The Female Man Critical Context - Essay

Joanna Russ

Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Female Man, set in 1969, seems very much a feminist novel of that decade. Pigeonholing a work is often equivalent to dismissing it, yet many of the details of the book will inevitably seem dated to later readers. That decade made symbolic use of the most unlikely material: brassieres as the sign of male oppression, for example. When characters in The Female Man complain how uncomfortable their bras are, a whole decade comes to one’s mind, but only one decade. Details such as the statement that women in New York State can now get legal abortions sound like voices from the past in a present when the country is divided over a million abortions performed a year.

The novel is very much an orchestration of a single theme. Those readers whose central interest was precisely that theme found it compelling. How very favorable its reception was can be gauged from several facts. First, an authoritative guide to modern American fiction listed only three science-fiction writers in its hundreds of pages: Robert A. Heinlein was one of them; under feminist authors were included both the prolific and best-selling Ursula K. Le Guin and Joanna Russ. Second (and perhaps a more general indication of importance), between 1978 and 1985, almost a dozen articles on Russ’s fiction appeared in scholarly journals; in addition, no complete article on feminism in science fiction fails to mention The Female Man.

Even critical success can have its ironic side. Joanna Russ has written other works: Picnic on Paradise (1968), And Chaos Died (1970), Alyx (1976), We Who Are About To . . . (1977), The Two of Them (1978), and numerous short stories. And Chaos Died is a novel in which a brutal and repressive Earth society is reformed by contact with an alien planet whose inhabitants have learned to live in harmony. The novel contains one of the most innovative uses of telepathy as a theme since 1950. And Chaos Died, however, does not deal directly and overtly with feminism and has therefore been largely ignored. Only The Female Man and, to a lesser extent, We Who Are About To . . . have enjoyed critical attention.

To a certain extent, Russ has contributed to the view of her work in an exclusively feminist framework. A full understanding of her writing should take into account her own criticism, most of which has concentrated on the position of women in science fiction.