The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

The novel is polyphonically composed, using six alternating female narrators (a group called the four J’s, a teenager, and the author). Each brings her own perspective, shaped in some cases by life in an alternate reality.

The first of the J’s, so named because their names begin with that letter, is Janet Evanson. She is an inhabitant of Whileaway, a possible future Earth whose entire population is women. She has been sent back to a possible present to study mores in a land where men still exist.

Janet finds two women whom she wants to take back to her time: Joanna, her tour guide, and Jeannine Dadier, a librarian. A large part of the book describes the relatively uneventful daily lives of these two women.

Jeannine has a noncommittal sexual relationship with the unambitious Cal. He is a male chauvinist who matter-of-factly expects Jeannine to do his laundry and prepare his meals, even though both work and he contributes nothing to her support or nurture. Jeannine’s passive behavior is contrasted sharply to Janet’s no-holds-barred actions. Taken to a party by Joanna, Janet evades the attentions of the drunken host by punching him in the nose and breaking his arm.

Yet another unfulfilled character is introduced when Janet Evanson moves in with a suburban family. The family’s seventeen-year-old daughter, Laura Rose Wilding, is a budding writer who has been frustrated by others, who label her aspirations unfeminine. The girl initiates a love affair with Janet, who is the first person she has met who respects her intellect and dreams.

The plot takes yet another unexpected turn when Alice-Jael Reasoner, called Jael, arrives to transport the women to another future. Jael lives on an Earth where women and men live in opposed, armed camps. Her nation has wanted to contact Whileaway but has been unable to because of peculiarities of the time-space continuum. Now that Whileaway can be approached by way of Jeannine and Joanna’s world, Jael asks if the female planet can be used as a training camp and if Earth can serve as a transfer point.

The book ends with the answers to these questions. Janet, not particularly impressed with Jael’s world, says no. Jeannine, sick of her planet’s patriarchal arrangements, agrees to assist in a war to exterminate men.

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The structure of The Female Man —with multiple worlds and multiple main characters—is based on a standard science-fiction device: the idea that each decision creates different worlds in which the different outcomes of those decisions are played out. Joanna Russ gives this device a postmodern spin by playing with the first-person narrative voice—it is not always completely clear which, if any, of the four protagonists is narrating. She juggles spatial and temporal settings and mixes straightforward narrative with bits of philosophical speculation, allusions to “high” and “low” works of art, play dialogue, and allegory, such as a party where the female characters are named Aphrodissa, Wailissa, Saccharissa, Clarissa, Lucrissa, and so on.

Such moments occur primarily in Joanna’s world, where, at the same party, guests consult their gender-coded pink and blue books for instructions on proper behavior. The distance that these unrealistic touches provide allows the reader to note gender behavior from the perspective of an outside observer, a cultural anthropologist. The same distancing is created by the other worlds’ differences in culture, the most extended description of which is the culture of Whileaway. One interesting juxtaposition takes place when Janet, in Joanna’s world, mistakes a secretary at the Pentagon for the person in charge because the secretary’s dress indicates not “grunt work” but the leisure of a person who has time to study the world’s affairs. On Whileaway, the only people who are afforded such leisure are mothers. Children are produced from two merged ova; they have two mothers, one of whom is the birth mother. Birth mothers are given five years of maternity leave, during which time they are most in touch with the world’s information network and so can be said to be the closest thing that Whileaway has to “leaders.” In general, Janet serves to show how much modern society discounts the existence of women. Her first comment on arriving at the Pentagon is to ask where all the women are.

Later when she is interviewed on television, Janet cannot understand the male host’s assumption...

(The entire section is 883 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Aside from its obvious critique of gender hierarchy, The Female Man focuses on one of the main issues discussed by feminist theorists, the construction of a female identity. Russ imagines such an identity by inverting the present situation—instead of a patriarchy in which women have no existence as independent, self-determined beings, she imagines a world in which only women exist. Russ also constructs “the female man” out of Joanna’s representation of herself as a woman who turned into a man, a woman who insists that if “mankind” includes women then she wants to be employed as a man and wants child rearing treated as a man’s job. Both of these constructions work to disrupt gender division. On Janet’s world, the term “woman” (as well as “man”) no longer makes sense, as one term depends on the existence of the other. Similarly, the demand that all people be treated as men puts pressure on the universal term “man,” showing that if this were actually to occur, if child rearing was a “man’s job,” the hierarchy of male and female would no longer be tenable.

Russ’s portrait of female identity is not a static or stable one. As represented by the multiple characters of the four women and their shifting “I” pronouns, this version of identity anticipates current feminist critiques of an essential female self. Such an essential representation not only allows for the self to be used as model for proper behavior but also defines anything outside the self as “other,” again setting up a hierarchy. Instead, Russ counsels the reader to deal with the world’s contradictions not by dividing them into neat binaries such as male and female, but by embracing all of them within one’s own person.

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Reading this novel is like playing three-dimensional chess or putting together a mosaic. Each piece that is revealed has some relationship to...

(The entire section is 346 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Bonner, Frances. “From The Female Man to the Virtual Girl: Whatever Happened to Feminist SF?” Hecate 22 (May, 1996): 104-119. Compares the feminist science fiction of The Female Man to more recent science fiction by women. Bonner notes that The Female Man made a stronger political statement and was less conventional than recent science fiction by women.

Delany, Samuel R. “Orders of Chaos: The Science Fiction of Joanna Russ.” In Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by Jane B. Weedman. Lubbock: Texas Tech Press, 1985. Delany discusses Russ’s writing style generally, describing it as rather a critical embarrassment because it is more complex and more directly political than other science fiction. He also places her writing in the context of other science-fiction writers.

DuPlessis, Rachel B. “The Feminist Apologues of Lessing, Piercy, and Russ.” Frontiers 4 (Spring, 1979): 1-8. Blau considers The Female Man as a “teaching story” or apologue. She compares the novel with works by Doris Lessing and Marge Piercy.

Gardiner, Judith K. “Empathic Ways of Reading: Narcissism, Cultural Politics, and Russ’s Female Man. Feminist Studies 20 (Spring, 1994): 87-111. Discusses the role of emotions in reader’s responses to Russ’s novel.

Moylan, Tom. Demand the Impossible: Science Fiction and the Utopian Imagination. New York: Methuen, 1986. Includes a chapter-length...

(The entire section is 678 words.)