Russ’s best known novel is The Female Man, which she began writing in the late 1960s and published in 1975. It has been reprinted in many editions and languages, often with covers that the author probably didn’t sanction. The novel recounts the sudden, unexplained convergence of four women who exist in very different parallel worlds: one a utopia in which all men had become extinct; one in which the Great Depression never ended and WWII never began; one a dystopia where men and women are literally at war; and one resembling 1970s America. As the principal characters of each world interact, their multiple consciousnesses allow for complex explorations of sexuality, personal identity, gender roles, parenting, and other subjects rarely addressed in SF at the time.
The genesis of The Female Man points back to the now-legendary Cornell Conference on Women held in January 1969, while Russ was teaching here. Betty Friedan and other prominent feminist thinkers were attendees. Russ became consciously radicalized and came out as a lesbian as a result of what she heard. She wrote the short story “When It Changed” weeks later. It was nominated for a Hugo and won the Nebula Award for best short SF story of 1972. The Female Man might not have been written if not for the Cornell conference, an event that resulted in the nation’s first accredited women’s studies course, taught at CU that spring. Initial critical reception of the book was mixed. Some faulted its nonlinear narrative, shifting points of view and polemically ideological stance. After four decades, The Female Man continues to inspire debate among SF fans, but in academia it is regarded as a seminal work of feminist fiction and – along with Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) and Samuel R. Delany’s Trouble on Triton (1976) – a historically significant text in the field of queer theory and other postmodernist schools of thought.