BackgroundRuss was born in New York City to teachers Evarett I. and Bertha Zinner Russis. She began creating works of fiction at a very early age. Over the following years she filled countless notebooks with stories, poems, comics and illustrations, often hand-binding the material with thread.
Russ graduated from Cornell University, where she studied with Vladimir Nabokov in 1957, and received her MFA from the Yale Drama School in 1960. After teaching at several universities, including Cornell, she became a full professor at the University of Washington.
Science fictionRuss came to be noticed in the science fiction world in the late 1960s,  in particular for her award-nominated novel Picnic on Paradise. At the time, SF was a field dominated by male authors, writing for a predominantly male audience, but women were starting to enter the field in larger numbers. Russ, who became openly lesbian later in life, was one of the most outspoken authors to challenge male dominance of the field, and is generally regarded as one of the leading feminist science fiction scholars and writers. She was also one of the first major science fiction writers to take slash fiction and its cultural and literary implications seriously.
Along with her work as a writer of prose fiction, Russ was also a playwright, essayist, and author of nonfiction works such as the essay collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts and the book-length study of modern feminism, What Are We Fighting For?. For nearly fifteen years she was an influential (if intermittent) review columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.
Russ won a 1972 Nebula Award for her short story "When It Changed" and a 1983 Hugo Award for her novella "Souls." Her work is widely taught in courses on science fiction and feminism throughout the English speaking world. Her fiction has been nominated for nine Nebula and three Hugo Awards, and her genre-related scholarly work was recognized with a Pilgrim Award in 1988. Her story "The Autobiography of My Mother" was one of the 1977 O. Henry Prize stories.
Russ is the subject of Farah Mendlesohn's book On Joanna Russ and Jeanne Cortiel's Demand My Writing: Joanna Russ, Feminism, Science Fiction. Russ and her work are prominently featured in Sarah LeFanu's Chinks in the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (1988).
Health problemsIn her later life she published little, largely due to chronic back pain and chronic fatigue syndrome.
On April 27 2011, it was reported that Russ had been admitted to a hospice after suffering a series of strokes. Samuel R. Delany was quoted as saying that Russ was “slipping away” and had long had a “Do Not Resuscitate” order on file. She died early in the morning on April 29, 2011.