The Female Man by Joanna Russ

The Female Man by Joanna Russ (1965)

Feminist issues were prominent and controversial in the science fiction community during the 1960s,  just as they were in the larger world. There was perhaps particular rancor at the time because the genre had traditionally been slanted heavily toward adolescent males. Female characters were usually sketchily described and were included only to provide an excuse for the protagonist to explain some abstruse scientific principle or to be rescued from monsters, villains, or natural disasters. The fact that the male characters were only slightly better-drawn did not soften the reaction to that disparity.

The television program Star Trek is often cited as one of the main reasons that the audience for written science fiction changed during the 1960s. Whatever the truth might be, it is undeniable that for the first time women were a significant part of the readership. In the past, women writers like Andre Norton and C. L. Moore had hidden behind male or gender-neutral names; but now it was no longer necessary for female SF authors to do so. Such writers as Joanna Russ and Kate WILHELM were already introducing feminist concerns into their fiction, as would Pamela SARGENT, Suzy Mckee CHARNAS, and Vonda McINTYRE in the years that followed.

Although there had been some feminist awareness in her earlier work, it was generally muted until the appearance of The Female Man. The novel was controversial partly because of its unusual structure, but more specifically because of its dramatic rejection of genre traditions. The protagonist lives within four separate realities, in each of which she enjoys a different degree of freedom. One world is our own, another a world even more repressive of women, a third is caught up in a war between the genders, and the last is a feminist utopia on a distant, future world. Some readers may have been discouraged by the wandering, anecdotal, and decidedly nonlinear structure of the novel, but most undoubtedly were put off by the undisguised anger and frustration and by the implication that women will never be free in the presence of men. Whatever its literary qualities might be, The Female Man sparked widespread debate at the time, a worthwhile end in itself, and it is still considered a minor classic of feminist thought.

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