Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

In Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility, Germaine Greer, the author of The Female Eunuch, challenges the right of Western industrialized societies to impose fertility control on the rest of the world. Greer considers the social meaning of fertility and sterility, the history of contraception and eugenics, shifts in family and kinship structures, and the development of the concept of a “population explosion” (which she takes to be a figment of the imagination of racists and statisticians). Her long, dense chapters brim with statistics, quotations, anecdotes, and cross-cultural examples, all related in her characteristic witty and impassioned style.

Much of the book is a warning against the ethnocentric projection of the values of one culture onto the people of another. People who live in industrialized consumer economies (where children hamper adult live) value fertility differently from those who live in subsistence cultures (where children provide entertainment, labor, status, security of aging parents, and existential meaning). The industrialized West has too often assumed that its own values (individualism, pleasure, privacy, and the accumulation of consumer goods) are universal. Greer documents many poorly conceived “foreign aid” programs of sterilization and family planning that have been based on the unfounded assumption that everyone in every culture wishes to live in a small nuclear family. She believes that “foreign aid” that is actually...

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Sex and Destiny Context

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Critical response to Sex and Destiny was largely negative. The book’s unexpected exaltation of the joys of traditional motherhood and of the traditional male-dominated family caused some disconcerted readers to see it as a sort of puritanical backlash against the sexual liberalism of its author’s youth. Its apparent tolerance of infanticide, Indian bride-burning, and clitoridectomy was difficult to reconcile with its use of morality as an argument against sterilization. Academic readers questioned the soundness of its scholarship and pointed to a number of inaccuracies and inconsistencies. For example, Greer attacks the concept of “culling” when it is imposed by bureaucratized sterilization programs, but she apparently applauds it when it is carried out by traditional mothers and midwives who kill handicapped newborns.

In spite of the flaws and controversial positions in Sex and Destiny, or possibly because of them, the book and its author continue to serve as a monument to the multifaceted heterodoxy of feminism. Feminist thought is not a monolithic doctrine, and mavericks such as Greer have continued to expand the horizon of what is “thinkable.” In particular, this book, notwithstanding the storms of dispute that attended its publication, helped to open the narrow focus of Western feminism to include respectful consideration of the needs of postcolonial, nonindustrialized nations. It also contributed to the feminist challenge of the validity, for women, of a sexual revolution that seemed in many ways to be designed expressly for the conve-nience of men.

Greer’s writings have continued to span a surprising variety of forms and issues relating to literature, families, gender, and the worlds of women. Her other works include, in addition to The Female Eunuch, Darling Say You Love Me (as Rose Blight, 1969), The Revolting Garden (1979), The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work (1979), Shakespeare (1986), The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings 1968-1985 (1986), Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989), The Change (1992), and Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth-Century Women’s Verse (1989), edited jointly with Jeslyn Medoff, Melinda Sansone, and Susan Hastings.

Sex and Destiny Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Behuniak-Long, Susan. “Feminism and Reproductive Technology.” Choice 29 (October, 1991): 243-251. A bibliographic essay that lists and briefly describes scores of books that engage issues of reproductive technology from a feminist viewpoint.

Boserup, Ester. Woman’s Role in Economic Development. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1970. A classic study of the shifting patterns of women’s lives as traditional village societies are transformed by modern industrialization.

Choice. XXII, October, 1984, p. 313.

Cole, H. S. D., et al., eds. Models of Doom: A Critique of “The Limits to Growth.” New York: Universe Books, 1973. Criticizes the methods and alarming conclusions of The Limits to Growth.

Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. For Her Own Good: One Hundred Fifty Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1978. Examines the ascendancy of the psychomedical experts who have assumed power over women’s reproductive lives: scientists, doctors, psychotherapists, home economists, and child-rearing specialists.

Greer, Germaine. The Female Eunuch. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971. This study of sexist representations of women shows the continuity of Greer’s basic anticonsumerist message.

Library Journal. CIX, May 1, 1984, p. 887.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 27, 1984, p. 12.

Meadows, Donella H., et al. The Limits to Growth: A Report for the Club of Rome’s Project on the Predicament of Mankind. 2d ed. New York: Universe Books, 1974. Based on a ground-breaking computer model of current trends in population, agricultural and industrial production, natural resources, and pollution, the authors present the argument (which Greer opposes in Sex and Destiny) that a crisis of population and overconsumption of resources is imminent.

The New York Times Review of Books. XXXI, May 31, 1984, p. 15.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, April 29, 1984, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LX, April 30, 1984, p. 121.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, March 16, 1984, p. 74.

The Wall Street Journal. CCIII, May 18, 1984, p. 24.

The Washington Monthly. XVI, June, 1984, p. 60.

Women’s Review of New Books. I, July, 1984, p. 3.