The Female Man

Four women in four intersecting time lines. Jeannine is a 29 year old librarian living with her cat in 1969 but the Great Depression is still going on, hers is still a world where her goal is to marry and have a home; Janet is a police-officer from the future utopian planet of Whileaway, where only women have survived a plague and Joanna is the author Joanna Russ, a fired up angry feminist in 1969.

When Janet arrives on Broadway at two o’clock in the afternoon in her underwear she becomes an instant celebrity and Joanna who is fascinated by her goes to a parade given in her honour – picked out of the crowd she gets into Janet’s car. Sitting in the back seat is Jeannine, having been found at a Chinese new year festival, terrified she puts her hands over her ears repeating to herself ‘I’m not here, I’m not here’ but she is there and then the three find themselves on Whileaway.

And then Jael arrives, the shadowy dark side of the future. She comes from a future where the battle between the sexes has divided into two armed camps – Womanland and Manland. Manland constructs its own women from weakling men and Womenland has pretty mindless men who are wired into their high tech houses, objectified males. A ‘rosy, wholesome, single-minded assassin’ it’s she who has got them together because she needs their help to win the war.

This is a million miles away from anything I would normally read, but I loved the creativity of the imagined worlds. The multiple narrators were quite confusing but I think this confusion is to mirror the sound of women’s voices trying to be heard and is possibly a symbol of the many different schools of thought of feminism, there are a lot of ‘I’s’! Jeannine’s horror at finding herself in strange places – a cocktail bar when she would rather be hiking, or melting into walls and pieces of furniture or finding herself suddenly in the future is reassuringly funny. The structure of life on Whileaway is described with lots of detail, it’s a world of hard work and fairness that relies on technology and living in tribes based on interests rather than family. It wasn’t my idea of Utopia, but it was interesting to think about it.

I see now that this is a classic of 70’s feminist science fiction and I enjoyed the grass roots feminism that reads like a manifesto from Joanna’s angry outbursts like this one on language:

‘Years ago we were all cave Men. Then there is Java Man and the future of Man and the values of Western Man and existential Man and economic Man and Freudian Man and the Man in the moon and modern Man and eighteenth-century Man and too many mans to count or look at or believe. There is Mankind.’

or on motherhood:

‘Anyway everybody (sorry) everybody knows that what women have done that is really important is not to constitute a great, cheap labor force that you can zip in when you’re at war and zip out again afterwards but to Be Mothers, to form the coming generation, to give birth to them, to nurse them, to mop floors for them, to love them, cook for them, clean for them, change their diapers, pick up after them, and mainly sacrifice themselves for them. This is the most important job in the world. That’s why they don’t pay you for it.’

It’s through Joanna’s raised awareness of ‘maleness’, after she has tried and failed at living and working as ‘one of the boys’ and refuses to join in with the expectations put on her as a women that she coins the phrase a ‘female man’ or, a fully grown human.

But I’m making it sound heavy going when it’s not, there’s a lot of fun to be had from the sexual mores of the swinging sixties in New York and the humour is directed at women as much as men. ‘The Great Happiness Contest’ sounds very familiar and ranges from “I’m perfectly happy‘ too ‘I’m even happier than you are. My husband does the dishes every Wednesday, and we have three darling children, each nicer than the last.’ ‘I’m fantastically happy’ and ‘We have six children (this is too many. A long silence.) I have a part-time job as a clerk in Bloomingdales’ to pay for the children’s skiing lessons, but I really feel I’m expressing myself best when I make a custard or a meringue or decorate the basement.’ Any way the last one does eighteen push-ups before breakfast, has written fourteen novels and has a box at the Metropolitan Opera!

The book finishes with the four women having Thanksgiving dinner together, and a decision needs to be made – will they join Jael in the battle. If they don’t they run the risk of Janet and Whileaway never existing.

20 thoughts on “The Female Man

  1. Nice review! I read this one years and years ago, in the heat of the battle so to speak but haven’t thought of it in years. I believe Russ was a pioneer in dealing with these gender themes, at least in sci-fi, which is now very different than the “space babes & ray gun” stuff I read as a kid.

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    1. Yes I think she was a pioneer although I don’t know enough about her, but I’m keen to read more of her books – I think Whileaway first turns up in a short story. I like the idea of reading it in the heat of the battle, I think it’s very interesting going back to the 70’s and I enjoyed her nod at the end to Friedan and Greer!

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  2. Another title whose reputation precedes it but which I’ve yet to read; I really should address that, not least because of how you describe it. In fact those confused viewpoints and timelines reminds me very much of Philip K Dick’s disorientating technique but totally different in subject matter.

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    1. I haven’t read any Philip K Dick but see that there are a lot of his titles in this Masterworks series. The introduction told me that this was written in response to The Left Hand of Darkness, so I think I’d better get on with reading that – so many books!

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      1. Ooh, I’d go with the Le Guin first rather than PKD, but then maybe go for the latter’s The Man in the High Castle, the most accessible of his works I’ve yet read.

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  3. The ‘world building’ aspect can often make or break a sci-fi novel, but in this case it sounds fully realised. I wouldn’t normally gravitate to something like this, but you’ve made it sound really interesting. An excellent review!

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    1. Thank you Jacqui – it was a christmas present, I would never have thought of picking it up but this just goes to show that I need to step outside my box sometimes. What I found especially interesting about Whileaway is that it’s described as Utopia but it certainly isn’t my vision, so that get’s you to thinking well what is!

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    1. Rose, it isn’t my usual style either but even if you hate it it’s worth a go. We’re watching Big Little Lies at the moment and The Great Happiness Contest felt very 21st Century!

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  4. This sounds like a total blast! I love the idea of “too many mans”. 😂 And “Manland constructs its own women from weakling men and Womenland has pretty mindless men who are wired into their high tech houses, objectified males.” – hahaha! Sounds pretty good… 😉 I must get hold of a copy of this one…

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