OED – The Female Man

My word for the Week 5 blog post is “martyrdom” found in Part 3, Chapter II, pg. 47 of The Female Man.  The word comes up during the party scene shortly after Janet’s scuffle with the drunken host. While the two women are collecting themselves in the elevator, Joanna compares the man’s “little blue book” with her own “pink book”. The word “martyrdom” is found as a sub-rubric in the chapter of instructions under “Brutality” and is capitalized in this context.

The word “martyrdom” carries a lot of intense, religious connotations. I was raised Catholic and can distinctly remember being horrified and perplexed by the stories of Christian martyrs who suffered unspeakable atrocities and died out of love and fidelity to God and the Church. Of course I’ve heard the word used in other situations, usually with a good dose of levity or sarcasm. But Joanna Russ seems to be keeping with the heavier nuances, especially since the word is used in regards to the brutality and violent hatred that women undergo at the hands of men, displayed in this chapter and referred to throughout the book.

When I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, I found several similar definitions. The first, of course, referred to the Christian Church. The second elaborated on the non-Christian contexts: “the killing or sacrifice of a person in defense of a belief, cause, etc.” and the third, in extended use, “sufferings or penalties involved in maintaining a particular (usually moral or ethical) position or point of view….exaggerated self-sacrifice”. The second and third definitions seem to reinforce my primary understanding of the word as well as the author’s interpretation and application.

“Martyrdom” has undergone some evolution as it’s become more widely used outside of the context of religion. It seems to be the perfect word for the women and their submission to violence in fictional Joanna’s world. Maintaining the status quo of interactions between men and women – what is expected and what is appropriate – is very important to the character Joanna and to the other people in her universe. As the “little pink book” suggests, women would obediently withstand physical, verbal, and emotional abuse in order to sustain it.  One could go so far as to interpret this kind of loyalty as zealous virtue and the status quo as the religion of Joanna’s culture.

I especially like the definition of martyrdom as “exaggerated self-sacrifice”. There are numerous instances in The Female Man when women are revered for their “self-less love” (Part 9, Chapter IV, pg. 205). Sacrifice, in any form, dramatic or otherwise, is certainly expected – and often demanded – of women in Joanna and Jeannine’s universe. It makes complete sense why Russ would use such a strong word.


One response to “OED – The Female Man

  1. I think the exaggerated self sacrifice is the perfect definition for this and most situations where the word is used today. There were a large number of religious martyrs in the past and still there are some today but I think the main use of the word has changed to show just how devoted a person is to a cause. Even if they may not actually die or being willing to die for that cause the word shows that it is the most important thing to their lives.


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