Cover of first edition (paperback)
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The Female Man is a feminist science fiction novel by American writer Joanna Russ. It was originally written in 1970 and first published in 1975. Russ was an avid feminist and challenged sexist views during the 1970s with her novels, short stories, and nonfiction works. These works include We Who Are About To..., "When It Changed", and What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism.
The novel follows the lives of four women living in parallel worlds that differ in time and place. When they cross over to each other's worlds, their different views on gender roles startle each other's preexisting notions of womanhood. In the end, their encounters influence them to evaluate their lives and shape their ideas of what it means to be a woman.
The character Joanna calls herself the “female man” because she believes that she must forget her identity as a woman in order to be respected (p. 5). She states that “there is one and only one way to possess that in which we are defective ... Become it” (p. 139). Her metaphorical transformation refers to her decision to seek equality by rejecting women's dependence on men. Jonathan Swift refers to Queen Anne as a "female man" in Chapter 4 of the Houyhnhnms section of Gulliver's Travels.
The Female Man includes several fictional worlds.
- Joanna's World: Joanna exists in a world that is similar to Earth in the 1970s.
- Jeannine's World: Jeannine lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended. The Second World War never happened because Adolf Hitler was assassinated in 1936, and Chiang Kai-shek controls Hong Kong, as Japanese imperialism still dominates the Chinese mainland.
- Janet's World (Whileaway): Janet lives in a world called Whileaway, a utopian society in the far future where all the men died from a gender-specific plague over 800 years ago. In the final chapter, Jael suggests that the men were actually killed. To procreate, women in lesbian relationships use technology to genetically merge ova, also called parthenogenesis. Although the world is technologically advanced, their societies are mostly agrarian. Joanna Russ's Nebula Award winning short story When It Changed (1972) also takes place on Whileaway, but earlier.
- Jael's World: Jael's world is a dystopia where men and women are literally engaged in a "battle of the sexes". Although they have been in conflict for over 40 years, the two societies still participate in trade with each other. Women trade children in exchange for resources. In order for men to cope with their sexual desires, young boys undergo cosmetic surgery that physically changes their appearance so that they look like women. Jael is heterosexual and has sex with Davy, a robot designed as an attractive and sexually submissive young man, at her home.
The novel begins when Janet Evason suddenly arrives in Joanna's world. Janet is from Whileaway, a futuristic world where a plague killed all of the men over 800 years ago, and Jeannine lives in a world that never experienced the end of the Great Depression. Janet finds Jeannine at a Chinese New Year festival and takes her to Joanna's world. Joanna comes from a world that is beginning its feminist movement.
Acting as a guide, Joanna takes Janet to a party in her world to show her how women and men interact with each other. Janet quickly finds herself the object of a man's attention, and after he harasses her, Janet knocks the man down and mocks him. Because Joanna's world believes that women are inferior to men, everyone is shocked. Janet expresses her desire to experience living with a typical family so Joanna takes Janet to the Wildings’ household. Janet meets their daughter Laura Rose who instantly admires Janet's confidence and independence as a woman. Laura realizes that she is attracted to Janet and begins to pursue a sexual relationship with her. This is transgressive for both of them, as Whileaway's taboo against cross-generational relationships (having a relationship with someone old enough to be your parent or child) is as strong as the taboo against same-sex relationships on Laura's world.
The novel then follows Jeannine and Joanna as they accompany Janet back to Whileaway. They meet Vittoria, Janet's wife, and stay at their home. Joanna finds herself under scrutiny when Vittoria uses a story about a bear trapped between two worlds as a metaphor for her life. Jeannine returns to her world with Joanna, and they both go to vacation at her brother's house. Jeannine's mother pesters her about her love life and whether she is going to get married soon. Jeannine goes on a few dates with some men but still finds herself dissatisfied. Jeannine begins to doubt her sense of reality, but soon decides that she wants to assimilate into her role as a woman. She calls Cal and agrees to marry him.
Joanna, Jeannine, Janet, and Laura are lounging in Laura's house. Laura tries to glorify Janet's status in Whileaway, but Janet explains that her world does not value her particularly, but chose her as inter-dimensional explorer because she was more expendable than others ("I am stupid," she explains). At 3 a.m., Joanna comes down, unable to sleep, and finds Jeannine and Janet awake as well. Suddenly they are no longer at Laura's house but in another world.
Joanna, Jeannine, and Janet have arrived in Jael's world which is experiencing a 40-year-old war between male and female societies. Jael explains that she works for the Bureau of Comparative Ethnology, an organization that concentrates on people's various counterparts in different parallel worlds. She reveals that she is the one who brought all of them together because they are essentially “four versions of the same woman” (p. 162). Jael takes all of them with her into enemy territory because she appears to be negotiating a deal with one of the male leaders. At first, the male leader appears to be promoting equality, but Jael quickly realizes that he still believes in the inferiority of women. Jael reveals herself as a ruthless assassin, kills the man, and shuttles all of the women back to her house. Jael finally tells the other women why she has assembled all of them. She wants to create bases in the other women's worlds without the male society knowing and eventually empower women to overthrow oppressive men and their gender roles for women.
In the end, Jeannine and Joanna agree to help Jael and assimilate the women soldiers into their worlds, but Janet refuses, given the overall pacifism of Whileaway. Jeannine and Joanna appear to have become stronger individuals and are excited to rise up against their gender roles. Janet is not moved by Jael's intentions so Jael tells Janet that the reason for the absence of men on Whileaway is not because of a plague but because the women won the war and killed all of the men in its timeline's past. Janet refuses to believe Jael, and the other women are annoyed at Janet's resistance. The novel ends with the women separating and returning to their worlds, each with a new perspective on her life, her world, and her identity as a woman.
Jeannine Dadier is a librarian who lives in a world that never escaped the Great Depression. She believes that “there is a barrier between [her] and real life which can be removed only by a man or marriage” (p. 120). She doubts her boyfriend Cal's ability to make her happy, yet eventually she succumbs and becomes engaged to him. At the end of the novel, Jeannine appears to have broken from the expectations of marriage and welcomes the social revolution against men.
Joanna, living in the 1970s, comes from a world remarkably similar to Earth. The feminist movement has just begun, and Joanna is determined to refute her world's belief that women are inferior to men. Joanna is witty and smart; however, she struggles to assert her abilities and intelligence among her male peers. She repeatedly refers to herself as the “female man” (p. 5) to indicate her adoption of the male gender role and separate herself from being identified as just another woman.
Janet Evason Belin comes from a futuristic world called Whileaway where all the men died of a gender specific plague over 800 years ago. She is a Safety and Peace officer, similar to a police officer, and has just become an emissary to other worlds. She is married to Vittoria and has two children. In addition to being confident and assertive, Janet is perhaps the most independent from men because she has never experienced patriarchal domination.
Alice Jael Reasoner, often referred to as Jael, is an assassin living in a world where a 40-year-old war has caused men and women to separate into warring societies. She is a radical and does not appeal much to her emotion but, focuses solely on facts as they are presented to her. Jael is the instigator behind the four women's meeting and appears to be proposing a revolution against all men.
Laura Rose is the daughter in the family that Janet stays with when she is visiting Joanna's world. She proclaims herself to be a “victim of penis envy,” frustrated that she must stifle her potential in order to become a housewife (p. 65). Janet's confidence and independence from men fascinates Laura, and Laura begins to pursue a sexual relationship with her. Laura is the only character other than the four major ones to have the narrative told through her perspective.
Cal is Jeannine's boyfriend and soon-to-be fiancé. Jeannine does not believe that Cal is masculine enough to provide for her.
Mrs. Dadier is Jeannine's mother who lives with Jeannine's brother and his family. When Jeannine spends a vacation at her brother's house, Mrs. Dadier plagues Jeannine with lectures regarding the importance of marriage.
Structure and format
The novel is divided into nine parts, with each further divided into chapters. The sections of the novel are usually dedicated to one character's perspective, but often the point of view changes between the four characters and skips from location and time. For example, part five begins in Jeannine's world yet the narrative is through Joanna's perspective. The novel never clearly indicates who is speaking and, as a result, often creates confusion in the narration. The novel does provide clues, however, so that the reader can infer the identity of the narrator.
Joanna, Janet, and Jael's perspectives are expressed through the first person narrative, but they often refer to themselves in the third person while the narration is still through their point of view. Jeannine's perspective is initially told solely through a third person narrative. Jeannine does eventually adopt a first person narrative, indicating her emerging doubt of her dependence on a man and her fate as a dutiful wife. Joanna recognizes that her own style of narration reflects a feminine quality. Joanna says, “I have no structure…my thoughts seep out shapelessly like menstrual fluid, it is all very female and deep and full of essences, it is very primitive and full of ‘and’s,’ it is called ‘run-on sentences’” (p. 137). Joanna also inserts common conversations in the form of a script that demonstrate her frustration with men’s ignorance of women. Janet often gives background history on Whileaway to provide insight on the nature of her world. Jael is slightly introduced in part two, signaled by an italicized text; however, her story begins in part eight with a repetition of the italicized chapter. The novel mostly focuses on Jael’s perspective until the end of the novel except for a few moments when the narrative is told through the other three’s point of view.
Literary significance and reception
As the feminist movement began to gain attention, however, many regarded the novel as one of the most influential works in feminist literature and its wide acceptance heralded the start of feminist science fiction.
Douglas Barbour in the Toronto Star wrote:
A work of frightening power, but it is also a work of great fictional subtlety ... it should appeal to all intelligent people who look for exciting ideation, crackling dialogue, provocative fictional games-playing in their reading.
Elizabeth Lynn, of the San Francisco Review of books, described it as "A stunning book, a work to be read with great respect. It’s also screamingly funny."
Transgender activists have noted that the Jael sections are transphobic, something that Russ apologized for later in life.
Allusions and references
Allusions to other works
The character Janet, and a different version of Whileaway (a planet colonized from Earth, rather than a future version of Earth itself), exist in both the novel The Female Man and in the short story "When It Changed".
Joanna alludes to Grendel's mother to demonstrate that a woman can be both a nurturing mother and an aggressive, strong woman.
Joanna references Mill when she lists the many examples of how men have historically oppressed women.
Jael is named after Yael, who kills Sisera by driving a tent peg through his skull while he sleeps. At one point Russ describes Jael in words paraphrased from the Book of Judges: "At her feet he bowed, he fell, he lay down: at her feet he bowed, he fell: where he bowed, there he fell down dead" (Jdg. 5:27).
Allusions to history
Russ's novel refers to the problematic issues in the 1970s when the feminist movement became highly influential. Because The Female Man was written during the 1970s, the character Joanna's world is most similar to the world the author lived in. The novel also addresses the environmental movement as shown through Janet's utopian society. Though Janet's world is extremely technologically advanced, the women choose to live in agrarian societies. Whileaway forms an idealistic image of an organic environment where nature is preserved despite the radical development of technology.
Joanna (the author) also mentions the Great Depression, which started in 1929 when the world's economy was plunged into a long and deep recession. In Jeannine's world, however, the Great Depression never ended. The text suggests that the continuation of the Great Depression forced women to seek husbands for financial support and prohibited women from finding jobs of their own, perpetuating gender roles.
Awards and nominations
After having been nominated for the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novel, The Female Man won one of three Retrospective Tiptree Awards in 1996. It also won a 2002 Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame Award.
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