The Female Man
is the 1975 feminist science fiction novel written by American author Joanna Russ. Set across four parallel worlds that differ in time and space, the story follows four women who have different views on gender roles, sexuality and womanhood. The principal character, Joanna, is a bright and witty woman in the 1970s that comes from Joanna’s World, a place similar to Earth. Joanna refers to herself as a “female man” due to the belief she must supplant her female identity in order to be taken seriously. As Joanna and the three other women, Janet, Jeannine and Jael, cross over into each other’s respective worlds, their preconceived notions of sexuality are challenged and their minds are forever changed. The novel is broken into nine sections, with each subdivided by additional chapters. Each section is often told from the viewpoint of one character, but the narrative point-of-view shifts between characters and jumps across time periods. The Female Man
was nominated for the 1975 Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 1996, the novel won one of three Retrospective Tiptree Awards. In 2002, it won the 2002 Gaylactic Spectrum Hall of Fame Award.
Narrated in the first-person perspective to begin, the story commences with the sudden arrival of Janet Evason Belin to Joanna’s World in 1969. Janet hails from Whileaway, a world set in the future 800 years after the male species was wiped out by a gender-targeting plague. Meanwhile, librarian Jeannine Dadier lives in a world trapped in the Great Depression. Janet finds Jeannine at a Chinese New Year gala and brings her to Joanna’s World, which is just beginning the feminist movement of the 1970s. Joanna guides Janet to a party to observe how men and women interrelate with each other. Janet immediately becomes the object of a man’s desire. When the man harasses her with a sexual advance, Janet strikes him to the floor and belittles his actions. This stuns every eye-witness, as Joanna’s World believes men are superior to women. When Janet confesses her wish to live with a normal family from the time, Joanna takes her to the home of the Wildings. Janet greets the Wildlings’ daughter, Laura Rose, who immediately respects Janet’s fierce sense of independent womanhood. Laura Rose soon accepts that she is attracted to Janet and tries to form a sexual bond with her. This proves to be a major transgression for both, with same-sex relations in Joanna’s world being just as taboo and forbidden as cross-generational relationships are in Whileaway.
The story shifts to follow Joanna and Jeannine as they travel to Janet’s house in Whileaway. In Whileaway, they meet Janet’s wife, Vittoria. When Vittoria makes a reference to a bear being trapped between two worlds as a metaphor
for her life, Joanna becomes - suspicious. Jeannine takes Joanna back to her world. When they arrive in Jeannine’s World, they take a summer vacation at Jeannine’s brother’s house in the Poconos. Jeannine’s mother badgers her about her love life and demands to know when she will be married. To find love and appease her mother, Jeannine goes on several dates with men but finds no suitable match. Jeannine starts to question her sense of reality, but ultimately decides she wants to conform to her role as a woman in society. Jeannine telephones her boyfriend, Cal, and agrees to be married.
Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Laura hang out in Laura’s home. Laura attempts to praise Janet’s ranking in Whileaway. Janet retorts by explaining that her world does not care about her specifically, but is using her as a multidimensional explorer because they deem her most expendable. Janet refers to herself as stupid. At three o’clock in the morning, a sleepless Joanna finds Janet and Jeannine also awake. However, they are no longer in Laura’s house, but suddenly in a new world.
The women end up in Jael’s World, which belongs to Alice Jael Reasoner. Jael lives in a world where a 40-year war between men and women continues to rage on. In the split between male and female societies, Jael explains that she works for the Bureau of Comparative Ethnology, a company that examines people’s assorted counterparts across parallel worlds. Jael confesses that she is the one who brought the women together because they are basically “four versions of the same woman.” Jael transports the women behind enemy lines as she appears to be making a deal with one of the male organizers of the Bureau. At first glance, the males in the organization seem to promote male and female equality, but Jael soon surmises the male organizer still believes that women are the inferior gender. Jael confesses her role as a cold-blooded assassin before killing the man and quickly returning the women back to her home in Vermont. When they return, Jael admits why she united the four women. She intends to implant all-female bases in the women’s world without the knowledge of the men. The plan is to use these bases to empower women and incite an uprising against the male-dominated societies.
Joanna and Jeannine ultimately decide to assist Jael and incorporate the female soldiers into their respective worlds. However, given Whileaway’s overriding pacifism, Janet refuses to help. Over time, Joanna and Jeannine seem to grow stronger as individuals and show a genuine excitement to start a gender revolution. Janet isn’t persuaded by Jael’s recruitment. Jael responds by telling Janet that the Whileaway isn’t devoid of men because of a plague, but because a war between men and women already took place and resulted in the extinction of the male species. Janet rejects this explanation, which draws ire from Joanna and Jeannine. In the end of the novel, the women disband and return to their own worlds. Upon their return, each woman brings with her a newfound perspective on life, their individual worlds, and their role as a woman. The novel closes with the narrator saying goodbye to The Female Man
before sending it out into the universe.