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The Female Man (1975)

by Joanna Russ

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,954496,980 (3.5)1 / 140
Living in an altered past that never saw the end of the Great Depression, Jeannine, a librarian, is waiting to be married. Joanna lives in a different version of reality- she's a 1970s feminist trying to succeed in a man's world. Janet is from Whileaway, a utopian earth where only women exist. And Jael is a warrior with steel teeth and catlike retractable claws, from an earth with separate-and warring-female and male societies. When these four women meet, the results are startling, outrageous, and subversive.… (more)
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Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
Classic science fiction portraying the difference society makes to gender presentation. ( )
  brakketh | Jul 29, 2022 |
This was very much a breakthrough book when it was first published in 1975.

First, it was written by a woman writer, using her real (and recognizably female) name; second there's nary a rocket ship in sight; third, it deals with feminism at its 70s-era angriest; and fourth, it tosses most narrative traditions right out the window.

Obviously, it's not everyone's cup of tea. Some of it is dated. Some of it remains insightful and bitterly funny. And some of it attempts to shock with its frank sexuality -- and in these days of just-about-anything-goes, that may be where it shows its age the most.

The story, such as it is, wanders between three characters (and an occasional ephemeral, unnamed fourth) -- Jeannine, whose Earth never emerged from the Great Depression but which also never underwent WWII; Joanna, whose world is very much like our own; and Janet, whose world is not only vastly different than ours, but is also several millennia ahead of "our" timeline. There's a slight nod to the notion of diverging realities, in which each action splits off an entirely new future and which therefore allows the story to sneak in under the edges of the science fiction tent -- a tent which had been considerably enlarged in the preceding decade.

There is a vague plotline of sorts that emerges almost at the end of the novel, without which the entire book would be but a thin veneer over a feminist polemic pointing out how repressed, exploited, and psychologically abused women were at the hands of those beastly males.

At this remove, the novel verges on becoming an historical oddity -- angry and literate but flawed by its over-reliance on style over substance. ( )
  LyndaInOregon | Oct 29, 2021 |
Pretty much all I knew about this going in was that it was expanded from Russ's equally famous short story "When It Changed" (or at least, the story was published first; as I understand it, she may have either written them more or less at the same time or adapted the story out of a piece of the in-progress book). If you've read the story, which you should, it in no way prepares you for what this book is. "When It Changed" is a pretty short, straightforward, and vividly written piece that openly mocks the old-school SF idea that the inhabitants of an all-female world would be thrilled to meet male visitors and would learn from them how to have a fuller human existence; in the story, the women of the planet Whileaway are instantly suspicious of these Earth dudes, don't think they're at all essential, and correctly guess that Earth can't be trusted to let Whileaway keep its own way of life. But the story would work as a response to that kind of sexist genre cliché even if the astronauts had never shown up, because of how Russ in a casual realist style uses the narrator's daily life, and her interactions with family and colleagues and enemies, to quickly sketch for us a world that clearly still has the full range of human concerns and behavior and hasn't had any reason to sort them into gendered categories.

Janet Evason, one of the three and a half main characters in The Female Man, is a visitor from Whileaway—which now is a future version of Earth rather than a different planet, but otherwise it's a pretty similar place to the one in "When It Changed", and Russ goes into a little more detail about their society in what at first seems like a fairly familiar utopian-novel style. It's not a perfect utopia, people can be discontent with their social roles or just dislike each other and there's a certain amount of small-scale violent conflict, but they've put a lot of scientific effort into making life easy enough that there isn't really any more drama and strife than people want. Janet comes to our world via some kind of technology that doesn't matter, and if you've read either the short story or any number of other things with a similar setup, you might expect the book to be about Whileaway and our world critiquing and/or disrupting each other. Instead, Whileaway stays exactly as it was, Earth shows only brief interest in Janet, she does a few interviews and she almost immediately settles into a low-key existence as a very minor celebrity with no particular agenda except to meet people—often in the company of someone who seems to be more or less Joanna Russ.

Joanna doesn't particularly like Janet, and has no patience for the occasional trouble Janet causes. She's even more annoyed with the other alternate-Earth visitor who's shown up for no apparent reason: Jeannine, a timid person who comes from a sort of permanently-1930s USA and aspires to be a housewife. Very late in the book, something like a plot develops—about going to a place that's much worse than any of those worlds, with more science-fiction thriller elements and general awfulness that feels like a much harsher kind of New Wave SF novel—but until then it's basically a free-form social satire on a small scale, requiring these three people to deal with each other, or with various other difficult people, or just with themselves. Those categories aren't always clearly divided, either: within a scene or a paragraph, the point of view might shift without warning so Janet is finishing Jeannine's thought in her own style. As in the other novel of hers that I've read, Russ's attitude to these people (including her own alter-ego) is both compassionate and merciless, except for a few people who are just assholes so she's just merciless. There's some strikingly tender writing delivered in a steely-eyed tone, including a sex scene that feels a lot more explicit than it is because it's so emotionally raw and awkward and honest; the fact that the narrator strongly disapproves of what's going on in that scene somehow doesn't detract from those qualities at all.

The science-fictional setup isn't very important (until the end) except in how it gives each of the characters different preconceptions about what's possible for them, and while Janet and Jeannine are sort of polar opposites in that way—Janet feels entitled to everything, Jeannine to nothing—they're both individual enough that neither one is just embodying an argument about gender roles. The "female man" of the title doesn't exactly refer to Janet (or to the transgender characters who briefly show up in the dystopian fourth world, a really weird and unfortunate depiction that Russ came to regret); it's a term used by Joanna, referring to just a state of mind, her own will to be seen as a first-class representative of "mankind" in the same sense that everyone on Whileaway is. And even on Whileaway—and here it's impossible not to see parallels with Le Guin's almost contemporaneous The Dispossessed, much as Russ found fault with Le Guin—liberty and equality can still leave you with hard questions about how you want to engage with other people and society; one of the book's most haunting passages is about how Janet once chose to work as an enforcer of social convention to a disturbing degree.

There are some fairly long stretches of this where you might wonder whether Russ really needs the fictional frame at all—self-contained passages that are less about the story on either a literal or thematic level and more just straight-up polemics (including a long and probably totally accurate list of all the dismissive things she thought people would say about this novel). But I can't really imagine any piece of it working the same without the rest. There's not much else I've read that has so little apparent form or design, and expresses so much anger and impatience toward almost everything it touches on (including itself), that still felt so clear and complete after I put it down. ( )
  elibishop173 | Oct 11, 2021 |
Thanks to technology that allows travel between different alternative realities, four versions of the same woman meet. One is from more or less our reality, one is from a reality in which WWII didn't happen because Hitler died, one is from a reality where males died out in a plague centuries ago, and one is from a reality where there is quite literally a war between the sexes.

It's an intriguing premise, but unfortunately the result is a mess. It's told in a mixture of third person and first person but the first person keeps changing with it frequently being totally unclear who the narrator is or which of the alternative realities we are in. ( )
2 vote Robertgreaves | Mar 27, 2021 |
Well, I have to admit that I am not understanding this book. Multiple characters hang out together, thinking about and discussing the role of woman, with some of them from this world and others from a world where women run everything. Sometimes we get a moment of conflict. Sometimes we get stream of consciousness. I hope others have better luck with this book. ( )
  WiebkeK | Jan 21, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 49 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (18 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Joanna Russprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bontrup, HiltrudTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Clute, JudithCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Drews, KristiinaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harman, DominicCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Jones, GwynethIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Vasilakis, AnastasiaCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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This book is dedicated to Anne, to Mary and to the other one and three-quarters billions of us.
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I was born on a farm on Whileaway.
Quotations
“I didn’t and don’t want to be a ‘feminine’ version or a diluted version or a special version or a subsidiary version or an ancillary version, or an adapted version of the heroes I admire. I want to be the heroes themselves.”
As my mother once said: the boys throw stones at the frogs in jest.

But the frogs die in earnest.
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Living in an altered past that never saw the end of the Great Depression, Jeannine, a librarian, is waiting to be married. Joanna lives in a different version of reality- she's a 1970s feminist trying to succeed in a man's world. Janet is from Whileaway, a utopian earth where only women exist. And Jael is a warrior with steel teeth and catlike retractable claws, from an earth with separate-and warring-female and male societies. When these four women meet, the results are startling, outrageous, and subversive.

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Four women living in parallel worlds, each with a different gender landscape. When they begin to travel to each other's worlds each woman's preconceptions on gender and what it means to be a woman are challenged. Acclaimed as one of the essential works of science fiction and an influence on William Gibson, THE FEMALE MAN takes a look at gender roles in society and remains a work of great power.
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Beacon Press

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