This is a review of Joanna Russ’ novel The Female Man, first published by Beacon Press in 1975. 214 pages.
The four women who are the focus of Joanna Russ’ best-known work, The Female Man, are each from an alternative universe dealing with male oppression in decidedly different ways. There is Joanna, who lives in a world very similar to Earth in the 1970’s. She is a professional struggling in a male-dominated society. She wants to be taken seriously and respected, not forced to accept the power of men and the classed roles of women. In Jeannine’s world the Great Depression never ended and she believes that the female stereotypes she has been told will bring her happiness. These two and their somewhat “normal” societies and constraints are contrasted with Janet and Jael. Janet comes from a utopian future world called Whileaway where there are no men, having all been killed some 30 generations ago, and the women live in lesbian families, reproducing via parthogenesis. Jael, on the other hand, lives in a world where the male and female populations live separately and are at war with each other.
The story gets interesting when the women start dimension jumping and interacting with each other along with, inevitably, their very different societies and cultures. First, Jeannine and Joanna show Janet around America where she clashes with the male culture that cannot understand aspects of the queer, assertive women of Whileaway. Afterwards, Jeannine and Joanna travel to Whileaway with Janet to experience that way of life before Jael guides all three around her world. Joanna, in turn shows Jael America. Through their travels and experiences in the alternative worlds, all the women learn about themselves and as well as what it is to be female.
Along with shifting dimensions, the novel also shifts between the voices of the four women. Sometimes this is thought provoking. Sometimes it is downright confusing, with the reader having difficulty ascertaining which woman is narrating a section or figuring out what world they are in. While this makes the plot difficult to follow in the beginning (and hard to read at times) the perplexity makes the reader think about the female identity and the idea of self, concepts central to the novel. Russ’s jumping between alternative viewpoints and worlds has the additional effect of removing the concept of how. How is all of this happening? How were they traveling worlds? Rather than explain some complicated technology, it simply is. Instead of focusing on the technology, the reader focuses on the societal interactions and the thoughts and experiences of the four women. While hard to follow in the beginning, it does become easier as the story progresses, though it is definitely not a style for everyone.
There is no doubt that Russ uses this novel as a way to vent the real-life frustration she felt regarding the constraints she experienced as both a woman and a lesbian. Some passages are simply too spunky, some satire too obvious, and some contempt too discernible to be passed off as mere writing. “Do you enjoy playing with other people’s children–for ten minutes? Good! This reveals that you have Maternal Instinct and will be forever wretched if you do not instantly have a baby of your own…Do you like men’s bodies? Good! This is beginning to be almost as good as getting married. This means you have True Womanliness, which is fines unless you want to do it with him on the bottom and you on the top, or any other way than he wants to do it…” (p. 151) Russ has even given her name, Joanna, to the woman from the “contemporary” world in a not-so-subtle nod to the obvious. Joanna: female man.
This book is recognized as one of the founding pieces of literature in feminist science fiction and there is no doubt that it deals with some heavy issues and ideas regarding the sexes and their relationships with each other. What would a society without men look like? What about separated male and female societies? This book looks at all of these questions and more, making people question societal norms and assumptions. For me the problem is that it is no longer the 1970’s but 2013. Towards the end of the book there is a long list of how men hold all the meaningful professions: doctors, cops, bank managers, landlords, factory workers, the army, etc. But for me, about half of these are not true; women too hold those roles in my life. We do live in a more equal society than Joanna’s. Is there stuff we need to work on now in 2013? Of course! But while a number of the passages still ring true, some of the tirades just don’t seem that applicable to me anymore which makes it harder to personally connect with Russ’s 1970’s feminist message. Never having experienced that time, it is hard for me to discern where the satire stops and the seriousness begins.
This does not, however, mean the book is not interesting read. The Female Man gives the reader an insight into Russ’s disappointments, aggravation, and fury regarding to the treatment and stigmas she felt against women. It touches upon ideas of feminist equality long before they were thought about; in fact it helped spark them.