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Book review: “The Female Man” by Joanna Russ

Nearly half a century ago, Joanna Russ published The Female Man, a creative, passionate and prescient science fiction novel, as a commentary on the constrained lives of women in human society.

It is a novel filled with bitter humor and spiky insights that focuses on four women, existing in alternate realities, who meet and become companions of a sort:

  • Jeannine Dadier, a timid, hesitant 29-year-old woman living on an Earth where, in 1969, the Depression is still a daily fact.
  • Janet Evason, an emotionally detached 41-year-old cop from a world populated solely by women.
  • Jael, also known as Alice Reasoner, Alice-Jael and Sweet Alice, who is 47 and serves as a secret agent-provocateur-assassin in a war between her nation of women and the opposing nation of men.
  • Joanna Russ, a 35-year-old English professor and writer from the reader’s time and reality who could be seen as an alter ego of the book’s author (also an English professor) or maybe her shade or maybe her shadow.

“Four versions”

That question of whether the Joanna of the story is the Joanna who wrote the book is further complicated — or explained — by an insight that comes three-quarters of the way through The Female Man when Jael makes her first appearance.

Looking at herself and the three women with her, Jael says:

“Look in each other’s faces.  What you see is essentially the same genotype, modified by age, by circumstances, by education, by diet, by learning, by God knows what.

“Here is Jeannine, the youngest of us all with her smooth face: tall, thin, sedentary, round-shouldered, a long-limbed body made of clay and putty…

And there’s Joanna, somewhat older, much more active, with a different gait, different mannerisms, quick and jerky, not depressed, sits with her spine like a ruler…

“There’s Janet, hardier than the two of you put together, with her sun-bleached hair and her muscles; she’s spent her life outdoors, a Swedish hiker and a farmhand….And I, who could throw you across the room, though I don’t look it.”

Seemingly so different, and yet Jael asserts that she and the other three are “four versions of the same woman.” She says:

“I can hardly believe that I am looking at three other myselves.”

Strategies and choices

The Female Man is a complex novel, and Jael’s declaration about the “four versions of the same woman” is a complex statement that asserts that all women are united in sharing essentially the same physical body.

Yet, each of the four characters maneuvers in her world using different strategies and making different choices although the novel indicates that no strategy or choice is perfect.

Janet’s world of women is described as over-planned and cold.  Jeannine’s world of wanting a man to marry and “validate” her is meek and wimpy. Jael’s violent world of women-versus-men war is utterly lacking in harmony.

The experience of the character Joanna — the one who becomes “the female man” — might be seen as a valid way to go, but, in 1975 when the novel was published, it could only have been viewed as aspirational.  A nice ideal to aim for, but achieving it?

“One Of The Boys”

Part Seven of the nine-part novel is devoted to Joanna’s story of how she turned into a man.  But, first, she explains, she had to turn into a woman:

For a long time I had been neuter, not a woman at all but One Of The Boys, because if you walk into a gathering of men, professionally or otherwise, you might as well be wearing a sandwich board that says: LOOK! I HAVE TITS! there is this giggling and this chuckling and this reddening and this Uriah Heep twisting and writing and this fiddling with ties and fixing of buttons and making of allusions and quoting of courtesies and this self-conscious gallantry plus a smirky insistence on my physique — all this dreary junk just to please me.

This is a wonderfully descriptive moment in Russ’s novel, and, having been in those sort of gatherings in the mid-1970s myself, Joanna’s description certainly seems on the mark.  I would be interested to learn how women today react to this description.

One might be tempted to think that, in a world where mayors and presidential candidates and Speakers of the House and heads of other nations are women — a world in which I spent most of my newspaper career with women bosses — such puerile male giddiness would be long-gone.  I wouldn’t want to bet on that, however.


To avoid those awkward sandwich-board moments, Joanna the character becomes adept at being One Of The Boys:

I back-slapped and laughed at blue jokes, especially the hostile kind.  Underneath you keep saying pleasantly but firmly No no no no no no.  But it’s necessary to my job and I like my job.

When Joanna got her Ph.D and her professorship and her tennis medal and her engineer’s contract and her big salary — then she felt like she could stop being One Of The Boys and act as a woman without tiptoeing around, and here’s how she was seen:

I’m a sick woman, a madwoman, a ball-breaker, a man-eater; I don’t consume men gracefully with my fire-like red hair or my poisoned kiss; I crack their joints with these filthy ghoul’s claws and standing on one foot like a de-clawed cat, rake at your feeble efforts to save yourselves with my taloned hinder feet: my matted hair, my filthy skin, my big flat plaques of green bloody teeth….I was never in the room.

And it left Joanna crying in her car.

Then I turned into a man.

“Marry yourself”

It’s simple to become a female-man.

This means, in all hopelessness, in terror of your life, without a future, in the sink of the worst despair that you can endure and will yet leave you the sanity to make a choice — take in your bare right hand one naked, severed end of a high-tension wire.  Take the other in your left hand.  Stand in a puddle.

In Her power, God will fill you with power, and “if you let yourself through yourself and into yourself and out of yourself, [you will] turn yourself inside out, give yourself the kiss of reconciliation, marry yourself, love yourself.”  And Joanna goes on:

What I learned late in life, under my rain of lava, under my kill-or-cure, dreadful pain, was that there is one and only one way to possess that in which we are defective, therefore that which we need, therefore which we want.

Become it.

Be power

In the 1970s, it was still common to talk of Mankind, and to use the word “man” when referring to all human beings, such as the future of Man and the values of Western Man and Freudian Man.

Joanna notes that, for years, she’d been saying to men: “Let me in, Love me, Approve me…”  But now she has decided to say, “Move over.”

If we are all Mankind, it follows to my interested and righteous and rightnow very bright and beady little eyes, that I too am a Man and not at all a Woman…

I think I am a Man; I think you had better call me a Man; I think you will write about me as a Man from now on and speak of me as a Man and employ me as a Man and recognize child-bearing as a Man’s business…Listen to the female man.

If you don’t, by God and all the Saints, I’ll break your neck.

In other words — and this appears to me to be the core assertion of The Female Man around which all other observations and insights revolve — demand power, grab power, express power, be power.

Or, put another way, a female man is a human being, as able to wield power as any other human.  Not beholden to men, not powerless.  But powerful as a human being.

As a member of Humankind.

Patrick T. Reardon


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