Study Guide

The Female Man Quotes

By Joanna Russ

  • Women and Femininity

    What you've got to remember, […] is that most women are liberated right now. They like what they're doing. They do it because they like it. (3.2.132)

    Aside from Janet and Joanna, how many of the women at the party on Riverside Drive would disagree with Ewing?

    Last year I finally gave up and told my mother I didn't want to be a girl but she said Oh no, being a girl is wonderful. Why? Because you can wear pretty clothes and you don't have to do anything; the men will do it for you. She said that instead of conquering Everest, I could conquer the conqueror of Everest. (4.11.1)

    Women like Mrs. Wilding and Saccharissa like to talk about women's ability to conquer men, but what do they really mean by "conquer"? Is it the same thing that Jael is thinking when she talks about winning the war?

    There is the vanity training, the obedience training, the self-effacement training, the deference training, the dependency training, the passivity training, the rivalry training, the stupidity training, the placation training. (7.5.4)

    One way of refuting Ewing's argument that women "like" their gender roles is to argue that, if women are trained to like them, then that liking doesn't really count. According to The Female Man, what social institutions (family, church, state, school, etc.) "train" women in this way?

    How am I to put this together with my human life, my intellectual life, my solitude, my transcendence, my brains, and my fearful, fearful ambition? (7.5.4)

    Joanna's use of the word "transcendence" is significant here. In Western philosophical and religious traditions, women have typically been associated with "immanence": i.e., the body, the drives, the instincts. Men, on the other hand, have typically claimed the realm of "transcendence": i.e., rational thinking, cognitive activity, and everything else that's said to separate "man" from "beast."

    Do you enjoy playing with other people's children—for ten minutes? Good! this reveals that you have Maternal Instinct and you will be forever wretched if you do not instantly have a baby of your own. (7.5.5)

    Why does Joanna satirize the notion of maternal instinct? Who are the healthiest and happiest mothers in this novel, and who are the most depressed?

    Are you lonely? Good! This shows that you have Feminine Incompleteness. (7.5.6)

    This may be another of the novel's subtle allusions to psychoanalysis. Thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Jacques Lacan argued that women were defined by "lack," specifically, their lack of a penis.

    Do you like men's bodies? Good! This is beginning to be almost as good as getting married. This means that you have True Womanliness, which is fine unless you want to do it with him on the bottom and you on the top, or any other way than he wants to do it. (7.5.7)

    Is Joanna suggesting that womanliness and femininity are related to women's sexual subservience to men? If so, what do you make of that argument?

    Always the same. I sit on, perfectly invisible, a chalk sketch of a woman. An idea. A walking ear. (8.8.33)

    Women in The Female Man often feel as though they are "invisible" to men. How does Jael turn invisibility to her advantage? Is any other character able to do the same?

    Of course you don't want me to be stupid, bless you! you only want to make sure you're intelligent. You don't want me to commit suicide; you only want me to be gratefully aware of my dependency. You don't want me to despise myself; you only want to ensure the flattering deference to you that you consider a spontaneous tribute to your natural qualities. (8.10.32)

    Jael likes to lay the sarcasm on thick. What point is she making here, underneath the cutting wit?

    When I speak now I am told loftily or kindly that I just don't understand, that women are really happy that way, that women can better themselves if they want to but somehow they just don't want to. (9.3.1)

    When Ewing makes statements like these to Janet and Joanna at the party on Riverside Drive, Joanna doesn't dare contradict him. How does the novel itself refute opinions like these?

  • Men and Masculinity

    When the—ah—the plague you spoke of killed the men on Whileaway, weren't they missed? Weren't families broken up? Didn't the whole pattern of life change? (1.7.23)

    More than one character in this novel—male and female alike—believes that women and men are one another's natural complements. Why does the novel suggest that this is a patriarchal point of view?

    "Savages!" she shouted. A hush had fallen on the party. The host leafed dexterously through his little book of rejoinders but did not come up with anything. Then he looked up "savage" only to find it marked with an affirmative: "Masculine, brute, virile, powerful, good." So he smiled broadly. (3.2.165)

    When Janet calls the Host of the party on Riverside Drive a "savage," all she does is vindicate his masculinity. What insult could she have used instead? When the Host insults her back, why does he choose the language he does?

    The little blue book was rattling around in my purse. I took it out and turned to the last thing he had said ("You stupid broad" et cetera). Underneath was written Girl backs down—cries—manhood vindicated. Under "Real Fight With Girl" was written Don't hurt (except whores). (3.2.191)

    The Female Man makes it clear that violence against women is a learned behavior. According to the novel, who or what teaches this behavior? (Grand Theft Auto, we're lookin' at you.)

    Burned any bras lately har har twinkle twinkle A pretty girl like you doesn't need to be liberated twinkle har Don't listen to those hysterical b****es twinkle twinkle twinkle I never take a woman's advice about two things: love and automobiles twinkle twinkle har May I kiss your little hand twinkle twinkle twinkle. Har. Twinkle. (3.5.1)

    The men in this novel behave badly in lots of different ways. Some are outwardly violent toward women, while others are more politely condescending. Does the novel make clear distinctions between these types of misogyny?

    Boys don't like smart girls. Boys don't like aggressive girls. Unless they want to sit in the girls' laps, that is. I never met a man yet who wanted to make it with a female Genghis Khan. Either they try to dominate you, which is revolting, or they turn into babies. You might as well give up. (4.11.5)

    Laura's experience dating high schools guys has made her feel that relationships between guys and girls are all about power. She feels pretty sure that young women like her who have (or dream of having) power won't be attractive to young men-in-the-making. Do the adult relationships in the novel bear this out?

    You can see the blood rush to his face, even in this bad light. That's what comes of being misunderstood. "Keep a civil tongue in your mouth, young lady!" (6.4.17)

    Joanna/the omniscient narrator is using sarcasm in this passage, though it might be difficult to hear. When Bud grabs Jeannine's/Janet's arm and she resists, why does the narrator attribute his anger to "being misunderstood"?

    This argument is becoming degraded and ridiculous. I will leave you alone until loneliness, dependence, and a consciousness that I am very much displeased once again turn you into the sweet girl I married. There is no use in arguing with a woman. (6.5.20)

    What's the crucial difference between the words "girl" and "woman" in this passage, and what does it tell us about the man who is speaking here?

    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. (7.2.10)

    In this passage, what does the word "Man" represent? When Joanna becomes a "female man," does she embrace the kinds of masculinity we've seen elsewhere in the novel, or does she mean something different?

    There must be a secret feminine underground that teaches them how to behave; in the face of their comrades' derision and savage contempt, in the face of the prospect of gang rape if they're found alone in the streets after curfew, in the face of the legal necessity to belong—every one of them—to a real man. (8.7.24)

    The "changed" and "half-changed" Manlanders help to support the novel's argument that femininity and masculinity reflect social hierarchies, and that to be "feminized" is to be made vulnerable to violence and contempt.

    "OPEN YOUR EYES!" I roared, "BEFORE I KILL YOU!" and Boss-man did.

    He said, You led me on.

    He said, You are a prude.

    (He was shocked.) He said, You deceived me. He said,

    You are a Bad Lady. (8.8.89-93)

    When Janet pushes away the Host of the party at Riverside Drive, he berates her for her inappropriate behavior. When Jeannine/Janet tells Bud to take his hands off her, he scolds her for being "uncivil." When Jael tells the Manland Boss that she doesn't want to have sex with him, he ignores her. It's not until she says she's going to kill him that he listens well enough to be offended by her "prudishness" and deception. Why does the novel replay this pattern so many times? What connections is The Female Man drawing between patriarchal conventions, male aggression, and victim-blaming?

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    "Baby?" He was pulling her arm. Come for a cup of coffee. But she couldn't. She had to learn Greek (the book was in the reserve desk). There was too much to do. He was frowning and pleading. She could feel the pillow under her back already, and Mr. Frosty stalking around them, looking at her with his strange blue eyes, walking widdershins around the lovers. (1.2.9)

    The concept of "enthusiastic consent" is unheard of in Jeannine's world. How does Cal's "frowning and pleading" compare to the more outwardly aggressive actions of men like Ginger Moustache, the Host of the party on Riverside Drive, and the Manland Boss?

    Do you want to banish sex from Whileaway? Sex, family, love, erotic attraction—call it what you like—we all know that your people are competent and intelligent individuals, but do you think that's enough? Surely you have the intellectual knowledge of biology in other species to know what I'm talking about. (1.7.33)

    Remarkably, it doesn't even occur to the Television Interview that Whileawayan women might be sexually attracted to one another. How does his attitude compare to those of Manlanders like Lenny and Boss?

    My mother thinks that I don't like boys, though I try to tell her: Look at it this way; I'll never lose my virginity. I'm a Man-Hating Woman and people leave the room when I come in it. Do they do the same for a Woman-Hating Man? Don't be silly. (4.11.6)

    Before Laura begins her love affair with Janet, she doesn't consider herself a lesbian. Instead, she says simply that she couldn't endure a relationship with any of the guys she's dated, because none of them have really respected her.

    I've never slept with a girl. I couldn't. I wouldn't want to. That's abnormal and I'm not, although you can't be normal unless you do what you want and you can't be normal unless you love men. To do what I wanted would be normal, unless what I wanted was abnormal, in which case it would be abnormal to please myself and normal to do what I didn't want to do, which isn't normal. (4.11.9)

    Laura and Joanna both grow up in a world where lesbianism is stigmatized, and both go through serious internal struggles before they act on their desires. How does Janet enable each of them?

    Love is a radiation disease. Whileawayans do not like the self-consequence that comes with romantic passion and we are very mean and mocking about it; so Vittoria and I walked back separately, each frightened to death of the weeks and weeks yet to go before we'd be over it. We kept it to ourselves. (4.16.18)

    The social conventions surrounding sexuality expression on Whileaway are very different from those in Jeannine's, Joanna's, and Jael's worlds. In Jeannine's and Joanna's worlds, romantic passion is associated with beauty, attraction, possession, and the "thrill of the hunt." What kinds of sexual expression do Whileawayans value?

    No man in our world would touch Elena. In Whileawayan leaf-read pajamas, in silver silk overalls, in the lengths of moony brocade in which Whileawayans wrap themselves for pleasure, this would be a beautiful Helen. Elena Twason swathed in cut-silk brocade, nipping a corner of it for fun. (7.4.36)

    This passage marks a turning point for Joanna/the omniscient narrator, who ran screaming from the room when Janet and Laura first went to bed. As she begins to explore her own attraction to women, why does she make a point of noting that no man in her world would touch Elena?

    Things will get better. I suppose I'm just late in developing. Do you think if I got married I would like making love better? Do you think there's unconscious guilt—you know, because Cal and I aren't married? I don't feel it that way, but if it was unconscious, you wouldn't feel it, would you? (7.5.2)

    The novel makes it clear that Jeannine dislikes having sex with Cal. Are there any suggestions that Jeannine may be attracted to women rather than (or as well as) men?

    After we had finished making love, he turned to the wall and said, "Woman, you're lovely. you're sensuous. You should wear long hair and lots of eye make-up and tight clothing." Now what does this have to do with anything? I remain bewildered. (7.5.4)

    The Female Man suggests that sexual desires are shaped by social conventions, are aren't wholly dependent on individual preferences. Joanna's lover wants her to conform to a feminine "ideal," one that has been presented to him through visual media like movies, advertisements, and maybe even pornography.

    All real-men like the changed; some real-men like the half-changed; none of the real-men like real-men, for that would be abnormal. Nobody asks the changed or half-changed what they like. (8.7.2)

    References to "abnormality" are always tinged with irony in The Female Man, because the word is always used to refer to sexual relationships between equals. How does this usage contribute to the novel's discussion of sexuality and sexual identity overall?

    […] bringing my fantasies into the real world frightened me very much. It's not that they were bad in themselves, but they were Unreal and therefore culpable; to try to make Real what was Unreal was to mistake the very nature of things; it was a sin not against conscience […] but against Reality, and of the two the latter is far more blasphemous. (208)

    Joanna/the omniscient narrator never believes that her feelings for her Laura are morally wrong. All the same, she feels that it would be impossible to act on them. Is Joanna's society holding her back, or are her own fears to blame?

  • Society and Class

    There have been no men on Whileaway for at least eight centuries—I don't mean no human beings, of course, but no men—and this society, run entirely by women, has naturally attracted a great deal of attention since the appearance last week of its representative and its first ambassador, the lady on my left here. (1.7.19)

    On Joanna's Earth, people often use the word "man" to mean "human," and the novel suggests that this reflects a significant social problem, which is that men in Joanna's world are the only people who enjoy full human rights.

    The door opened at this point and a young woman walked in, a woman of thirty years or so, elaborately painted and dressed. I know I should not have assumed anything, but one must work with what one has; and I assumed that her dress indicated a mother. That is, someone on vacation, someone with leisure, someone who's close to the information network and full of intellectual curiosity. If there's a top class (I said to myself), this is it. (2.5.17)

    When Janet mistakes the Colonel's secretary for the person in charge, we learn something crucial about the Whileawayan class system (such as it is). On Whileaway, all women cycle through periods of labor and leisure, work and ease. Mothers may be the "top class," but every Whileawayan gets the same "vacation" from work from age thirty to thirty-five.

    Now, nobody can be more in favor of women getting their rights than I am. Do you want to sit down? Let's. As I said, I'm all in favor of it. Adds a decorative touch to the office, eh? Ha ha! Ha ha ha! Unequal pay is a disgrace. But you've got to remember, Janet, that women have certain physical limitations [...] and you have to work within your physical limitations. (3.2.136)

    Although Ewing makes fun of the new feminist movement at the party on Riverside Drive, he puts his finger on one of its central concerns: women's right to equal pay for equal work. Like other men of his time, Ewing uses stereotypes about women's physical limitations in order to justify a system that benefits from their unpaid labor in the home.

    Little Whileawayans are to their mothers both sulk and swank, fun and profit, pleasure and contemplation, a show of expensiveness, a slowing-down of life, an opportunity to pursue whatever interests the women have been forced to neglect previously, and the only leisure they have ever had—or will have again until old age. (3.4.1)

    On Whileaway, motherhood means having five years of leisure, whereas in Jeannine's and Joanna's worlds, it can amount to a lifetime of domestic servitude. How do the experiences of Whileawayan mothers compare to the experience of a woman like Mrs. Dadier? What social conditions make these experiences so radically different?

    At twenty-two they achieve Full Dignity and may either begin to learn the heretofore forbidden jobs or have their learning formally certificated. They are allowed to begin apprenticeships. They may marry into pre-existing families or form their own. (3.5.17)

    On Whileaway, "dignity" isn't just an abstract concept, it's an indicator of social rank. Children achieve "Middle Dignity" when they graduate from school, they achieve "Three-Quarters Dignity" when they enter the workforce, and they earn "Full Dignity" at twenty-two, the Whileawayan age of adulthood. On Whileaway, social rights and privileges relate directly to the contributions that Whileawayan women are expected to make to their society.

    Then he said I must understand that femininity was a Good Thing, and although men's and women's functions in society were different, they had equal dignity. Separate but equal, right? Men make the decisions and women make the dinners. (4.11.1)

    When Laura's school psychologist uses the word "dignity," he means something very different from what the term means on Whileaway. What does women's dignity look like in Laura's world?

    He expected me to start singing "I'm So Glad I'm A Girl" right there in his Goddamned office. And a little buck-and-wing. And a little n***** shuffle. (4.11.1)

    This is one of the most inflammatory and contentious statements in The Female Man. Not only does Laura use a racial slur to make a point about sexism, but she also does it without offering any deeper analysis of the crucial differences between her experience as a white woman living in a patriarchal culture and the experience of a black man or woman living in a white supremacist society.

    He: Darling, why must you work part-time as a rug salesman?

    She: Because I wish to enter the marketplace and prove that in spite of my sex I can take a fruitful part in the life of the community and earn what our culture proposes as the sign and symbol of adult independence—namely money. (6.5.14-15)

    This about sums it up. If money is "the sign and symbol of adult independence" in America, then, without being able to earn and keep money of her own, a woman cannot be treated as an independent adult. Instead, she can only be treated as Jeannine is treated by everyone in her world: as an overgrown child.

    "Well, it's nobody's fault, I know (this is what I'm supposed to think). I know and totally approve and genuflect and admire and wholly obey the doctrine of Nobody's Fault, the doctrine of Gradual Change, the doctrine that Women Can Love Better Than Men so we ought to be saints (warrior saints?), the doctrine of It's A Personal Problem. 

    (Selah, selah, there is only one True Prophet and it's You, don't kill me, massa, I'se jes' ig'nerant.)" (7.5.9)

    This is another of the novel's most inflammatory and contentious passages. Like Laura, Joanna draws a connection between women's oppression under patriarchy and the oppression of African peoples under white supremacy and, specifically, slavery. On top of that, she makes some not-so-subtle insinuations about Islam by relating Muslim believers' worship of Allah to the lip service women are expected to pay to men.

    Most women will continue to choose the conservative caretaking of childhood, the formation of beautiful human relationships, and the care and service of others. Servants. Of. The. Race. Why should we sneer at that? (8.8.34)

    Aaaaaaand here it is. The Manland Boss is interested in getting women and men back together for one reason, and one reason only: because it's so handy when the ladies do stuff for the mens. Once again, the novel is drawing attention to the way women are exploited by a patriarchal system that represents domestic labor as a spiritual calling rather than work that deserves to be compensated.

  • Power

    I was moody, ill-at-ease, unhappy, and hard to be with. I didn't relish my breakfast. I spent my whole day combing my hair and putting on make-up. Other girls practiced with the shot-put and compared archery scores, but I—indifferent to javelin and crossbow, positively repelled by horticulture and ice hockey—all I did was

    dress for The Man
    smile for The Man
    talk wittily to The Man
    sympathize with The Man
    flatter The Man
    understand The Man
    defer to The Man
    entertain The Man
    keep The Man
    live for The Man. (3.1.2)

    Through characters like Joanna, Jeannine, and Laura, The Female Man suggests that women need to take responsibility for sacrificing their own power. By choosing to live for The Man rather than for herself, Joanna contributes to her own subservience.

    She learned, wearing her rimless glasses, that the world is full of intelligent, attractive, talented women who manage to combine careers with their primary responsibilities as wives and mothers and whose husbands beat them. (4.5.1)

    As a young woman in a man's world, Laura Rose Wilding is desperate for female role models to look up to. But even the examples she finds of strong, successful women reiterate to her that women will always be vulnerable to men. Like Joanna's experience with the bookstore clerk who scolds her for purchasing The Subjection of Women, Laura's perspective suggests that, even if women acquire social status and economic independence, it will not be enough to shift the power relations between them and men.

    Finding The Man. Keeping The Man. Not scaring The Man, building up The Man, pleasing The Man, interesting The Man, following The Man, soothing The Man, flattering The Man, deferring to The Man, changing your judgment for The Man, changing your decisions for The Man, polishing floors for The Man, being perpetually conscious of your appearance for The Man, being romantic for The Man, hinting to The Man, losing yourself in The Man. (4.11.1)

    Like Joanna, Laura realizes that living for The Man will mean losing her own self. While the novel suggests that women do have some choice in these matters, it also argues that social conditioning is extremely hard to resist.

    When I was thirteen my uncle wanted to kiss me and when I tried to run away, everybody laughed. He pinned my arms and kissed me on the cheek; then he said, "Oho, I got my kiss! I got my kiss!" and everybody thought it was too ducky for words. Of course they blamed me—it's harmless, they said, you're only a child, he's paying you attention, you ought to be grateful. Everything's all right as long as he doesn't rape you. (4.11.1)

    This scene is clearly one of the formative moments in Laura's life. How is power distributed here? What kinds of power does her uncle exploit?

    Then I had a lady shrink who said it was my problem because I was the one who was trying to rock the boat and you can't expect them to change. So I suppose I'm the one who must change. Which is what my best friend said. "Compromise," she said, answering her fiftieth phone call of the night. "Think what power it gives you over them." (4.11.5)

    What kind of power would Laura gain by compromising with boys or men? How would it compare to the power that the menfolk enjoy?

    Dunyasha Bernadetteson (the most brilliant mind in the world, b. A.C. 344, d. A.C. 426) heard of this unfortunate young person and immediately pronounced the following shchasnïy, or cryptic one-word saying:

    "Power!" (4.12.1-2)

    Dunyasha Bernadetteson was clearly a fan of The Temptations.

    The game is a dominance game called I Must Impress This Woman. Failure makes the active player play harder. Wear a hunched back or a withered arm; you will then experience the invisibility of the passive player. I'm never impressed—no woman ever is—it's just a cue that you like me and I'm supposed to like that. If you really like me, maybe I can get you to stop. Stop; I want to talk to you! Stop; I want to see you! Stop; I'm dying and disappearing! (5.9.13)

    Throughout The Female Man, Joanna/the omniscient narrator satirizes a number of "dominance games" that men in her world are taught to play. Although she knows that women are supposed to find male dominance attractive, this passage suggests that this kind of behavior is just as damaging and deadly as outward displays of violence.

    Men succeed. Women get married.

    Men fail. Women get married.

    Men enter monasteries. Women get married.

    Men start wars. Women get married.

    Men stop them. Women get married.

    Dull, dull. (see below) (6.8.1-6)

    On Joanna's Earth, it's the men who start and stop wars, but in Jael's world, the women do too. Does the novel suggest that war is a valid expression of female power?

    I'm a sick woman, a madwoman, a ball-breaker, a man-eater; I don't consume men gracefully with my fire-like red hair or my poisoned kiss; I crack their joints with these filthy ghoul's claws and standing on one foot like a de-clawed cat, rake at your feeble efforts to save yourselves with my taloned hinder feet: my matted hair, my filthy skin, my big fat plaques of green bloody teeth. (7.1.8)

    Joanna sounds a lot like Jael here. Why is it that, in Joanna's world, women who have power (or want it) seem monstrous? Is Jael an effective parody of these stereotypes?

    I raked him gaily on the neck and chin and when he embraced me in a rage, sank my claws into his back. You have to build up the fingers surgically so they'll take the strain. A certain squeamishness prevents me from using my teeth in front of witnesses—the best way to silence an enemy is to bite out his larynx. (8.8.94)

    Jael is an assassin, but is violence her only strength? What other qualities give her power and make her good at what she does?

  • Visions of America

    Whileaway doesn't have true cities. And of course, the tail of a culture is several centuries behind the head. Whileaway is so pastoral that at times one wonders whether the ultimate sophistication may not take us all back to a kind of pre-Paleolithic dawn age, a garden without any artifacts except for what we would call miracles. (1.8.3)

    Whileaway is a world of hovercrafts and advanced genetic engineering, but it is also a world of deep forests and sprawling farmlands. Whileawayans seem to have struck a perfect balance between technological progress and ecological sustainability—so much so that they seem well on their way to creating a new Garden of Eden.

    "I went hiking last vacation," she said, big-eyed. "That's what I like. It's healthy."

    I know it's supposed to be virtuous to run healthily through fields of flowers, but I like bars, hotels, air-conditioning, good restaurants, and jet transport, and I told her so.

    "Jet?" she said. (1.7.3-5)

    This brief conversation is our first important clue that Jeannine's America is far less technologically advanced than Joanna's. It would be impossible for a New Yorker like Jeannine not to know what a jet was if they existed at all in her world, and so we should assume that they don't.

    The first thing said by the second man ever to visit Whileaway was, "Where are all the men?" Janet Evason, appearing in the Pentagon, hands in her pockets, feet planted far apart, said, "Where the dickens are all the women?" (1.7.7)

    Joanna's America is a nation run entirely by men. By juxtaposing it with Whileaway, a world run entirely by women, The Female Man doesn't just flip America's reality on its head. The novel emphasizes one crucial difference between Joanna and Janet's worlds: on Whileaway, men no longer exist, and so it is no surprise that women run everything. However, on Joanna's Earth, women exist, but are deliberately barred from positions of power.

    The Depression is still world-wide.

    (But think—only think!—what might have happened if the world had not so luckily slowed down, if there had been a really big war, for big wars are forcing-houses of science, economics, politics; think what might have happened, what might not have happened. It's a lucky world. Jeannine is lucky to live in it.

    She doesn't think so.) (2.10.2-4)

    The Female Man suggests that the reason why Jeannine's America is so different from those of the other three J's is that there have been no major wars to incite technological and social change. How does this circumstance affect Jeannine's life, specifically?

    Whileaway is engaged in the reorganization of industry consequent to the discovery of the induction principle.

    The Whileawayan work-week is sixteen hours. (3.12.1-2)

    Whileawayans feel as though they are always working, that the only leisure time they will ever experience is during the first five years of their daughters' lives. However, if the Whileawayan work-week is sixteen hours, that makes it at least three times shorter than what it takes to live above the poverty line in America today. What distinguishes Whileaway's economy from those in Joanna's and Jeannine's worlds?

    Under the Mashopi mountain range is a town called Wounded Knee and beyond this the agricultural plain of Green Bay. Janet could not have told you where the equivalents of these landmarks are in the here-and-now of our world and neither can I, the author. (4.17.1)

    Although the novel suggests that Whileaway is North and South America (more or less, and with colonies on a few extra planets to boot), it's not possible to cross-chart Whileawayan geography with precise locations in Jeannine's, Joanna's, and Jael's worlds. Is this ambiguity significant?

    There's no being out too late in Whileaway, or up too early, or in the wrong part of town, or unescorted. You cannot fall out of the kinship web and become sexual prey for strangers, for there is no prey and there are no strangers—the web is world-wide. (4.18.1)

    Considering the fact that The Female Man was written well before the World Wide Web was a thing, this description of Whileaway's social networks is pretty astounding. Joanna Russ imagined a world a lot like the one we live in now; however, whereas Whileawayans are connected by familial kinship networks, our global connections are mediated by technological networking.

    You can walk around the Whileawayan equator twenty times (if the feat takes your fancy and you live that long) with one hand on your sex and in the other an emerald the size of a grapefruit. All you'll get is a tired wrist.

    While here, where we live—! (4.18.2-3)

    On Whileaway, sexual violence is nonexistent, but on Joanna's Earth, it is so prevalent that Joanna-the omniscient narrator doesn't even have to finish her sentence for readers to know what she means.

    It takes four hours to cross the Atlantic, three to shuttle to a different latitude. Waking up in a Vermont autumn morning, inside the glass cab, while all around us the maples and sugar maples wheel slowly out of the fog. Only this part of the world can produce such color. (8.9.1)

    The Female Man has no love for patriarchy in America, but it sure has a lot of affection for the landscapes and cities of America's east. Aside from the fact that Joanna Russ was born in New York, is there any significance to the novel's eastern setting?

    Schrafft's is full of women. Men don't like places like this where the secret maintenance work of femininity is carried on, just as they turn green and bolt when you tell them medical events are occurring in your genito-urinary system. (9.7.9)

    The America we see through Joanna's eyes is a nation where some areas—like the Pentagon—are clearly"male" spaces, while others—like The Home, The Kitchen, and restaurants like Schrafft's—are "female." How does the segregation of men's and women's territories in Jael's world compare to the state of things in Joanna's?

  • Foreignness and "The Other"

    The first man to set foot on Whileaway appeared in a field of turnips on North Continent. He was wearing a blue suit like a hiker's and a blue cap. The farm people had been notified. One, seeing the blip on the tractor's infrared scan, came to get him; the man in blue saw a flying machine with no wings but a skirt of dust and air. (1.5.1)

    In a novel that shifts back and forth between multiple speakers and points of view, it's crucial to keep your eyes peeled for clues that will help to identify speakers' perspectives. Here, the narrator adopts the Whileawayan farmers' perspective when describing the man from Jeannine's Earth. Because they are unfamiliar with New York City society, they see a "blue suit like a hiker's," rather than a police officer's uniform.

    Excuse me, perhaps I'm mistaking what you intend to say as this language we're speaking is only a hobby of mine, I am not as fluent as I would wish. What we speak is a pan-Russian even the Russians would not understand; it would be like Middle English to you, only vice-versa. (1.7.26)

    The Female Man doesn't put a lot of emphasis on linguistic differences between the people of Whileaway and the people of Jeannine's, Janet's, and Jael's worlds, but we are occasionally reminded that English isn't Janet's mother tongue. In what ways does Janet's limited knowledge of English affect her experience in Joanna's world?

    It seems odd to all of us, Miss Evason, that in venturing into such—well, such absolutely unknown territory—that you should have come unarmed with anything except a piece of string. Did you expect us to be peaceful? (2.7.1)

    When narratives emphasize foreignness as a major theme, they sometimes include sub-themes such as conflict, misunderstanding, culture-clash, and aggression as well. Two unspoken questions that run throughout the novel are: 1) Do the women of Whileaway pose a threat to Joanna's Earth? and 2) Do the men of Joanna's Earth pose a threat to Whileaway? (If you want to take this question further, you might think about the novel in relation to Joanna Russ's short story "When It Changed.")

    Jeannine, out of place, puts her hands over her ears and shuts her eyes on a farm on Whileaway, sitting at the trestle-table under the trees where everybody is eating. I'm not here. I'm not here. Chilia Ysayeson's youngest has taken a fancy to the newcomer; Jeannine sees big eyes, big breasts, big shoulders, thick lips, all that grossness. (1.14.1)

    When it comes to looks, Jeannine is a fairly shallow person, we know, but it's striking that one of the things that disturbs her most about Whileaway is its ethnic diversity.

    I was housed with her for six and a half months in a hotel suite ordinarily used to entertain visiting diplomats. I put shoes on that woman's feet. I had fulfilled one of my dreams—to show Manhattan to a foreigner. (3.1.17)

    While Janet is in her world, Joanna gets to play guide and host. Aside from showing Janet around the city, what does Joanna teach her about Earth?

    "My child," she said gently, "you must understand. I'm far from home; I want to keep myself cheerful, eh? And about this men thing, you must remember that to me they are a particularly foreign species; one can make love with a dog, yes? But not with something so unfortunately close to oneself. You see how I can feel this way?" (3.1.31)

    This moment is one of the novel's little jokes, but what's clear is that, to Janet, the men of Joanna's and Jeannine's worlds seem totally alien. At the same time, they also seem eerily familiar, and Janet finds this disturbing. If Sigmund Freud were around, he'd call this an example of the uncanny. Bottom line: dudes weird her out.

    I see Janet Evason finally dressing herself, a study in purest awe as she holds up to the light, one after the other, semi-transparent garments of nylon and lace, fairy webs, rose-colored elastic puttees—"Oh, my," "Oh, my goodness," she says—and finally, completely stupefied, wraps one of them around her head. (3.1.36)

    Cue the obligatory scene where the foreign visitor is confused by the natives' strange clothing! And hey, why does Joanna have pink elastic puttees?

    I slept in the Belins' common room for three weeks, surrounded in my coming and going by people with names like Nofretari Ylayeson and Nguna Twason. (I translate freely; the names are Chinese, African, Russian, European. Also, Whileawayans love to use old names they find in dictionaries.) (5.11.1)

    For Joanna, Whileaway holds none of the horror that it does for Jeannine. For her, ethnic hybridity is part of what makes Janet's world utopian. For Jeannine, it's part of what makes it so disturbingly foreign.

    I have never been to Whileaway.

    Whileawayans breed into themselves an immunity to ticks, mosquitoes, and other insect parasites. I have none. And the way into Whileaway is barred neither by time, distance, nor an angel with a flaming sword, but by a cloud or crowd of gnats.

    Talking gnats. (5.17.1-3)

    Joanna/the omniscient narrator has compared Whileaway to the Garden of Eden before, but this clinches it. This is one of the few passages in the novel where Whileaway is described explicitly as an ideal: a place that Joanna/the omniscient narrator can imagine, but to which she has never actually been. As such, it's both foreign and familiar, like the grown-up versions of ourselves we fantasize about as children.

    She told us honestly that we couldn't be expected to believe anything we hadn't seen with our own eyes. There would be no films, no demonstrations, no statistics, unless we asked for them. We trundled out of the elevator into an armored car waiting in a barn, and across an unpaved, shell-pocked plain, a sort of no-man's-land, in the middle of the night. Is the grass growing? Is that a virus blight? Are the mutated strains taking over? Nothing but gravel, boulders, space, and stars. (8.7.1)

    Jael and Joanna each get to act as tour guides in their worlds, but their ways of showing visitors around are very different. Hidden inside their quarantine suits, Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna are like flies on the wall in Jael's world. Like those of us reading, they're able to watch events unfold without being actively involved.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Feminism

    A MANUFACTURER OF CARS FROM LEEDS (genteelly): I hear so much about the New Feminism here in America. Surely it's not necessary, is it? (He beams with the delighted air of someone who has just given pleasure to a whole roomful of people.) (3.2.44)

    It's a remarkable fact that no male characters in The Female Man ever go on angry, argumentative, anti-feminist rants. For them, it's simple enough to dismiss the movement by making jokes.

    "I would suhtinly like," said Saccharissa with great energy, "to see all those women athletes from the Olympics compete will all those men athletes; I don't imagine any of these women athletes could even come neah the men." (3.2.112)

    Like most of the women at the party on Riverside Drive, including Joanna herself, Saccharissa is deeply invested in patriarchal norms. Her opinion of women is as low as those of the men whom she's working so hard to impress.

    He leaned forward confidentially. "What do you think of the new feminism, eh?"

    "What is—" (she tried again) "what is—my English is not so good. Could you explain?"

    "Well, what do you think of women? Do you think women can compete with men?"

    "I don't know any men." She's beginning to get mad.

    "Ha ha!" said Sharp Glasses. "Ha ha ha! Ha ha!" (He laughed just like that, in sharp little bursts.) "My name's Ewing. What's yours?"


    "Well, Janet, I'll tell you what I think of the new feminism. I think it's a mistake. A very bad mistake." (3.2.122-28)

    Like the Car Manufacturer from Leeds, Ewing assumes that dismissing the feminist movement—and expounding upon Manhattan's rape statistics while he's at it—is a great conversation topic, and a good way to pick up women. Why, dude?

    Burned any bras lately har har twinkle twinkle A pretty girl like you doesn't need to be liberated twinkle har Don't listen to those hysterical b****es twinkle twinkle twinkle. (3.5.1)

    As in earlier sections featuring Ewing and the Car Manufacturer from Leeds, this passage satirizes men's supposedly "sociable" dismissals of the feminist movement. By assuming that attractive women couldn't possibly have feminist values, these characters reiterate the stereotype that feminism is only for women who can't get men.

    Why does she keep having these dreams about Whileaway?

    While-away. While. A. Way. To While away the time. That means it's just a pastime. If she tells Cal about it, he'll say she's nattering again; worse still, it would sound pretty silly; you can't expect a man to listen to everything (as everybody's Mother said). (6.1.2-3)

    Although Jeannine disapproves of Janet initially, and is horrified by Whileaway, over the course of the novel, her feelings change. Her dreams about Whileaway are a clue that she is starting to develop a feminist consciousness (however faint it might still be).

    Jeannine, who sometimes believes in astrology, in palmistry, in occult signs, who knows that certain things are fated or not fated, knows that men—in spite of everything—have no contact with or understanding of the insides of things. That's a realm that's denied them. Women's magic, women's intuition rule here, the subtle deftness forbidden to the clumsier sex. (6.1.3)

    Here we have one of the novel's subtle refutations of gender essentialism. Until the last chapters of the novel, Jeannine is a flaky and naïve character—not a person we'd be wise to trust about things like "women's magic" and "women's intuition." The omniscient narrator's satirical tone suggests that all of this stuff is hogwash, and about as sensible as the rest of Jeannine's moony fantasies.

    FIRST WOMAN: I'm perfectly happy. I love my husband and we have two darling children. I certainly don't need any change in my lot.

    SECOND WOMAN: I'm even happier than you are. My husband does the dishes every Wednesday and we have three darling children, each nicer than the last. I'm tremendously happy.


    ME: You miserable nits, I have a Nobel Peace Prize, fourteen published novels, six lovers, a town house, a box at the Metropolitan Opera, I fly a plane, I fix my own car, and I can do eighteen push-ups before breakfast, that is, if you're interested in numbers.

    ALL THE WOMEN: Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill, kill. (6.5.1-6)

    Through satirical scenes like this, The Feminist Man argues that patriarchy is most effective when women buy into it too, and when they learn to regulate one another's behavior by turning against any women who refuse to conform.

    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." (7.1.3)

    Liberal feminism argues that patriarchy will be overthrown when women are represented equally in positions of power (politics and business especially). In passages such as this, The Female Man suggests that liberal feminism won't cut it. Although Joanna has gained social status and wealth through her career, she is still condescended to by the men she meets at parties and out in public.

    You will notice that even my diction is becoming feminine, thus revealing my true nature […] I am putting in lots of qualifiers like "rather," I am writing in these breathless little feminine tags, she threw herself down on the bed, I have no structure (she thought), my thoughts seep out shapelessly like menstrual fluid, it is all very female and deep and full of essences, it is very primitive and full of "and's," it is called "run-on sentences." (7.1.21)

    This is another of the novel's satirical depictions of gender essentialism. Throughout the 1970s, a number of feminist artists and scholars argued that women really are essentially different from men, and that their art should reflect those differences. Joanna Russ wouldn't have had much of a chance to read Hélène Cixous's essay "The Laugh of the Medusa" before The Female Man was published (in fact, the two texts were published the same year), but if you give it a look, you'll get a good sense of what Russ is lampooning.

    Let me give you something to carry away with you, friend: that "plague" you talk of is a lie. I know. […] Whileaway's plague is a big lie. Your ancestors lied about it. It is I who gave you your "plague," my dear, about which you can now pietize and moralize to your heart's content; I, I, I, I am the plague, Janet Evason. (9.7.22)

    Spoiler Alert! For anyone who goes through the novel believing that Janet is the best and most practical example of feminist engagement with the world, it will probably come as a shock to learn that the novel's feminist utopia was founded on Jael's warfare. What does this suggest about the novel's stance on violence?