Study Guide

The Female Man Themes

By Joanna Russ

  • Women and Femininity

    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."

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. In The Female Man, is femininity innate, or is it taught? Does it develop differently in different worlds and cultures, or is it more or less the same in all places?
    2. Janet, Jeannine, Joanna, and Jael represent a range of competing fantasies, realities, and stereotypes concerning women and femininity. Who among them is the most realistic, three-dimensional character? Why do you think so?
    3. What do the "changed" and "half-changed" Manlanders suggest about the nature of femininity?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Men and Masculinity

    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.

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. In The Female Man, is masculinity innate, or is it taught? If it is taught, who is doing the teaching?
    2. Are there any positive examples of masculinity or male behavior in The Female Man?
    3. Compared to the novel's female protagonists, are the male characters as complex and three-dimensional? If not, what purpose do they serve?

    Chew on This

    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).

  • Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    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.

    Questions About Sexuality and Sexual Identity

    1. Why is Laura so conflicted when she and Janet first go to bed together? What cultural taboos from Laura's world are the two women breaking?
    2. Janet goes against her own culture's taboos when she goes to bed with Laura. How does the novel explain and/or justify her actions?
    3. Jeannine is dissatisfied by her relationships with men, but horrified by the thought of lesbianism. What social conventions have shaped her desires and expectations? How does Jeannine benefit from those conventions, and how do they restrict her?
    4. Why is Janet so appalled by male-female courtship behavior in Joanna's world? How does it compare to courtship behavior in Whileaway?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Society and Class

    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.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How exactly do class and gender intersect in Jeannine's and Joanna's worlds? What kinds of jobs do the women hold down, and how is their labor compensated?
    2. Are there class divisions in Whileawayan society? How does the Whileawayan economy work?
    3. What kinds of privileges does wealth guarantee in Jael's world? Do Manlanders and Womanlanders use their wealth differently? How does Jael's wealth compare to that of the Manland Boss?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Power

    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.

    Questions About Power

    1. What constitutes "power" in Jael's world? Is it wealth? Physical strength? Access to weaponry? Access to scientific knowledge and advanced technologies? When it comes right down to it, who holds the most power? Womanland or Manland?
    2. In Jeannine's and Joanna's worlds, women have less social and political power than men, but they are told that they have other kinds of power to make up for it. What are these "womanly" powers, and how do they compare to the kinds of power held by men?
    3. To what extent does The Female Man associate power with violence?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Visions of America

    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.

    Questions About Visions of America

    1. Whileaway is a feminist utopia, but could it be called an American utopia too? Do any aspects of Whileawayan society seem like variations on more traditional American dreams?
    2. The people of Whileaway speak pan-Russian. What might this suggest about the novel's vision of America's long-term future? (Keep in mind that The Female Man was written during the Cold War.)
    3. What is the significance of Anytown, U.S.A.? What kinds of landscapes and social formations define Anytown, and what do they suggest about the novel's vision of America more generally?
    4. On Jeannine's Earth, World War II never happened, and the Great Depression "is still world-wide" (2.10.2). In this alternate history, what is America's role on the international stage? How is Jeannine's America different from the America of Joanna's world?

    Chew on This

    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"

    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.

    Questions About Foreignness and "The Other"

    1. To Janet, the men of Joanna's Earth are a foreign species (3.1.31). Given what we know about genetic engineering on Whileaway, what distinguishes Janet from the women of Joanna's world? How "foreign" is her genetic make-up from theirs?
    2. Which of the novel's four versions of Earth is least similar to our own (or, our own as it was in the early 1970s)? Why do you think so?
    3. When narratives explore a foreigner's experience in a society that is unfamiliar to them but familiar to us, the reader, we are often prompted to see our own world in a different light. How does Joanna's Earth appear to us when seen through Janet's eyes?

    Chew on This

    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.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Feminism

    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.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Feminism

    1. What patriarchal ideologies shape Joanna's thoughts and actions throughout the novel?
    2. Examples of socialist feminism, radical feminism, and liberal feminism appear throughout The Female Man. Does the novel seem to be advocating one form of feminist practice over another? Does it suggest which one has the best chance of success? How can you tell?
    3. Are there any male feminists in The Female Man? If so, who?

    Chew on This

    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.