The Female Man

Joanna Russ
The Female Man Cover

The Female Man


Another book in my LGBTQIA speculative fiction reading challenge for 2023 and my fourth book out of six so far that has non-heterosexual reproduction in it (which in retrospect would have been the most specific of reading challenges!)

I'd been looking forward to reading 'The Female Man' for a long time. I knew of it's reputation as a feminist classic and when I was looking for books to read this year I think this was top 2 on my list. Sadly it's a real let down for me.

'The Female Man' is the story of four women who meet from sort of alternative universes on Earth and share their experiences. There is an exploration of the author's voice, a downtrodden woman from an alternate 1970's and two others from future utopias and dystopia (although the utopia whilst non-hierarchical still seems quite unpleasant, emotionless, boring and authoritarian).

The structure of the novel is unique with chapters ranging from a few pages to a sentence. Russ deliberately confuses the reader by switching perspectives every page (sometimes several times a page). It's interesting as a device, but the execution is lacking. The confusion just makes reading this short book hard work, and there isn't a pay-off of any kind. I went from 'this is interesting' to 'I want this book to be over' very quickly.

There is a lot of anger in this book, specifically about the role of women in society and how they are expected to conform to gender roles in a patriarchal society. There's rage, there's fire - it's a passionate invective against male society and gender oppression. I wish I could rate it more highly, because I am often more interested in the themes of a book than the story. I often found myself nodding along, or sharing Russ' anger or loving a wonderful turn of phrase. I carried on thinking, 'I should love this book,' but I just couldn't.

I think my main reasons for not enjoying the book beyond the structure is basically the story is wafer thin. After reading the book I am not sure there even was one. The characterisation is bland and appear as caricature. I get that is the point, but I just couldn't care less about any of the characters. I think if some of the chapters existed as a short chap book of essays or poems I'd have loved it, but this really isn't a novel for me.

Many of the reviews answer the question, 'but is this dated?' and one will find differing views. My view is that whilst some of the setting is dated, and some of the material conditions of women (in the UK at least) are different (especially in the employment market), basically nearly fifty years on we still live in a patriarchal society. Women and girls are still at risk of sexual violence, they are still objectified and still denigrated at any expression of female support and solidarity. In much of the world women are not in control of their bodies, or can vote, or take part in society. I was thinking about the women and girls in my life and my friends and reflecting on how much of the book is still relevant. I wish we could view the sexism and misogyny in here as a historical event, but it isn't. It's terribly sad that we can't say Russ' book is dated.

I should add that one way in which the book is dated, is it is incredibly transphobic. I'd like to think if Russ was alive and wrote the book today it wouldn't be in there. I get what she was trying to achieve mirroring the objectification of women but it was quite uncomfortable to read.

A good idea, saying mostly the right things, but sadly not a good novel.