Picture this: Manhattan, 1969—an attractive blonde woman, thirtyish, does her best Carrie Bradshaw impersonation, working on her career in the daytime and spending her evenings at cocktail parties and lounges, where she goes to meet men. While she is trying to be brainy and ambitious and charming and witty and pleasingly feminine all at the same time, a new wave of feminism is rolling in, bigger than anything anyone's seen since the women's suffrage movement began a full century ago.
Enter a visitor from another planet.
A planet inhabited entirely by women, because all of the men on it were wiped out by a plague half a millennium ago. A planet where science and technology have progressed far beyond the standards of the Earth inhabited by our Sex and the City lookalike. A planet where the human race, made up entirely of girls and women, has colonized and set up cities and mining operations on other worlds and asteroids throughout the galaxy, and developed deep-sea laboratories, miles beneath the surface of the ocean, where new members of the population are engineered and grown. It's a planet called Whileaway, which is also… Earth. It's a future Earth, but not our Earth. This Earth exists at one small point on an infinite continuum of probability, where every version of reality that could be, does be. If you, er, follow us there.
Enter a visitor from another planet.
And here we're not talking just any old planet, mind you, but one with another version of New York in 1969. This stranger is blonde and attractive too, though slightly younger than our Carrie Bradshaw impersonator, and her world looks a lot like the one we're used to, but with a few teensy differences—like World War II never happened. Oh, and Japan controls most of mainland China. And the USSR and the USA aren't staring each other down with nuclear missiles. In fact, the atom bomb may not even exist. Jumbo jets certainly don't, or not in America, at least; after all, it's hard to fund new innovations when the Great Depression is still putting a damper on economies worldwide.
Now enter a visitor from yet another planet. (This is the last one, we promise.)
On her Earth, women and men have been at war for more than forty years, but active combat has come to a standstill. Women have discovered the science of probability travel, and they're experimenting with some fun new plague research, too. The men don't know it yet, but the stalemate is about to be broken, and the new war is going to be fought on more worlds than one….
First published in 1975, amid second-wave feminist activism, Joanna Russ's The Female Man is now considered an ur-text of feminist science fiction, meaning that it's recognized today as one of the fundamental, all-important texts that helped to shape the genre. In terms of canonical importance, it ranks right up there with Mary Shelley's Frankenstein—and believe us, that's saying something. When it was first published, the novel was nominated for the Locus Award and the Nebula Award. In 1995, it was retroactively awarded the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, which is given each year to a work of "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender." In the science fiction world, these accolades are the crème de la crème.
Full of anger, wit, sarcasm, and humor, The Female Man has also inspired controversy and critique for its representations of transsexual and transgender persons; Russ, for her part, is on record as saying that she regrets how she handled the topic. The sort of writing that can inspire intense admiration, intense dislike, or both, The Female Man is also said to have been an inspiration to William Gibson, whose cyberpunk thriller Neuromancer helped to inspire a slew of others in turn, along with a little film franchise you might've heard of called The Matrix. Long story short: The Female Man is a Big Deal in the science fiction world, and in the history of feminist theory and writing, too.
Feminism is as hot a topic today as it was in the 1970s, and even our most glitzy and glamorous celebrities are throwing in their two cents. Take a quick look at the widely publicized showdowns between Miley Cyrus and Sinead O'Connor, or the endless online debates about Beyoncé's feminist cred, and you'll see pretty quickly that feminism means a lot of things to a lot of people. At the heart of it all, though, are two basic questions: what does women's empowerment look like, and how do women get it?
The Female Man may not have all the answers, but it definitely has a few ideas. This is a book with a lot to say about rape culture, about power politics, and about the way patriarchal societies limit women's human rights and their opportunities to grow. It argues that traditional gender roles set women up to be docile victims of violence and oppression, and it explores how difficult it is for women to fight for their rights in a culture that's telling them that being a feminist means being a man-hater, a ball-breaker, a bra-burner, a harpy, a monster, a shrew: in other words, a Very Bad Woman.
Women in this novel struggle with the realization that they can't be the proper ladies their mothers, teachers, colleagues, and lovers want them to be. For some, that means coming to terms with their sexuality at a time when lesbian relationships were highly stigmatized; for others, it means embracing the new feminist movement despite the backlash it may bring.
So, what does it take to stand up for yourself despite public opposition and ridicule? What does it take to unlearn the self-hatred and passivity you've been taught to feel? These are questions for the ages, so don't let a bunch of outmoded pop culture references scare you away. The décor and the fashions in The Female Man may be dated, but the issues it tackles sure aren't.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction
Want to do a little background reading on Joanna Russ? Her entry in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is a great place to start.
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFD)
For a comprehensive bibliography of Joanna Russ's works, look no further than the ISFD.
The EMP Museum
In 2013, Joanna Russ was inducted into the EMP Museum's Hall of Fame—yet another sign of her total awesomeness.
The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA): In Memoriam
A short testament to Joanna Russ's life and legacy, posted after her death on April 29, 2011.
The New York Times: Obituary
Check out this warm testament to Joanna Russ's life and literary legacy.
Interview with Samuel R. Delaney
In which Joanna Russ chats about science fiction, feminism, and how much she loves Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Galactic Suburbia Podcast in Honor of Joanna Russ
Here's a podcast hosted by three women with a lot of smart things to say about science fiction. In this episode, they commemorate Joanna Russ's legacy by discussing three of her most well-known texts: The Female Man, "When It Changed," and How to Suppress Women's Writing. (Warning: Podcast contains some inappropriate language—but not much.)
Here's the woman herself.
Just… Another Joanna
Is it Joanna Russ, or Joanna the character?
Beacon Fiction Edition of The Female Man
'Cause who doesn't love a field full of red pumps and martinis?
Bantam Book Edition of The Female Man
Check out the novel's raciest cover.
The Women's Press Edition of The Female Man
Hmm, there seems to be some symbolism happening here.
The SF Masterworks Edition of The Female Man
Probability travel, or ladies' Ouija night?