The Female Man is a feminist science fiction novel written by Joanna Russ. It was originally written in 1970 and first published in 1975. The book was re-released in 2000. Russ is 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 others’ worlds, their different views on gender roles startle each others’ 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.
Joanna's World: Joanna exists in a world that similar to Earth in the 1970s.
Jeannine's World: Jeannine lives in a world where the Great Depression never ended.
Whileaway (Janet's World): Whileaway is a utopian society in the far future where all the men died from a gender-specific plague over 800 years ago. Women dedicate their lives to coexisting with each other through hard work. Although the world is technologically advanced, their societies are mostly agrarian. Their technology enables them to genetically merge ovula in order to procreate.
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 the men to cope with their sexual desires, young boys undergo cosmetic surgery that physically changes their appearance so that they look like women.
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.
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 anymore. 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” (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. 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. 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 their lives and their identity as a woman.
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” (5) to indicate her adoption of the male gender role and separate herself from being identified as just another woman.
Janet Evason 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 with 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 a man’s presence.
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.
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.
"Representations of technology provide [Russ] a way of talking about temporality and change, about historicity and futurity, including agential social change" (406).
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’” (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.
“A stunning book, a work to be read with great respect. It’s also screamingly funny.”- Elizabeth Lynn, San Francisco Review of books
"In sum, it is a superior SF novel, though perhaps too demanding in an emotional sense ever to be popular even with those expressing the currently fashionable opinions on women's liberation." --R.D. Mullen
Whileaway and the character Janet exists in both the novel and 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).
Joanna (the author) also mentions the Great Depression, which occurs in 1929 when economies all over the world took a devastating turning point. 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. As a result, the text implies that the Great Depression perpetuated gender roles.
2000, United States, Beacon Press ISBN 0-807-06299-5, 17 March 2000, paperback.