Germaine Greer Introduction - Essay

Introduction

Germaine Greer 1939-

(Also has written under pseudonym Rose Blight) Australian nonfiction writer, critic, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of Greer's career through 1999.

A controversial feminist critic and scholar, Germaine Greer emerged as a maverick spokesperson for women's liberation with the publication of The Female Eunuch (1970). This sensational best seller, distinguished for its frank, iconoclastic discussion of female anatomy, sexuality, and irreverence toward mainstream feminist views, established Greer as a compelling public intellectual and celebrity. In subsequent books, such as Sex and Destiny (1984), The Change (1991), and The Whole Woman (1999), Greer similarly combined scholarly analysis, personal observation, and high rhetoric to produce thought-provoking commentaries on the social status of women in contemporary society.

Biographical Information

Greer was born near Melbourne, Australia, to parents Reginal “Reg” Greer, a newspaper-advertising manager, and Peggy Greer. The eldest of three children in a home lacking artistic or cultural stimulation, Greer early on displayed a talent for languages, developing fluency in French, German, and Italian. She won a scholarship to attend a convent school near Melbourne, where her intellectual abilities were further encouraged, as well as the nuns' disdain for marriage. Her unhappy relationship with her parents compelled her to leave home permanently upon receiving a scholarship to attend the University of Melbourne. There she studied English and French literature and earned a B.A. with honors in 1959. After completing an M.A. in English at the University of Sydney in 1961, she taught at a girl's school and tutored at the university. In 1964 she won a Commonwealth scholarship to study at Newnham College, Cambridge University, in England, where she earned a Ph.D. in 1967 with a doctoral dissertation entitled “The Ethic of Love and Marriage in Shakespeare's Early Comedies.” Greer subsequently taught English at the University of Warwick in England from 1967 to 1973, during which time she was involved in the theater, appeared on television shows, and published articles in well-respected periodicals. Greer married Paul du Feu in 1968, but the relationship was short-lived, ending in divorce in 1973. A self-described “supergroupie,” Greer also entered the circles of rock stars and the British counterculture. She wrote for the underground magazine Oz and cofounded Suck, a radical pornographic magazine in whose pages nude photographs of Greer once appeared. With the publication of The Female Eunuch, Greer won international fame, including numerous guest appearances on television and radio shows in Britain and the United States and a now-famous debate with Normal Mailer in New York City. After purchasing a rural home in Tuscany, Italy, and traveling to Africa, Asia, and India, Greer took a teaching position at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she founded the Tulsa Centre for the Study of Women's Literature in 1979 and served as its director until 1982. At age forty, Greer learned that she was unable to conceive children, a painful disappointment that colored her feminist perspective; her infertility was induced by several earlier abortions and gynecological surgery. Greer has appeared as a lecturer at Newnham College, Cambridge, since 1989, and is a professor at the University of Warwick. She was awarded a J. R. Ackerley Prize and the Premio Internazionale Mondello for Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989).

Major Works

In The Female Eunuch, a trenchant feminist polemic that resonated among millions of readers, Greer rails against the social and psychological oppression of women in modern society. She encourages women to reclaim their independence and vitality, or “woman energy,” by eschewing monogamy, heterosexual marriage, and traditional child-rearing. Greer advocates open relationships, sexual freedom, and communal parenting as an antidote to female passivity, repressed desire, and debilitating dependence on men for security and the false promises of romantic love. While criticizing other feminist writers for being either too middle-class or militant, Greer expresses uncharacteristic sympathy for men as victims of their own power structures, suggesting that at least some of their hostility toward women is caused by women themselves. In Sex and Destiny, a much longer and heavily researched work, Greer criticizes Western consumer society and interrelated attitudes toward reproduction, contraception, and family. Reversing her position on several key issues, in this work Greer diminishes the importance of sexual pleasure and promiscuity, holding up motherhood and the traditional family unit with veneration while advocating chastity and coitus interruptus as preferred modes of birth control. Greer suggests that the preference for nonreproductive sex in the West reflects an attitude of hostility toward children. In contrast, she extols the cultural values, kinship, and child-rearing practices of various indigenous, non-Western societies. Denouncing the efforts of international bureaucracies to control population growth in the Third World, Greer defends the viability of nontechnological birth control techniques and condemns the importation of unsafe contraceptives by which exploitative pharmaceutical companies profit and prejudicial Western fears are allayed.

The Madwoman's Underclothes (1987) contains selections of Greer's journalism from 1968 to 1985, including early columns published in Oz and commentaries on various topics such as feminism, world politics, sexuality, cosmetic surgery, and abortion. Daddy, We Hardly Knew You chronicles Greer's arduous and personally distressing effort to uncover her father's dubious origins, a quest she initiated after his death in 1983. Alternating between memoir, detective narrative, and digressive travelogue and national history, Greer reconstructs her father's life through painstaking research in archives and libraries throughout Britain, Australia, and elsewhere. To her surprise, she learns that her father was not born to respectable English parents in South Africa, but was the illegitimate child of a servant, born and raised in a humble, lower-class Australian foster home. His military service in Malta during World War II is also proved an exaggeration, as he was prematurely discharged due to an anxiety disorder. In the end, Greer attempts to come to terms with his deceptions and the feeling that her remote, unaffectionate father did not love her. In The Change, Greer examines the physical, emotional, and social implications of menopause, which she prefers to call the “climacteric.” Drawing attention to the cultural overvaluation of youth and fertility, Greer condemns the pervasive negative stereotypes attached to post-menopausal women, whom Greer contends are often jettisoned by men as undesirable crones. Greer strongly criticizes the ignorance of the medical community concerning menopause, noting the past use of harmful treatments and the mixed results of hormonal replacement therapies. Greer recommends a number of herbal and homeopathic remedies and suggests that aging women simply enjoy their freedom from physical self-obsession and refrain from sex altogether.

In The Whole Woman, Greer reexamines the social condition of women thirty years after the publication of The Female Eunuch, concluding that things have not improved and that renewed anger is in order. Citing a litany of anecdotal evidence culled from newspaper reports and the popular media, Greer contends that post-1960s feminism has produced legal equality without real liberation and, despite apparent professional and personal advances among many women, the oppressive forces of male power and desire remain largely intact. While denouncing international efforts to ban female genital mutilation in the Third World, one of the most controversial aspects of the book, Greer also argues that birth control, cervical and breast cancer screening, and legalized abortion are evidence of the male-dominated medical establishment's effort to control women's bodies. Greer has also published a number of scholarly works, including: The Obstacle Race (1979) a study of women painters; Kissing the Rod (1989) an anthology of seventeenth-century poetry by women; and literary criticism in Shakespeare (1986) and Slip-Shod Sibyls (1995). Slip-Shod Sibyls offers a revisionist study of women poets from antiquity to the present, including Sappho, Aphra Behn, Christina Rossetti, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton, among others. In this work Greer challenges the canonical status of such luminaries and a number of minor figures by arguing that women poets have too easily succumbed to flattery, manipulation, neurosis, and suicide, often diminishing the seriousness of their work and inflating their actual literary significance by the spectacle of their decline.

Critical Reception

Since the publication of The Female Eunuch, a book considered by some a classic feminist text, Greer has won both admiration and notoriety as an idiosyncratic icon of the women's movement. Critics often cite the enormous popularity and influence of The Female Eunuch during the 1970s as evidence of Greer's powerful insight into the female condition and sex relations. Commentators note, however, that many of Greer's ideas in this work were not original in light of earlier works by Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan. Nevertheless, Greer is credited with making radical feminism appealing and accessible for a large general audience of both women and men. Critics further acknowledge that Greer's savvy media persona and passionate heterosexuality stood in contrast to other feminist writers who, at that time, were unjustly stereotyped as either angry man-haters or lesbians. Reviewers consistently praise Greer's intelligence, sharp humor, and rhetorical powers, particularly in The Female Eunuch. However, many find fault in her combative tone and tendency toward self-contradiction, hyperbole, and romantic antimodernism. While The Female Eunuch is still regarded as her most significant work, The Change and her memoir Daddy, We Hardly Knew You have received positive evaluation, as have her several works of literary criticism. As is typical of critical analysis of her work, reviewers single out passages of brilliance and clarity for praise, though dismiss much of the work for its scattered approach and Greer's antagonistic assertions. Sex and Destiny, for example, received pointed criticism for its social conservatism and uncritical alliance with Third World cultural practices. Likewise, The Whole Woman was faulted by many reviewers for its bleak view of women's liberation and near total mistrust for the medical establishment, as well as her defense of female genital mutilation, condemned by many critics as patently unethical. Greer's continuing ability to elicit such strong reaction—both positive and negative—is recognized by many critics as a reflection of her great strengths and limitations as a feminist visionary and provocateur.