“The Female Man” by Joanna Russ

Recommended to me by: wordweaverlynn

Joanna Russ died recently, and many people have been posting tributes to her visionary feminist writing. I had heard of her, but not read her books. Someone linked to her short story When It Changed (full version at the link) and I wanted to read more.

Reading “The Female Man” is a bumpy ride. One always starts a book disoriented, looking for cues about what governs the setting and characters. All the way through, I was still looking for cues, still waiting to get oriented.

I loved the descriptions of Whileaway, a planet with only women. I could quibble with some of the authorial choices (everyone has babies around age 30, all children are taken from their mothers at age 5), but the relief of a society without patriarchy overrides all that.

I winced at the descriptions of the world of typical (middle class, white) women in the 1960’s. Again, I could quibble with some of the details, but there is too much painful truth there, and too much of it is still true.

“But I don’t like it,” she said simply. You’re not supposed to do that. On Whileaway, perhaps, but not here. […]

He takes her hand and closes her fingers around the glass, shaking his forefinger at her playfully: “Come on now, I can’t believe that; you made me get it for you—”

The third setting, a dystopia divided into Manland and Womanland, left me cold. I nearly stopped reading because of the sudden violence and contempt for gender-variance.

The book starts with a quote from “The Politics of Experience” about the layers of invalidation involved in the dynamics between men and women. With courage and clarity, this book cuts through all that. “Here is my truth! Here is my experience!”   I can see how it would be a lifeline to women drowning in invalidation.

Available at Powell’s Books.

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