“Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers’ laps and punch the readers’ noses. Rejoice, little book! For on that day, we will be free.”
The Female Man is a powerful, staying book, though it does not want to be. One day, there will be no need for The Female Man; while we are closer to that day now than 1970, we are still not yet there. When she explains her reasoning for why this book needs to exist now (in 1970), she makes a compelling argument which, thankfully, is a bit outdated. She writes, “Now I’m worse than that—I also do not give a damn about humanity or society. It’s very upsetting to think that women make up only one-tenth of society, but it’s true.” And what she means by that is that many of the men in her life with power, her doctor, her lawyer, her tax-accountant, the president of her bank, her landlord, cops, firemen, her employer, the military—all male. When I think about this in my own life, I am somewhat comforted. My doctor is female. My dentist is female. I don’t necessarily think it is feminist for there to be female cops or members of the military, but they are there. The presence of women in these fields are growing, even if there still is disparity. Even so, we still need The Female Man. Each of the four connected women, Joanna, Jeannine, Janet, and Jael, have reflections in the modern woman of the 2020s.
Jeannine lives in a world where World War II never happened, and as such, the United States was never able to pull itself out of the Great Depression. She is particularly occupied with how others view her as a young, unmarried woman approaching her 30s, giving into societal pressures and entering engagements that she does not like to alleviate this. Naturally, these negative pressures are still prevalent in society today, found even in innocuous statements. There is the overtly negative, the “Christmas Cake”s, the anti-aging creams, the plastic surgery, the photoshop. Women, still, have an expiration date. And, if someone happens to age gracefully or slowly, she is seen as the “proper” way doing things rather than simply a person. There is a common trend in online spaces to point at female celebrities nearing middle age, saying, “This is how you age when you’re not problematic” or something else along those lines. This ignores, of course, the immense monetary cost that goes into looking young that celebrities can afford. And it also poses the rhetoric of young good, old bad. There is a stigma against women older than their 20s who are unmarried, and while not as severe as the stigma Jeannine faces, it is still an expectation that many women can relate to.
Joanna’s world easier to compare to “our” world, it is analogous to Joanna Russ and others involved in the second-wave feminist movement. And many are wary of it, in ways that echo the wariness surrounding feminism today, still. “I’ll tell you what I think of the new feminism,” says a man unprompted to Janet and Joanna, “I think it’s a mistake. A very bad mistake.” The calling of women “hysterical”, the claim that women are already liberated and need no further development in rights, downplaying issues such as unequal pay and rape statistics by saying they are not so bad in the “grand picture”, it is all things seen today against third-wave feminism.
Of course, Janet’s reactions to it all are somewhat makes this novel science fiction. She is from the female-only world of Whileaway, and it is impossible for those societal pressures against women to affect her. Which is good, until one remembers that Whileaway is completely fictitious, and women cannot see their real liberation at the destruction of men. The three other women also realize this, rejecting Janet and Whileaway towards the end of the novel. Janet is liberated, but her liberation does nothing truly for the other women, nor the women who read The Female Man. Janet’s world also does not account for the existence of transgender people, intersex people, and the distancing of the female identity after centuries of there only being one gender. But that is for another post, another time.
Jael, the final woman introduced, lives in a world where men and women have been at war for many years. In her, I see reflections of many well-meaning women today. The straight women who go, “Ugh, I hate that I like men! I wish I was a lesbian! It would be so much easier.” The point of view does have an understandable origin, as insensitive as it is. It seems counterproductive for women to love men in a society that positions one as almost versus the other—but that does not mean that lesbian women are any less oppressed. Perhaps in Jael’s world, men and women are equals as enemies, though that does not sound wholly desirable. I think that The Female Man will only not be necessary when the idea of a literal “battle of the sexes” not only sounds unheard of, but untenable. The Female Man doesn’t need all men to die in order to see itself lack usefulness, but it does the world to reach a point where man and woman become antiquated signifiers.