The Female Man talks a lot about what proper girls and women are supposed to feel and do. Topping the list are activities like being attractive, being pleasant, and being attentive (especially to men). Things that don't make the cut include being ambitious, wanting fulfillment outside of marriage and motherhood, and being intellectually and/or sexually attracted to other women. Femininity in this novel is a web of social expectations that make women easy prey for power-hungry men. Only in Whileaway, where men no longer exist, can women experiment and explore without being told that their actions aren't properly "womanly."
Femininity equals weakness in The Female Man. In Joanna's, Jeannine's, and Jael's worlds, it's impossible to acquire power without being a man—or learning to think and act like one.
In The Female Man, femininity is a form of learned subservience. Its lessons are reiterated daily by family, friends, romance novels, beauty magazines, and the subtle (and not-so-subtle) forms of violence that women experience every day.
Masculinity in The Female Man goes hand-in-hand with patriarchal power. The most conventionally masculine men in this novel are also the most dangerous, and the book suggests that that's not a coincidence. As you encounter one no-good, dirty, rotten scoundrel after another, it may seem as though The Female Man is all about hating on the mens. While Joanna Russ is certainly free with her anger, sarcasm, and satire, it could be said that the real antagonists of the novel aren't men themselves, but the social conventions that teach young males to be aggressive, domineering, and violent toward women.
The Female Man depicts masculinity as a privilege that guarantees access to resources, wealth, and women. Grimly, it also suggests that men will do whatever it takes to retain that privilege.
In The Female Man, masculinity has less to do with sex or gender than it does with social hierarchies. The status of the "changed" and "half-changed" in Manland suggests that patriarchy will always be built on exploitation and control (bummer).
It can be difficult to separate questions concerning sexuality and sexuality identity from the act of sex itself in The Female Man, because so often the characters' sexual encounters are staged to tell us something about their societies more generally. For instance, Joanna and Laura have to overcome powerful anxieties before they accept that they want to be with women, and the novel suggests that those anxieties are products of the patriarchal world they're stuck in. Janet, who comes from a world where patriarchy no longer exists, has none of the same concerns. On Whileaway, no one thinks of herself as "lesbian"—women's sexual relationships with other women are so natural, there's no need to have a specific word for them.
The only healthy sexual relationships we find in The Female Man are those between women. In Jeannine's, Joanna's, and Jael's worlds, heterosexual courtship is so heavily influenced by patriarchy, it poses a real danger to women.
Jael believes that the sexual relationships between "real-men," "changed," and "half-changed" Manlanders aren't "truly" homosexual (8.8.81). Instead, she thinks of them as symptoms of patriarchy's need for someone, anyone to dominate and oppress (give it a rest, why don't you?). As both Jael and the omniscient narrator see it, there are no gay men in The Female Man—only "real-men" and everyone else.
There are many different kinds of feminism, and The Female Man speaks to, well, a lot of them. However, its strongest affinities are clearly with the socialist feminist or radical feminist position that gender is a class system, one in which girls and women are ranked lower than boys and men, and in which women's access to economic resources and power is very limited. In the novel, gender is always reflective of social status. Although Joanna has considerable wealth and privilege as a white, upper-middle-class woman with a well-paying job, she's still treated as a second-class citizen by the men she meets.
The Female Man explores how social conventions create social hierarchies. In Jeannine's and Joanna's worlds, women are encouraged to choose domestic lives as wives and mothers, rather than work outside the home. In this way, their access to money is limited, and they are forced to depend upon the salaries earned by husbands, fathers, brothers, and other men.
The Female Man draws a number of connections between women's oppression in a patriarchal world and the oppression of African people in a white supremacist nation. Throughout the novel, women's experiences of sexism and misogyny are compared to the conditions of slavery and the ugliness of racist dehumanization.
Second wave feminism in the USA learned a lot from the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Rallying cries like Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Freedom Now," Stokely Carmichael's "Black Power," and the ubiquitous "Black Is Beautiful" resonated with many feminists, even those who weren't African-American themselves, but who saw parallels between their experiences and those of other oppressed and marginalized groups. The Female Man definitely channels that political spirit, and over the course of the novel our protagonists learn to recognize the power politics that shape their societies—and their lives.
Although characters like Ewing believe that women have certain "physical limitations" that put them at risk of male violence, The Female Man suggests that men's ability to exercise power over women doesn't have much to do with physical size or strength. Instead, it argues that men's power comes from social structures and conventions that train men to be aggressive and women to be docile, which deliberately keep women vulnerable by limiting their education and access to resources.
Although the female protagonists of The Female Man secure power in a number of different ways, the novel suggests that violence is a necessary strategy for overthrowing the patriarchal order.
The Female Man may be set in four different versions of Earth, but by comparing and contrasting them, we wind up with a captivating portrait of America as Joanna Russ saw it in the early 1970s, along with a vision of what it might otherwise be. The America of The Female Man is one of marked inequality, particularly between genders. It's a nation in which white men hold all of the political and economic power, while women and other minorities are confined and exploited by restrictive social roles and stations.
The Female Man can't really make up its mind when it comes to the idyllic image of American pastoralism. Whileawayans value the simple life and, as a trustworthy, hardy farmer, Janet embodies a utopian pastoral ideal. But in the novel's depictions of Anytown, U.S.A., pastoralism is also associated with restrictive conservatism and old-fashioned principles.
The novel's satirical portrait of America is most cutting in the passages that deal with Joanna's Earth. Since her version of America is the most like our own, her jabs and criticisms come too close for comfort (ouch). This diminishes the effectiveness of the novel's humor, and makes its arguments less convincing.
Foreignness and "the Other" is basically the science fiction theme, and so it's no surprise that The Female Man is all over it. Given its four protagonists and its reality-shifting structure, the novel makes a lot of room to explore various kinds of foreign identities and experiences. When Jeannine and Joanna travel back and forth between each other's Earths, they find that things are mostly similar, but just different enough to make them feel alien and out of place. For Janet, that experience is intensified (by about a million), and when Jeannine and Joanna find themselves in Whileaway and Jael's world, describing "the Other" becomes a major part of the novel's narrative technique.
In The Female Man, Janet's perspective as an outsider to Joanna's Earth makes "normal" human behaviour—especially interactions between women and men—seem abnormal, even ridiculous. Her perspective helps Joanna to realize that things don't have to be the way they are.
Although foreignness is a major theme in The Female Man, there are no truly foreign identities in the novel. Ultimately, foreign places, peoples, and experiences always reflect back on the "real world" being satirized.
The Female Man isn't just a feminist novel, it's a novel about feminism—one that dramatizes some of the classic arguments for and against women's resistance to patriarchy. Most importantly, the novel explores how, for some women, learning to identify as a feminist takes a lot of dogged determination and courage. Joanna lives in a world where women with strong feminist values are labeled as extremists, hysterics, shrews, harpies, and uglies who couldn't get men if they tried. As much as she's drawn to Janet's brash confidence and devil-may-care attitude, Joanna has been socialized to be quiet, polite, and deferential to men. For her, breaking free of that training is an ongoing act of resistance and revolution.
The Female Man introduces liberal feminist goals and aspirations only to reject them. Ultimately, the novel suggests that earning wealth, status, and acceptance as "one of the boys" won't help Joanna, or women more generally, in the long run.
In The Female Man, gender hierarchies are related to capitalism. The fact that Whileaway is a planet run entirely by women isn't the only reason why that world is a feminist utopia. Whileaway is also a world with no class distinctions, no wealth disparity, no poverty, and no relationships in which one person is economically dependent on another. Ultimately, the novel associates socialism with women's liberation, and aligns capitalism with patriarchal oppression.