Much of the book consists of Joanna’s self-examination. The title comes from her realization that she does not want to be a woman if being a woman means accepting the sexual stereotype promoted by laundry-soap commercials. That role, she believes, lacks an acceptable outlet for aggression, for selfish behavior, for ambition. In one chapter she begins a litany, during which she convinces herself that women are largely invisible: Her doctor is a man, her lawyer is a man, her grocer is a man, and so on. Genghis Khan is a name often raised in the book, and a reader might well ask why such frequent references are made to a man outstanding only for his butchery.
The answer may lie in one of the details of the story of Janet Evason. On several occasions, the reader is told that Janet has killed four people in duels. Dueling is, in her society, an accepted way of resolving conflicts. Russ the author is not so much recommending dueling (or, much less, the tactics of Genghis Khan) as she is lamenting the fact that aggressive, forceful behavior in society is so often thought of as “male.” To decry sexual stereotyping, she presents those stereotypes in their most exaggerated forms.
Joanna the character decides that she must become “a female man,” since she sees in herself so many of the characteristics that have been labeled masculine. Thus it is possible for her to admire the ruthless Jael, to envy the free Janet, and to regard the swooning...
(The entire section is 581 words.)