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Thematic summary of When It Changed by Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ’ When It Changed centers on a human society made entirely up of women on a planet called ‘Whileaway’. The human colony is void of men because of a plague that occurred thirty generations ago. The females that remained after the plagued managed to survive without the males by a process that sees the merging of ova. This allowed women to reproduced with women, taking away the need for penetrative reproduction and thereby making redundant the role of men in the human reproductive cycle.
The story begins when four Russian astronauts arrive on Whileaway. All four of them are male, which makes them the first 4 men that have set foot on the planet in hundreds of years. Their arrival has a profound effect on the women they meet, and we see this effect from the perspective of Janet, a thirty-four-year-old woman that is married to Katy, with whom she has three children. Upon meeting the four men, Janet is immediately taken aback by their physical size – “They are bigger than we are”. After that, she notices how “indescribably off” they appear, even though they are of the same species. In her befuddled state, she begins to explain Whileaway to the “alien” men. She narrates the history of her colony: Whileaway had started with a populace chosen for “extreme intelligence” that possessed “high technology”. The planet itself had a “blessedly easy” climate that allowed for their population to blossom to 30 million people despite the plague that had occurred so many years ago.
Essentially, Whileaway in her words seems to be entirely functional – the women that have lived there for hundreds of years have been successful at doing so without the intervention of men. In fact, the women there even go through rites of passage usually meant for men on earth: Janet mentions that her daughter will soon disappear for “weeks on end to come back grimy and proud, having knifed her first cougar or shot her first bear”. With only one gender, there were no longer any gender roles.
They were no utopia, of course, as Janet states that most women have to work full-time. Further, these women still practice the act of dueling, a seemingly arcane mode of settling scores in what seems to be, by all accounts, an advanced society. Thus, we know that these women do not live in some fancy, perfect society where everyone gets along. They have their own disagreements with each other: Janet’s description of another lady goes “Phyllis Helgason Spet, whom someday I shall kill”, shows this very fact. Yet, Russ’ point is that this society entirely comprising of women has indeed achieved stability, in spite of its imperfect nature. Women work, women marry, women reproduce, women live – all without the interference of men.
And this is where we find the main contention of this story. It is the interaction between the male astronauts and the women of Whileaway that is key. One astronaut comment that the plague that occurred years past was “a great tragedy”. To this, Janet pauses, “not quite understanding”. The man produces a “queer smile… that tells you something is being hidden” and goes on to speak almost condescendingly to the women. Janet does not take it well: she believes that he is addressing them “as if they were invalids… as if (they) were something childish and something wonderful.” The astronaut is assured that Whileaway is “unnatural” and is “missing something”, the something presumably being the male presence. He goes on to disparage the marriage of Katy and Janet (it is not known if he does so consciously or subconsciously) by commenting that their relationship is “a good economic arrangement”, as if it were impossible for two women like them to find any other purpose for getting married.
He insults them further, by blatantly stating that Katy would benefit from the introduction of a males into their society, as the astronaut views Katy as the ‘woman’ in the marriage between herself and Janet. This enrages Katy so much that she does something entirely uncharacteristic of her: she reaches for Janet’s rifle and fires it at the man, only for Janet to force her to miss her shot. Her anger is entirely justified because the man still refuses to see that there are no gender roles on Whileaway. There is nothing that the women there need from men. Janet recognizes that the four astronauts, though never explicitly asking, all wanted to know: “Which of you plays the role of the man?”
And this is where Russ’ main point lies. It is the implicit nature of the patriarchy, of sexism, that undercuts the roles of women. Feminism can never truly succeed until society rids itself of set notions of what it means to be a man or a woman.
It is revealed that “men are coming to Whileaway”. This causes Janet to worry: worry about the men “who made (her)-if only for a moment-feel small”, worry about how “(her) own achievements will dwindle from what they were”. She worries, because if and when men return, she will be dubbed as an ‘other’, needlessly compared to another gender no matter what she does. In every aspect of her life, she cannot be judged for her actions alone, but instead will be judged with regards to her gender. Her own impressive achievements, of surviving three duels, will be played down because ‘she’s a woman’.

            Russ wrote this in 1972 – a time where women had already won the right to vote but were still facing many instances of sexism wherever they went. These instances were mostly implicit – unequal pay at the workplace, gender expectations in marriage and family, etc. I believe Russ wrote this in response to these issues. Instead of focusing on some grand narrative that featured reverse-patriarchy or strong female characters, she chose a nuanced approach that featured relatable, almost ‘gender-less’ characters. In doing so, she gave a more honest take on how women felt in a patriarchal society, by showing how the entirely self-sufficient women on Whileaway felt in response to four men. When gender roles are introduced once again to women who have lived generations without it, they feel uneasy and angered. This perhaps mirrors the feelings of women at the time, and perhaps even today – this being the feeling of being subjugated to certain gender norms/roles/stereotypes, despite the notion that men and women should be equal and that these roles should not exist. 


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