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The Female Man

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It has influenced William Gibson and been listed as one of the ten essential works of science fiction. Most importantly, Joanna Russ's THE FEMALE MAN is a suspenseful, surprising and darkly witty chronicle of what happens when Jeannine, Janet, Joanna, and Jael—four alternative selves from drastically different realities—meet.

214 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1975

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About the author

Joanna Russ

176 books394 followers
Joanna Russ (February 22, 1937 – April 29, 2011) was an American writer, academic and feminist. She is the author of a number of works of science fiction, fantasy and feminist literary criticism such as How to Suppress Women's Writing, as well as a contemporary novel, On Strike Against God, and one children's book, Kittatinny. She is best known for The Female Man, a novel combining utopian fiction and satire.

(from Wikipedia)

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 887 reviews
Profile Image for Sara.
61 reviews52 followers
December 20, 2012
I've seen people argue, both here and elsewhere, that this book is outdated and no longer topical.

I'm really confused what rose-colored glasses they're wearing, because as far as I can tell, the majority of this book is still far too true. I've been in these places far, far too often to write off the circumstances in this book as some so flippantly have.

"Give us a good-bye kiss," said the host, who might have been attractive under other circumstances, a giant marine, so to speak. I pushed him away.

"What'sa matter, you some kinda prude?" he said and enfolding us in his powerful arms, et cetera--well, not so very powerful as all that, but I want to give you the feeling of the scene. If you scream, people say you're melodramatic; if you submit, you’re masochistic; if you call names, you're a bitch. Hit him and he'll kill you. The best thing is to suffer mutely and yearn for a rescuer, but suppose a rescuer doesn't come?

Sure, we don't have men telling us that we "belong" at home any more (or at least not as often). There are women in the army now, female firefighters, women working in construction and architecture and mathematics. But how many women are in active combat? Zero. How many women run Fortune 500 companies? ALMOST Zero (fewer than 5%). There’s still a significant disparity of women in mathematics and the sciences. We still can’t play “male” sports. We're reduced to breasts and our sex more often than even we want to admit. We're still, after all this "liberation," confined to the role of Chopin's "Mother-women" strikingly often.

In college, educated women (I found out) were frigid; active women (I knew) were neurotic; women (we all knew) were timid, incapable, dependent, nurturing, passive, intuitive, emotional, unintelligent, obedient, and beautiful. You can always get dressed up and go to a party. Woman is the gateway to another world; Woman is the earth-mother; Woman is the eternal siren; Woman is purity; Woman is carnality; Woman has intuition; Woman is the life-force; Woman is selfless love.

"I am the gateway to another world," (said I, looking in the mirror) "I am the earth-mother; I am the eternal siren; I am purity," (Jeez, new pimples) "I am carnality; I have intuition; I am the life-force; I am selfless love." (Somehow it sounds different in the first person, doesn't it?)

Honey (said the mirror, scandalized) Are you out of your fuckin' mind?

But the worst part about this--the most terrifying aspect of this book--is that the sentiment this book calls out still lay barely below the surface of, at the very least, American culture (being American, I really can’t speak to the rest of the world with much knowledge). We claim to be a "post-feminist" society, but patriarchal thinking still lurks beneath, and it takes very little prodding to bring its apologetics to light, in both men and women. It’s somehow worse that we think that this is all past us, I think, because by pretending it doesn’t exist, we’re simply letting it live. We’re letting the monster continue its devouring cycle, eating us all as we go about our lives, like the invisible aliens sucking away human brains in “They Live” that only those with the goofy glasses could see.

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 fat plaques of green bloody teeth. I don’t think my body would sell anything. I don’t think I’d be good to look at. O of all diseases self-hate is the worst and I don’t mean for the one who suffers it!

Women are still considered "inadequate" in so many circumstances. Our own autonomy and ability to make decisions for ourselves regarding basic medical procedures and life choices is still not only questioned, but those rights are actively being stripped on a regular basis. And when we dare to say, "how dare you!" we get slapped in the face. We get laughed at. We get told our concerns are ludicrous.

And that’s without taking into account societies that still exist where women can be jailed for driving. The countries where mutilation of women is still allowed and accepted. Where wives are still bought and exchanged as property, where they can be beaten and bred like livestock.

But sure, we’re post-feminist. Really.

Alas, it was never meant for us to hear. It was never meant for us to know. We ought never be taught to read. We fight through the constant male refractoriness of our surroundings; our souls are torn out of us with such shock that there isn't even any blood. Remember: I didn't and don't want to be a "feminine" version of the heroes I admire. I want to be the heroes themselves.

What future is there for a female child who aspires to being Humphrey Bogart?

I wish this book were much more outdated than it is. I wish I didn't see my own experiences in Jeannine and Joanna. I wish I hadn't been to that party where I was called a shrew for saying no. In a society where a white man serves less time in prison for a rape conviction than a black man does for possession of half an ounce of an intoxicant while the woman in the assault is blamed for “inviting it,” something is still royally fucked up, and those who don’t see it are deceiving themselves.

Her secret guilt was this:

She was Cunt.

She had “lost” something.

Now the other party to the incident had manifested his essential nature, too; he was a Prick—but being Prick is not a bad thing. In fact, he had “gotten away with” something (possibly what she had “lost”).

And there I was listening at eleven years of age:

She was out late at night.

She was in the wrong part of town.

Her skirt was too short and that provoked him.

She liked having her eye blacked and her head banged against the sidewalk.

I understood this perfectly. (I reflected thus in my dream, in my state of being a pair of eyes in a small wooden box stuck forever on a gray, geometric plane—or so I thought.) I too had been guilty of what had been done to me, when I came home from the playground in tears because I had been beaten up by bigger children who were bullies.

I was dirty.

I was crying.

I demanded comfort.

I was being inconvenient.

I did not disappear into thin air.

I don't think this is just a story that speaks of the frustration of women, though. I think this is the struggle of the Other in all forms. I see this frustration in my gay friends trying to become recognized as a married couple (as people at all) in a state that has now legally endorsed segregation and discrimination on the grounds that they’re “offensive” to certain parties. I see it in my minority friends, especially those of mixed races, who try to function not as their race, but as individuals. It's the struggle of the Other, not in the 1970s, but EVERY SINGLE DAY.

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, for honestly now, whoever heard of Java Woman and existential Woman and the values of Western Woman and scientific Woman and alienated nineteenth-century Woman and all the rest of that dingy antiquated rag-bag?" All the rags in it are White, anyway.

The J's (as they're known later in the book) are each incarnations of the aspects of the Other who tries to remain functional in a society built against her. Some of them are incarnations of wishful thinking--the women or the self we want to be (though Russ shows the flaws in those "idealized" selves, too, much more than Gilman does in Herland), and the others are compartmentalized into the societies of the present or the past, but they make a compatible whole. They are the Same. They are still, for all their flaws and angst, us. The sooner we see the alientation we still allow, the sooner we can actually have the liberty we claim already exists.

How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? I failed and thought it was my own fault. You can't unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter; they are designed not to be stable together and they make just as big an explosion inside the head of the unfortunate girl who believes in both.

Russ speaks, in this book, to a demon that still feasts in society. We’re not post-feminist. We’re not all evolved past this shit, and I think she’d still say that today. We’re deceiving ourselves into thinking that we’ve evolved when we’re still clubbing each other about the heads in order to feel morally, intellectually, socially superior. Evolution’s still going retrograde, and Joanna saw it in 1975.

As my mother once said: The boys throw stones at the frogs in jest.

But the frogs die in earnest.

Profile Image for Althea Ann.
2,230 reviews1,005 followers
September 27, 2013
This book won a Nebula Award, and is considered to be a classic of feminist science fiction.

I remembered that long ago I had read a short story collection by Russ (Extra(ordinary) People) and really disliked it. I also read her novel ‘We who Are About To' and was seriously unimpressed. But I didn't think I'd read The Female Man, so I was willing to give it a go due to its classic status and all... Reading it, I realized that I had actually started reading it long ago - but I think I QUIT part way through, because only the beginning was familiar. That is so unusual for me - I hardly EVER quit reading a book. But it was so bad.

Seriously, stuff like this is why I don't call myself a feminist - I just don't want to be associated. It wasn't empowering, it was stereotyped and cliched, and DEPRESSING - not depressing because of women's place in the world, depressing because the author comes through as a sad, lonely, bitter, nasty person, full of resentment and hate for EVERYONE. I consider myself to be a strong, independent woman who at least tries to love life and embrace happiness – and, according to this type of woman, that's not feminist.

And on top of that, it wasn't even well-written. It's scattered, awkward, without any coherent plot. It's just badly thought-out – more like random thoughts and polemical jottings than an actual novel. (I guess one would call this a ‘postmodern' style, if one wanted to dignify it.)

There are four main characters (although one doesn't show up till most of the way through the book). They are from different worlds, and there's some vague mention of travelling between worlds, which I suppose is the justification for it being called sci-fi, but it's really more of a metaphorical device, so that the different ‘types' of women can interact.

Joanna - is obviously the author. In the book, she comes across as unhappy, and without much notable personality.

Jeannine - is a cliché of a weak woman oppressed by Man. She lives in a world where the Depression never ended, and is the worst stereotype of a librarian. (As a librarian, this offends me). She has a fiance that she's not attracted to, (she doesn't seem to like sex at all) but she feels the need to Be With A Man and Get Married due to personal loneliness and social pressure.

Jael - is from a future world where women are at war with men. She is the cliché of the woman who acts like a Man because she thinks that is what one needs to do to get ahead. She likes sex and has a cloned, nearly-brainless male sex toy.

Janet - comes from Whileaway, an all-female world (men died in a plague 900 years ago). This seems to be Russ' idea of a utopia – sort of. It's AWFUL! It's also kind of weird. The women of Whileaway are kinda stocky, have big butts, and wear pajamas all the time. (no makeup, of course!) They're really smart and technologically advanced. They live in group families, but travel separately all the time and don't form long-lasting intimate bonds, usually. They have sex, but it's a stress-free, unromantic kind of sex. (There is a funny scene describing a dildo when a young woman from ‘our' world finds one on Janet's bed – ok, that's the best part of the book). They work very few hours, but because they are intelligent and therefore not suited to work (?!) they think they work all the time. They're always changing jobs and being sent to different places, without any say-so. The death penalty is in effect for those who try to avoid these duties. There's no overarching government and no wars, but the society, which is the same planetwide, seems just as oppressive as any government, and fatal duels are frequent and accepted. Children live at ‘home' till 5, then are sent to crèches, then leave to begin independent life at 12. All these peoples' lives seem to be completely devoid of fun.

From this, I take away that: Joanna Russ probably likes big butts. ;-) (Oh, she also definitely likes smoking but doesn't like drinking) She has serious problems forming deep relationships with lovers or children (she really doesn't seem to UNDERSTAND intimate relationships at all), and she secretly(?) wishes for an incredibly homogenous, organized society where everyone has an exactly equal place, without any need to put effort into developing your own identity and having to create that place for yourself. Because life is hard, she's decided that the Reason is MEN. When she fails to find common ground with other women, she says that's because those women have been subverted by MEN and MALE-DOMINATED SOCIETY.

I disagree strongly. I don't think that, fundamentally, women are any different than men. I don't think that a woman-only society would be war-free or homogenous. Moreover, I don't WANT that homogenous kind of society on any level! I would rather go through the trauma of finding myself than have an identity basically handed to me. I don't think that the reason that people have problems in relationships or problems with loneliness is because we have two genders – I think it's inherent to humanity. People can have ALL KINDS of disagreements that have nothing to do with gender. All men are not the same. All women are not the same. Yes, life can sometimes be really hard. It can be lonely. But really, the problem isn't sexism. I'm not saying that sexism doesn't exist, or that it doesn't need to be addressed – but the real problems of sexism are not addressed here at all.

I guess a surprising part of this book to me was the hatred of other women. (I expected the man-hating.) But there is just so much vitriol here directed toward women. It's like Russ is so unhappy that she deeply resents any woman who seems happy with her life. She sees them as lying or brainwashed – as Jeannines or Jaels. She feels that individual success (or empowerment) and what society considers to be ‘femininity' are mutually incompatible. It's actually a bit enlightening, to see this perspective – but I just wanted to yell, "No! You're just WRONG! You don't understand PEOPLE!" at so many points during this book.

At one point in the book, Russ throws in a page or two of excerpts of criticism of her work. I had to laugh, because I totally agreed with about 70% of it - Part 7, Section III: "maunderings of antiquated feminism...this shapeless book...some truth buried in a largely hysterical...of very limited interest. I should ... another tract for the trash-can...burned her bra and thought that . . . no characterization, no plot...really important issues are neglected while...another shrill polemic which the...this pretense at a novel...trying to shock... the usual boring obligatory references to Lesbianism [and statutory rape no less!]... drivel." (I don't have the book on me, so I copied that from a web page – there were more accurate bits in that section, I thought, but you get the idea.)

Oh, the other funny thing is that in at least two places in the book she praises Kate Millett. I met Millett. She used to live on the Bowery, and she'd occasionally stop by CBGB Gallery. She came by one time during my club night, and started talking to me at the door. She seemed almost unwilling to believe that the night was 'mine,' (how could a woman be in charge?) and then started yelling (well, practically) at me because the music that was playing wasn't a woman. I tried telling her (which was true) that although the singer was male, the bass player in the band was a woman, but that didn't seem to count, somehow. She was just going on about how I should support women. (Oh, and she was definitely bona fide CRAZY).
Profile Image for Christy.
Author 4 books386 followers
August 5, 2008
This book is a complex and fascinating examination of gender roles and ideology. In it, Russ contrasts and intertwines the stories of Joanna (a 1970s feminist of a world much like, if not identical to, our own), Jeannine (a young, fairly stereotypical woman of an alternate timeline in which the Depression never ended), and Janet (a woman from the distant utopian future of Whileaway, a world with no men and only women), showing multiple variations on the issue or problem of sex difference alongside multiple responses to inequalities. Joanna is outspoken and sees clearly the inequalities that surround her, even if she is not always certain how to best address them; Jeannine is thoroughly indoctrinated in the ideology that says a woman needs a man and has neither the strength nor the apparent inclination to challenge this ideology; and Janet, from a world without men, doesn't fully understand what the problem is. After all, it has never been a problem for her. She is what all women could be if sexist inequalities no longer existed.

Through Joanna, Russ is able to openly critique contemporary society. For example, Joanna says, describing her education as a woman,

"I love my body dearly and yet I would copulate with a rhinoceros if I could become not-a-woman. There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? I failed miserably and thought it was my own fault. You can't unite woman and human any more than you can unite matter and anti-matter; they are designed to not to be
stable together and they make just as big an explosion inside the head of the unfortunate girl who believes in both." (151)

Joanna is the angry woman, and, more importantly, the woman who has every right to be angry. She is "a sick woman, a madwoman, a ball-breaker, a man-eater" who doesn't "consume men gracefully with my fire-like red hair or my poisoned kiss" but who violently destroys them (135). She speaks the anger of all oppressed women when she says,

"Alas, it was never meant for us to hear. It was never meant for us to know. We ought never be taught to read. We fight through the constant male refractoriness of our surroundings; our souls are torn out of us with such shock that there isn't even any blood. Remember: 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.
"What future is there for a female child who aspires to being Humphrey Bogart?" (206).

Jeannine and Janet each function in very different ways to illustrate the problem that Joanna rails against. Jeannine is lost, unable to stand up for herself, unable to figure out just what she wants or what she should do when the things she should want do not satisfy her:

"She hauls at the valise again, wondering desperately what it is that other women know and can do that she doesn't know or can't do, women in the street, women in the magazines, the ads, married women. Why life doesn't match the stories. I ought to get married.
"The lines of her figure are perfect, but who is to use all this loveliness, who is to recognize it, make it public, make it available? Jeannine is not available to Jeannine. . . . If only (she thinks) he'll come and show me to myself (108-9).

Janet, on the other hand, is thoroughly herself, competent and capable (even as an expendable member of Whileawayan society), untainted by the evils of sexism and gender inequality. As a result, she has trouble truly seeing the problem and recognizing why it is that Joanna and Jeannine are the way that they are. She is constantly questioning and challenging the assumptions that underpin contemporary society. For instance, she says,

"Now you tell me that enchanted frogs turn into princes, that frogesses under a spell turn into princesses. What of it? Romance is bad for the mind. . . . After all, why slander frogs? Princes and princesses are fools. They do nothing interesting in your stories. They are not even real. According to history books you passed through the stage of feudal social organization in Europe some time ago. Frogs, on the other hand, are covered with mucus, which they find delightful; they suffer agonies of passionate desire in which the males will embrace a stick or your finger if they cannot get anything better, and they experience rapturous, metaphysical joy (of a froggy sort, to be sure) which shows plainly in their beautiful, chrysoberyllian eyes.
"How many princes or princesses can say as much?" (154-55)

Her matter-of-fact approach to the world reveals just how silly and useless sexist ideology is.

The Female Man is challenging not just because of its ideas (which are challenging enough for many readers, to be sure) but because of its structure as well. Russ alternates quickly and frequently between these three perspectives and narrative voices and also includes another narrative voice and perspective that remains mysterious until the penultimate chapter. It can be confusing. Most characters' perspectives are presented in first person, which makes it even more difficult to tell who is speaking. But in the end, this difficulty pays off. It is worth the extra effort in reading to have been able to see the world through so many different sets of eyes.

The experimental narrative style includes intrusions by the author as well, ranging in tone from the defensive to the hopeful. In one passage, Russ includes fragmentary predictions of the criticisms her book will receive:

"Shrill . . . vituperative . . . no concern for the future of society . . . maunderings of antiquated feminism . . . selfish femlib . . . needs a good lay . . . this shapeless book . . . of course a calm and objective discussion is beyond . . . twisted, neurotic . . . some truth buried in a largely hysterical . . . of very limited interest, I should . . . another tract for the trash-can . . . burned her bra and thoght that . . . no characterization, no plot . . . really important issues are neglected while . . . hermetically sealed . . . women's limited experience . . . another of the screaming sisterhood . . . ." (140-1).

And there's still more that I haven't quoted. Here, Russ quite simply beats her critics to the punch. Call me and my book shrill and hysterical and you're making my argument for me, she says, in essence. Dismiss this as merely political, merely feminist (feminist as a bad word here, of course), and you prove me right. The thing is, however, that this is not a mere trick on the part of the author, not simply a way of maneuvering her way to a victory over her critics; this is a clear-sighted recognition of the kind of response this kind of book had received in the past and would continue to receive in the future. She shows the reader just how deeply engrained the ideas she battles are, for only ideas that are in some way important to the culture would be defended so strenuously. If the sexist ideology she criticizes in The Female Man weren't fundamental, her criticisms could be ignored.

In the end of the book, Russ as author returns again, this time to address the book itself, sending it forth upon its mission to "recite yourself to all who will listen" and to "not complain when you at last you become quaint and old-fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines of a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dinsmores, and The Son of the Sheik" (213). She says,

"Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers' laps and punch the readers' noses.
"Rejoice, little book!
"For on that day, we will be free" (214).

I have heard many people criticize the feminist movement as problematic because it will, of necessity, make itself irrelevant, destroy itself. I've never understood why these people saw this as a problem. That, after all, is the point. The feminist movement is a political movement to create change in a specific arena. Most (if not all) feminists would rejoice if they no longer needed to call themselves feminists because the movement had done its job and Russ reminds us of that truth. The feminism of Russ's The Female Man, even in its anger, is not a feminism of misandry or hatred but a feminism of hope for the future, a future that will require anger and a struggle in order to be reached. This is a criticism that reaches toward utopia, an acknowledgement of the problem in a practical attempt to create something better. Russ writes,

"Remember, we will all be changed. In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, we will all be free. I swear it on my own head. I swear it on my ten fingers. We will be ourselves" (213).

This freedom to "be ourselves" does not require (as in Whileaway or the other future world described in the last part of the book) a world without men; it does, however, require a world without the sexist ideologies that have benefitted men and harmed women. And this world would be, as the allusion here hints, Heaven. It would be utopia.
Profile Image for Magrat Ajostiernos.
558 reviews3,848 followers
August 31, 2021
Este libro es más un tratado feminista con toques de ciencia ficción que cualquier otra cosa.
La parte central me resultó muy confusa porque las cuatro mujeres protagonistas (que no dejan de ser la misma en diferentes realidades paralelas) confluyen en el tiempo y lugar, a veces no tienes claro quién está hablando, o cuando, o cómo xD
Aún así, me parece un libro rompedor en muchos aspectos, experimental, muy divertido y que sí, que han pasado 50 años, pero en muchas cosas es alucinante cómo de fácil es encontrar coincidencias en ciertas conversaciones y reflexiones, y sentirte identificada.
Hay que pillar el libro con ganas y sabiendo lo que vas a leer, pero la experiencia merece la pena.
Profile Image for Rachel (Kalanadi).
718 reviews1,396 followers
February 6, 2017
Suddenly I want to count how many women are in my life. Is my doctor a woman? Yes! Is my dentist a woman? Yes! Were any of my professors women? Yes! Have I ever seen a female janitor or cop? Yes!

Thank GOD a few things have changed since 1976, but still... too much of this felt exactly like the awful things women are still told to accept as their role in the world: Sacrifice yourself for men, who will tell you who you are. When are you getting married so you can be a Real Woman? *barf* People still say crap like this, it's just phrased differently so you don't recognize it. "Someday you'll want children, you'll feel differently when you're older." No. I won't. Don't you dare tell me how I should feel or what I should want because I'm a woman.

The Female Man will rile you up like this: it's screaming at the sexism and misogyny in the world, asking why?! why is it this way? It makes no sense. It gives you four versions of the same woman and shows you how they become completely different women because of attitudes towards women and gender they grew up with.

This book made me proud of myself because I'm more Janet than Jeannine or Joanna. And then I ask why? Why am I this way? Well, probably because the world has gotten a little better since 1976.
Profile Image for Wanda Pedersen.
1,830 reviews358 followers
January 12, 2015
Feminism has evolved and changed over the decades and this book was written during the Second Wave of Feminism (often referred to as Women’s Lib) during the 1960s-1970s. I know that it is difficult for young women born in the 1980s and later to believe some of these things, but there was a time when your career options as a woman were very limited—you could be a nurse, teacher, secretary, or a housewife. When I was in high school in the 70s and making high academic marks, I was strongly discouraged from taking typing classes (something akin to some of the keyboarding classes offered today, but with archaic typewriters rather than computer keyboards) because I was being encouraged to think of myself as a potential manager, rather than a secretary. In those days, bosses dictated their letters and secretaries typed them—no self-respecting man knew how to type. Even if you worked in one of these roles outside the home, it was expected that when you became pregnant, you would quit your job—often, your employer would helpfully fire you to make room for a replacement who was not pregnant. After all, women just worked for “pin money,” to supplement the household income for the fripperies that all women desire (which of course justified paying them very little, as they weren’t “supporting a household” the way that men were supposedly doing). Hard to believe in these days when there are more young women in universities than young men, isn’t it? Now, women are free to become doctors and lawyers, professions which to all intents and purposes barred female students until recently, or to take any other university courses that they desire.

Birth control drugs were not an established thing—the pill was just coming on to the market during these decades and was not always easily available. Doctors were men, generally speaking, and reserved the right to tell you whether you were worthy of birth control. And this was an improvement from earlier years when people could be arrested for giving out information on various birth control methods.

If you were female and unmarried by your mid-20s, you were pitied. Poor thing, you’d never be a whole person and never have children. Being a wife and mother was the be-all and end-all. I don’t think it even crossed most people’s minds that you might be a lesbian, because there were so few women who were out of the closet. Sure, a few folks might say “nasty” things like that behind your back, but most people just considered you pitiable.

So, the Feminist Movement of this time period was very much a reaction against enforced domesticity. Women had acquired the right to vote, but really didn’t have many options in other facets of their lives. The patriarchy was still firmly in place, and feminists had to roar in order to be acknowledged or heard at all, let alone change the status quo. They burned bras (as symbols of their sexualization for the benefit of men), and they demanded equal pay, equal educational opportunities, and equal access to the job market. Some of the more dedicated feminists declared themselves political lesbians, to protest society’s ingrained sexism and “compulsory heterosexuality.” They were removing themselves from the patriarchal structure in the only way they could find and in a way that (during those years) was guaranteed to shock.

We’ve come a long way, baby! And if you don’t understand this background, you also won’t understand The Female Man. Russ shows just how much male privilege dominated, how inferior women were assumed to be. We still have a way to go [see for example, the Jian Ghomeshi scandal at CBC or the lack of a sexual harassment procedure on Parliament Hill—places where men still seem to hold the balance of power]. Male entitlement still exists, but it's circle is shrinking. As Russ says as the end of the book, won’t it be a happy day when readers of this book don’t understand what she’s on about?
Profile Image for Marie.
Author 57 books86 followers
March 15, 2008

This book had promise - and about 10% of it is good science fiction. The other 90% is unnecessary polemic, thankfully out-of-date (at least I hope so!) I don't object to her feminism so much to the way she doesn't go anywhere with it. "The Left Hand of Darkness" did a much better job of using science fiction to explore gender roles and identities.

That said, there are two, yes, two, awesome scenes, and for them alone I kept reading. The first is an interview of the Woman from the Planet of the Amazons by 60s America. The interviewer is darling in his uncomprehending as he asks if the women in Janet Eveson's world don't "miss" sex, and her blunt response that of course they have sex all the time. I also liked how she says she is married but they insist on calling her "Miss" because, of course, her lesbian marriage isn't recognized by them. I liked that. We were in-scene and getting the message.

I guess my complaint is, the story is complex, but rather than let it be told, Russ spends very little time IN STORY, rather summarizing plot for us among endless stream-of-consciousness meanders that I guess are supposed to be poetic but come off merely dull.
Profile Image for Nate D.
1,578 reviews984 followers
March 12, 2014
Messily inventive, exuberantly expansive in design despite (or because of) its passionately angry core, vital and urgent and brilliant. This is 70s post-modern feminist science fiction, so basically hits most of what I want to be reading all in one go. It overextends, perhaps, but in ways that suit its ambition and force of intent.

Of course, this was written in the 70s: since then everything has changed.
Of course, this was written in the 70s: since then nothing has changed.

Russ has many points to make here, personal, political, and sociological, but one of the overriding themes, equally applicable forever, is the significant effect exerted by sociopolitical context on personality traits. A society's idea of its subsets is a strongly self-fulfilling prophecy. People become what is assumed of them.

It's amazing that something this experimental and strange and urgent was released as a mass market genre paperback, but perhaps not surprising for its era:

Profile Image for Baba.
3,530 reviews794 followers
September 5, 2020
SF Masterworks (2010- series) #15: Four different women, from four different realities, lives cross in this essentially polemic feminist work which on the face of it could be accused of being entrenched in the 1970s when it was written, but then you look at President Trump, you look at political interference in woman's bodies, you note that on Statista that there were 652,676 confirmed cases of rape or sexual assault in the United States in 2018, and me, well, I got to say the feminist aspect of the book is not a problem.

However, like a lot of Science Fiction, it is dated, and we've also got a lot better at targeting and reaching audiences in regards to feminist issues than what Russ does here. On the other hand when it was first published in 1975, it was a daring, provocative and genre breaking milestone that deserved the awards it garnered. Ultimately, Russ was saying that for a woman to be respected she had to forget her female identity. Despite this, the book with its almost stream of consciousness prose and difficult to follow move from character to character, just didn't do much for me outside of feminist dogma. 3 out of 12. Maybe another book that will fare better on rereading?
Profile Image for Nicky.
4,138 reviews1,006 followers
January 15, 2014
I think people are wrong when they say this book is out of date. Many of the feminist issues Russ engaged with are still with us today, the double-standards women are held to and the things men expect of them. That part of the book seemed perfectly reasonable to me: a little out-dated, perhaps, as all of this sort of thing will become in just a few decades, but not irrelevant.

The story, however... I found it incomprehensible, buried under the weight of the feminist concerns and issues raised. I would rather have read the story and the examination of the role of women separately, I think. For me, I came to this book expecting a classic of science fiction, and to be honest, it doesn't seem like there's much. It's a thought experiment, which can be done in literary fiction just as well (better?).

I'm a little uncomfortable with it being relegated to the class of science fiction, in a way, instead of being read as a classic in general. So often that's used as a way to minimise the importance of a work: oh, quaint old genre fiction, rather than oh, social commentary. Those of us in the genre know how powerful a tool it is when used to examine society (and if you don't, may I introduce you to the works of Ursula Le Guin?), but in academic circles... we're starting to see more work on genre fiction -- part of my MA was on Tolkien, and mainly on his fiction -- and there's been some good work on fantasy and SF, but it's not as if any of that is even approaching "the canon".

I almost feel like rereading this in an annotated version, or a Norton Critical Edition, would help me appreciate it more. But just on the merits of it as a story... no, I can't say it did much for me.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 5 books3,914 followers
January 4, 2020
I think I wanted to like this much more than I did. It was published in 1975 and seems to have made its rounds as something of a classic feminist novel. It brings up a lot of the usual ideas in feminism, blaming the patriarchy, blaming women who agree with letting themselves be subjugated, and wondering what their role should be if they did cast off the yoke. These are, of course, the same issues still in circulation today.

This novel hasn't taken the rounds of a radicalized political feminist movement since then or has seen the schools all favor women over men since the 1980s, so it's fair to forgive the book for not having anticipated feminism's real rise or to discover that the pendulum can swing too far in either direction. This was written from the heart of someone lost in real disaffection.

The book, from a pure entertainment viewpoint, succeeds fine if you like stream-of-consciousness writing, letting us explore four different kinds of women from four alternate worlds, all of which could have been the same woman.

I think I liked the IDEA of this better than the execution. I also take a bit of umbrage at the lack of discussion about general dual-standards. Women's studies cannot be learned in a vacuum, no matter how much one might wish otherwise, and its narrative conclusions are almost embarrassingly naive. Conceptualized women-only societies could never be this uniform or simple. People are people, and we always make things difficult. It doesn't matter what sex we are.

Even so, I can still give props to this book for being at the past forefront of feminist thought. I just had to read it as if I was unearthing some historical curiosity and ignore the fact that another sex is almost completely missing from the pages except as a creature who brutalizes, rapes, or is the object of financial security for the woman who has no choice in this world but to marry.

Good points, all, but still unjust.

Not all men spout talk of equality but then refuse to listen before eventually attempting to rape the object of their attention. The opposite idea, where women can become just as militant and behave like assassins, rather defeats the purpose of equality as well. Just as women shouldn't have to behave like men to get along in a man's world, there is no talk about how men shouldn't have to behave like women to get along in a woman's world. My issue here is that there is no common ground.
Profile Image for Laura Noggle.
671 reviews384 followers
February 3, 2019
Convoluted. Relatable.

“I left my smiles and happy laughter at home. I’m not a woman; I’m a man. I’m a man with a woman’s face. I'm a woman with a man’s mind. Everybody says so.”

Not for the faint of heart, this book makes you work for it. You have to be on your toes to keep up, and suspend logistics at the door.

Beyond the mere words lies a greater truth and sadness permeating from reality into the multiverse of imagination.

Russ deftly masticates on the implications of being man or woman, the repercussions transcending into the collective.

This book is as much a relevant commentary on the social norms of the 1970s as it is 2019.

What is identity and how does sex shape our perception of the world, each other?

Often infuriating, Russ strikes a chord as she needles out ingrained cultural limitations tied to “males” and “females.”

Days after finishing this book, I’m still thinking about it. Worth an investigation.

[Edit: 17 days later, and moments of intensity still surface in revery of this unique novella. Nights spent reading till the early hours The Female Man, not wasted.]

*** “There was a very nice boy once who said, ‘Don’t worry, Laura. I know you're really very sweet and gentle underneath.’”

*** “I am a telephone pole, a Martian, a rose-bed, a tree, a floor lamp, a camera, a scarecrow. I’m not a woman.”

*** “When I say Them and Us I mean of course the Haves and the Have-nots, the two sides, there are always two sides, aren’t there? ‘I mean the men and the women.’”

*** “You don’t want me to lose my soul; you only want what everybody wants, things to go your way; you want a devoted helpmeet, a self-sacrificing mother, a hot chick, a darling daughter, women to look at, women to laugh at, women to come to for comfort, women to wash your floors and buy your groceries and cook your food and keep your children out of your hair, to work when you need the money and stay home when you don’t women to be enemies when you want a good fight, women who are sexy when you want a good lay, women who don’t complain, women who don’t nag or push, women who don’t hate you really, women who know their job, and above all—women who lose.”
Profile Image for Bethany (Beautifully Bookish Bethany).
1,983 reviews3,307 followers
January 2, 2023
Last book of 2022! And boy was it an experience. Not always enjoyable, but interesting as a piece of both feminist and genre fiction history. I wouldn't suggest reading this for fun/escapism but if you're interested in the intersection of second-wave feminist ideas and science fiction, it's great for that.

Note that ideas about gender have come a long way since the mid-70's when this was published. It is very much a product of its time in terms of its handling of gender, and in terms of using racial slurs among other things.

This is also a novel about being a lesbian (or bisexual?) and coping with that identity in various unhealthy ways. And one other content note is that this contains a graphic scene of what amounts to child sex abuse and I did not like how that was handled. A much older woman is with a pubescent girl and while it is called a "taboo" it isn't treated in the narrative as the assault that it actually is. Again, I think this is part of a larger issue of older people in queer communities having had sexual relationships with much younger people or even minors- a topic that is being discussed and reckoned with now. And it gets sticky because you have to untangle homophobic fears of all queer people grooming children (no, queer people are not inherently abusive) with ACTUAL abuse or grooming enacted by queer individuals and the fear that addressing that will be used as an excuse to harm everyone. Anyway, let's talk about what the book actually is.

The Female Man is an experimentally structured novel following four women who are sort of multiversal versions of each other (though it takes quite some time to figure that out and one of them only becomes a visible presence in the last couple of chapters).

Joanna is a 1970's feminist in a world like our own trying to make it in a mans world and grappling with what it actually means to be a woman or a man. Her story kind of reckons with this idea that lesbians just have "penis envy".

Jeanine is a librarian from an earth where the Great Depression never ended and WWII never happened. She is in a relationship with a man who she feels ambivalent about, but there is pressure to get married and fall into a specific gendered role. The subtext is clearly that she is a lesbian in denial.

Janet is from an earth where all the men died and the world is a sort of all-female utopia. Except it becomes clear that it isn't actually a utopia, the problems it has are just different. This world is sex-positive and obviously sexual relationships between women are no big deal. HOWEVER, emotionally intimate or romantic relationships are rare and viewed as embarrassing. This accepts lesbian sexuality, but divorces it from emotional intimacy and leaves marriage as not much more that a practical arrangement for creating a household. Janet's perspective is probably the most interesting though because her lack of understanding for gendered social norms underlines their absurdity.

Finally we have Jael, who is a shadowy presence for most of the book though in the last couple chapters we finally visit her version of earth where men and women are at war with each other and this futuristic society has allowed for body modifications such as claws or invisibility. Jael has a male sex-slave who has been partially lobotomized and this is clearly riffing on expectations that women be happy sex bots who live to serve and then reversing the gender.

For sci-fi reasons all of these women end up meeting and interacting with each other, and it's interesting to see what happens.

I will say, my review probably makes this book sound more enjoyable than it actually is to read. The narrative structure is confusing, jumps around, and doesn't make things super clear. Some scenes are deeply uncomfortable for the modern reader, some are a window into what women faced during this time, and some are really fascinating. It was a mixed experience but I am glad that I read it, even just for the historical value.
Profile Image for Alexander Peterhans.
Author 2 books164 followers
July 6, 2022
I'm stopping at about 25%.. there's something really intriguing about the writing, both in style and subject matter, but I find my focus drifting too much, and there are too many other books I want to read to continue with this one.

I will try Russ' short fiction, some time in the future.
Profile Image for Cami L. González.
1,087 reviews332 followers
July 2, 2021
Admito que tuve un momento difícil intentando definir lo que pensaba sobre este libro, sé que me gustó, sé que es una buena historia (muy buena, de hecho), pero es uno de esos casos en los que no se me ocurre cómo poner en palabra algo tan... amplio.

Si bien la novela no sigue como tal una línea del todo clara en cuanto a trama y arcos, básicamente trata sobre la misma mujer en cuatro mundos alternativos. Uno como el nuestro en 1970, otro en el que la Gran Depresión nunca terminó, una utopía en la que los hombres están extintos y las mujeres viven en un nuevo sistema agrícola y, finalmente, un mundo en el que hombres y mujeres están en guerra. Cuando una de ellas viaja de un mundo a otro se irán produciendo interesantes contrastes.

"Si gritas, la gente dice que estás melodramatizando; si te sometes, eres masoquita; si le insultas, eres una zorra; pégale y te matará. Lo mejor es sufrir en silencio y anhelar la llegada de un salvador, pero ¿qué pasa si el salvador no aparece?"

Para ser un libro tan corto, El hombre hembra resulta difícil de reseñar y, en general, de comprender. Está dividido en nueve partes en las que el largo de los capítulos puede ir desde frases a varias páginas. Tenemos cuatro protagonistas, la misma mujer en distintos tiempos y espacios que las hacen ser bastante diferentes en sus versiones, pero a veces una de ellas narra lo que hace otra en el mundo de una tercera. Así que están avisados, no es sencillo seguir el hilo de la historia. Lo que no significa que su prosa sea lenta o su historia densa, para nada, el libro es rápido de leer con una prosa llena de humor negro e ironías, hasta saca un par de carcajadas en algunas situaciones. La mayor parte del tiempo los capítulos son momentos particulares en los que se evidencia el mensaje del libro, el hilo es muy general y muchos fragmentos puedes ser desde recuerdos, situaciones actuales hasta solo pensamientos de algunas de las protagonistas. 

Todo comienza cuando Janet, originaria de Whileaway, esta sociedad solo de mujeres, viaja como emisaria a otros mundos y ahí conoce a Jeannine, originaria del mundo en el que la Gran Depresión no acabó. En un nuevo viaje llega al mundo de Joanna, década del 70 del nuestro (que, por cierto, vendría a ser algo así como la misma autora pues es su nombre y el año en el que fue escrito, además sus secciones son las que están escritas como una narración consciente de un libro). De esta forma, cada una de ellas intenta presentar su mundo a las nuevas que van llegando, lo que genera este choque de versiones sobre la femineidad y el mismo rol de la mujer. Es importante recalcar que la explicación para estos mundos alternativos y los viajes en el tiempo es bastante clara dentro de todo, es entendible y permite sin problemas la lógica del libro. Así también, la construcción de Whileaway resulta interesante por el trabajo detrás, lo bien que funciona y su coherencia, no es que sea una sociedad perfecta de por sí, pero está bien construida y es un mundo atractivo en su manera de justificarse.

"No creo que mi cuerpo sirviera para vender nada. No creo que mi cuerpo sea grato a la vista. De todas las enfermedades, el odio a sí mismo es la peor, y no quiero decir para quien la padece. ¿Sabéis que me habéis estado aleccionando todo el tiempo? Me dijisteis que incluso la madre de Grendel estaba movida por el amor maternal. Me dijisteis que los vampiros eran machos. Rodan es macho... y un asno. King Kong es macho. Yo podía haber sido bruja, pero el Demonio es macho. Fausto es macho. El hombre que arrojó la bomba sobre Hiroshima era macho. Yo nunca estuve en la luna".

Todas las versiones de esta misma mujer tienen opiniones distintas sobre sus roles y sobre cómo se van a enfrentar a ellos, mientras Jeannine es la "típica mujer" que quiere casarse y tener el plan completo de vida, algo la detiene y ese algo la hace sentirse rota, como si hubiese alguna falla interna en ella por no poder ser como las demás mujeres de su mundo. Joanna es el hombre hembra, una mujer que entiende los roles de género de su realidad, pero que se niega a cumplir los que corresponden a su identidad, por lo que decide dejar de ser una mujer como tal y ser un hombre hembra, volverse una de ellos para poder obtener todo lo que se le niega por ser mujer. Janet viene de un mundo de puras mujeres y no es capaz de entender el trato de los hombres hacia estas. Jael es la visión más fría y cruel, viene de un mundo en guerra y sabe que las opciones siempre son matar o morir.

El libro logra representar muy bien situaciones con las que las mujeres nos hemos acostumbrado y que durante mucho tiempo se consideraron "normales", pero que encerraban una violencia asombrosa. Y ese es el punto, las mujeres tienen que acostumbrarse a ser tratadas como inferiores, a que sus penas sean menos importantes que las de los hombres, a que sus dudas no sean relevantes por ser temas femeninos, a que sus miedos sean ridiculizados y que cualquier forma de revelarse sea producto de una histeria. Es cierto que en 50 años se ha avanzado bastante, pero que el libro siga siendo relevante y necesario es prueba de que todavía queda mucho camino por delante.

"Durante años he estado diciendo: Déjame entrar, Quiéreme, Acéptame, Defiéndeme, Regúlame, Valídame, Sosténme. Ahora digo: Hazme sitio. Si todos somos la Humanidad, a mis brillantes, interesados y justos ojos la conclusión es que yo también soy un hombre y en absoluto una Mujer, porque, francamente, ¿quién ha oído de la Mujer de Java, la Mujer existencial, los valores de la Mujer occidental, la Mujer científica, la Mujer alienada del siglo diecinueve y todas esas monsergas anticuadas y deslucidas?"

Eso sí, es importante destacar que en la octava parte se hace mención a personas trans y hombres homosexuales de forma despectiva (no tanto a ellos como tal, sino que a los hombres transformando a otros hombres para llenar los "vacíos"). Es algo que por el año en que se publicó se puede entender pues ciertas ideas tomaron varios años en calar, sin embargo, la misma autora pidió perdón años después por este tipo de representación.

Finalmente, El hombre hembra es un libro difícil de clasificar, se pasea entre novela de ciencia ficción y ensayo feminista, con una pluma grácil y divertida nos muestra la violencia detrás de los pequeños gestos y lo difícil que es autodefinirse como persona cuando la etiqueta de mujer acarrea tanto peso detrás.

"A los trece años miraba la tele desesperadamente, con mis largas piernas encogidas sobre el asiento, leía libros desesperadamente, inexperta adolescente era yo, intentando (desesperadamente) encontrar a alguien en los libros, en las películas, en la vida, en la historia, que me dijera que estaba bien ser ambiciosa, que estaba bien ser contestataria, que estaba bien ser Humphrey Bogart (astucia y rudeza), bien ser James Bond (arrogancia), bien ser Douglas Fairbanks (fanfarronería), bien ser Superman (poder), que me dijera que el amor propio era bueno, que me dijera que podía amar a Dios, al Arte y a Mí Misma más que a nada en el mundo y, sin embargo, tener orgasmos. Me decían eso está bien «para ti, querida» pero no para las mujeres. Me decían que yo era una mujer"
Profile Image for Lashawn.
Author 29 books39 followers
March 20, 2013
I'm still trying to decide if I liked this book.

Being a meta lover, I dug Russ's writing style. It had this wonderful stream of consciousness that reminded me of Virginia Woolf, particularly during Jeannine's parts. I also kind of liked the whole breaking the fourth wall aspect, though it made for difficult reading. I remember when it came to me like a jolt that all three characters were the same person. And I felt proud for recognizing that.

But aside from the writing style, I grew bored with the story real quick. I'm sure when it first came out, it was amazing and it rattled cages and whatnot. I also got a lot of the anger Russ was expressing. But I couldn't identify with it. Part of it is the characters. There's no real women or men in here, just cardboard cutouts. Aside from the "J"s, all the women are either asinine or male versions of women, and all the men are chauvinistic sexaholics. It got old real quick.

The whole "get married, then stay at home and be pretty" lifestyle Russ rants about just did not apply to the black women of my childhood. My grandma did laundry for a living, put herself through nursing school and had several kids through different men (she eventually married the last one). She didn't have time to sit around looking pretty. There was this whole educated white woman privilege theme running through the story that grew wearying after a while. There were even a couple of scenes where Russ lapses into black slave "Massah" talk. I know she was trying to show how farcical it was for women to put on a show for men, but to try to compare that with how Black people were treated in that time was very ignorant and stupid on Russ's part.

I really wanted to read more about Whileaway. Russ told us all these details, but the story never focused on it. It was more Janet playing commentator: "I'm a visitor here! Your world is weird!" Then she sort of faded into the background. At least Jeannie's story grew on me, simply because it was the most complete and coherent. Joanna grew tiresome after a while with all her man hate. By the time Jael came along, I was skipping more pages than reading them. Laura, the only female character not a "J", faded in and just as quickly faded out. What I wanted was a science fiction story. What I got instead was a long diatribe dressed up in science fiction clothes.

Was Russ's anger justified? Yes, I think so. Did this book need to be written? Yes, absolutely. Is it relevant now? Is many of the ideas in it still relevant? As I write this, everyone is talking about Steubenville. It feels like nothing's changed. And yet there are women and men alike challenging rape culture, calling out the media for their coverage. So people are at least more aware and crying out for justice and change.

But was this a good story? I don't think so. I think I'm going to go read When it Changed, which I believe has what I want: a story set in Whileaway, and Russ's good writing to boot.
Profile Image for Daniel Roy.
Author 4 books68 followers
May 10, 2013
If I taught SF literature in high school, I'd make this book mandatory reading, knowing my students would hate me for it. it's not an easy book by any means; its structure is complex and obfuscated on purpose, and its subject matter is uncomfortable and necessary. But really, this is why SF exists in the first place.

The book has been heralded as the quintessential feminist SF, and it saddens me to know that this automatically reduces its reach. It's true that the book is singularly concerned with subjects articulated by feminism, but I think it should be required reading for everyone of either gender. I wish I could go back in time and force fifteen year-old me to read this. And boy, is there a lot of piss and vinegar in this book. Sometimes the anger just radiates off the page. It's a visceral book of raw nerves and flayed skin. It's amazing.

The SF elements are more than merely allegorical. Ms. Russ spent a lot of energy building her woman-only utopia of Whileaway. The result is fascinating in its own right, and not entirely as one-sided as a feminist polemic would imply. Likewise, Alice's dystopia is fascinating SF in its own right, even as it serves as allegory for our world.

The novel, albeit short, is a difficult read, but I don't mean this in a bad way. The author obviously meant to confuse the reader with her narrators, and I quickly learned not to worry too much about figuring out what was going on. The book often swerves into pure polemical flights of fancy, and these packed quite a rhetorical and philosophical punch. It's gut-wrenching stuff for me as a man: a woman speaking directly to me, with no filter on her anger, her hopes, her hatred.

Some reviewers accuse this book of no longer being relevant, to which I can only laugh. We live in an era where female pornstars are conceived by the mainstream as feminist icons, where CNN eulogizes the career of teenage star athletes condemned for rape, and where male lawmakers still try their best to legislate vaginas. There is one aspect where I feel the book is dated, and it has to do with the scope of its feminism; there is no room here for a larger discussion on privilege that encompasses race, for instance. Also, the aspects of the novel dealing with transgenders are downright offensive. But even these elements do not ultimately take away from a powerful, socially relevant book.
Profile Image for Kitty G Books.
1,548 reviews2,935 followers
February 9, 2017
This book is an angry book. It's a story of four women from very, very different lives. Each woman's name starts with the letter 'J' but they don't know each other until the story begins. As the book explores the lives of these women it's fractured, broken up and disjointed. It's not an easy 'story' but the themes of the book are evident throughout.

I don't think that this is a typical narrative. We get some very short, short chapters, and some much longer. We have different narrators, and yet there's one main one who is telling us most of the story. We don't ever really settle into a rhythm, it's designed to keep you on your toes and keep shaking you up. it's feisty, fiery and unapologetically feminist. The concepts of worlds without men, women taking back control, and women discovering their own independence are heavy and prominent throughout. To be honest, the story is just a set up for what is really a social commentary on the way women fit into society.

Would I recommend this? I think so! As a story, no, but as an exploration of a theme, most definitely. I think I went into this with a bit of an understanding about Joanna Russ' views and style of writing (having already read a non-fiction by her) and that helped me to settle into this book, but if you're not expecting the rage that pours out of some of these pages, the accusations and the calls for accountability, then maybe this would be a bit of a shock.

Overall, a great little read and one I did enjoy even without much of a story to support it. 3*s from me.
Profile Image for Alexa.
486 reviews118 followers
January 16, 2016
This is quite an unusual piece of writing. For those who turn to it expecting a science fiction novel, as I initially did, it may be quite a disappointment. There is indeed a rough outline of a science fiction plot hiding in there, but mostly it is an extremely ironic set of musings on the state of women in society, very pointed and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. So it might be more fitting to consider this as a work of philosophy, or social satire, or social analysis. At times it can be thoroughly confusing, with its disjointed narrative and ever-changing “I.” It is simultaneously a brilliant exercise in exploring questions of feminist theory, and a rather poor excuse for a science fiction story. I had to read it through once just to get a grasp of what was going on. My second reading was sheer fun, and I suspect a third time would reveal even more. Once I relaxed my expectations of what was going on, and got over my confusion about who was speaking, I was able to thoroughly enjoy it! This is a piece of work crying out to be read, and reread, and reread again.
Profile Image for Lit Bug.
160 reviews439 followers
September 30, 2013
New addition to the old review:

I'd wished to prove myself wrong in less than a year by declaring that I was in love with this book. Sadly, I'm even more indignant. The issue is topical. It isn't that it is outdated nearly 40 years after its publication. The issue is that the same ideas have been depicted in a far more interesting way in fiction since it was written.

It was radical at that time - Russ was one of those few female writers writing hard SF good enough to take credit for inspiring Gibson. She was of an even rarer breed for incorporating queers in feminist hard SF. Le Guin, Octavia Butler were writers of Soft SF. Understandably, it became an overnight classic.

However, its feminist arguments have been appropriated better in later fiction, especially in the feminist cyberpunk sub-genre by a number of brilliant women writers as well. Not all of them are lucid or flawless, but their books are far more interesting and far less confusing.

Even the plot is not an issue here - but the style is. It is easily one of the most difficult ones, structurally. Perhaps, if you're head over heels in love with modernist prose to the extent that you actually enjoy confusing narration, you'll rate it in full even if you do not agree with this particular brand of feminism (It is broadly based on what is called Nature v/s Nurture argument, or what Beauvoir summarized as "One is not born a woman; one becomes one." or what Judith Butler would say, "Gender is Performance".)

However, I'd rather read the beautifully written No Woman Born by C. L. Moore from her collection The Best of C. L. Moore, which makes the point much more clear.

Or maybe, I'm just so disenchanted with abruptly shifting storylines and narrators and narration POVs that this is really a classic I am not smart enough to appreciate. Whatever it is, I rate it 3 stars in consideration for its radical nature when it was written, and its feminism, and take away the 2 stars for lucidity and comprehensibility.


Old Review but considerably Revised

A thought-provoking example of feminist sci-fi, "The Female Man is the story of four versions of one genotype, all of whom meet, but even taken together do not make a whole, resolve the dilemmas of violent moral action, or remove the growing scandal of gender" as summarized by eminent critic Donna J. Haraway.

Each of the four versions live in a different world from ours, and when they meet, we see four versions of ideologies that have been perpetrated on the alternative worlds. Russ' planet Whileaway, notorious for the complete absence of the first sex, the Man, is present here, an ideal world that has lived blissfully without that warring species of humanity for 400 years.

Joanna, the titular Female Man, is a bright, edgy woman of the contemporary (1970s) woman, who realizes she is trapped in the role of women and wishes to become a man.

Jeannine is soft, docile and dreams of admiration. Her world is our world except that Hitler never took power, World War II never happened, Japan controls China and the Great Depression is still on.

Janet Evason, the resident of the planet Whileaway (our Earth in the distant future) without men, and who abruptly visits Jeannine's world, is one of the main characters in focus.

Jael, the most enigmatic character, is the puppeteer - in her alternative parallel world, men and women are segregated, and at war, set in the timeframe somewhere in between contemporary Earth and before Whileaway came into existence. Her mission is to get these four women together, to launch a hidden revolution against men in their own times.

While these women enter each other's worlds, they bring their own reactions to it, evidence of how the same woman has different opinions of the same thing in different parallel universes. (For an easier explanation, remember the movie Men in Black 3 - there are endless possibilities for each action, out of which, one will be played out and will determine our fates.)

As the women go back to their own worlds, though, they are visibly changed - they undergo transformations at the exposure to what their life could have been or still could be.

Unconventional, perhaps not titillating to a newcomer in sci-fi, but a delightful read ideologically as one becomes progressively aware of its ideological underpinnings and horribly complex and boring otherwise. More of an ideological sci-fi than a mainstream SF work.

But it is pointless, or counter-productive to make brilliant expositions on the nature of gender politics in a confusing, uninteresting way. Which is why I utterly dislike reading this book, though I love this book.
Profile Image for Oleksandr Zholud.
1,052 reviews100 followers
January 5, 2020
This is a literary SF, or an outcry of angry feminism. When I denote it as angry I quote the author herself and not mansplain :) . It was published in 1975 and nominated for Nebula. I read is as a part of monthly reading in January 2020 at The Evolution of Science Fiction group.

This is a hard book to categorize and judge. It has a “flow of consciousness” approach to telling the story, jumping not only from place to place but from “she” to “I” and back. It presents the critique of contemporary (both the 70s and to a lesser extent but still relevant today) society and the role of women, who are viewed as object (to be adored or enslaved) and not persons. Even if the author herself is selected and “uplifted” in dialogues with men as more than “mere women”, an approach remains chiefly of disregard. There are both valid points and ones I see as exaggerated (once again, as a male I can err). It maybe interesting to add that now the first page of reviews has only reviews by women (I guess by name and photo), seems it is a sectarian book.

The story follows several women from different dimensions: Jeannine, who lives in the alt-history 1970s, where depression was never over and where she thinks that her lot is to get married to anyone, for she is 29 and clocks are ticking; Janet, from an utopian female-only world (men died of a plague 900 years ago), a bit naïve society. Later the author breaks the fourth wall and adds herself to the group. Finally, they get Jael, who is an assassin in the world battle of sexes.

All men presented in the book are either spines leeches, who try to parasite on women, intolerant brutes, who if stopped in their advances start sexist swearing, rapists and arrogant idiots. To tell the truth the “tradition-oriented” women are no better in the book.

There are some strong moments, like a dialogue, where answers and thought sound similarly but give opposite meanings, e.g.:

”You ought to appreciate them more, Jeannine.”
“I know,” said Jeannine softly and precisely. Or perhaps she said Oh no.

You ought to marry someone who can take care of you, Jeannine.”
“Don’t care,” said she. Or was it Not fair?”

Sometimes the book is English-centric, like noting that “(Man, one assumes, is the proper study of Mankind. Years ago we were all cave Men. Then there is Java Man and the future of Man and the values of Western Man and existential Man and economic Man and Freudian Man and the Man in the moon and modern Man and eighteenth-century Man and too many Mans to count or look at or believe.” Yes, in most languages man and human are the same. However, say in my native Ukrainian, man as human is feminine людина, while male (and husband) is чоловік. In plural form this feminine remained as ‘people’ in Polish (lud, ludzie) and Russian (люди). In Polish ‘human being’ is feminine ‘istota ludzka’. Has it any effect on gender roles? If so, not much.

Overall, I cannot say I enjoyed the book even if it had several 5-star moments.
Profile Image for María Paz Greene F.
1,002 reviews174 followers
Shelved as 'abandonados-nvoaviso'
September 29, 2020
Encontré súper interesante el tema, por ver los distintos tipos de mujeres tratadas, y también cómo, pese a ser moderno en su enfoque, el contexto en que fue escrito (años '70) dice sus propias cosas. Además, tiene su gran cuota de imaginación, y la pluma es muy ágil, pero... igual no entendí nada. Demasiada sobreexposición de historias, una sobre la otra, fue como tratar de leer un collage.

Una pena porque lo encontré bacán, en el concepto, pero... no tengo tanta paciencia y al final me di por vencida. Así que fuera hasta nuevo aviso.

O hasta que encuentre otra edición. Pienso que, por ser un e-book de dudosa procedencia, quizá el problema está en el formato y me pusieron todos los capítulos juntos o algo así.
Profile Image for Nicholas Perez.
374 reviews90 followers
August 19, 2021
Read for my resolution to read Classic Sci-fi. There's a lot to unpack here.

The Female Man focuses on four women: Joanna, a self-insert of the author (said author does not shy away from revealing so) who is find her place in contemporary (1970s) America; Jeannine, a young woman in a timeline where World War II never happened, therefore the Great Depression is still ongoing and the second-wave feminist movement never happened; Janet, a woman from a timeline where men died out centuries ago and women now live in a, somewhat, peaceful world; and Jael, a woman from a far future timeline where men and woman are in stalemate in their literal gender war with each other. Jael makes the women cross into each other's timelines to see how women are in their respective worlds. Along the way, the Js, mostly Joanna, tries to reconcile being the titular "female man"

Before I get into a review, I want to note a few things. I had previously read Joanna Russ' We Who Are About To . . ., to get used her writing. Russ writes in a very unique that often drifts into stream of consciousness, and it's no different here. I do recommend reading one of her shorter novellas or short stories before tackling this book. Second, my edition, the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition, comes with an introduction by Gwyneth Jones. In Jones' introduction I learned that this book, along with Russ' previous short story "When It Changed" from Again, Dangerous Visions (which is actually our first introduction to Janet's timeline) was written as a response to Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. Russ and Le Guin actually grew to dislike each other severely.

In 1975, the same year The Female Man was published, but not written, Jeff Smith, the publisher of the fanzine Khatru, moderated a symposium in letters on “Women in Science Fiction.” Le Guin and Russ were both invited to this symposium along with several others. At the symposium, Le Guin called The Female Man John Wayne’s wet dreams with the sexes reversed. Russ had already wrote a scathing review of Le Guin's The Dispossessed and had accused her many times of being accommodating to men. This division between two feminist powerhouses at the time lead to a division between what kind of stories involving gender future writers would write about. Kameron Hurley calls this Big F political feminism (Russ) and little f assumed feminism (Le Guin).

So, all that meandering aside, keep in mind that with this book Russ is responding to both patriarchal society and Le Guin--perhaps she conflated the two! All in all, I found The Female Man conceptually interesting and Russ' syntax inventive, but as with my review of The Left Hand of Darkness, I did not really enjoy the author's discussion of gender. When I read Stranger in a Strange Land, I told myself that in order to get past Robert Heinlein's unsavory views to just accept that he was a man of his times. My good friend carol. pointed out that kind of thinking was weak because there were people during Heinlein's time who were active and loud about going against his kinds of views. carol. is right--as she often is--and I cannot write some of Russ' views off as such.

Like Le Guin, Russ obviously writes within in a binary: men versus women. Par for the course with a feminist novel of the 1970s, most of the male character are one dimensional and, with a few exceptions, are all cruel, pretentious, and evil. I'm not truly bothered by this, as I kind of expected it; it's just kind of boring really. However, the female characters outside of the four Js don't fair much better. All the other women are there briefly to show lifestyles Russ doesn't want to live in. Laura, a teenage girl who gets into a sexual relationship with the adult Janet--this is viewed as taboo in Whileaway, Janet's world--really grated on me and made me wish Janet dump her and go back to her wife. Russ uses these women to show how patriarchy enforces women into certain roles and she has a right to be angry about it. However, whenever there is a female character who is portrayed as being happy with a specific role and states that it was her choice to be in, they are written off as stupid and complacent. I'm fine with showing female characters who don't want to be married and have children--which Russ will remind you a lot of--but hating on women who do just irks me. It's any woman's choice whether she wants to get married or not, and it's not anybody's business, whether it be a man or another woman, what she chooses. Russ doesn't seem to like women who don't follow her exact lifestyle.

As for the four Js, Janet is the most interesting to me. Janet is from Whileaway, the world where men died out centuries ago. In The Female Man we see a man get transported to it briefly, but his fate is unknown. In the previous "When It Changed," men finally come back to Whileaway, which may be Russ admitting that worlds consisting only of women would never be a reality. Anyway, Janet takes an interest in men (not romantically or sexually) because she has never seen one. One man, one of the few nice men in the book, takes an intellectual interest in her and he and her have an interesting, albeit somewhat stilted, conversion. The scene mostly shows the androcentricism of language, but it's still pretty interesting. Janet's perspective also shows that both she and her own society are not totally utopian. Janet admits to killing people (other women) and her sexual relationship with Laura concerns her despite the pleasure it brings. Interestingly enough, even thought here are no wars in Whileaway, the way women there resolve any problems is duels. One woman comes out dead.

Jeannine was probably the most dislikeable of the Js. When she complained about how people said she should be nothing more than a housewife, I understood her. But her criticisms of her boyfriend Cal and a man she briefly dates seems bit excessive. Cal wanting to dress up and not immediately have sex with her once he gets in bed with her is not as drastic as she makes it out to be. She gets mad at her other date when he says he's finishing his BA and isn't sure what to do in life. Most people in their 20s are like that. The book's criticisms of men wavered between being uncaring about women and then not being masculine enough, the latter of which is odd.

Jael is an interesting character, but her perspective is really problematic. Jael hates men totally, the only two exceptions are the patron of a brothel in the Manland (yes, that's what it's called) and Davy, a genetically modified man whom she has sex with. The sex scene between her and Davy I'm sure was meant to be shocking in its day because Jael is the dominate one; however, I feel that by today's standards it would be considered "kinky." In Jael's world, the Manlanders take weaker and less masculine men and perform surgeries on them, based on schematics sent by the women, and use them for sexual pleasure. Through Jael, Russ states very clearly how these transgender individuals are inhuman. I really shouldn't be surprised that Russ was a TERF. And please, do not tell me that it's because Trans Rights began in the 80s, the first transgender activists came about in the mid-60s and gradually came more to prominence over the decades after Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera came into the public eye. Russ knew exactly what she was doing.

Joanna is the perspective I feel most mixed about. We don't really get to see a lot of her world unlike the other three. Perhaps it is because it is our world (in the 70s, mind you) and Russ feels that we should know about. Joanna doesn't really reveal much except of the sexism of her world. I am a little dismayed at the lack of explanation of her being "a female man." The basic ontology is discussed: a female man is a woman who doesn't act like a man's stereotyped view of a woman, she's a woman who has pushed herself through everything to become stronger and smarter. However, in doing this, Joanna is only equal on men's terms and she has somewhat isolated herself from other women. But it just ends there. The concept of a female man is very reminiscent the Christian-Platonist concept of a woman who is "forgetful of her sex." Plato was one who inscribed men being of light, culture, dominance, the mind, and transcendence and woman of dark, nature, passivity, the body, and immanence. Later, early Christian writers, fully schooled in Platonism, would write of certain female saints who overcame certain gender challenges as "forgetful of her sex: and "being like a man." I wish Russ investigated this further.

The prose is somewhat challenging. As I said before, it's very stream of consciousness, even though the syntax is cleverly crafted. However, the perspective changes were the most difficult. There's a running theme throughout the book that the four Js are essentially different aspects of one woman, so sometimes when one J is talking it is mixed between first and third person. This got confusing as I sometimes couldn't tell which specific J was talking and who had taken over the dialogue.

The other issue, other than everything else described above, and I don't want to just plainly say that the book is outdated, is that some of Russ' critiques don't really aid her point. For example, near the very end of the book she gives a list of people in her life in certain positions who are men. She mentions the janitor at her apartment building and that taxi-drivers, cops, factory workers, and that the Army and Navy are all men. Are women desperate to becoming janitors and taxi-drivers and factory workers? Do women, especially in today's world with everything America has done around the world, really want to be cops or soldiers? I don't think men even want to be cops of soldiers with everything that's been exposed. Russ then lists off things women can be: waitresses, nurses, teachers, secretaries and nuns and then says "But how many nuns do meet in the course of the usual business day?"

You don't meet many nuns during the day--unless you're in a heavily Catholic area--because as per their vocation they are confined to the convents and monasteries. If Russ had used any of the other professions she listed, I could've gotten her point. Though you could probably meet a lot of those women today.

I feel the same way about this book as I did Stranger in a Strange Land. I recognize that it was foundational, it gave us an unapologetic, feminist manifesto, lesbian love and relationships displayed without shame, and gave us one of the first brutal female characters in SFF; it feels like only very recently that more brutal female characters are coming into focus now. However, Russ' views on any women who doesn't choose her lifestyle and on transgender people really irk me.

There's a brief portion in the book where the narrative goes meta and Russ predicts how the book will be criticized and written off by, mostly, men and some women. It was clever and there is some truth to what she says there, and perhaps I might be considered one of the ones lumped into it, but I stand by what I say.

2/5 stars.
Profile Image for Liz Janet.
582 reviews381 followers
April 5, 2018
What it means to be a woman in four different parallel worlds, told from the perspective of four women crossing over to each other's worlds and discovering different views on gender and gender-roles. MIND BLOWN!
Profile Image for J.M. Hushour.
Author 6 books196 followers
October 2, 2019
"Everyone must have his own abortion."

I'll admit I didn't go into this one with high expectations. I was worried that Russ, for all her admirable fervor in her heyday as a champion of her sex, nowadays might come across as overly bitter, pushy, and of that proto-PoMo nausea-inducing type.
Luckily, I was wrong! This is one of the funniest, most creative sci-fi books I've read in a while and one that manages to wrap itself up in a neat socio-political message without becoming overtly preachy.
The plot is quadripartite. There is Janet, from the utopian future Earth where all the men died during a plague. There is Jeannine, the troubled young lady from a parallel Earth where there was no WWII and thus the Depression continues into the 70s. There is Joanna, whose identity should be obvious. There is Jael, aka, "Sweet Alice", an assassin from a dystopian nightmare Earth where the men and women, separated into segregated armed camps. The men transgenderize male children to turn them female, and so on.
All four women are versions of the same person, brought together for a purpose perhaps nefarious, but whose murky moral connotations Russ wisely leaves in the shadows. Never preachy, Russ weaves in and out every possible moral conundrum the question of gender equality and even gender vagueness can possibly bring up in a fresh, funny way, which was probably the most important part for her, since all things should be approached with good intentions and a rosy dollop of good humor.
Profile Image for Amaha.
68 reviews
April 29, 2009
Brilliant, important, and (for me) highly enjoyable book, if not an unqualified success. One of the defining works of science fiction (particularly the 1970's 2nd-wave feminist variety) as well as an early pioneer of "postmodern"/ narratively experimental fiction.

The experimentation, which brings to mind Pynchon, Samuel Delany and Kathy Acker, is both the most interesting aspect of the book and what can make it hardest to enjoy as a good read. The story revolves around several female characters, Jeannine, Janet, Jael and Joanna, each of whom is a representative of an "alternate reality", but also in some sense embodies a distinct aspect of the author's (Joanna Russ's) personality and a different strategy for coping with the experience of women's oppression: meek subordination; confident, defiant independence; androcidal rage, etc. The author reflects on the nature of The Female Man as a book, describing it as "a book written in blood and tears", and directly addressing (and deriding) anticipated critics of the book's politics. The reflection on identity and description of what it means to become "a female man" reminded me in parts of both Richard Wright's Invisible Man and more pointedly of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, but I don't know enough to say if these were conscious influences.

On the downside, the constant shifting of perspective, topic and tone can make it a little difficult to identify with the characters and become engrossed in the narrative. While alienating the reader in this way is a viable choice, it's a choice that carries some cost of diminished accessibility and enjoyment.

If The Female Man's feminism has worn a little badly with time, I don't believe it's because (as some reviews I've scanned suggest) we have Gotten Beyond All That and entered a post-feminist paradise of gender equality where the author's hysterical, strident screeds no longer apply (I swear I'm barely exaggerating). Rather, the author's feminism seems too narrow in retrospect: while she brilliantly exposes the "intimate violence" and constant humiliation experienced by women, it is largely that experienced by middle-class, educated, First World white women: being patronized, hit on, having to conceal your own intelligence and subordinate your own ambition. While legitimate, this list of grievances feels a little like the gender oppression of the living room and the cocktail party when compared to sex trafficking, honor killing, violent enforcement of religious law, forced sterilization, use of rape as a tool of political repression, and the other horrors visited on poor and brown women around the world. Russ doesn't prosecute her Case Against The Patriarchy too zealously; if anything, she focuses too much on the traffic infractions while skipping over the felonies.

Still and all, my basic take is: read it. For a chaser, consider Trouble on Triton by Samuel Delany, a story about a Male Woman.
Profile Image for Simon.
558 reviews225 followers
February 26, 2014
This is my first and, most likely, last experience of the writing of Joanna Russ.

This is not so much science fiction that explores themes of gender but rather a feminist tract with occasional use of SF tropes. Large parts of the narrative form an undisguised polemic railing against the condition of women in society and the way that this condition is maintained by men.

The plot, such as it is, involves four different versions of the same woman but from different parellel planes of existence coming together. Joanna (perhaps the author herself?) from our reality. Jeannine from a reality in which the great depression never ended. Janet from a reality in which all men were wiped out by a plague. And Jael from a world that in which men and women live separately and are engaged in a long and bitter war against each other. The each see a little of each other's world and how different life is for each of them.

The narrative voice shifts nebulously between these four characters without any clear distinction, sometimes referring to themselves in the first person leading to a fair amount of confusion in the reader. This combined with the lack of any coherent plot and the intentionally provoking polemics will likely put off many readers. I managed to sustain my interest throughout but it wasn't exactly an enjoyable experience. Personally I prefer a subtler approach, a proper story that leads the reader to think about these themes without ramming them down their throat. But this is obviously what the author wanted to do in this book.
Profile Image for Alberto.
Author 123 books636 followers
March 19, 2017
Durante muchas décadas del siglo XX, literaturas "de nicho" como la ciencia ficción fueron consideradas, injustamente, territorio masculino: vehículos de aspiraciones y fantasías "de hombres". Sin embargo, a partir de los años sesenta autoras como Joanna Russ abrieron el camino para que ideas menos tradicionalistas se abrieran paso en la ficción especulativa de Estados Unidos y de otros países. Por ejemplo, esta novela explora –a partir de conceptos del feminismo– posibles sociedades humanas en las que la situación de las mujeres es diferente de la que conocemos aquí. Si se tiene el deseo de leer con atención, el libro puede derribar más de una idea fija con esta premisa de apariencia tan simple.
Profile Image for Megan.
Author 16 books435 followers
October 22, 2007
This book is written in blood.
Is it written entirely in blood?
No, some of it is written in tears.
Are the blood and tears all mine?
Yes, they have been in the past. But the future is a different matter. As the bear swore in Pogo after having endured a pot shoved on her head, being turned upside down while still in the pot, a discussion about her edibility, the lawnmowering of her behind, and a fistful of ground pepper in the snoot, she then swore a mighty oath on the ashes of her mothers (i.e., her forebears) grimly but quietly while the apples from the shaken apple tree above her dropped bang thud on her head:
Profile Image for Netanella.
4,218 reviews12 followers
January 14, 2023
Four stars because this is raw emotion and supurb intellect tied around the still-necessary topic of feminism. Russ's writing is convoluted and "avant-guard" for its time - for me, it was difficult to read for the first 50% or so, and I wanted to put it down. There's real anger here, and the experiences of the four women from different worlds - Joanna, Janet, Jeannine, and Jael - are shockingly present in many women's lives still. Except for Jael, that is.

Link to the Buddy Read is here.
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