If you're a fan of the New Criticism or Roland Barthes's notion of the "Death of the Author," The Female Man is going to put you through your paces. It's not often that you'll encounter a novel like this one, where the real-life author, the omniscient narrator, and one (or all) of four major characters both are and aren't the same person.
Among the novel's four protagonists, Joanna is the one who is most like the book's real-life author, Joanna Russ. Like the other J's, Joanna is a blond-haired, blue-eyed, Caucasian woman. She's older than Jeannine, but younger than Janet and Jael, and at one point the omniscient narrator reveals herself as a thirty-five-year-old professor of English (5.9.3). Incidentally, Joanna Russ was about thirty-three when she finished writing The Female Man.
Joanna's first appearance in the novel is a double-whammy: once she tells us her name, it's hard not to associate her with the novel's real-life author. On top of that, she says that she is the "female man" that this whole story is supposedly about. Those are some major reveals for a tiny little paragraph like this one:
When Janet Evason returned to the New Forest and the experimenters at the Pole Station were laughing their heads off (for it was not a dream) I sat in a cocktail party in mid-Manhattan. I had just changed into a man, me, Joanna. I mean a female man, of course; my body and soul were exactly the same. (1.5.1)
Since we're bound to associate Joanna with the novel's real-life author, and since she's just outed herself as the novel's "female man," from this point on it's easy to assume that Joanna is also the novel's omniscient narrator. For the most part, that reading works, except for one little hitch: sometimes, the novel's omniscient narrator says that she is Joanna, and sometimes, she says that she's not. Yikes.
Take a look at a few of the moments where things get really murky:
I have never visited Whileaway in my own person, and when Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna stepped out of the stainless steel sphere into which they had been transported from wherever the dickens it was that they were before (etcetera), they did so alone. I was there only as the spirit or soul of an experience is always there. (5.6.2)
Each of us wears a luminous, shocking-pink cross on chest and back to show how deadly we are. [...] There are lights in the distance—don't think I know any of this by hearsay; I'm the spirit of the author and know all things. (8.7.2)
We got up and paid our quintuple bill; then we went out into the street. I said goodbye and went off with Laur, I, Janet; I also watched them go, I, Joanna; moreover I went off to show Jael the city, I Jeannine, I Jael, I myself. (9.7.26)
When it comes right down to it, The Female Man leaves a lot of room for interpretation when it's time to distinguish between Joanna Russ, Joanna the character, the omniscient narrator (whomever she may be), and Janet, Jeannine, and Jael. It's possible to count the four protagonists and the omniscient narrator as five separate women (that "quintuple bill" is an important clue), but it's just as practical to think of Joanna Russ, Joanna the character, and the omniscient narrator as a science-fiction version of the Holy Trinity. Three-in-One, One-in-Three, Five-in-One, or One-in-Five: either way, what it all boils down to is one fascinating character study.
If all of these characters blurring into one another are making you want to beat your head against a wall, don't do it! Your brain will thank you later.
A simple way to start untangling these threads is to imagine the entire novel as a dramatization of one character's inner conflicts and outward actions. In this case, that character is Joanna, and her conflicts stem from the fact that patriarchy influences every aspect of her life, even when she's doing her best to break free from the gender roles she's been taught to play. If you read the novel in this way, Janet becomes a representation of the feminist Joanna would like to be, Jeannine becomes all of the parts of herself that Joanna likes the least, and Jael becomes the kind of woman that Joanna might need to be in order to survive.
Does this mean that the novel is really about a split personality, and all of that stuff about probability travel and hovercrafts is just a symptom of Joanna's psychosis? Maybe, but it's more likely that the novel is one big metaphor for the way major shifts in our perception of the world, or even of ourselves, can make us feel like we're being torn apart.
Simone de Beauvoir wrote famously that "one is not born a woman, but becomes one," and The Female Man is one loud "Amen" to that. Before Joanna explains how she became a female man, she describes how she became a woman first:
In my pride of intellect I entered a bookstore; I purchased a book; I no longer had to placate The Man; by God, I think I'm going to make it. I purchased a copy of John Stuart Mill's The Subjection of Women; now who can object to John Stuart Mill? He's dead. But the clerk did. With familiar archness he waggled his finger at me and said "tsk tsk"; all that writing and fussing began again, what fun it was for him to have someone automatically not above reproach, and I knew beyond the shadow of a hope that to be female is to be mirror and honeypot, servant and judge, the terrible Rhadamanthus for whom he must perform but whose judgment is not human and whose services are at anyone's command, the vagina dentata and the stuffed teddy-bear he gets if he passes the test. (7.1.3)
What Joanna is realizing here is that, in her world, the words "man" and "woman" have very little to do with either sex or gender. What they do is rank one group of persons above another—i.e., they rank persons with rights, freedoms, and authority (men) above persons with limited rights, limited freedom, and an obligation to submit (women). In this world, becoming a "woman" means learning your place. Becoming a "man," on the other hand, means taking your place at the top.
Joanna has a Ph.D. She has a professorship. She gets a big paycheck, has a nice house, and is well-respected in her field. In short, she has most of the status symbols that men in her world are supposed to respect. But when she tries to buy a feminist text at a bookstore—a feminist text by a male author, no less—she gets scolded by a clerk. In an instant, she's reminded that she is a second-class citizen. And here's the kicker: she knows perfectly well that, no matter how much status or money she acquires, she'll always be subject to this kind of condescension and arrogance.
So, yeah—not a greatday.
When Joanna decides to become a "Man," that change has nothing to do with sex or gender. For her, to be a "female man" means to insist, once and for all, that she be given the same human rights and respect that men in her world take for granted. She's not going to learn her place anymore; she's going to take it:
For years I have been saying Let me in, Love me, Approve me, Define me, Regulate me, Validate me, Support me. Now I say, Move over. If we are all Mankind, it follows to my interested and righteous and rightnow very bright and beady little eyes, that I too am a Man and not at all a Woman […] I think I am a Man; I think you had better call me a Man; I think you will write about me as a Man from now on and speak of me as a Man and employ me as a Man and recognize child-rearing as a Man's business; you will think of me as a Man and treat me as a Man until it enters your muddled, terrified, preposterous, nine-tenths-fake, loveless, papier-mâché-bull-moose head that I am a man. […] If you don't, by God and all the Saints, I'll break your neck. (7.2.10-11)