Reading Joanna Russ: What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism (1998)

The penultimate book in Russ’s oeuvre, What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism, is a critical text on the nature of contemporary feminism after the “post-feminist” backlash—where feminism(s) has evolved, where it has stagnated, and what Russ believes the going concerns must be if feminism is to survive and create meaningful change. In answering these questions, Russ delves into a wide-ranging variety of topics with her signature skill and precision. From the predominance of psychoanalysis in literary criticism, to socialism and women’s unpaid labor, to the ways in which she and other white feminists have failed to listen to women of color, Russ deconstructs and illuminates issues vital to the continuing development of feminism—even when they are painful, or difficult, or paint her and her contemporaries in an ill light. The book is equal parts history and theory, praxis and scholarship, criticism and construction. Published by St. Martin’s Press in 1998, it is currently out of print, to my great chagrin.

In many ways, What Are We Fighting For? is the perfect culmination of a thirty-plus year career lit through with brilliance and incisive wit. The book is by far the longest of the bunch: nearly five hundred pages, more than double the length of How to Suppress Women’s Writing. What Are We Fighting For? is also the last of Russ’s concentrated, larger projects—her final book, The Country You Have Never Seen, is a collection of previously published short work.

So, this book is—to my mind—a signing off, of sorts; I can’t help but read it as a final encounter with the staggering genius of Joanna Russ in her role as lesbian-socialist-feminist scholar, shining light where there was previously darkness and speaking into a deafening silence. Though there is one more book to go in her complete bibliography, one that I also find deeply affecting, What Are We Fighting For? feels like both a monumental accomplishment—and a farewell.

At the time it was written and published, there was of course no way to know that this would be Joanna Russ’s final scholarly book; in fact, in the acknowledgements, she writes:

To Patricia Frazer Lamb I’m indebted—as always—for a long untiring friendship, years of encouragement, and the endless hammering out of ideas about our oppression as women (and everything else in the cosmos). This book is not dedicated to her only because there’s another one coming (I hope) that is (xix).

The other book dedicated to Patricia Lamb exists only in this brief note, a hint at what else might have been. (The Country You Have Never Seen has no dedications or acknowledgements—and no introduction, either.) So, What Are We Fighting For? recursively takes on the weight of “final project,” of a last chance to craft a set of new arguments that will resonate down the years.

And make no mistake: they absolutely do.

Though it’s a shame that any of Russ’s books are out of print, I’m particularly disheartened that What Are We Fighting For? isn’t in circulation—because it speaks cogently and directly to issues facing contemporary feminist and academics, as if the intervening fourteen years between its publication and today simply haven’t happened. This is an ambitious and impossible project—its scope, its intention, its grounding in research—that Russ nonetheless undertook successfully. I have some difficulty even encompassing the amount of material that Russ covers in this book, let alone how it all melds together into a logical whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts.

I could talk about my dazzled, laughing delight after reading the chapter, “Who’s on First, What’s on Second, and I Don’t Know’s on Third: Freud to Dinnerstein to Chodotow to Everybody,” as a person who’s working in the particular humanities-driven corner of academia that still clings to Freud and psychoanalysis like a life preserver. I have quoted and re-quoted this chapter in my daily life; I have read it over and over just to bask in it. The chapter alone is worth the price of admission, and then there are seventeen more, all equally awesome in the full sense of the word. They inspire awe in me, as a reader and a writer.

Or, I could talk about the way that my copy positively bristles with little colored flags, each marking a quote that knocked me over the head with its truth and elegance. These quotes range from the most concise and understandable explanation of the sociological framework of patriarchy I’ve read.

Women who live in patriarchies are draftees, as a class, into the lifelong job of making men happy without the power to do the job and without enough emotional, sexual, and material reciprocity for themselves (66).

to another vital explanation, this one of the significance of speech and silence as markers of survival—

The little woman (or man) who isn’t there is not merely invisible. She is also punished. One of the ways she is punished, of course, is having invisibility forced upon her. […] “Silence is like starvation,” says Cherrie Moraga, and Adrienne Rich calls invisibility “a dangerous and painful condition.” She describes the sensation of seeing the world described by those in authority—and not seeing oneself in it—as “psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing.” (114)

to a theory of scholarship that Russ briefly notes in the introduction as her own approach to synthesizing the kind of ideas and material that she does in this book, as well as her other projects—

…if everything is related to everything else (which I believe) then you can start anywhere, and (if you attend carefully to your own experience and everything you know) you will find yourself forced to broaden your inquiry to include as much of everything else as you possibly can. (xiv)

Going on—and on, and on—would be simple. In fact, while I more or less always begin drafting the posts in this series wanting to shout “read this book!,” What Are We Fighting For? is the text that I would recommend most to folks beginning to engage with intersectional feminism. It is not, as How to Suppress Women’s Writing is, an entry-level text—through a curious and engaged reader will not have a problem understanding or interrogating it. Rather, it speaks to a different sort of audience: the folks who already call themselves feminists, and who are ready to delve ever deeper into the theory and praxis of what it means to be radical as opposed to reactionary.

This is not to say that Russ has written a book that a lay audience couldn’t read; far from it. Her prose is clear, concise, and sharp as ever. She leads into quotations of other authors with the sorts of framings and explanation that make even the most obscure bit of theory mentally digestible. As noted in the prior post on To Write Like a Woman, Russ is explicitly concerned with writing books that may be read by the folks who need them—likely a result of her lifelong engagement with science fiction and fantasy texts. Both the wish to explore new futures and the willingness to approach a wider reading audience than academics generally give a damn about—even feminist academics, who are often as guilty as any of becoming caught up in speaking only to their colleagues—have their origin in Russ’s commitment to and passion for science fiction.

In this way, the extrapolative sensibility that brought to life the worlds of The Female Man, We Who Are About to…, and The Two of Them is on equal display in this text, though on the surface it may seem to have very little relation to SF. Then again, Russ is the first to draw attention to this extrapolative mindset, saying in her introduction:

There is another source for some of the attitudes in this book (if not for its ideas), and that is a source not usually taken seriously. I mean science fiction. I began reading science fiction in the 1950s and got from it a message that didn’t exist anywhere else then in my world. […] Things can really be different. (xv)

This open-minded willingness to speculate, to be wrong, to synthesize current ideas and create something alive and fresh from them—that’s the ethos of science fiction, breathing through a feminist theory text.

There are also problems in this book, problems that Russ herself later addressed in interviews, such as the lingering transphobia so common to those who were part of the second-wave movement. I am unwilling to dismiss a stunningly well-wrought book on intersectional feminism entirely based on brief moments of failure; yet, I am compelled to note and interrogate them, for honesty’s sake. The paragraph about rejecting transgender and transsexual women from women-only spaces being perfectly all right and acceptable, next to a paragraph about excluding male-identified folks in drag from women-only spaces, is a powerful, wince-inducing example—stating both directly and implicitly that trans* women are, really, men. She also quotes Mary Daly on the subject. (90-91)

The rest of the chapter is grand—particularly as it opens with Russ explaining her initial rejection and insult of separatists. She examines the inherent tendency to “draw a hard-and-fast distinction between Blameless Me, who couldn’t possibly bring down such treatment on myself (because I don’ deserve it) and Terrible Her, who does deserve it.” Then, she continues by illustrating this reaction:

We haven’t gone too far; she has. We aren’t crazy; she is. We aren’t angry or bad or out of control; she is. We don’t hate men (the sin of sins); she does. Don’t punish us; punish her.”(85)

She calls this horror of separatists even among other feminists a form of scapegoating, to displace social reprobation onto the more extreme elements of the group. (Which, of course, doesn’t work, as she goes on to explain.) However, the brilliance of the chapter echoes with the painful implications of that problematic paragraph.

What Are We Fighting For? Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism is titled with a question and an answer—both of which are expanded and illustrated by the text that follows. Russ’s interrogation of the politics of feminism with regards to race, class, and sexuality, as well as how all of these axes of oppression tie together, is informed by the work of tens if not hundreds of other writers. The secondary value of this book can be found in the work of the other women (and men!) that she cites, quotes, and engages with; the bibliography is nearly twenty pages in and of itself. The seemingly effortless synthesis of multitudinous concepts and facts that so floored me in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is on even wider, wilder display in What Are We Fighting For?.

I keep insisting on what an accomplishment and an added-value this book is in terms of feminist theory—yet, I wonder if I can possibly communicate my initial reactions to this book, and why I find it to be so necessary. There is, I suspect, no way to accurately encompass the work Russ has put onto the page in this book. I can only promise you that it is worth reading, worth re-reading, and worth incorporating into today’s growing understand of intersectional feminism. Russ often discusses the ways in which our history as women discussing women has been erased, not only in this book but in most of her works—the way that we are writing in sand, and our texts are washed away before the next generation can see them. In this case, I can see that erasure happening. What Are We Fighting For? provided me words with which to understand intersectional feminism, more thoroughly and incisively than I ever had before, and for that I cannot thank Russ enough. I can only wish that more folks who want to understand could come across this book, and that it would come back into print, now, when the “fight” Russ is speaking on continues and more people than ever need an introduction to intersectionality—to why it matters.


Next: The Country You Have Never Seen (2007), the final book.

Lee Mandelo is a writer, critic, and 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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