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Musing on The Female Man by Joanna Russ - Synchronicity swirls and other foolishness

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April 17th, 2013

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08:39 pm - Musing on The Female Man by Joanna Russ
I just finished an old SF classic – Joanna Russ' The Female Man (I highly recommend the linked Wikipedia article if you haven't read the book or haven't read it for a long time). I had never read it before, and reading it was both interesting and odd. Like most good SF, it's social commentary. It was well written and engaging and clearly New Wave SF, where playing with language and PoV was new to SF and was used with good effect. However, it also seriously shows its age. It was written in 1970, when Second Wave feminism was still relatively new. Now, society has changed, and in many (but definitely not all) ways it feels like a historical artifact.

One of the protagonists (Joanna) is from something much like our world in 1970, another (Jeannine) is from a 1970 where the Great Depression never ended and gender roles and expectations similarly did not change much from the 1930s. My own reading about Joanna's world and her difficulties and attitudes felt very much like Joanna's reaction to Jeannine's world and attitudes - a reminder of how bad things used to be, but also as a reminder that we are still far from equality.

In some ways, reading this book felt a bit like when I attempted to reread LeGuin's Left Hand of Darkness (1969) a decade or so ago. I loved that book when I first read it long ago, but when I reread it, I had a great deal of trouble getting past the fact that the protagonist was clearly supposed to be a clueless everyman who was supposed to be at least somewhat sympathetic (if also possessed of attitudes he would unlearn in the course of the book), but came across far more as a misogynist jerk of the sort now typically only found as the protagonist in works created by extreme reactionaries. There's a long way to go towards gender equality, but books like these also serve to remind me that we have also come a very long way already. In many ways, while both novels are good, they also now feel fairly archaic.

I was especially struck by a passage written from Joanna's PoV:
"It's very upsetting to think that women make up only one-tenth of society, but it's true. For example:
My doctor is male.
My lawyer is male.
My tax-accountant is male.
The grocery-store owner (on the corner) is male.
The janitor in my apartment building is male.
The president of my bank is male.
The manager of the neighborhood supermarket is male.
My landlord is male.
Most taxi-drivers are male.
All cops are male.
All firemen are male.
The designers of my care are male.
The factory workers who made my car are male.
The dealer I bought it from is male.
Almost all my colleagues are male.
My employer is male.
The Army is male.
The Navy is male.
The government is (mostly) male.
I think most of the people in the world are male.

Now it's true that waitresses, elementary-school teachers, secretaries, nurses, and nuns are female, but how many nuns do you meet in the course of the usual business day? Right? And secretaries are female only until they get married, at which time, they change or something because you usually don't see them again at all."
This works as a slightly exaggerated vision of the 1960s US, but it looks a whole lot less like the modern US. In 1970, women were 9.7% of the nation's doctors and just 4.9% of its lawyers, according to Census data., now the numbers are around 1/3 of each, which a strong age bias, and around one sixth of the Army and the Navy is now female. Even more strikingly, two income heterosexual married couples are now more than three times as common than ones where only the man works, and perhaps more importantly, "In relationships where one partner earned at least 60 percent of the household income, women were the bigger earner only about 4 percent of the time in 1969, she says; now, women are the big earner in 25 percent to 30 percent of those relationships.". We're far from gender equality, but perhaps equally far from the US (and in fact the entire developed world) of 1970.

Of course, our societies have also changed in ways that showcase how some of the attitudes found in The Female Man are exceedingly problematic. Specifically, this is also a book I would not recommend to any of the many trans people I know. In the sections on Jael's dystopian world, in the continent ruled by men, the only women were transwomen, and their depiction was fairly horrific in ways that went well beyond a condemnation of the dystopian gender attitudes of that world. In reading it, I felt rather strongly that the reader was seeing Russ' attitudes towards transwomen, and that felt both disturbing and sad, especially that we are now living in an era where (at least in the US) trans people are (at best) in roughly the same situation that women were at in 1970.

As a sidenote, I had never read The Female Man before, but I remember reading Russ' 1972 Hugo and Nebula winning short story "When It Changed" in Again, Dangerous Visions. I reread it after finishing The Female Man, and just like when I first read it, was unhappy with how inevitable the loss of that way of life seemed with recontact with men, that ending reveals some assumptions that are thankfully perhaps somewhat less common now than then. I rather prefer Tiptree's literary response to that story – "Huston, Huston, Do You Read" (which won a Hugo and a Nebula in 1976).
Current Mood: thoughtfulthoughtful

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