Study Guide

The Female Man Setting

By Joanna Russ

Setting

Four Versions of Earth

The Female Man has four distinct settings, each of them an alternate version of our very own Earth.

Home Sweet Home

Joanna's Earth is ours, more or less. The events of the novel take place between 1969 and 1970, and her Manhattan is a city of skyscrapers, hustle and bustle, and all the social to-ing and fro-ing that any good tourist expects from New York. Joanna owns a house, though she doesn't spend much time there. Soon after Janet arrives in her world, she moves in with her into a swanky hotel suite. The city foots the bill for that one, since Janet is their first emissary from another world.

Hometown Glory

Anytown, U.S.A., where Janet and Joanna relocate after living in the hotel suite for six and a half months, may as well be the Riverdale of Archie Comics, it's so wholesome and full of white-picket fences. As you can guess from its name, Anytown is no one place in particular, but an archetypal small-town, all-American community. If Bruce Springsteen or Josh Ritter wrote songs about this place, they would surely break our hearts. Says Joanna:

"And I like Anytown; I like going out on the porch at night to look at the lights of the town: fireflies in the blue gloaming, across the valley, up the hill, white homes where children played and rested, where wives made potato salad, home from a day in the autumn leaves chasing sticks with the family dog, families in the firelight, thousands upon thousand of identical, cozy days." (4.7.1)

Sounds idyllic, no? Just keep in mind that along with Anytown's family values comes a strong resistance to difference. Racism is taken for granted here, and Laura Rose Wilding seems visibly out of place in baggy trousers and oversized shirts.

Blast from the Past

Jeannine's Earth is similar to Joanna's, but represents what literary types like to call an alternate history. Jeannine lives in New York City in 1969, just like Joanna, but Jeannine's NYC is still struggling through the Great Depression. Work and food are scarce, so both are carefully regulated. Jeannine keeps careful tabs on her groceries with the government ration book she's been issued, and most of the food in her cupboards is from the government store. Because World War II never happened in Jeannine's world, the social movements that followed after it—like the Civil Rights movement or the rise of second wave feminism—never happened either. For these reasons, her world feels much more old-fashioned than Joanna's.

Paradise City

Janet's Earth is called Whileaway, and it exists nine centuries ahead of Joanna's and Jeannine's times. It's "in the future," "[b]ut not our future," as the novel's omniscient narrator puts it (1.6.3-4). Whileawayan history is divided into two major periods: P.C. (Preceding Catastrophe) and A.C. (After Catastrophe). Between P.C. 17 and A.C. 03, a twenty-year plague killed off half of Whileaway's human population—all of the men, as luck would have it. Most of the rest of Whileawayan history after that tells of one long, slow struggle to regain stability as a species.

Geographically speaking, Whileawayans live mainly in the areas that we call North and South America, although they've also established colonies on Mars, Ganymede, and in the asteroids. Although their sciences and technologies are far more advanced than those in either Joanna's or Jael's worlds (and Jeannine's world really can't compare), Whileawayans have opted not to build large, futuristic cities. For the most part, Whileaway is pastoral. Families tend to live on farms, and Whileawayans regulate population control so that there is more than enough space to go around. Dotted through the landscape here, there, and everywhere are empty caves, houses, and eyries where Whileawayan travellers can come and go as they please. In this world, there's absolutely no fighting over territories or borders.

Back to the Future

While Whileawayan farmers frolic in the fields, women in Jael's world are confined to Womanland territory. It's not entirely clear how men and women have divvied up the Earth during the four decades of their war. Some Womanland cities are clearly underground, but other areas occupied by women, like Jael's property in Vermont, are out in the open. The territorial segregation of women and men seems to have started well before the real war began. When Jael describes her childhood, she speaks of being born "in the last years before the war, in one of the few mixed towns still left" (8.9.12). When war broke out, she and her mother were moved to a refugee camp. In the years that followed, women fought to gain and hold territories against the men.

However the boundary lines are drawn, when Jael takes the other three J's with her to meet the Manland Boss, they see a landscape that looks as war-torn and shell-shocked as it did after World Wars I and II in Joanna's world.