Contented Reader

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The Female Man

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The Female Man

Joanna Russ

Beacon Press

People at Readercon were mourning the death of Joanna Russ.  The name was unfamiliar to me, so I wrote it down.  If her loss made so many people sad, I should find out what it was they liked about her.  I wrote down a lot of names at Readercon, but last week, I came to her name in the list at the back of my moleskine notebook, looked her up at the public library, and came home with The Female Man.

It was written in 1975 and is very much a product of its time.  The narrative style is a little experimental, disconnecting and connecting in interesting and sometimes unpredictable ways.  The concept is one that isn’t dated at all- I think I’m going to need to read it again to take it all in.

Why are women so different than men?  Are women fundamentally different, or are the differences culturally instilled?  What would a woman from a radically different culture be like?  Russ explores the question by bringing together four women from four alternate universes.  Are they four women?  Or are they the same woman, with four different ways of living?

Joanna is the woman from our own world, a feminist and a lesbian and a writer.  Jeannine comes from a world where feminism appears not to have happened, or not to have reached her- her first thought is always of pleasing her inconsiderate, boorish boyfriend.  Janet comes from a world where there are only women, the men having died out long ago.  And in Jael’s world, men and women live in separate countries, and are at war.

Their encounters with each other, and with one another’s worlds, make up this book.

Allow me to quote from a television interview between dimension-traveling Janet, from a world which barely remembers men, and an interviewer from our own world.

MC:  Don’t you want men to return to Whileaway, Miss Evason?

JE:  Why?

MC:  One sex is half a species, Miss Evason.  I am quoting (and he cited a famous anthropologist).  Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway?

JE (with massive dignity and complete naturalness): Huh?

MC: I said: Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway?  Sex, family, love, erotic attachment- call it what you like- we all know that your people are competent and intelligent individuals, but do you think that’s enough?  Surely you have the intellectual knowledge of biology in other species to know what I’m talking about.

JE:  I’m married.  I have two children.  What the devil do you mean?

MC: I- Miss Evason- we- well, we know you form what you call marriages, Miss Evason, that you reckon the descent of your children through both partners and that you even have “tribes” – I’m calling them what Sir —– calls them; I know the translation isn’t perfect- and we know that these marriages or tribes form very good institutions for the economic support of the children and for some sort of genetic mixing, though I confess you’re way beyond us in the biological sciences.  But, Miss Evason, I am not talking about economic institutions or even affectionate ones.  Of course the mothers of Whileaway love their children; nobody doubts that.  And of course they have affection for each other; nobody doubts that, either.  But there is more, much, much more- I am talking about sexual love.

JE (enlightened): Oh!  You mean copulation.

MC: Yes.

JE: And you say we don’t have that?

MC: Yes.

JE: How foolish of you.  Of course we do.

MC: Ah?  (He wants to say, “Don’t tell me.”)

JE: With each other.  Allow me to explain.

She was cut off instantly by a commercial poetically describing the joys of unsliced bread.  They shrugged (out of camera range).  It wouldn’t even have gotten that far if Janet had not insisted on attaching a touch-me-not to the replay system.  It was a live broadcast, four seconds’ lag.  I begin to like her more and more.  She said, “If you expect me to observe your taboos, I think you will have to be more precise as to exactly what they are.”  In Jeannine Dadier’s world, she was (would be) asked by a lady commentator:

How do the women of Whileaway do their hair?

JE: They hack it off with clam shells.


Written by Contented Reader

September 2, 2011 at 7:09 am

Posted in Reviews


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