The Female Man Summary
We're not gonna lie: it's tricky to summarize a novel's plot when the thing has four intersecting timelines—even trickier than rocking a rhyme that's right on time (it's tricky). But we'll give it a shot for you, dear Shmooper.
We open (more or less) in Manhattan, 1969. A woman named Joanna is intrigued by the headlines she's seen recently: it seems that Earth has a visitor from a planet run entirely by women. Joanna doesn't own a TV, so she heads to a cocktail lounge where she can watch a live interview with the blonde, attractive lady alien, whose name is Janet Evason Belin.
As she sits in the lounge, Joanna notices another woman there who seems slightly younger than her, and whose clothes are totally out of date. That's Jeannine. She's from… away. Jeannine has no idea why she's suddenly sitting in a cocktail lounge in Joanna's world, but pretty soon she pops out of existence again, so… yeah, no harm, no foul.
Joanna wants to hear everything she can about this Janet from another planet, and over the next month or so she follows all of the media stories covering the Whileawayan emissary's visit. For some reason, Jeannine keeps popping up in Joanna's house, running through walls and getting stuck in mirrors. Joanna figures the world is a strange place, and decides not to worry about it.
Finally, one night while Joanna is standing on Broadway and watching a parade, Janet pulls up in a limousine and invites her in. Jeannine's there too (why, we don't know), and the three J's go on a little joyride.
For six and a half months, Joanna lives with Janet in a large hotel suite and shows her around Manhattan. Jeannine flits in and out of the picture too, and sometimes Janet kicks her. Joanna tries to teach Janet the ins and outs of North American culture, and she tries her best to make the alien woman act like a lady. Janet, for her part, struggles to understand the gender roles that govern Joanna's world.
At a party on Riverside Drive, Janet gets roped into conversations with men who have strong (and not so nice) opinions about the new feminist movement, and about women's incompetence in general. When she and Joanna try to leave, the guy hosting the party assaults them, and Janet beats him up.
Eventually, Janet and Joanna move out of the hotel suite and into the home of an all-American family in Anytown, U.S.A. Janet attends women's luncheons and school fairs, and Joanna hovers around the house like a ghost. Jeannine pops in and out too, like she does. The family's teenage daughter, Laura Rose Wilding, begins to fall in love with their alien guest, and one evening when her parents are out, she and Janet go to bed together.
Here's where things get tricky (we know what you're saying: here is where they're tricky??):
At some point during all of this, Joanna and Jeannine find themselves in Whileaway with Janet. Then, at some point after all of that, Joanna and Janet find themselves in Jeannine's world. There, Jeannine spends a lot of time agonizing about the fact that she's twenty-nine years old and still not married. She's got a boyfriend named Cal, whom she doesn't really like, and a family who keeps nagging her to get on with the whole marriage and babies thing.
During a summer vacation in the Poconos with her brother, his wife and children, and her mother, Jeannine is urged to date around a little so that someone might finally ask to marry her. Eventually, she gives in and telephones ho-hum Cal to come and bring her home, and the two get engaged.
Back in Joanna's world—where Janet and Laura are seeing each other pretty regularly and Jeannine is still doing that thing where she runs in and out of walls—the three J's are getting along okay. Suddenly, they find themselves in a place that none of them has ever seen before: an ultra-modern apartment that seems to be overlooking the East River. There to greet them is a woman named Jael, who explains to them that all of this world-hopping is actually her doing. In her world, probability travel is a fairly new invention (and a pricey one at that), and she's been trying to bring all four of them together for quite some time.
Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael: suddenly it's clear that all four women are essentially the same person, distinguished only by the unique circumstances that have shaped their lives in their own homeworlds. In Jael's world, women and men have been at war for about forty years—a war that's left Europe looking as pockmarked and scarred as it did after World Wars I and II in Joanna's world (and, you know, ours).
Jael takes the other three J's through the underground cities inhabited by women, and brings them along on a business trip to Manland. The business meeting takes a turn for the worse when Jael assassinates the Boss she was talking to, and the other three J's start to have some doubts about her reliability. After spiriting Janet, Jeannine, and Joanna away to her home in Vermont, Jael tells them why she's brought them all together. What she wants is their support in her war.
The novel ends back in Joanna's world, as Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, Jael, and the novel's omniscient narrator get together for a Thanksgiving dinner at Schrafft's. When Jael repeats her request for support, Jeannine agrees, Janet declines, and Joanna doesn't answer the question. As the women part ways, the narrator bids farewell to The Female Man, and sends it out into the world.
Part 1, Section 1
- Janet introduces herself, and gives a very brief history of her life on Whileaway.
Part 1, Section 2
- The novel's omniscient narrator introduces Jeannine, who is working at the Tompkins Square Branch of the New York City library. Her humdrum boyfriend Cal comes to visit her at the library, hoping she'll bring him back to her place, where they can go to bed.
Part 1, Section 3
- Janet appears momentarily on Broadway (in Jeannine's version of Earth), then reappears in a forest on Whileaway. She's just as baffled as we are.
Part 1, Section 4
- Joanna introduces herself, claiming to have once turned into a female man.
Part 1, Section 5
- A male police officer from Jeannine's world appears on Whileaway. The Whileawayan farmers who find him aren't too impressed, but then again, he's fainted.
Part 1, Section 6
- Probability travel is explained, but by whom? This is probably the novel's omniscient narrator—she likes to make sure we're all on the same page.
Part 1, Section 7
- Joanna explains how she first met Jeannine in a cocktail lounge while Janet was being interviewed on television.
Part 1, Section 8
- Somebody gives us a brief history of Whileaway—probably that omniscient narrator again. The thing is, she sounds a whole lot like Joanna.
Part 1, Section 9
- Janet is being interviewed on television, but in whose world? It might be Joanna's; it might be Jeannine's.
Part 1, Section 10
- The omniscient narrator tells us about a weekend morning in Jeannine's apartment. Jeannine gets ready to attend Chinese Festival Day celebrations with Cal, and fantasizes about being admired.
Part 1, Section 11
- A Whileawayan woman goes hang-gliding—good times.
Part 1, Section 12
- The omniscient narrator tells us about Jeannine's behavior at the Chinese New Year celebrations half a year ago. (She covered her ears, because the noise was too much for her.)
Part 1, Section 13
- Joanna describes how she first met Janet, who beckoned her into a limousine while she (Joanna) stood on Broadway and watched a parade.
Part 1, Section 14
- Jeannine is suddenly on Whileaway with her cat, Mr. Frosty. She has no clue what's going on (and frankly, yeah, neither do we).
Part 1, Section 15
- We hear part of a television interview that Janet gave in Jeannine's world.
Part 1, Section 16
- The omniscient narrator draws Part 1 to a close, remarking "And here we are" (1.16.1). We can't argue with that.
Part 2, Section 1
- A fourth woman introduces herself—kind of. What she really does is tell us that she's not Jeannine, not Janet, and not Joanna. Oh, and that she likes to dress up in S.S. uniforms to scare children. Charming!
Part 2, Section 2
- Joanna continues her story about how she turned into a female man.
Part 2, Section 3
- Joanna explains a bit more about that time Janet picked her up in a limousine. We learn that Jeannine was there too, and that Janet stole the limousine. The three J's drove around for a little while as Janet tried to lose the security people following her, and eventually Janet introduced herself to a family of all-American strangers in Anytown, U.S.A.
Part 2, Section 4
- Joanna wonders why Janet brought the three of them together.
Part 2, Section 5
- Janet explains why she was chosen to be Whileaway's emissary to Joanna's Earth, and describes her first impressions of the Pentagon.
Part 2, Section 6
- We see a fragmented transcript of an interview conducted after Janet appears in the Pentagon.
Part 2, Section 7
- We hear fragments of an interview between Janet and (presumably) a Pentagon official.
Part 2, Section 8
- Joanna describes the month that passed between the time when she first saw Janet being interviewed on TV and the time when Janet picked her up in the limousine. We learn that Jeannine had been appearing and disappearing in her apartment all that time.
Part 2, Section 9
- In Jeannine's world, Janet appears at the Chinese New Festival wearing a long, beige trench coat that she seems to have borrowed from a plainclothes policeman. Somehow, Janet convinces Jeannine to go with her. (There are hints that this all happened before Janet arrived in Joanna's world.)
Part 2, Section 10
- The Chinese New Festival is explained by the omniscient narrator.
Part 2, Section 11
- Cal comes out of a restaurant with some dumplings and sees Jeannine leaving with Janet. He figures she'll come back eventually, because if she doesn't, who will feed her cat? Good question…
Part 3, Section 1
- Joanna describes what her life was like before meeting Janet, when most of her time was spent trying to be attractive and witty and pleasing to men. She also describes what it was like to live with Janet in a hotel suite for six and a half months.
Part 3, Section 2
- Joanna takes Janet to a party on Riverside Drive. From the moment they walk into the party, it's as though they've walked into a play: most of the characters here are allegorical or archetypal figures, and much of the partygoers' dialogue is transcribed as it would be in a theatrical script. Over the course of the evening, Janet has conversations with three men: Ewing, Ginger Moustache, and the Host. Ewing is patronizing and pushy about drinks, Ginger Moustache is a creep, and the Host assaults Janet when she tries to leave. She breaks his arm.
Part 3, Section 3
- Janet offers some reflections on violence. As someone who has won three duels on Whileaway, and killed another person in the line of duty, she's got some experience.
Part 3, Section 4
- Joanna (or the omniscient narrator) remarks that Whileawayans "are not nearly as peaceful as they sound" (3.4.1). Yipes.
Part 3, Section 5
- We hear a stream of sexist statements strung together by laughter, twinkles, and winks.
Part 3, Section 6
- The omniscient narrator provides a detailed account of education and employment on Whileaway.
Part 3, Section 7
- Two elderly Whileawayans speak to each other via spark-gap radio (basically, that's a super-old-timey model).
Part 3, Section 8
- A group of Whileawayan girls contemplate a sculpture.
Part 3, Section 9
- In this section, a Whileawayan worker sings.
Part 3, Section 10
- An elderly Whileawayan runs away from her work and her family. She is followed by her county's Safety and Peace Officer (sounds ominous).
Part 3, Section 11
- The omniscient narrator quotes a Whileawayan philosophical maxim.
Part 3, Section 12
- The omniscient narrator tells us a little bit more about labor and employment on Whileaway.
Part 4, Section 1
- Joanna recalls Janet's habit of singing Handel's Messiah in the hotel suite they shared. Oddly, Janet's Redeemer is a woman.
Part 4, Section 2
- Joanna describes the all-American family that she and Janet lived with in Anytown, U.S.A.
Part 4, Section 3
- Joanna gives an account of Laura Rose Wilding, the seventeen-year-old daughter of the house.
Part 4, Section 4
- Laura's poodle barks for no apparent reason, and the Wildings are glad to know that, although Janet's an alien, at least she's white. Okay…
Part 4, Section 5
- Janet speaks at a women's luncheon while Laura serves coffee.
Part 4, Section 6
- An unidentified male voice fantasizes about his ideal "chick" (his word, not ours).
Part 4, Section 7
- The omniscient narrator describes Anytown, U.S.A. There are so many white-picket fences, potato salads, and fireflies in the fields, it may as well be Riverdale.
Part 4, Section 8
- The omniscient narrator compares the number of women in Congress to the number of whooping cranes in the whole of the U.S.A. Guess which is bigger.
Part 4, Section 9
- The omniscient narrator reveals the innermost workings of Laura's mind, particularly when she's feeling low.
Part 4, Section 10
- Laura and Janet have breakfast, and Laura shows Janet some math problems she's been working on. Seriously, this girl is way too smart to be putting up with the garbage she deals with at school.
Part 4, Section 11
- Laura diagnoses her own psychological issues, and reveals how much she hates the gender roles she's expected to play. She wraps it up by insisting that she's not lesbian.
Part 4, Section 12
- Here we get more Whileawayan philosophy, from one Dunyasha Bernadetteson. In a word: "Power!"
Part 4, Section 13
- One snowy evening, while her parents are out doing who knows what, Laura tells Janet she loves her. Joanna's not feeling too good about this—Janet's about twenty-four years older than Laura, after all—but no one listens to her. Janet undresses Laura, and they go upstairs.
Part 4, Section 14
- Laura and Janet go to bed together. Joanna, who's been hovering around like a ghost, runs screaming out of the room.
Part 4, Section 15
- Phrssscht… crackle––We interrupt this program to bring you a paragraph in which beautiful girls brush their hair and long to "catch a man" (4.15.1).
Part 4, Section 16
- During pillow talk, Janet tells Laura what it was like to fall in love with her wife, Vittoria. (Whileawayans don't marry monogamously, BTW, in case you were feeling scandalized.)
Part 4, Section 17
- The omniscient narrator describes what Janet was like at seventeen (Laura's age) as she set out to work at her first job.
Part 4, Section 18
- In this section, we get some closing thoughts about Whileaway, particularly the fact that sexual assault never happens there.
Part 5, Section 1
- The omniscient narrator suddenly finds herself on the subway with Jeannine, in Jeannine's world. She has no clue how it happened, and Jeannine begs to have the window seat.
Part 5, Section 2
- Jeannine tells Joanna about her relationship with Cal, but neither Joanna nor the omniscient narrator really care.
Part 5, Section 3
- Jeannine thinks she's going to be sick.
Part 5, Section 4
- The women go shopping together, and a store owner bullies Jeannine into buying red fishnet stockings that she doesn't really want. It turns out that Janet's here, too. She tries to buy some stuff for her athlete's foot at a pharmacy, but the pharmacist won't give it to her without a prescription. (This is probably a subtle jab about women's access to birth control.)
- All of a sudden, the three women are on Whileaway.
Part 5, Section 5
- Janet praises God (a woman, mind you) for bringing her home.
Part 5, Section 6
- The omniscient narrator describes Jeannine, Janet, and Joanna's arrival in Whileaway.
Part 5, Section 7
- Jeannine and Joanna debate Whileaway's defence systems.
Part 5, Section 8
- The omniscient narrator complains about Jeannine's lethargy (laziness) and passivity.
Part 5, Section 9
- The omniscient narrator dramatizes three kinds of "dominance behavior," lampooning the way the men in her world posture and patronize women.
Part 5, Section 10
- The omniscient narrator states that The Female Man has been written in her blood and tears.
- Someday, she says, the blood and tears will be her enemies' instead.
Part 5, Section 11
- Joanna describes living in Janet's home on Whileaway. One of the children makes up a long allegorical story about her, featuring many talking bears. Goldilocks much?
Part 5, Section 12
- The omniscient narrator offers more details about Whileawayan society and architecture.
Part 5, Section 13
- She describes Whileawayan music.
Part 5, Section 14
- She explains how Whileawayans celebrate.
Part 5, Section 15
- The narrator lists what Whileawayans celebrate.
Part 5, Section 16
- She describes a Whileawayan statue of God.
Part 5, Section 17
- She admits that she's never been to Whileaway. Um…
Part 6, Section 1
- Jumpin' Jimminy, we're back in Jeannine's world. Our trusty omniscient narrator lets us know what's up as Jeannine wakes up "from a dream of Whileaway" (6.1.1) and packs for a trip to the Poconos. She's got to clean her apartment, too, and mend Cal's socks and clothes. Mostly she just wanders around feeling indecisive and overwhelmed. Mr. Frosty meows (real helpful).
Part 6, Section 2
- The omniscient narrator describes what it feels like to "live between worlds" (6.2.1). (Metaphor alert, Shmoopers.)
Part 6, Section 3
- Jeannine arrives in the Poconos, where her brother has rented a couple of cottages for the summer. She and her mother share the smallest of the two, while her brother, sister-in-law, niece, and nephew share the other.
Part 6, Section 4
- Jeannine hides outside while locals and vacationers mingle at a dance party. Joanna enters the scene as Jeannine's cranky conscience, and berates her for not knowing what she wants out of life. Jeannine's brother comes looking for her, but when he grabs her arm to pull her back into the party, he realizes that he's holding Janet's arm instead. She yells at him, he yells at her, then suddenly, it's Jeannine again.
- Bro pulls Jeannine into the party and tells her to pick someone, anyone, to marry.
Part 6, Section 5
- The omniscient narrator satirizes anti-feminist backlash.
Part 6, Section 6
- Jeannine is dating Frank, the son of one of her mother's friends in the Poconos. She doesn't really like him, but she fantasizes about marrying him anyway. The problem is, he's married already.
Part 6, Section 7
- Jeannine, her family, and her new ho-hum beau go out to see a play. Afterwards, Joanna criticizes Jeannine some more. Jeannine asks her brother and sister-in-law what they want out of life. Her sister-in-law says she's already got what she wants: her hubby and kids.
- Jeannine asks Frank the same thing; he says he wants to finish his degree. She starts to think that maybe she likes him a little bit after all.
Part 6, Section 8
- The omniscient narrator offers a brief comparison between men's roles and women's. (Hint: women's roles all involve getting married.)
Part 6, Section 9
- Jeannine calls Frank, who asks her to play tennis with him that afternoon. She says she'll call him back, but dials Cal instead. She tells Cal to come and get her, and says she'll marry him after all. As she goes out into the garden to tell her mother the news, she fantasizes about how pleased everyone will be.
Part 7, Section 1
- Joanna says she'll explain how she turned into a man, but begins by describing how she turned into a woman first. Mostly, this involved being condescended to and patronized by every man she ever met.
Part 7, Section 2
- Joanna explains how she turned into a man. Unlike turning into a woman, this involved being recognized as a human being.
Part 7, Section 3
- We encounter a string of comments pieced together from negative reviews of women's writing.
Part 7, Section 4
- Somehow or another, Jeannine, Janet, and Joanna are back in Joanna's world. Janet and Laura snuggle on the couch while Jeannine tries to mind-meld with the wall. Laura asks Janet to tell the story of the time she followed a Whileawayan runaway into the forest. Janet reveals that she killed that woman.
- Jeannine finds Janet's vibrator, and Joanna tells her that it's a Whileawayan communications device—hmm.
Part 7, Section 5
- Joanna, Jeannine, and Janet talk about social issues and philosophy into the wee hours of the morning. They begin in Joanna's world, but suddenly find themselves "somewhere else" (7.5.26).
Part 8, Section 1
- That strange woman who likes to dress up as a Nazi is back, but she's still not saying who she is.
Part 8, Section 2
- Omniscient narrator to the rescue! Jeannine, Janet, and Joanna find themselves in an ultra-modern apartment that seems to be overlooking the East River. A scary-looking woman dressed in black is there to greet them and, finally, we learn a little bit about Jael.
Part 8, Section 3
- The omniscient narrator describes Jael's laugh, which is terrifying.
Part 8, Section 4
- Jael flicks through channels and the landscape outside the window changes.
Part 8, Section 5
- Jael explains how probability travel is managed in her world, and confesses that she has used the technology illegally to track down the other three J's. She explains what none of them had put together before: that they are all versions of the same woman. Woah.
Part 8, Section 6
- The four J's eat pre-cooked dinners while Jael tells them that in her world, women and men are at war.
Part 8, Section 7
- Jael brings Jeannine, Janet, and Joanna through the underground cities inhabited by women, and up to surface inhabited by men. The omniscient narrator explains that Manlanders select two out of every seven male children to be "feminized," either surgically or socially. Jael is on a mission to do business with a Manland Boss, and she's bringing the other three J's along.
- At a recreation center, the four J's meet up with Jael's contact, a "half-changed" Manlander named Anna, who brings them to his Boss.
Part 8, Section 8
- The Manland Boss proposes an experimental project that will bring women and men back together again. He ignores Jael, or yells at her, when she tries to interject with comments or questions. Eventually, he begins to make sexual advances. When the Manland Boss makes his move to assault her, she kills him.
Part 8, Section 9
- Jael whisks the other three J's out of Manland, and takes them to her home in Vermont. On the way, she describes her childhood in Womanland and her training as an undercover operative and assassin. When they reach her home, an automaton in the form of a beautiful, naked young man serves them drinks, and Jael heads to bed.
Part 8, Section 10
- Jael has a nightmare. When she wakes up, she offers more details about her early life and her social conditioning in a patriarchal world.
Part 8, Section 11
- To comfort herself, she makes love to her automaton, whose name is Davy.
Part 8, Sections 12-14
- Jeannine, Janet, and Joanna walk in on Jael and Davy in bed. (Yes, these are short sections.)
Part 8, Section 15
- Jael tells the other three J's why she has brought them together: she wants their support in the war.
Part 9, Section 1
- The omniscient narrator states that this is the Book of Joanna.
Part 9, Section 2
- Joanna/the omniscient narrator recalls a drive she once took with a colleague and his nine-year-old son. The child cried when she refused to pass another car, and her colleague scolded her for not driving aggressively enough.
Part 9, Section 3
- The narrator laments that things like politics aren't seen as suitable for a women's interests. If she is interested, it's because she has a "man's brain."
Part 9, Section 4
- The omniscient narrator describes how she committed her "first revolutionary act," which was shutting a door on a man's thumb. She also describes her upbringing and slow awakening as a feminist.
Part 9, Section 5
- The omniscient narrator summarizes social interactions between men and women in her world as a process through which women are taught to despise themselves.
Part 9, Section 6
- She tells of falling in love with her best friend, Laura.
Part 9, Section 7
- Jeannine has abandoned her engagement to Cal. Back in Joanna's world, she meets Joanna, Janet, Jael, and the omniscient narrator for Thanksgiving dinner at Schrafft's. Jael renews her request for support in the war, and Jeannine agrees. Janet says no, and Jael reveals that the plague that wiped out the men on Whileaway was brought by her people.
- As the women part ways, Joanna/the omniscient narrator sends The Female Man—the book itself—out into the world, all the way to us, Shmoopers.