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Joanna Russ, Class of 1957

While an undergrad at Cornell, Joanna Russ (1937 – 2011) published poems and stories in The Cornell Writer, a student literary magazine, and wrote several plays that were produced on campus. Russ studied with Vladimir Nabokov, then a Cornell professor, and in interviews credited his influence on her work along with that of the Brontes and Virginia Woolf. After graduation she earned an MFA from the Yale School of Drama and went on to teach at several universities, including Cornell.

There were female science fiction writers before Russ (often disguised with male pen names or initials), but her interests and talents dovetailed with both second-wave feminism and what was called New Wave SF of the 1960s and early 1970s: experimental writing that broke traditional narrative constructs of the genre, addressed contemporary social and psychological issues, and eventually brought science fiction into the mainstream of critical attention. Russ aggressively challenged the conventions and assumptions of what was a male-dominated genre through novels and short stories such as And Chaos Died (1970), “When It Changed (1972), The Female Man (1975), and We Who Are About To… (1977). As a book critic for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction from 1966 through 1980, Russ contributed fresh, unusually candid responses to the work of her peers, stirring lively debates within the pages of fan publications. Beyond the SF universe, Russ’s commitment to feminist principles was demonstrated in articles that appeared widely in academic journals. Her avid interest in “slash fiction” – fan-authored stories in which popular fictional characters are cast in same-sex relationships – was instrumental in its acceptance as a subject of scholarly study.