The Female Man is the best, most important book you probably* never heard of. Written in 1970 but not published until 1975, Joanna Russ delivered a mind-bending and gender-bending work of genius. Think 12 Monkeys meets The Hunger Games with the sensibility of Thelma and Louise. Speaking as a man, and so accustomed to giving unsolicited advice (subs, please check this), you should relegate other ‘next reads’ and promote this to top of t’pile.
Scattered through time are four women with the same genes but different destinies. They are Janet, a mighty huntress/jane-of-all-trades who would eat Katniss Everdeen for breakfast and not even belch, from a future female utopia called Whileaway; Jeannine (initially ‘wet’, it seems) from a United States where World War 2 never happened and the Great Depression just went on and on; Joanna from a present like that of Joanna Russ, the author; and Jael, an even more ms.terious version, with an agenda, and secrets, of her own…
They meet – a distinct kind of hilarity ensues. That is to say, this book is very very funny, if you like your humour beyond wry to the point of gallows mordant. It’s well-observed (on the excuses and evasions of men about their blindness to/defensiveness about misogyny) and clever. The women are forever fish out of water, but never helpless. Janet (from the future female utopia) is bracingly blunt, for example, but also very ‘human’.
The narration shifts repeatedly, and to be honest I got lost a couple of times (ooh, an excuse to re-read, as if I needed)
In a section (there are nine) of part six, called “The Great Happiness Contest (this happens a lot)” Russ slabs in the following (there is a certain amount of meta-texual nodding and winking, which works wonderfully).
He: I can’t stand stupid, vulgar women who read Love Comix and have no intellectual interests.
Me: Oh my, neither can I.
HE: I really admire refined, cultivated, charming women who have careers.
ME: Oh my, so do I.
HE: Why do you think those awful stupid, vulgar, commonplace women get so awful?
ME Well, probably, not wishing to give any offence and after considered judgment and all that, and very tentatively with the hope that you won’t jump on me – I think it’s at least partly your fault.
HE: You know, on second thought, I think bitchy, castrating, unattractive neurotic women are even worse. Besides, you’re showing your age. And your figure’s going.
Elsewhere in the book, there’s a gloomy bit on the costs of evolution –
Laur and Janet have gone to sleep together on the couch as if they were in a Whileawayan common bedroom, which is not for orgies, as you might think, but for people who are lonesome, for children, for people who have nightmares. We miss those innocent hairy sleepies we used to tangle with back in the dawn of time before some progressive nitwit took to deferred gratification and chipping flint.
And, finally and fearsomely, there’s an explanation of what we’d now call “demanding the good guy tokens”
I rose to my feet. “Excuse me,” I said, “but business —”
“Damn your business!” he said in heat, this confused and irritable man. “Your businesses isn’t worth two cents compared with what I’m talking about!”
“OF course not, of course not,” I said soothingly.
“I should hope so!”
Numb, numb. With boredom. Invisible. Chained.
“That’s the trouble with you women, you can’t see anything in the abstract”!
He wants me to cringe. I really think so. Not the content of what I say but the endless, endless feeding of his vanity, the shaky structure of self. Even the intelligent ones.
“Don’t you appreciate what I’m trying to do for you?”
“Don’t you have any idea how important this is?”
Sliding down the slippery gulf into invisibility.
“This could make history!”
Russ did similar stuff in “On Strike Against God”, which should probably also be near the top of your to read pile. Anyway…
Books and their covers
The cover of the first edition is an example of Lewis’ Law – (that the comments under any article about feminism justify feminism).
Bang goes the canon
So why isn’t this book better known? Who can say for sure. Russ stopped writing novels while better-known authors such as Ursula Le Guin and Marge Piercy did not. But then, it’s not as if their books – The Dispossessed, The Left Hand of Darkness, Woman on the Edge of Time, Body of Glass, are exactly on everyone’s tongue and constantly referenced in popular culture (though imho they should be!).
Maybe people only have ‘space’ for so many feminist gender-benders and utopias/dystopias, and Octavia Butler‘s Dawn and Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale are the incumbents respectively and ‘that’s all she wrote’?
Maybe because it wears its early second wave feminist politics on its sleeve it’s somehow dated? That’s a coy way of talking about the ‘anger problem’. There’s a lot of it. (Can’t think why. I mean, I thought everyone loved the patriarchy. Oh… yeah… right. ) But maybe the righteous (and right – and sadly still right) anger makes the book unassimilable? I don’t know. All I know (believe) is that Russ wrote a fantastic book, and it should be canonical.
Btw I went to a conference about utopias/dystopias in Newcastle in April. Good conference, but to my knowledge, nobody presented anything on this book. That’s a real shame, imho. There is surely a really useful reading of the Hunger Games (for instance) to be done ‘versus’ this Russ and some others.
Final thing I know; that there are many many cool things about being married to an ardently feminist bookworm. One of them is metre upon metre of cool fiction by women. Next up is a collection of short stories from the Women’s Press.
* Of course, not everyone is as ignorant as me…