Reading Joanna Russ: Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts (1985)

Following Joanna Russ’s short fiction collection Extra(ordinary) People (1984) comes a much smaller collection of feminist essays, most of which deal with sexuality and the erotic: Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts. The book was published by The Crossing Press and has never been reprinted; it collects essays originally published in The Coming Out Stories, 13th Moon, and Sinister Wisdom.

Interestingly enough, in her own introduction Russ says: “Life and theory are both notoriously slippery and, since the author doesn’t live her life according to feminist theory, but draws her feminist theory from her life (among other things), there’s much about the following essays I’d now like to change” (9). However, I find it no less sharp, witty, and brilliant than Russ’s other works—and it is much more revelatory, personal, and explicit; I found the act of reading Magic Mommas… to be almost too intense at times, as if I was intruding on something private.

And yet, the vital importance of sharing personal histories is undeniable; what is silenced is effaced, and what is effaced is made impossible, and when one’s own identity becomes impossible, well. As Russ says in “Not for Years but Decades,” discussing her erotic experiences with a “best friend” at summer camp when she was a preteen: “What I had begun to learn (in ‘it’s a stage’) continued that summer, that my real experience, undefined and powerful as it was, didn’t really exist. It was bad and it didn’t exist. It was bad because it didn’t exist.” (19)

“Not for Years but Decades” was originally printed in The Coming Out Stories, and is a sort of one, but not one that focuses on an instance of “coming out.” Rather, it’s a story that traces the evolution of this initially effaced, impossible identity—Lesbian, capitalized throughout the essay—from Russ’s childhood to her mid-thirties, across her own psychological landscape despite how painful the journey was and must have been to recount. I found the essay at turns fascinating and immensely upsetting; it’s hard to read about another person’s intimate, personal struggles to define themselves when pressure at every turn is attempting to stop them from doing so. In particular, the discussion of how Russ had been convinced that she had “penis envy” and “wanted to be a man” in college—bolstered by destructive psychoanalysts—was heartbreaking, but her exploration of how she moved slowly and steadily out of the morass of self-denial and delegitimizing internalized psychology is empowering. The second part of the essay deals with “fantasy” as both sexual fantasy and fantasies of gender/identity, using her own fantasies to chart out ways in which female sexuality was made invisible to women and impossible for them to discover, to unearth. One of these, the sexual fantasy in which she is a man being made love to be another man, will come up again in the essay on slash fanfiction also contained in this book.

The following essay is “Power and Helplessness in the Woman’s Movement,” from which the Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters part of the title arises. It is at once a theoretically complex and also quite simple argument: women as a class, because of internalized pressures to stick to the Feminine Imperative (give endlessly of oneself, take care of others, have no needs of your own or if you do have them be helpless to fulfill them, etc), have a “profound ambivalence towards power” (53) that can be destructive when not examined and dealt with. It manifests itself in two personas, the Magic Momma who gives and gives of herself, who can achieve success and “power” but only if she’s using it for others, and the Trembling Sister, who can admit her own needs but remains self-enforcedly helpless to fulfill them and demands instead that the MM do so for her. Obviously, this is not in balance, and it’s a tension that can’t hold the center together. Russ’s proposal is—like the article itself—at once radical and blindingly obvious: stop being afraid of power, and of effectiveness, and of success, as minimal as those things may sometimes be in our society for women.

It’s a wonderful article, biting and critical in the best way, for the purpose of shining the light of truth on a deviously tangled set of social pressures that continue to harm women. I can speak to the fact that this fear of power, of effectiveness and success, is hardly a thing of the past, and I certainly agree with her assertion that “our society runs on self-aggrandizement for men and self-abasement for women” (49). Self-aggrandizement is immensely difficult, because from day one of social gendering girls and young women are taught that it is rude and unseemly to be proud of themselves vocally, publicly, happily. The more success you have, the less you should talk about it. (I find myself intensely uncomfortable with compliments, or even any basic acknowledgement that I might have done something worthwhile, to this day for this exact reason—it’s something I’m trying to work out for myself, but it sure as hell isn’t easy.) That she explains these concepts so easily and so simply, though they are discomfiting and difficult, is one of the consistent pleasures of Russ’s nonfiction, as I’ve discussed previously in posts about How to Suppress Women’s Writing. In this case, the analysis is directed at fixing flaws and destructive tendencies that proliferate within the women’s movement because of internalized social stigma, but it’s a useful article for any framework of discussing women with power. I am reminded of Justine Musk’s recent post about being a “powerful woman” instead of a “strong woman” and the discursive effectiveness (and discomfort) that attend the distinction. She says:

Maybe what we really want to see more of in ourselves isn’t strength so much as achievement and boldness, ambition and power.

(Except I wasn’t entirely comfortable writing those words, and were you comfortable reading them? It’s a weird sort of female taboo, under your skin, still wiggling around.)

Except when a woman takes steps to go after these things – even just to utter the sentence, “I want to be great” – somebody somewhere is going to freak out, and some voice inside her is going to tsk-tsk that nice girls don’t do that kind of thing.

Power is difficult for women to talk about today, and I think no less so than it was in 1985—and what does that say about society, exactly? This essay is definitely still apropos. The next short, Russ’s reaction to the burgeoning anti-pornography movement, strikes me as equally interesting in a contemporary context, as we’re pretty much still fighting this fight. “Being Against Pornography” is a short list of the inherent problems Russ sees in the anti-porn movement: (1) it looks a whole hell of a lot like something out of the Moral Majority; (2) reducing a feminist social critique (as she explain in the introduction, this major social problem is the “availability of women’s resources, non-reciprocally and without pay, to men” (10)) to a single-issue campaign (anti-porn) is destructive and frankly stupid as with the eventual results and splintering of the Temperance movement that didn’t solve the actual problems of wife-beating and marital slavery because it was all blamed on “the Demon Rum” (63); (3)  the anti-porn movement fails to engage with issues of who is consuming what erotic material by age, class, race, gender, etc to do any real study—phrased caustically, “It’s one thing to point out the significance of scientific and social neglect of a topic. It’s quite another to make your figures up.”(60)—and a set of other, smaller critiques on the lean and potential end results of the anti-porn movement. It’s mostly a set of questions in the form of an essay, agreeing that we should look at and study the erotic/pornographic and the commercial impulse for it, but suggesting that we actually pay a little damn attention while doing so.

I quite like her set of questions, as they are similar to the questions the feminist and queer porn/erotica producers of this decade have been asking quite stringently. For example, she poses a hypothetical: isn’t there “really something wrong with using pornography […] Something tacky, something cheap, something thoughtless, egotistical, harmful?” And then answers quite simply, “No.” (63). There are problems in the industry—what it can do, what it can represent, its actual harm—but there’s not anything inherently wrong with the fact that the majority of humans, no matter gender, feel sexual desire and enjoy erotic and personal materials to explore that desire. Exploring how that can work in a feminist frame seems more vital to me than it does to Russ, who isn’t exactly pro-porn either, but it’s a good set of questions to ask oneself on the thorny, difficult issue of porn when looked at from a feminist perspective.

The essay “News from the Front” further explicates the split in “the Great PP Controversy” (meaning Puritans and Perverts) of the mid-eighties, and points out the alarming nature of the Puritan argument as based in the same theory that resulted in the stifling bigotry of the fifties psychiatric institutions and the oppression of “homosexuals,” namely, that sexual behavior is the center of personality and “bad” or deviant sexuality is a sign of a sick person. Not a theory we particularly should want to embrace as feminists, yes? As Russ says: “I sometimes wonder whether the Puritans in the PP controversy ever lived through the American fifties” (69) and “I suspect that the Puritans in the PP controversy are not aware of where their theory comes from” (70). Russ goes on to delineate the ways in which the Puritan side of the argument is reactionary and destructive because it reduces sexism to cultural and personal relations instead of larger institutional structures, in effect blaming sexism on the very realm of interactions that women were socially assigned to manage: personal relations and occasionally the arts. The problem becomes suddenly obvious.

It’s a lovely essay that deconstructs theory both in broad swaths and in particular instances with that same precision and ease of diction that I’ve praised elsewhere and will continue to praise in Russ’s work. In fact, I’d like to just pull out this paragraph to sum up the sheer force and meaning of the essay:

Is it too late in the day to point out that sex is an impersonal appetite, that it’s not identical with love (or politics), that there’s no reason to think it should be, and that the social mystification which confuses the issue (and insists that sex be either polluted or angelic) has been one of the most important repressive agents of the good old feminine mystique? (75)

The critiques in this essay are many and lead into Russ’s last nonfiction book, What Are We Fighting For?, in interesting ways—namely, open criticism of the general white middle-class woman’s refusal to deal with her status as both oppressed and oppressor, and of the trend toward “feminine-ism” that would become the “post-feminist” movement against which What Are We Fighting For? is positioned. At the end of the essay Russ hopes that we might move past these backward-sliding steps toward the ’50s and biological determinism, but she ends on the quote, “Those who cannot remember history are doomed to repeat it.” (78) (And she was right—we did get post-feminism, instead of forward movement.)

Then we arrive at the essay on slash fandom, “Pornography By Women For Women, With Love.” I agree with some of the theory in this and frankly disagree with other bits; Russ has also disagreed later on with some of her own theories here in further interviews and essays about slash fandom. The parts that I find interesting are her acknowledgements that sexual fantasy is important to identity, that the K/S fanfiction and fanzines of the seventies represented ways for women to create an authentic, first-class human sexuality where there don’t have to be sacrifices of self in the way that women’s heterosexual romance novels insisted on, and that “sexual fantasy can’t be taken at face value.” (88) This ties into her many questions about the nature of the anti-porn movement and the “Puritans” in other essays; she is talking about the positives of women finding ways to enjoy the erotic and make a creative sexuality for themselves. The erotic can be powerful, and finding ways of expressing forbidden eroticism is also powerful.

She also points out that though these aren’t stories about gay men—”There is no homosexual subculture presented, no awareness of being derogated, no friends or family, absolutely no gay friends, no gay politics, and so on.” (98)—they are, in many ways, both about women using androgyny to express sexual identity (imagining themselves as Kirk and Spock) and also about the rare instance of women sexually appreciating and painting erotic pictures of male bodies as beautiful and enjoyable, something effectively and artistically forbidden in patriarchal society.

While I agree with her on much of this, I would say that this argument doesn’t apply fully to contemporary slash fandoms, wherein many writers are queer or genderqueer women or men who aren’t just writing slash but also “femmeslash” and straight works, often all by the same author, and sometimes threesomes or moresomes. The awareness of queer identity has also slipped into fandom thanks to queer authors in many ways—you are likely to encounter actual queer community, awareness, and identity in fandom nowadays, as much as straight women writing “m/m” that expresses their own erotic desires about two men together, more than about real gay men. (In much the same way that many straight men appreciate the fantasy of two women together but are not really looking for lesbians. This comes up at an oblique angle in her discussion of male-marketed S&M paperback porn—which she doesn’t particularly hate, and thinks it’s a good idea to examine instead of just tossing out of hand because it might be “bad.”)

Mostly, I like that she is thrilled with the potential of women’s expression in these fandoms and by the authentic open excitement that women can feel sexually in this mode, and that she also acknowledges the issue with the devaluation of women’s bodies inherent in being able to express oneself only through a male avatar. It’s a complex issue, dissecting sexual fantasy, and of that she finally says: “I’m convinced, after reading more than fifty volumes of K/S material (most of it ‘X Rated’) that only those for whom a sexual fantasy ‘works,’ that is, those who are aroused by it, have a chance of telling us to what particular set of conditions that fantasy speaks, and can analyze how and why it works and for whom.” (89) She is also speaking about pornography and sexual fantasies for men, here, in that possibly we should be less down as feminists on “porn” and more down on a culture that produces such insistence on and worship for violence that it likely does much more psycho-sexual damage than erotic material could possibly do.

This idea of coming full circle and communicating across boundaries of experience, not passing immediate judgment, is the subject of her final essay, “Pornography and the Doubleness of Sex for Women.” In it, she explores the ways in which pro- and anti- sides on the porn issue and even the sex issue can talk past each other, though each has points the other should hear. She also deals with the profound double-ness women experience towards their own sexualities, and that women live on a continuum of “bad” and “good” experiences with sex that affect their theories about it. She’s also concerned with explaining that that’s fine. Communication and meeting in the middle to share stories are the key to moving forward, as was done in the old consciousness raising groups.

It’s a near-perfect ending to such a complicated book and complicated topic, where Russ herself has argued stringently against some of the more extreme elements on both sides of the pornography issue. She attempts in the closing essay to balance the argument and to allow for the nature of its existence in the fact that women in patriarchy have had such double experiences with their own sexualities that sex is a dual-natured, problematic but also wonderful thing. “Sex is ecstatic, autonomous, and lovely for women. Sex is violent, dangerous and unpleasant for women.” (107) These realities exist at the same time, and must be considered and dealt with in discussions of the erotic, pornography, sexual fantasy and sexual identity.

Magic Mommas… is not a book that leaves us with answers—quite the opposite. It leaves us with open questions and unanswered questions, possibly because they can’t really be answered. But it also leaves me, as a reader, with a head full of fascinating thoughts and concepts to deal with in my own time, my own way.

These essays are all in some way about intimate issues of sex, sexuality, porn, the erotic, identity… And they all balance the personal aspects (such as the coming out story and discussions of fandom) with theory and social criticism (as in the rest). These are difficult issues to extemporize on; they’re difficult because they reveal much of our selves to the public and in ways that we might not want to be revealed. But they’re worth talking about, and I love that—though I don’t agree with it all—Russ also took the time to consider all of these fraught, complicated ideas with her usual panache and skill.

I also adore beyond measure that in all of these cases she admits her own double-mindedness about the issues, her own discomfort, and her own uncertainty. They are heavy issues, and in this particular book, Russ is open to arguments and concessions that explain the things she cannot quite explain or explain from any position but her own. Magic Mommas leaves plenty of room for fruitful thought.


Next, The Hidden Side of the Moon (1988), Russ’s final collection of short fiction.

The entirety of the Reading Joanna Russ series can be found here.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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