The Female Man

by Joanna Russ

Cover image

Publisher: Beacon
Copyright: 1975
Printing: 1986
ISBN: 0-8070-6299-5
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 214

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The Female Man is one of the most famous novels of feminist science fiction, written by a giant of the field. Joanna Russ was one of the strongest writers of the first era of explicitly feminist SF and one of the most challenging. Along with Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) and Sheri Tepper, she's probably the best known author whose approach tended towards the directly confrontational. She was also a noted essayist, critic, and reviewer; her book How to Suppress Women's Writing is one of the most famous works of feminist literary criticism.

That said, I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I'd heard that it was about four different women: Jeannine, Joanna, Janet, and Jael. They're parallels of sorts but from far different cultures, alternate worlds displaced in time. I'd also heard that it was full of biting, accurate sarcasm, which is certainly the case. This is a book written from a place of righteous anger combined with keen social observation and a desire to point out how different the world could be. And how toxic male behavior towards women currently is.

What it's not, however, is much of a novel, in the sense of having a clear plot that carries the reader through the book. There is a story of sorts, which revolves around the appearance of Janet in Joanna's time. Janet is a native of Whileaway, an alternate future Earth in which there are no men at all and social organization is significantly different. We get a fairly detailed description of her life and of some Whileaway customs over the course of the book. But they're mixed with excerpts from the lives of both Jeannine (from an alternate past in which the Great Depression never ended) and Joanna.

If Janet's story is a sort of utopian alternate future, following the basic model of female separatist societies, Jeannine's is the dystopia drawn from our past. She's locked entirely into traditional gender roles and the desire to catch a man and be a wife. I found her the hardest character to read about by far, largely because she locks herself into the worst constraints of that role. She's almost entirely passive, and she's devoted to a man for whom it's difficult to have any respect at all.

Janet is interesting in part because she's not particularly exceptional in either ability or intelligence. She just reflects the Whileaway culture, which leads to some sharp conflicts with the norms of Joanna's time. It's a very effective tactic for alienating the reader from current gender roles (or, at least, roles from the 1970s) and showing how absurd they appear with a different set of starting assumptions. Russ makes the point clearly; this is not a book that tends towards the subtle, although it can be a little hard to track the characters' progress through alternate timelines.

Towards the end of the book, they meet the fourth character. (This is not really the sort of book that is possible to spoil by summary.) Jael is by far the most aggressive of any of them, the closest that any of them come to the caricature of a "man-hating feminist." One of the strengths of The Female Man is that, by the time the story reaches her, I at least was feeling quite a lot of sympathy towards her aggressively violent approach, after watching Joanna be put down and Jeannine simper ineffectually. However, it's worth nothing that Janet, the representative of the supposed utopia, does not agree with Jael or her methods, and the relationship between their worlds is interestingly complex.

None of the four characters are exactly wrong (although Jeannine comes close); none of them are entirely right either. They're all struggling in different ways with how to define femininity. While the quiet and simplicity of Janet's world has definite appeal, it's the sort of utopia that one isn't sure one would actually want. And Jael has some pointed commentary on how wanting such a world is one thing, but the acts required to create it is quite another.

I can see why this book is so well-known. Many of the scenes that show gender relations and male behavior are both painful and funny. Reading it forty years after it was written, it's clear that social norms have changed; men do and say things here that they would no longer be able to get away with, that are clearly from another era. But it's also clear that some of the underlying attitudes have not changed, just been cloaked in different language. And Russ's bluntness here is refreshing: this book does not pull its punches, both in openly ridiculing sexist behavior, and in showing how oppressive it is for women.

That said, it didn't work as a story for me, in part because the plot is sketchy at best. It's a collection of individual excerpts and commentary, only some of which are shaped like a story. Much of it feels stream of consciousness, and when cut between three different viewpoints, it's also occasionally confusing. There are also a few too-obvious characters: some of the men, particularly in Jael's section, but also Jeannine, who I never liked even after she starts changing her mind about women's roles. I wanted a bit more story and a bit less introspection.

I think this is an important book that's worth reading, and sadly it's not as obsolete as one would like. But I don't think it's entirely successful as a novel. Best treated as a piece of literary history.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-12-31

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21