The Female Man by Joanna Russ asks just that question. I picked up the book after seeing an article following her death in April this year. I feel ashamed to admit I’d never heard of Ms Russ prior to that, especially given that she is hailed as the forerunner of feminist science fiction writing and cited as a significant influence on modern authors such as William Gibson. The Female Man was written in 1969/70 and published five years later in a literary genre dominated by men. It received a mixed response, but has since become an extremely well respected novel, nominated for the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novel and then winning one of the three Retrospective Tiptree Awards in 1996.
I understand why it elicited strong responses, released as it was at the height of the second-wave feminist movement. In many ways it is more a study in feminism than a science fiction story, yet I’m not sure where else it might be fit if not as Sci-Fi.
“Sometimes you bend down to tie your shoe, and then you either tie your shoe or you don’t, every choice begets at least two worlds of possibility. It’s possible, too, that there is no such thing as one clear line or strand of probability, and that we live on a sort of twisted braid, blurring from one to the other without even knowing it, as long as we keep within the limits of a set of variations. Thus the paradox of time travel cease to exist, for the Past one visits is never one’s own Past, but always somebody else’s; or rather, one’s visit to the Past instantly creates another Present (one in which the visit has already happened)…” The Female Man
The story follows four women in their own and each others worlds, seeing life through their eyes. We feel Jeanine’s frustration in a world where the Great Depression never ended and her feeling of helplessness as she resigns herself to believing her aspirations of a life where marriage isn’t the only option, are a form of insanity. We see Janet’s Utopia, Whileaway, where men have been wiped out by plague and the women live and work in a highly technological and extremely peaceful agrarian culture. Then to Jael’s Distopian future, where men and women are at war and have been for most of her life, she is an extremely violent warrior and travels both within and between worlds fighting the enemy man. Finally we follow Joanna, the narrator of the story, coming from 1970’s America she is starting to see the opportunities of second-wave feminism and beginning to break out of the male dominated world Jeannine is still experiencing.
“Anyway everyboy (sorry) everybody knows that what women have done that is really important is not to constitute a great, cheap labor force that you can zip in when you’re at war and zip out again afterwards but to Be Mothers, to form the coming generation, to give birth to them, to nurse them, to mop floors for them, to love them, cook for them, clean for them, change their diapers, pick up after them, and mainly sacrifice themselves for them. This is the most important job in the world. That’s why they don’t pay you for it.” The Female Man
Through these four women Joanna Russ is able to explore what it means to be a woman and what effect the four different realities might have on that. She is, at times, aggressively feminist, and the book almost felt more like a manifesto than a story, but it never tipped over into ‘rant’. She makes so, so many important and pertinent observations. Ms Russ is extremely eloquent and her writing style is conversational and easy to read without being patronising. She explores some really interesting ideas with intelligence and consideration.
In the end three of the four women must make a choice, but one thing is certain, all of them will be changed by their experiences, none will be able to look at their worlds quite the same way. If nothing else, they are now Aware.
“I think it’s a legend that half the population of the world is female; where on earth are they keeping them all? No, if you tot up all those categories of women above, you can see clearly and beyond the shadow of a doubt that there are maybe 1-2 women for every 11 or so men and that hardly justifies making such a big fuss.” The Female Man
The story is clearly of it’s time, the socio-political climate that formed its backdrop has changed (thankfully) and although I see its influences, much of it seemed a world away from what women experience today (in the west at least) however, parts of it are all too familiar;
“Everyone knows that much as women want to be scientists and engineers, they want foremost to be womanly companions to men (what?) and caretakers of childhood; everyone knows that a large part of a woman’s identity inheres in the style of her attractiveness.” The Female Man
The effect of media and advertising, airbrushing and ‘size zero’ models on the psyche of women is a hot topic these days, how much has really changed? Whatever your thoughts on equality and the gender gap in today’s world, The Female Man is well worth reading as an accessible look at some of the deeper issues involved.
Beyond all of the political and social commentary the story is consistent and believable, there are parts to make you laugh and cry and twists and turns enough to keep your brain whirring and there’s also a couple of great sex scenes, sensitively and appropriately placed.
I will most definitely be reading more from Joanna Russ.