The Female Man by Joanna Russ



This month is going too fast. I had such plans! I had five books lined up to read for Little Red Reviewer‘s Vintage Science Fiction Month and I’ve only managed two so far. Bah!

Vintage Science Fiction Month Read #2

I finished this yesterday, then stared at a blank page for a couple of hours trying to think how I was going to put into words all the things going on in my brain as a result of reading it. I don’t know anything about post-modernism, but I feel like this is what post-modern fiction probably looks like. I don’t know what the intentions of post-modernism are, but this book seemed to skip my thinky fore-brain and jump straight onto the cinema screen set up in my hind-brain. Having finished it, I am left with disjointed impressions, images, feelings, but no scaffolding to hang them on. It was fantastically funny and easy to read, difficult to read and emotionally draining, refreshing and depressing. When I finished it I cried. I don’t know why.


The facts:

The Female Man is a piece of both feminist and lesbian science-fiction. It was written in 1970 and published in 1975. It was nominated for a Nebula Award, and it won a retrospective James Tiptree Jr. Award in 1996. It isn’t like anything you’ve read before.

It is about four women from four possible worlds. There’s Jeannine from a world where the Great Depression never ended and women are still primarily defined by marriage and motherhood; Joanna (both the author herself, and not) from a world similar to ours in the early seventies; Janet from the world of Whileaway where men haven’t existed for eight hundred years; and finally, Jael, from a world where men and women are literally at war with one another. It is revealed that they are the same woman, different only because of the circumstances of the worlds on which they were born.


The feelings-thoughts-impressions:

  1. Russ’ explanation/description of the multiverse is awesome.
  2. Whileaway is a utopian vision that reminded me in a lot of ways of Marge Piercy’s Mattapoisett in Woman on the Edge of Time. It is scientifically advanced, but rural, and everyone contributes something to the running of society, so there is no power pyramid. I particularly loved Russ’ idea that when the girls of Whileaway reach puberty they kind of break free from their families and go walkabout. Food and shelter are available to them wherever they go, and they get to blow off steam before they join the workforce at the age of seventeen. It was a fascinating idea, young women able to go out into the world without having to worry about their personal safety.
  3. Janet is my favourite character. This woman who has never know the patriarchy is an absolute scream whenever she comes into contact with the (mostly) men and women of Joanna and Jeannine’s worlds. A male interviewer tries to ask-her-without-asking-her how women can have sex without men around, and then cuts her off very quickly when she finally grasps his meaning and starts to explain, (Hilarious!). Janet manifests on a Colonel’s desk while he’s in a meeting and mistakes his secretary for the person in charge, (Snort!). A man at a party tries to be a little too friendly with her and when he doesn’t take her polite no she throws him onto the floor, (Guffaw!) – he proceeds to insult her in the most colourful terms, which goes right over her head, ‘…these are insults, yes?’, (Double guffaw!).
  4. While each woman has a distinct personality, Russ shifts from third-person to first-person as she sees fit. Sometimes it becomes unclear which of the characters is speaking/thinking. Joanna-the-author and Joanna-the-character are sometimes one being and sometimes separate beings too. It reads with a kind of dream logic (you know how sometimes in dreams you are outside of yourself, or are two different people?) which makes more sense looking back, having learned that they are four possible permutations of a single woman. This plurality feels very right. Like Russ has written the way it feels to be a woman. Here you are the good daughter, the good wife/partner, the good girl; there you are the watched woman, the seen woman. Sometimes you are the strong woman, the screw-you woman. Other times your gender doesn’t matter at all, you are a person only (and probably alone in those instances).
  5. The love scene between Janet and Laura is the most realistic I’ve ever read. I get very cross with sex scenes in books (and avoid them) because they often feel deliberately voyeuristic, or like they’re written to stimulate the reader, and (call me a prude if you wish) I don’t care for it. I’ll have my own fantasies, thank you very much author, you just get on with telling the story. Janet and Laura’s scene doesn’t read like that at all. It is appropriately awkward, funny and tender. Jael’s sex scene with Davy, on the other hand, is deeply uncomfortable. Which kind of makes me wonder about how much of my reaction to these things is to do with perceived power relations. Something to think on another time …


There are moments of searing, blazing anger in The Female Man that made my chest constrict. There were times when I laughed out loud. Parts of it made me think very hard about my daily interactions with men and women. Other bits had me wondering what kind of future we will see, and how relevant or irrelevant this book will be then. At 207 pages long it was ridiculously easy to get through, and yet so difficult that I wondered if I just wasn’t smart enough to understand it at all. There’s loads I haven’t said about it because I just don’t have the words. I still don’t know why I cried at the end.


P.S. Thumbs has just mentioned that I haven’t said whether I think people should read this book or not. And honestly, I don’t know whether you should. I enjoyed it and found it distressing in about equal measure. I genuinely think I am not clever enough to understand what I’ve read. I invite any and all comments if you’ve read this book – I’d love to be able to talk about it with someone.


2 thoughts on “The Female Man by Joanna Russ

  1. thank you for the indepth review! Most reviews of this book simply say “read it” with little to zero context, but yours gave me a lot more information and now I actually want to find a copy of this book. Janet sounds like a hoot! The only Joanna Russ I have read so far (her stuff is not easy to find in paperback!) is We Who Are About To . . . and that one was fantastic.


    1. Cool! I’m really glad you want to read it (and I’d be really interested in what you think of it if you ever want to share). I am keen to read more of Russ’ work, so I’ll hunt down We Who Are About To .. Thank you! 🙂


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