The Female Man by Joanna Russ, first published in 1975 by Bantam Books.
One of the main reasons why I like speculative fiction is how the genre allows the exploration of different ideas about science or culture or in the case today’s book, gender, by using made-up worlds.
While people might think it’s not about reality with all the aliens, spaceships, dragons and demons, but the truth is speculative fiction is a different way of examining our world by using these allegories.
This is definitely the case with The Female Man. This is a book has been hailed as a landmark feminist science fiction novel.
The book follows the story of four different women who live in parallel worlds and times.
The book starts with Janet from the world called Whileaway. In Whileaway, there was a plague 800 years ago which wiped out all the men and the Whileaway culture is a wholly female utopia.
Somehow Janet drops through time and space into Jeannine’s world – like our own world but the Great Depression never finished- and Janet becomes a something of a celebrity. Janet wanders around Jeannine’s world in a state of bemusement. One of my favourite parts was when she visited the Pentagon and asked where all the women were.
Jeannine’s concerns are familiar and everyday. She’s a librarian with a cat, who procrastinates about cleaning and worries about being a spinster and how boyfriend who is not really marriage material. Janet and Jeannine meet in the street and become friends.
A third woman, an ambitious career woman named Joanna (like the author) meets Jeannine and Janet and takes them to a party in her world (which is more like the 1970s – present day when this book was written), as Janet wants to see how men and women interact.
A man tries to hit on Janet and after she rejects him, he harasses her, she punches and mocks him. Everyone at the party is shocked except Janet because even in the so-called modern world, men and women are not truly equal. Not like in Whileaway where Janet is from.
Janet wants to live with a real family and so she stays with the Wildings, their loner daughter Laura becomes besotted by Janet’s self-confidence and independence.
Then Janet, Jeannine and Joanna travel to a fourth futuristic world and meet Jael, a warrior with steel teeth and cat-like claws. In Jael’s world, there is a 40 year war between men and women and Janet is drawn into the peace negotiations.
I found this book challenging in a number of ways. It was challenging as a female reader and self-confessed feminist. This book really examines some of the interactions between men and women and especially the way women act around men.
I found this quite confronting, as I started to question some of my own behaviour which I thought was feminist but I’m still guilty of deferring to men on some occasions.
It was also challenging as a read, the story is not straight-forward, it is told from multiple points of view and sometimes the changes were not obvious, sometimes lyrical and told as a stream of consciousness, sometimes I felt lost and the story was difficult to grasp but I was still compelled to finish and find out where it ended up.
Like the characters, this book made me evaluate my life and my positioning as a feminist and my ideas as a woman.
I found the character Janet especially strong, her alien viewpoint highlighting the gaps in gender equality in Jeannine’s and Joanna’s worlds and this was easily applicable my everyday life. Jeannine was also strong but I found the characters of Joanna and Jael not as well-rounded.
While The Female Man was written over forty years ago, this book shows that in terms of the world of women and men, very little has changed and it’s as relevant now as it was when it was first published.
So if you like parallel worlds, literary fiction, challenging your fundamental ideals and gender politics, I suggest you take a look at the Female Man by Joanna Russ.
This book review first appeared as a part of Madeleine’s Speculative Fiction Review radio show on artdistrict-radio. You can listen to the podcasts here.