Joanna Russ (1937-2011), a lesbian feminist science fiction writer who was as intent on challenging the male SF community as on writing novels and stories for women, won the Nebula Award in 1972 for her short story, “When It Changed.” She incorporated the story into her 1975 Utopian novel, The Female Man, which received a retroactive James Tiptree, Jr. award in 1995.
A male science fiction fan, not a female man, recommended this novel to me in the ’80s: he read men and women writers with equal enthusiasm. I enjoyed the postmodern structure of Russ’s text, and the Second Wave feminist ideas. When I found a copy at Waterstones recently, I was thrilled to see it still in print. But…it is well-written but dated and dogmatic, like rereading one of those wild 1970s radical texts, Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex. (She says women will be inferior till they seize the means of reproduction.) Only, mad as The Dialectic of Sex is, The Female Man purports to be a novel. (The women in one of Russ’s worlds control reproduction.)
The heroine Janet lives in an all-female world, Whileaway. All the men were killed in a plague and the women live in peace, reproducing by splicing the eggs of the two women (or something like that!). It’s not a perfect world: the women work at dull jobs until in old age they are allowed to sit down and work at creative or analytic work.
Janet keeps popping in and out of alternate timelines in different worlds. The women of other worlds have very different values: Joanna’s world is a 1960s version of our 1960s, where men dominate and women hope not to work, and Jeannine lives in a U.S. where World War II never happened and the Depression is still going on. Janet’s acceptance that women are not limited by gender and that lesbianism is natural is radical in these alternate worlds. At a party in Joanna’s world, women coo at men, act stupid, and hope to find a man. Janet finds the whole thing hilarious. In the Depression world, Jeannine works at a low-paying job and dreams of wearing the new fashions (constrictive corsets, push-up bras, etc.) and dreams of marriage, which her boyfriend cannot afford and anyway he’s far from her dream guy.
I find all the spouting about sex roles very tiresome, because other feminist writers of that time–Erica Jong, Sheila Ballyntine, Nora Johnson, Sue Kaufman–did this better. But Brit Mandelo at Tor loves Russ, as I found on scanning the internet (and Tor is a very good website). Go here to read her essay, “Queering SFF: The Female Man by Joanna Russ (+ Bonus Story, ‘When it Changed’).
So please take this book! Leave a comment if you’d like my copy. It is award-winning. And I do think many of you would enjoy it.