climber at the 14,000-foot pass in the Rockies looking back through a telescope at an enthusiastic amateur in the Flatirons (foothills outside my study window) who's proceeding Eastward, yelling "Hey! You're in the wrong place! The mountains are this way!" It's a sheer waste of time to argue with him; we'd better just let him go until he and his crampons and bolts (or whatever) hit Chicago.

References

  1. ^ GBS = George Bernard Shaw
  2. ^ Anderson's much maligned letter he wrote in response to About 2,675,250 Words in which he said if women were competent and hardworking, they wouldn't be affected by sexism at all, and that white women in the United States were better off than women in other countries or ethnicities, so why were they complaining?