Time Travel and Murderous Utopias: Making Sense of Joanna Russ’ The Female Man

This Month On Changing the Map

As we’ve discussed in previous columns, the upside of using fantastic fiction as a forum for feminist thinking is that readers are so immersed in a strange world that they don’t realize they’re learning something important. The downside? That whatever an author might write about women and their struggles may seem dated and irrelevant as justice for women progresses over time. The Female Man might be one of those novels. But read on to see what Joanna Russ thought of that possibility.

About the Author

Joanna Russ was born in the Bronx in 1937 and died in 2011 at the age of 74. An early and wide-ranging writer of poetry, plays, and fiction, she went on to study at Cornell University and Yale Drama School. Her work won Nebula, Tiptree, and Hugo awards, as well as the O. Henry Prize for fiction. Often characterized as a militant, angry feminist and writer, Russ replied, “I think from now on, I will not trust anyone who isn’t angry.”

The Female Man (1975)
Written by: Joanna Russ
Genre: Science Fiction
Pages: 214 (Trade Paperback)
Publisher: Beacon Press

Spoilers: Everything including the ending.

Discussion: The story opens in the voice of sixty-year-old Janet Evanson, a woman who has been transported from her own utopian planet — Whileaway — to New York City in 1969. Janet tells us about her world, a world without men, where she works as a safety officer. The work isn’t hard, as Janet tells us, because Whileaway is a much safer place to live than New York City. An open, unpopulated paradise is Whileaway, a place where women can wander as they like, where only old women do desk work and computer jobs (because it makes more sense) and where technology has shorted the Whileawayan workweek to sixteen hours. Then we discover that Whileaway is not a separate planet. Whileaway is what women call Earth in the future, after all the men of Earth were killed by a plague, and the planet was at last transformed in a peaceful, beautiful place.

Janet’s been sent by her people as an emissary to back to 1969. But it’s not 1969 as we know it. In this timeline, the Great Depression never really ended, and WWII never really happened. In another character’s timeline — Joanna’s — the war did happen. All three of these characters pop in and out of each other’s timeline, often confused about where they are. (And the reader is too, unfortunately.)

In a bar in Manhattan, three of the main characters meet by chance in the same timeline, Janet the time traveler; Jeannine, a depressed and decidedly unliberated librarian; and Joanna, an intellectual and scholar whose lack of respect by her male colleagues has made her into what she describes as A Female Man, a woman who rejects the expectations placed on her as a woman.

For years I have been saying, Let me in, Love me, Approve me, Define me, Regulate me, Validate me, Support me. Now I say Move over (pg. 140).

The public is fascinated by Janet, the strange time traveler from the future. Joanna stays with Janet in a hotel room while Janet tries to make sense of the strangeness that is 1969 Manhattan. Joanna takes her to a cocktail party so she can meet people. This party takes up a good chunk of the novel, and Russ uses it to point out (acerbically) the sad ways in which women contort themselves in order to make a man love them.

Perhaps he won’t have the insatiable vanity, the uneasy aggressiveness, the quickness to resent any slight or fancied neglect. Perhaps he won’t want to be top dog all the time. And he won’t have a fiancée. And he won’t be married. And he won’t be gay. And he won’t have children. And he won’t be sixty (pg. 38).

Meanwhile, in another timeline, part-time librarian Jeannine is unhappy. Part of her thinks she shouldn’t be. She’s young, attractive, and she has a boyfriend, Cal. But she’s haunted by the feeling that her life hasn’t started. She’s not married. She has no children. Until she’s married and settled she won’t feel validated. She doesn’t feel real.

Six months later, Janet is bored of living with Joanna in a hotel room. She wants to live with a real family, and experience what life is like on Earth. She’s placed with the Wildings, whose teenage daughter, Laura Rose, seems fascinated by Janet. Laura Rose is a budding feminist in her own right, and the only character to tell her story from her own perspective. Laura’s mother, concerned about her daughter’s unusual ideas, encourages her to be more feminine.

I finally gave up and told my mother I didn’t want to be a girl but she said Oh no, being a girl is wonderful. Why? Because you can wear pretty clothes and you don’t have to do anything; the men will do it for you. She said that instead of conquering Everest, I could conquer the conqueror of Everest and while he had to go climb the mountain, I could stay home in lazy comfort listening to the radio and eating chocolates (pg. 65).

Laura Rose eventually tries to initiate a relationship with Janet — something considered taboo on Whileaway because of the difference in their ages — but the two women become lovers despite Janet’s misgivings. She’s not on Whileaway any longer and decides to break that rule.

In Jeannine’s timeline, she’s become convinced that she needs to go looking for the validation she’s longing for. Her impotent boyfriend Cal has shortcomings that don’t make him very good husband material. Cal can’t take care of her, therefore Cal can’t validate her. She journeys to her parents’ lake home, where they’ve arranged for Jeannine to meet men who are “marriage material.” When Jeannine finds out that the man she likes is actually married already, Jeannine calls Cal and tells him she will marry him. Better a bad husband than no husband at all. After all, she’s 29, and she needs to marry “under the wire” so no one will call her an old maid.

In the third act of the novel, all three of the “J’s” — Jeannine, Joanna and Janet — happen to be in one place at one time. They all sense that something’s about to happen. They suddenly find themselves in a modernistic penthouse overlooking the East River in Manhattan. A strange women with odd teeth and claw-like hands introduces herself as Alice Jael Reasoner — another J. She tells them that all four of them are incarnations of the same woman, the differences in their appearances the result of their environment and experiences. Alice — or Jael, as she prefers to be called — has been trying to contact her other iterations for years, but couldn’t find them until Janet traveled back in time herself. When they were finally all together, Jael could transport them here. To what purpose, the women wonder?

“Oh, don’t worry,” she added. “Nothing spectacular is going to happen. All I will do in three days or so is ask you about the tourist trade in your lovely homes. What’s wrong with that? Simple, eh?” (pg. 165)

Jael transports them through the city and to a desolate no-man’s land, pockmarked with evidence of explosives and war. Here we discover that in Jael’s timeline, a literal war of the sexes is raging between men and women. Living separately from each other in what is called Manland and Womanland, the women survive well while the men suffer from a lack of female company and sexuality. Forced to undergo surgery to resemble women, the remaining men are serviced by the changed and “half-changed” men who serve as prostitutes (for the poor men) and wives (for the rich ones).

Jael is taking all the “J’s” to visit her contact in the Manland army in order to discuss a trade deal. When the man becomes lustful and insists Jael respond to his needs, she shrugs off her costume and shows her true self — a physically altered assassin — complete with metal claws and metal teeth. She kills her contact before they can do business, and the women run for the safety of Womanland.

No business done today. God damn, but once they get that way there’s no doing business with them; you have to kill them anyway, might as well have fun (pg. 182).

They travel to another of Jael’s houses, this one in the woods in Vermont. They’re greeted by Davy, a beautiful man who appears to be Jael’s servant. Later we discover that Jael, a heterosexual, has compensated for the lack of actual men in Womanland by programming a robot — Davy — to be the perfect servant and sexual partner.

Here she tells the women about her past, and about why she’s really brought them all together. She wants their help. She and her army want bases and places to hide and build weapons in their worlds, in Jeannine’s, and Joanna’s, and Janet’s. She wants their help in winning the war against the men. The women don’t answer, but later they meet for dinner. Jael asks them again — will they help her?

When Janet refuses, Jael tells her the truth. It was Jael who gave all the men the plague that turned Whileway into a man-less utopia. Janet weeps, not wanting to think about the possibility that her wonderful world was built on the bones of dead men. But Jeannine, emancipated and enlightened by her experiences with Jael, readily agrees to let Jael use her timeline to fight her war. And that’s what creates the Whileaway future for women.

How it Changed The Map

Though not an easy ready or a particularly enjoyable one, The Female Man broke ground for its vociferousness and its clear-eyed and often painful depictions of male aggression and sexuality, as well as the equally painful ways women try to survive in that reality.

The men in her book are one-dimensional and often feel like cardboard villains, but there’s no doubt that much of what Russ wrote about actually happened to her in the late 1960’s. Worse, many of the sexist interactions and attitudes she wrote about nearly fifty years ago still happen to women today.

But much of the novel may feel too militant, too melodramatic, too ridiculous to be believed by young modern women. Russ thought about that, too. In the last pages of The Female Man, she imagines women in the future, with better rights, better pay, and better lives, and she comforts her book in its less-needed future.

Do not complain when 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 Dinsmore, and The Son of the Sheik; do not mutter angrily to yourself when young persons read you to hrooch and hrch and guffaw, wondering what the dickens you were all about. 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. (pg 212)

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