The Female Man by Joanna Russ

imageMC: Don’t you want men to return to Whileaway, Miss Evason?
Janet: Why?
MC: One sex is half a species, Miss Evason. I am quoting (and he cited a famous anthropologist). Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway?
Janet (with massive dignity and complete naturalness): Huh?
MC: I said: Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway? Sex, family, love, erotic attraction — call it what you like — we all know that your people are competent and intelligent individuals, but do you think that’s enough? Surely you have the intellectual knowledge of biology in other species to know what I’m talking about.
Janet: I’m married. I have two children. What the devil do you mean?

Three women meet, DNA analogues of each other from parallel universes. Jeannine is from a reality where America never recovered from the Great Depression, where the Second World War never happened, and so there has been no economic growth and corresponding women’s liberation. Joanna is the author herself, living in our reality, frustrated with having to behave like a man in order to achieve any professional respect. Janet is from the planet Whileaway, many centuries into Earth’s future, where men all died in a plague in the distant past and so society is made up of only women.

The Female Man doesn’t have a plot, as such, at first it’s more a series of vignettes of these three women experiencing each others’ realities. For an interesting extra construction, Joanna, the author, is also present in situations where Joanna, the character isn’t, as a sort of disembodied spirit. The POV also switches without warning, so this combines to make the book rather confusing on the first read through. However, if you stop worrying and just go with it, you’re rewarded with quite a ride.

This book is furious. Certainly a product of the time it was written (1975), it depicts the fate of women in stark, uncompromising rage. I’ve never read anything like it, especially not published recently. And despite being written 40 years ago, many of the situations the women, especially Joanna, experience, haven’t changed — so it was depressingly relatable. That’s not to say it’s a bleak read by any means, it’s also hilariously funny, especially in the depictions of New York society in the 1960s (and it’s not just men who find themselves at the mercy of Russ’s pen, although I will concede they get the worse deal). It’s notable that the author doesn’t depict a world where men and women coexist happily, perhaps she can’t imagine one.

There are some really poignant moments too. The one that sticks in my mind most is where Jeannine, who is trying to carve out a career for herself working in a library, visits her mother and happily-married brother. Eventually worn down by their constant badgering at her to get married to someone (anyone), she agrees to marry a man she doesn’t love, and is instantly bathed in maternal approval which she mistakes for happiness.

Eventually we meet a fourth woman, Jael, who was the one who found the others and brought them together. Jael lives in a world where men and women are literally at war, and she is an assassin. She challenges the other women since her violence makes them uncomfortable, but Janet, at least, must confront the fact that her utopian society is what Jael is working for.

In this case, the alternate history (or parallel universes, in science fiction terms) plot is used to explore how the ‘same’ women reacts to different environments (‘time travel without offences against causality’). It reflects the multitude of women’s experiences — Joanna (and we) might feel frustrated with Jeannine for being such a doormat, but Janet, in turn is baffled by Joanna’s inability to channel her anger into meaningful change. It’s a confusing and often uncomfortable read, but it sensitively explores the inherent contradictions in women’s lives, and for that I loved it.

The Female Man is available from Amazon.

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