The Female Man by Joanna Russ
The Female Man has passed into my hands before. I regularly sift through thrift stores and used bookstores to get my hands on my favorite kinds of books—used paperbacks from the sixties, seventies, and eighties. I was just looking at my marvelous copy of The Unfinished Tales and thinking of having a whole shelf devoted to these already beloved beauties when the Floating Domicile finally lands. I found a copy at a thrift store quite a while before I fell in love with Joanna Russ, and, wanting to nurture the budding science fiction leanings of my dear friend Kathryn, I gave it to her for her birthday one year.
I’ll admit, I was initially confused by the synopses and blurbs available for The Female Man. Given what I knew of seventies sci-fi at the time (so, Star Wars), I assumed it was going to be pretty straight forward and action-oriented story exploring feminism. Of course, Star Wars came out in 1977. The first seven years of the seventies featured darker and more philosophical science fiction films, like Solaris, Silent Running, and Alien. But The Female Man is much more personal about that.
See, it’s not about four women, as we discover at the end of the novel—it’s about the same woman in four very different incarnations. There’s Joanna, a feminist of the seventies that’s heavily implied to be Russ herself; Jeannine, a timid woman living in a world where the Great Depression never ended; Janet, a capable woman from Whileaway, a future where all men have died from the plague; and Jael, an assassin from a future where men and women are at war. Janet and Jael cross over as they please, while Joanna and Jeannine are at the whim of the universe. (Joanna often disembodies, despite being Janet’s guide around our Earth.)
In short, it’s a meditation on gender and feminism executed through these four lens. Joanna gives the novel its title; disgusted by rigid gender roles and how men continue to treat her despite her bevy of qualifications, she furiously declares herself the female man to be treated like a human being. (This is echoed later on with Laur, a young woman whose lack of access to women remotely like her leaves her frantically co-opting traits from fictional male characters and trying to declare herself a genius instead of a girl.) Janet is simply baffled by life in Joanna’s world, forcing Joanna to lay bare the unspoken scripts that rule interaction between men and women. Jael has less screen time, but finds herself faced with a man who appears to be advocating equality but is really just repackaging biological essentialism.
And Jeannine comes from a world where her entire identity is constructed by the male gaze; “The lines of her figure are perfect, but who is to use all this loveliness, who is to recognize it, make it public, make it available? Jeannine is not available to Jeannine” (109). She’s quiet, timid, flighty, and obsessed with status, but she knows that something isn’t right. Like Laur, she lacks any vocabulary to express how she feels. She’s overwhelmed by the other women, when they meet, but she happily offers her world as a base for Jael’s gender war. The stricter the cage, the more violent the inevitable bubbling over. Only Janet, raised in a world where children and women regularly travel alone in the great wilds, balks, and Jael tells her not to be so soft-hearted, since the supposed plague of Whileaway was the war she’s fighting right now.
This pain, of the newly enlightened feminist attempting to carve out a well-rounded, true, and safe identity for herself, is in every word. I kept muttering “Oh, Joanna,” over the pages. One short chapter is simply a list of all the things that have been said about Russ’ writing, prefaced by a statement that if she’d only stated her case gently, they’d have listened to her. It’s hard to read that litany. Another short chapter, The Happiness Contest, details oneupmanship among women. And Jael’s revolt rejects those who seem to support equality, but really just want to maintain what they’ve always had—women as labor, women as objects, women as support. This actually ties back into Jeannine’s story; as she sits in a boat on a lake with a suitor, Russ notes that “His contribution is Make me feel good; her contribution is Make me exist” (120).
The novel ends with Russ asking her novel to accept its ultimate fate as outdated and laughable. I really wish I could tell her that it was no longer necessary, that this was an interesting historical read, but it isn’t. We’ve progressed some, but The Female Man remains extraordinarily relevant.
The Female Man is also very much a product of the mainstream feminist movement at that time. It’s much more inclusive of homosexuality, mercifully, but it does conflate gender and sex in odd ways to the point of binary. For instance, the men of Jael’s world occasionally transition into women (or stop somewhere in the middle), at which point they become property of a “real man.” This is supposed to point out the artificiality of gender, but, given second wave feminism’s treatment of trans women, it reads awkwardly. And, lastly, the solution to gender inequality seems to be Jael’s violent one. It’s certainly tempting, especially after you get yelled at at the DMV for just existing while female (sometimes I wish acid reflux meant that I could actually spit acid like a cobra), but the way forward includes people of all genders.
Bottom line: The Female Man ends by its author asking it to accept its fate as an outdated piece of historic interest. We’ve certainly progressed, but it remains hauntingly relevant. The solution offered and its treatment of the gender binary leaves something to be desired, given how very second wave it is, but it remains an important piece of feminist sci-fi history. Required reading.
I rented this book from the public library.