SOURCE: “Of Mothers and Sisters,” in The New Leader, May 17, 1971, pp. 8-10.
[In the following review of The Female Eunuch, Roiphe objects to Greer's disavowal of motherhood, family, and monogamy.]
Germaine Greer is a charming, spunky, honest woman; I admire her direct style, and enjoy her pleasure in words and ideas. She achieves a vital fusion of intellect and passion in her book that places it among the best of Feminist literature—neither a cold tract, cataloguing male abuses, nor a fervid call for revenge on mankind. Her energy, female energy, is strong and free and, like the center-forward on the field-hockey team, she urges us all on to victory. For Germaine Greer is a sexual person who has understood that the vagina is a source of pleasure and pride, and she wants her sisters to share her sensuality of body and spirit. She pushes them to renounce passivity, to exorcise crippling romantic illusions, and to reject plastic images of femininity.
Many of this Englishwoman's views are fairly common in this country. Kate Millett, Ti-Grace Atkinson, Betty Friedan and others have already opened the Pandora's box of woman's misery. But Germaine Greer, while complaining much the same complaints, fairly sings with the joy that love and work can bring to the liberated woman.
How my mother (who thought I should hold my virginity as bait for a desirable male) would have cringed to read this book. How the matrons of middle America will recoil in horror at the mention of tasting menstrual blood (I was shocked, too, but I shouldn't have been). Germaine Greer runs like a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta through the linguistic and other comedies and tragedies of cunt-hatred, ending with a fierce kind of hope in a new tomorrow when all our daughters—yes, yours too, Tricia Nixon—may dance like Isadora Duncan beside the moonlit Parthenon.
Now, although I am a sister in arms, I have some major quarrels about the direction of Germaine Greer's campaign. I am concerned that in our desire not to be slaves we do not sever loving connections to each other and to the next generation.
Despite discussing menstruation and its meaning for women at great length, Germaine Greer fails to give equal time—or, in fact, any time—to pregnancy. She speaks gaily of children bringing themselves up, not needing to be brought up. In the event of her own maternity, she says, she would purchase a house in the country for herself and many others, where the father might visit the child and she might or might not admit to being the womb mother, but responsibility for the child's needs would be corporate. She does not support the institution of marriage, and graphically describes the boredom, malfunction and dwarfing of spirit that often occur as husband and wife structure their lives around security.
Her numerous arguments against the nuclear family are not novel, but they do describe its failures accurately. Endless articles on the bliss awaiting the bride in the white gown and the raptures of baby care have so romanticized the relationship between mother and child that the woman who has bought the whole package can only feel cheated. Still, there are certain gratifications and exhilarating adventures that even the most burdened reader of Family Circle or Redbook is privy to, and I am anxious that the lifestyles we may adopt not destroy or abort the few known good things we already have.
In the chapter devoted to the body, Germaine Greer minimizes the male-female differences by attributing them all to one microscopic “Y” chromosome. Yet this single impertinent...
(This entire section contains 1550 words.)
“Y” does make a difference in biological reality—a reality that does not shape itself to social fashion. It is particularly important in the inner space of the woman, the origin of life.
Certainly, pregnancy is not all serenity; there are nauseous months and tired months, aches in the back and legs, bulging veins and hernias. But these do not spoil the extraordinary wonder of creating life. When at four-and-a-half months the baby kicks, a woman knows she is at the heart of the mystery. This event, announcing death and age as it announces the next generation, is glory.
Natural childbirth methods now allow many women to control their labor contractions and to consciously push the baby's head through the vagina as both parents watch. For my husband and me it would have been a deprivation, not a liberation, to miss those moments. While I do not believe in the moralistic injunction that women should have babies because that's what they're made for, etc., I do believe that women should not be made to feel enslaved or inferior for wanting to enjoy and fulfill their biological potential.
Delivering the baby, however, is only the beginning. The drudgery, the guilt, the restrictions on personal freedom increase with the poundage of the infant sucking at the breast. (Nursing is another female function Germaine Greer ignores. I remember the months I had a baby sleeping, nursing at my breast as an especially warm and peaceful time. That experience is an important part of me.)
Germaine Greer reports an experiment in which children raised without a specific mother and given complete freedom climbed ladders at the age of eight months. (What is so desirable about an eight-month-old on a ladder I don't know.) I think it is dangerous to go from caring so much about the child that the needs of the mother are ignored to ignoring the child for the supposed benefit of the mother. If we do that, the next generation will be even more isolated, psychotic and vicious than today's. Children do not need less love and attention but more, of the right kind. I am not saying women should spend their lives pregnant and rinsing diapers, repressing their energies in martyrdom to their children. I believe children can receive the love, support and guidance they need while the mother balances her maternal interests with other personal and intellectual ones.
Our nuclear-family isolation is painful, and maybe a commune would supply some of the answers. But we have to remember that historically we all lived in tribal communes and emerged eagerly to seize our individuality and privacy. Although I feel we must explore all the alternatives, I am not certain if going back to the tribe is a step forward.
Germaine Greer has earned her doctorate in Shakespeare; that is surely an achievement of worth and dignity. But the woman who has taught her child not to bash in the head of his brother has also achieved something, and the woman who might accomplish both would be doubly enriched.
Reading The Female Eunuch, which makes so little of motherhood, I thought about myself as a mother. I suspect I am similar to most others—my involvement with the physical and emotional well-being of my children is intense and sometimes terrifying, a grand passion of its own sort. My feeling for my children may be narcissistic, but so is writing a book. It may be ambitious, but so is writing a book. Depriving me of my young would be no liberation.
I am not one who sees motherhood in pastels of pink and blue. Yet as a mother I have experienced the danger, fear, occasional despair, and overflowing love that involves me intimately with another life. Mothering is not smothering, not just Mrs. Portnoy and her Alex. As almost any woman can tell you, there is something more, something exciting behind the everyday nurturing of the child. It reeks of life, and Germaine Greer cannot ignore it without peril to the very fullness of experience she is trying so hard to achieve.
My second major disagreement with the author has to do with monogamy. She states that some 19 million English housewives are working without a salary—unpaid slave laborers. What a strange way to look upon a life of shared responsibility. Ideally, the man and woman have set up house together out of love and tenderness and desire for each other. The man brings home money that buys food, clothing and shelter; the woman maintains the home and the young. The woman's work may be the more restricting, and she may lose some of her intellect and energy in this arrangement—as will a man in a dull job. I agree with Germaine Greer that if men share more of the woman's work so that women may share in the man's pleasures and burdens, both will benefit.
Unlike her, though, I accept a long love relationship as a possibility for most people; I think tenderness, compassion and bonds of deep affection can exist with vital sex and real desire. Only exceptionally strong, individualistic women do not need or want familiar arms around them in their different nights. Most women will reach toward one man in hopes of building a temple in which they can eat, drink, copulate, propagate, guard the light of their love, and age together.
This is not, as Germaine Greer describes it, a sordid search for security; for television sets and lawn-mowers. It is the fundamental stuff that moves most of us closer in bed. If she is free of the need for lasting love, she must at least see that most of the world cannot follow her.
SOURCE: “The Selling of a Feminist,” in The Nation, June 7, 1971, pp. 728-9.
[In the following review, Dreifus offers negative evaluation of The Female Eunuch, which she describes as “shallow, anti-woman, regressive.”]
Early last year, when the high priests of publishing began to discover that their female readers were insatiably curious about the women's liberation idea, there was much discussion as to which of the bountiful crop of feminist authors would become the big femme lib superstar. Betty Friedan had no appeal for the literary lions—she was too old, too bourgeoise, too organization-conscious. Shulamith Firestone, the author of The Dialectic of Sex and organizer of New York Radical Feminists, was strikingly attractive; but alas, anti-love, perhaps even anti-men. Ti-Grace Atkinson, an advocate of extra-uterine birth, was considered too far out for a whirl through the major networks. For a while it seemed as if the brilliant and beautiful Kate Millett, whose Sexual Politics was for a short time on the best-seller list, might be star material. But she made the mistake of openly asserting her bisexuality. Time took due note of this state of affairs, and that finished Millett. So who was left to launch on the Dick Cavett-Johnny Carson-Virginia Graham-Time-Life circuit? American feminists, with their dogged determination to be themselves, were a publicity man's nightmare. Someone more palatable would have to be found.
Or even imported. On a warm spring day, Germaine Greer, the author of the English best-seller, The Female Eunuch, jetted into New York from London. Miss Greer was everything those messy American feminists were not: pretty, predictable, aggressively heterosexual, media-wise, clever, foreign and exotic. Her background was fascinating. At 32, she was an accomplished actress, a Ph.D. who lectured in Shakespeare at Warwick University, editor of the European pornographic journal, Suck, and contributor to various London underground newspapers. Her philosophy, as outlined in The Female Eunuch, could be expected to appeal to men: women's liberation means that women will be sexually liberated; feminism equals free love. Here was a libbie a man could like.
Full-page ads announced that Miss Greer had written the women's liberation book of the year, and that despite this achievement, she was “a feminist leader who admittedly loves men.” Six feet tall, fashion-model beautiful, Miss Greer was the toast of The Tonight Show. Dick Cavett was enthusiastic about her. Norman Mailer suggested that her book was worth reading.
There is a catch to this fairy tale. Germaine Greer is not the feminist leader she is advertised to be. Back home in London she has no active connections with any women's liberation group. And the book she has written is hardly feminist. True, The Female Eunuch does contain an obligatory enumeration of the many economic and psychological horrors that women are subjected to. But Miss Greer's information is hardly new, and could be gleaned from a half-dozen other books. What's more, the whole tone of The Female Eunuch is shallow, anti-woman, regressive, three steps backward to the world of false sexual liberation from which so many young women have fled.
Miss Greer quite rightly asks women to abandon the institution of marriage, but she means to replace it simply with the dehumanizing, anonymous, and spiritually debilitating thrusting that men call sex. In her view, sex is something to be collected—like money. The more of it you get, the richer you are. The difficulty is that many feminists have been to that movie before. Many of the younger women in the movement recall a period, four or five years ago, when in order to qualify as hip, emancipated females, their alternate-culture brothers insisted they perform as sexual gymnasts. Resentment at this treatment is one powerful motive for the current women's movement.
The author's insistence that “sexual liberation” is the prerequisite for women's liberation has a lot to do with the fact that she thinks like a man. She has done very well in the male world, and she has yet to identify herself with the essential condition of women. From her book, one learns that Germaine Greer has rarely (except during a miserable youth) had to suffer the kinds of misfortune that most women endure. She was always accepted in the world of men. She was always treated as an equal. That good fortune just about disqualifies her for writing a feminist book. She has had no experience of what it means to be adult and female in the world inhabited by most women, and she does not have the gift of imagination that could make up for that lack. Indeed, she consistently takes a viewpoint that is not merely male but inimical to women. Her book is littered with unkind and unfeminist snipes at her sisters. Most of the women in her book are described as whiny, simpy and boring. “As a female lecturer at a provincial university,” she complains in a typical passage, “I have to tolerate the antics of faculty wives, but they are strikingly easy to ignore.” What separates Germaine Greer from women's liberationists is that a sensitive feminist would regard a faculty wife's failings as the end product of a useless, oppressive and unfulfilling life. A feminist would feel sisterly sympathy for the faculty wife, and be interested in working with her to help change her condition.
Aside from the author's obvious misogyny, she exhibits very little respect for those women who are organizing against sexual oppression. Her chapters on “Rebellion” and “Revolution” are packed with contradictory ranting about how the women's revolution must be part of The Bigger Revolution, how the feminist movement is not militant enough, how the movement is too middle class. On the one hand, she exhorts the women's liberationists to be more militant in their fight against sexism. On the other, she suggests that women make love, not war. “Women cannot be liberated from their impotence by the gun. … The process has to be the opposite: women must humanize the penis, take the steel out of it and make it flesh again.”
If Miss Greer has no patience with the state of the feminist movement, she has even less love for the literary women who have aligned themselves with it. Betty Friedan is described as middle class and boring. Kate Millett “persists in assuming that [Norman] Mailer is a cretin.” Anne Koedt, author of the important Women's Liberation pamphlet, “The Myth of Vaginal Orgasm,” is dismissed this way: “One wonders just whom Miss Koedt has gone to bed with.”
On the whole, The Female Eunuch is a grossly inconsistent book. Yes, Germaine Greer says all the right things about the economics of sexism. Yes, she is extraordinarily observant about some of the physiological results of our sexual conventions. Her chapters on female anatomy are brilliant. Where she falls down is in her inveterate dislike of women, her idiotic exhortations to revolution and nonviolence alike, and her passionate identification with all things male.
Throughout history there have always been a few women who have been able to fight and seduce their way to the top of the patriarchy. In pre-revolutionary France, these women were highly educated, highly cultivated courtesans who provided intellectual and sexual stimulation for the male nobility. (What self-respecting noble would try to carry on an intelligent discussion with his wife?) Germaine Greer is the closest thing we have to this old-world, old-style courtesan. Nor would she be offended by this description. By her own admission, she is a groupie, a supergroupie—which means that she is a sexual and intellectual consort to the royalty of rock music. On television programs she has made comments like: “I'm really just an intellectual superwhore!”
The Female Eunuch is designed to provide intellectual and sexual thrills to those men who would like to see a feminist revolution because it would take that one woman off their back and make a lot more women available to them. How nice to be told that women's liberation will mean the liberation of more women for bed service! One reading of The Female Eunuch suggested to me that it had been written to assuage the fears of jittery male chauvinists. A second reading convinced me that if Germaine Greer didn't exist, Norman Mailer would have had to invent her.
SOURCE: “Feminism Interruptus,” in The New Republic, May 21, 1984, pp. 32-5.
[In the following review, Ehrenreich offers unfavorable evaluation of Sex and Destiny.]
Apostasy is the last resort of the political writer. Angry, provocative best-sellers do not lend themselves to sequels, for, as editors and agents are quick to remind us, it is novelty that oils the wheels of commerce. So writers who would like to sell books and at the same time hold on to their followings are driven at least to revisionism. For example, four years ago Betty Friedan published The Second Stage, in which she announced—a bit prematurely for some of us—a d‚tente in the battle of the sexes. Then last year, Susan Brown-miller, author of the powerful 1974 treatise on rape, Against Our Will, came out with a far fluffier book, Femininity, which allowed her, among other things, to express her ambivalence about shaving (or not shaving) her legs. Extrapolating from this trend, we might have expected Gloria Steinem to publish her beauty secrets, or Ellie Smeal to rethink the E.R.A. What is far more astounding, Germaine Greer, who is best known for the ebullient sexual radicalism of The Female Eunuch, has come out with a book that dismisses orgasms, condones the chador, and advocates chastity as a means of birth control.
Anything with as grandiose a title as Sex and Destiny should deserve a less flippant introduction. Greer tells us in the preface (aptly entitled “Warning”) that she did not write this book “for fun or for profit,” and I am ready to believe that this clever and venturesome woman has already enjoyed a surfeit of both. Here she writes in a tone of high moral purpose, without a trace of her former wit, and on themes that should command the most solemn attention: motherhood, sexuality, the relations between rich and poor nations, human evolution, and Western culture. Yet the result is so jumbled and idiosyncratic that it is not the moral purpose that shines through so much as the perverse and cranky pleasure of the apostate.
The core argument of the book is intelligent enough and, if not exactly new, it still bears repeating. Greer contends that population control efforts, whether undertaken by international agencies or local governments, do more damage than good, if good is indeed intended. Sometimes they merely miss the mark, as in the case of the I.U.D.s that end up being worn as amulets, or the diaphragms dispensed to people who lack indoor plumbing and privacy. Very often they do violence to local customs and cultures, if not to the physical health of the “target populations.” High estrogen birth control pills have been dispensed in vast quantities to the malnourished, underweight women of Bangladesh; unsterile and otherwise hazardous I.U.D.s still lodge in the wombs of thousands of Third World women; surgical sterilizations have been performed on large numbers of the unwilling as well as the uninformed. In almost all cases, population control efforts have been shaped by Western values—which, she argues, are profoundly antinatalist and even antichild—and tainted by Western technocratic arrogance.
If Greer's argument stopped there she would have succeeded in offending, or at least provoking, a great many well-meaning people, but she would still have remained in good company. Many thoughtful people, mostly of a left or feminist persuasion, have challenged the meaning of “overpopulation” in a world where the necessities of life are so unequally apportioned, have questioned the chauvinist and racial biases of the population controllers, and have done their utmost to expose particular horrors, like the drug companies' practice of dumping hazardous contraceptives in the Third World. But the last thing Greer seems to want is company. Not only does she fail to acknowledge any likely allies or ideological predecessors, she often goes out of her way to antagonize them.
One small but telling example: feminist groups in the United States and England have campaigned long and hard against the distribution of unsafe contraceptives in the Third World. One of these drugs is Depo-Provera, which is valued by population control agencies because it is injectable and requires little conscious effort on the part of those who use it. Depo-Provera has not been approved for use as a contraceptive in this country because it causes what one physician has called “menstrual havoc,” and may cause sterility and cancer. Does Greer, then, who finds something sinister about almost every known method of contraception, have a kind word for the anti-Depo campaign? No, she asserts that the side effects of Depo-Provera are relatively benign (“inconveniences rather than major health hazards”) and that the efforts to ban it are “downright crackpot.”
In general, the forward motion of Sex and Destiny derives less from the strength of its arguments than from Greer's efforts to scamper ahead of the reader and pop out, almost maliciously, from unexpected places. Usually she does this by engaging in a kind of hyperbolic rampage, in which it seems that no bath water can be disposed of without stuffing a few babies down the drain after it. Thus it is not enough to condemn the coercive or reckless imposition of contraceptives on people of other cultures; we are invited to throw out all “mechanical and pharmacological methods.” But a few chapters later we find that even this isn't enough. The problem is “recreational sex,” presumably another Western capitalist invention like rubber condoms and plastic I.U.D.'s, and aimed, like them, at luring the world's innocents from the proper goals of “land, family, and children” to “orgasms and consumer durables.” At this point, Greer peeps out momentarily to acknowledge that “such an attack upon the ideology of sexual freedom, usually, and quite correctly, called permissiveness, must seem shocking coming from a sexual radical, as the present writer professes to be.”
Indeed. And it is on the subject of sex that Greer seems most determined to disconcert us, switching suddenly from Falwellian to Sadeian themes. She starts, as she often does, with a point well taken: that Western (and, I would guess, much non-Western) sexuality focuses unduly on the kind of genital encounter most likely to lead to pregnancy. Hence our dependence on contraception. There are alternatives, however, to the old vaginal in-and-out, and at this point my imagination leapt to homosexuality, masturbation, and varieties of heterosexual attention to the clitoris. But Greer has no brief for these innocent and familiar practices. Clitoral sexuality bothers her because it is “masculine,” because it lets men off the hook for “any ineptitude in the phallic department,” and finally because “it leaves no irritating surplus of orgastic potency … in woman”—which, I would have thought, is its strongest selling point. What Greer promotes, instead, is coitus interruptus, a practice she recklessly insists is a reliable method of birth control, and heterosexual anal intercourse, which she seems to feel quite militant about. Well, chacun … son go–t, but when it comes to intercultural sensitivity, I think most of us would be more comfortable offering a weary Third World multipara a Lippes loop rather than a jar of vaseline.
There are, however, themes that give a certain tortured consistency and, eventually, predictability, to Sex and Destiny. One of these is antimodernism, which is more or less of the quotidian, pro-family type popularized by the new right, except that the new right's lost Golden Age is the capitalist suburban culture of the 1950s, while Greer's is represented by the world's embattled peasantry. Whether they are the farmers Greer knows through her part-time residence in Tuscany, or members of the intact preliterate cultures preserved in anthropological accounts, peasants can do no wrong.
Nor, it seems, can their counterparts in the world's metropolitan centers do anything right, from sex to child raising. While this may be a commendably humble stance for a writer of Anglo-Saxon descent, it creates some awkward conflicts with her extreme pronatalist bias. Greer would like the peasants to be as pronatalist as she is—to have sex for the sake of reproduction and to welcome each baby with spontaneous affection. But the truth is that pre-industrial people almost universally have shown remarkable ingenuity—and sometimes coldbloodedness—in contracepting and otherwise reducing the birth rate. They have devised pessaries, douches, magical remedies, and both mechanical and herbal methods of abortion; and—not uncommonly—they have resorted to infanticide.
Greer gets around this in a most peculiar way. First she simply ignores—or is ignorant of—the wealth of folk methods of contraception, which she regards as a rather recent Western invention. (Except for coitus interruptus, which is favored by her Tuscan neighbors.) One might have expected infanticide to be more daunting, especially after her attack on the industrialized West for failing to love its children. But even infanticide turns out to be an act of affection when performed by a suitably brown and weathered hand. In fact her argument in defense of infanticide is the same one that has been used to defend the most callous and coercive schemes of population control: “if you will not feed them, do not condemn them to life. …” She finds female infanticide especially “merciful,” since girl babies are less valued and more likely to suffer from neglect anyway!
There is a real case to be made against the West, but the grounds are not anti-modernist, as Greer insists in her woolly-minded way; they are anti-imperialist. Before contact with the West, most indigenous peoples managed to live in some kind of rough equilibrium with their food supply, using a variety of means to limit births when necessary. When Europeans arrived on the scene, they did not initially bring condoms and pills, but drastic disruption: slavery, epidemics, forced dislocations, extermination, and—in all cases—an end to the old ecological balance between food and population. Traditional food sources gave way to cash crops, and traditional birth control, especially prolonged lactation, became impractical. Some populations dwindled toward extinction, but others increased rapidly, in no small part because of the disruption of traditional birth-spacing methods. If there is overpopulation—and there certainly is relative to 1800 or even 1900—then the only cure we know is the one Europe and North America themselves underwent: raise the standard of living so that people have some reason to believe that their children will survive and that they themselves will not starve in old age. Hence the message from most critics of population control as it is usually practiced: offer contraceptives (and, preferably, the best we have to offer, not the discards), but offer also health care and some chance for genuine economic development.
But Greer does not analyze the world in terms of nations and classes and their economic interests, for the other great organizing theme of Sex and Destiny, in addition to antimodernism, is sociobiology. Individuals are slaves to their genes, which aim only to reproduce; and whole cultures also turn out, by some mystical leap, to be mere carriers for the genes of their members. Sadly, the West is a tired, “subfertile” culture that has gotten too lazy to propagate as fast as its collective genes would like. Hence it resorts to suppressing the genes of more vigorous, child-loving cultures, and it does this by barraging them with contraceptives and alluring images of recreational sex. From Greer's sociobiological vantage point, population control turns out to be just one more skirmish in the D.N.A. wars that have been raging since our ancestral molecules emerged in the primordial soup.
This is not the place to attempt a refutation of the tenets of sociobiology (interested readers are referred to the recent Not In Our Genes, by R. C. Lewontin, Steven Rose, and Leon J. Kamin), nor to question what genetic unity defines “the West,” nor to inquire into what miracle of genetic transcription impels an official of the International Planned Parenthood Federation to foist I.U.D.s on the peoples of the southern hemisphere, and so on. But I will underscore a point that may already be obvious: Greer's sociobiology of cultures justifies all the abuses and tragedies she decries. If population control at its most arrogant and imperious is only an expression of our genes, why buck nature? Why not root for the home team? Sterilize the wretched of the earth, and, while we're at it, add a few more babies to the greedy legions of the West.
In the end I can't imagine that Greer is any happier with the morass of Sex and Destiny than the reader is likely to be. While she never tells us directly what path led her from the good-humored lucidity of The Female Eunuch to this strange destiny, the book is littered with clues. She emerges, in her first-person persona, as an affluent white tourist on sabbatical in the Third World, where she discovers that all her fame, knowledge, feminist insight, etc., are as nothing compared to the simple joys of motherhood. Among the peasantry she finds women who are “unequivocally successful,” who have not succumbed to “a masculine sense of self,” and who are living out their late and middle years surrounded by loyal progeny. In their eyes, she imagines that her own childlessness is tragic and inexplicable, that her life is “shapeless, improvised, and squalid.”
Well, this is sad. Sad that Greer doesn't have her own children, if that's what she now wants. Sadder still that she has not chosen to expend her maternal energies on the spiritual progeny she has earned in her years as a feminist spokeswoman. They deserve something better than this burst of midlife petulance.
SOURCE: “Bringing Back Baby,” in The Nation, May 26, 1984, pp. 645-6.
[In the following review, Gordon offers unfavorable assessment of Sex and Destiny.]
Because this book about fertility was written by a woman suffering from infertility it elicited my sympathy even before I opened it. I would not mention Germaine Greer's personal situation had she not reported it herself in The New York Times and in several other interviews. And that too—her openness about a painful and stigmatized subject—won my respect. Nevertheless, and despite Greer's opinion, the pain of infertility is not biologically determined; instead the meaning and experience of “barrenness” are created by culture, have changed historically and will undoubtedly change further.
Although improved health care in industrial societies has increased fertility in general, the current practice of postponing childbearing ten or twenty years has itself become a cause of infertility. And perhaps this—the knowledge that some infertility results partly from choice, from prolonged singleness or education or work—has worsened the agony of women unable to conceive. Medical intervention can help many such women, but for others the hope for a cure may simply postpone a necessary coming to terms.
It is also possible that the contemporary reaction to infertility has been intensified through its symbolic connection with other anxieties: fears about ecological imbalance; suspicions of the technological society; and feelings of loneliness resulting from the decline of kinship and community ties. But the connections between biological infertility and overall personal, cultural and societal malaise are only symbolic. Expressions such as “intellectual fertility” or “artistic sterility” are only metaphors. Germaine Greer is entitled to grieve for her own childlessness, and to turn that grief into a bit of contemplative literature to generate understanding of the problem. But she can be criticized for generalizing on the basis of what seems to be her personal response—her anger at the very freedom that led her to postpone childbearing—and presenting it as an objective critique of the ills of sexual and familial life.
Sex and Destiny launches two arguments at once: the first is a criticism of sexual and familial behavior in modern industrial societies; the second is an attack on population control in the Third World. Greer's case against population control is strong, if not new. But her legitimate criticisms are situated in an overall argument that is both antifeminist and condescending toward people who aspire to greater wealth and more independence than they now enjoy. (One is often reminded here of those privileged advice givers who like to tell the poor how morally and culturally superior the simple life is.) In this respect she has placed herself in that long tradition of women writers who have built careers telling other women to be content with domesticity.
Greer charges industrialized societies with having produced child-hating cultures, in contrast to the child-loving values of traditional societies. The examples of child-loving societies come from her visits to and reading about India and Africa, and from her periodic residence in rural Tuscany. She further believes that there is an indestructible human drive for procreation and that attempts to repress it can only be futile and productive of neurosis. Greer argues that in developed societies the attempt to substitute “orgasm for babies,” or nonreproductive sexual pleasure for the pleasures of raising children, has impoverished life, particularly for women; human sexuality, she believes, is so essentially an aspect of a larger drive that the separation of sex from reproduction may be destructive. Her book offers up chastity as a preferred form of birth control and affirms the superiority of family bonds, defined primarily as mother-child bonds, to any other human ties.
No doubt the criticisms of “junk sex” and of dangerous and coercive birth control policies have their merits, but they don't constitute evidence for the overall arguments of Sex and Destiny, all of which are either historically or ethically wrong. In arguing that ours is a child-hating culture, Greer ignores a large body of historical literature which suggests the opposite: that children used to be treated far more callously than they are today. And whatever criticisms she might level at it, our treatment of children is easily matched by cruelties to children practiced by the simpler societies she admires.
Regarding the drive for fertility, there is no evidence that frustrated longings for children have generally deleterious effects. And Greer makes no case whatever on the dangers of nonreproductive sex. Her nervousness about appearing antisexual makes her argument slippery, but her attitude is clear in passages like these:
Human libido is the only force which could renew the world. In allowing it to be drawn off, regularly tapped in domestic ritual, we are preparing the scene of our own annihilation, stupefied by myriad petty gratifications, dead to agony and to ecstasy. … Having fun means having recreational sex: recreational sex means no fear of pregnancy, a wife who is always available and who is content with orgasms in place of land, family and children—orgasms and consumer durables.
There is no logic in a conceptual system which holds that orgasm is always and everywhere good for you, that vaginal orgasm is impossible, that no moral opprobrium attaches to expenditure of semen wherever it occurs … [since the system also holds that] “normal” heterosexual intercourse should always culminate in ejaculation within the vagina.
Whose norm is this? At a time when feminists and other sexually enlightened people are arguing against such a norm with significant success, Greer writes a book which entirely ignores their efforts. In her chapter on “polymorphous perversity,” the missionary position is taken as a given (if women don't enjoy it as much as men, the moral is to have less sex); feminists are criticized for their emphasis on clitoral stimulation; and lesbianism does not exist.
Her critique of commercial society, of the transience of all relationships other than the maternal, resonates with modern insecurity. And her sketches of the good life, often drawn from images of rural Tuscan families, erases from that landscape all evidence of poverty and drudgery, of women's often brutal oppression and of female longing for adventure, knowledge and power.
Greer's discussion of modern birth control similarly minimizes the importance of women's autonomy. Apart from chastity, her favorite birth control methods are coitus interruptus and the use of condoms, because they involve no health hazards. But both devices must be controlled by men, a fact Greer does not discuss. Indeed, nowhere can one find the discussion of the politics of reproductive rights which is certainly relevant here. One would assume from reading this book that men's and women's interests in sex and reproduction are always identical, that no one had yet noticed that sexual transactions involve inequities of power, that no one had yet pointed out that women are often forced into sex or conception.
The attack on population control seems at first glance more compelling, but a closer look reveals that here, too, issues of power and inequality are ignored. Greer is right of course to challenge the notion that birth control rather than the redistribution of resources can combat poverty. And her examples of the coerciveness of population control programs are persuasive. But her vision of the Third World as peopled by men and women living in equality and sexual harmony, jointly oppressed by Western norms, is absurdly romantic. She seems not to understand that victims of imperialist oppression can themselves be the perpetrators of sexual cruelty.
The central contribution of Sex and Destiny is no more then a New Right perspective on sex and birth control, a profamily line in the name of women's best interests. There is nothing new about this maneuver: Jean Elshtain has been doing it, and it has also crept into Betty Friedan's work Like Elshtain, Greer appropriates feminist ideas, for example critiques of competitive individualism, and uses them to attack the women's movement.
Greer's social analysis resembles New Right thinking in its method as well. It is moralistic rather than historical. The version of social change offered here is like a young child's notion of history: there were the “old days,” secure, simple, satisfying and restful, and there is now. There is no doubt that sexual permissiveness has become a new orthodoxy and a new kind of conformity and that contraception is often coercive and dangerous. It doesn't follow that reattaching sex exclusively to reproduction is the appropriate remedy.
Greer's passion in this book is for fertility, not for actual children—another position similar to that of the New Rightists, who defend the fetus's “right to life” but advocate cutting support for child care, education and child abuse prevention programs. Children figure in this book only as assets which parents have or don't have; there is very little feel for the actual enjoyments of parenthood. On the contrary, the accusation that our culture is child-hating is not a defense of children, but reveals Greer's hostility toward adults:
Drinking and flirting, the principal expressions of adult festivity, are both inhibited by the presence of children. Eventually our raucousness wakes them and they watch our activities through the stair rails and learn to despise us. …
So much adult amusement stems from matters ribald or malicious that even lighthearted conversation is censored for the younger generation.
As if adult conversation in “traditional” society was neither ribald nor malicious!
Greer's value system, to give credit where credit is due, is more consistent than that of the New Right. The New Rightists employ what they call a “fusionist” perspective, uniting traditionalism on “social” issues (such as sex, abortion and women's rights) with a progrowth, big-capital economic policy. Greer is a bit more old-fashioned in her conservatism, romanticizing rural life and condemning commercial as well as feminist values.
It is irritating to read and wearying to review a book so careless and bitter. Still, two aspects of it are provocative: its popularity and its relation to Greer's past work. The positive reception of the book illuminates those areas where New-Right thinking, repressive and pessimistic, has influenced even the liberal gentry. Greer has been a feminist media star noted for her defense of women's sexual and professional achievement. Her arguments in Sex and Destiny are patent rejections of her earlier positions. Yet it is hard to avoid noticing a certain political continuity. The Female Eunuch articulated the aspirations and frustrations of women who had considerable resources and opportunities in their lives; it had little connection with the aspirations and frustrations of women without money, education or status. Greer formulated her feminist demands in the direction of the individual's right to achievement. Perhaps it is logical that the extreme emphasis on individualism in her earlier stance would eventually produce a conversion experience. But what we need now is not one more wild swing of the pendulum back toward social conservatism but a recognition of the tension between individual freedom and nurturing bonds, a tension by no means always destructive.
SOURCE: “Sex and Superstition,” in New York Review of Books, May 31, 1984, pp. 15-6, 18.
[In the following negative review of Sex and Destiny, Singer finds fault with Greer's cultural relativism, inconsistencies, and “absurdities.”]
Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch was perhaps the most brilliant, and certainly one of the most influential, of the wave of feminist books that appeared in the early 1970s. As the title suggested, Greer pictured women as pressured into a stereotypical female role which effectively castrated them, forcing them to deny their sexuality and to see themselves as wives and mothers, ministering to the needs of others instead of being true to their own natures. It was a polemical work, but a persuasive one. It caught the mood of the times and led many women to assert their own sexuality, shattering the bonds of convention that had repressed their mothers and grandmothers.
Greer's new book deals with our attitudes to reproduction, with particular attention to attempts by Western scientists and population agencies to persuade other nations to use the new fertility control methods recently developed in the West. As an offshoot of this theme, Greer argues that Western society places too much importance on “recreational sex” and has become positively hostile to children. It is because of these attitudes that we are so committed to devices like oral contraceptives and IUDs. If we were less concerned about recreational sex and more concerned about children, we might regulate our having children by the rhythm method, by coitus interruptus, or even, like the Dani people of Irian Jaya, by sexual abstinence for a period of four to six years after the birth of a child.
Like The Female Eunuch,Sex and Destiny is a polemical work, and much of it is concerned with sex, but there the resemblance ends. It is far longer than The Female Eunuch, but not nearly so persuasive. The wit and brilliance displayed in the earlier book now struggle vainly to surface amid a seemingly endless series of scholarly quotations, mixed with anecdotes drawn from Greer's travels in India and Italy. More striking still, however, is the contrast between the conclusions of the two books. On the basis of The Female Eunuch, Greer was acclaimed as one of the leaders of feminist thought. But if feminism stands for the belief that women should not be inferior to men in the power they exercise over their own lives and over the community in which they live, Sex and Destiny makes it hard to see Greer as a feminist at all. She has become, instead, an apologist for social institutions that keep women in their place: at home with the children.
Here is one revealing and characteristic passage, taken from the first chapter of the book. Having described the isolation from the family in which Western children are allegedly born and reared, Greer cites a description of child rearing in Bangladesh:
In Bangladesh children under the age of five or six are looked after by the whole family. All the children of the joint family are looked after together. They are taken to the pond for a bath perhaps by one daughter-in-law. … Perhaps the youngest daughter-in-law has cooked the meal. Another woman feeds them. … Maybe there is a favourite aunt, she tells them [fairy] stories. But at night when they get sleepy they always go to their mother and sleep in her embrace.
Greer refers to this as a “rosy picture” and while acknowledging that “the system does not always work as well,” she seems in no doubt of its superiority to modern Western methods of child rearing. She appears not to notice that this description of children being looked after “by the whole family” is in fact an account of children being looked after entirely by women. This is all the more extraordinary because only a few pages earlier Greer had criticized northwestern European civilization for its tendency to separate children from parents: “The most privileged people in protestant Europe have traditionally seen least of their children.” Clearly the most privileged people in Bangladesh are men, and from the account cited, they see even less of their children than the most privileged people of Protestant Europe.
It is entirely consistent with the themes of her book that Greer should take no notice of the blatantly sexist assumptions about child rearing made by her informant on family life in Bangladesh. For Greer now rejects the common feminist assumption that women are conditioned into seeing motherhood as their prime function in life. To the contrary, she regards modern Western society as fundamentally opposed to childbearing:
It used to be a truism of feminist theory that women were railroaded into motherhood by the expectations of their parents and their in-laws. In the view of this writer, such forms of persuasion and pressure as the kin group can bring to bear pale into utter insignificance next to the powerful disincentives which are offered by the actual social context in which the would-be childbearer lives.
Nor does Greer agree with feminists who see the role of motherhood as a restrictive one:
We have at least to consider the possibility that a successful matriarch might well pity Western feminists for having been duped into futile competition with men in exchange for the companionship and love of children and other women.
The reader is left wondering whether Greer believes that having given up the “futile” competition, women will be able to rely on the compassion and nobility of males as a bulwark against repression. But then, perhaps even repression does not matter too much, because Greer later suggests that “the fact that women are not free to follow their own inclinations and preferences in sexual matters may not be experienced by the woman as a restriction, for she is not encouraged to internalize the repressive mechanism or to cultivate an image of herself as powerless or passive.” In support of this claim, Greer tells us of Hindu and Tamil beliefs about the dangerous powers women possess, and the need for them to be kept under control by puberty rites, menstrual taboos, and widow restrictions.
There is something slightly absurd about the solemn respect with which Greer treats these exotic superstitions. If they were Western doctrines, every feminist—even the author of Sex and Destiny—would denounce them as transparent devices for maintaining male dominance. (Have feminists ever regarded the myths surrounding the importance of motherhood in Western society as any compensation for the fact that it is so much harder for women than for men to achieve leadership in Western society?) When these beliefs are the beliefs of a mysterious non-Western culture, however, Greer accepts them as ingenious ways of overcoming problems inherent in the human condition.
This humility before the wisdom of the East, or the South, or the Tuscan peasant, stands in sharp contrast to the views expressed in The Female Eunuch. There, in her section “The Wicked Womb,” Greer asserted that we still are ignorant and wary of the female reproductive organs, and described our attitude to menstruation as part of the “atavistic fear” surrounding the womb. Hindu, Moslem, and Jewish beliefs that a menstruating woman is unclean were cited as evidence of this pervasive fear, although Greer found some evidence that “enlightenment is creeping into this field at its usual pace.”
The Greer of Sex and Destiny must have changed her mind about menstruation, for in addition to her newfound respect for Hindu menstruation rituals, she is quite prepared to sneer at the very Western attitudes that she previously characterized as enlightened: in a section attacking the “tremendous sexual orthodoxy” of modern Western society, she scoffs that “refraining from sexual intercourse during menstruation is deemed fainthearted.”
In this obeisance before the folk wisdom and the religious superstitions of every culture but her own, we can find the clue to Greer's break with feminism. She has embraced some muddled form of cultural relativism, according to which we in the West have no right to criticize any other culture. “What is our civilization,” she asks, “that we should so blithely propagate its discontents?”—and she continues with other, presumably equally rhetorical, questions, such as “Why should we erect the model of recreational sex in the public places of all the world?” and more pointedly still, “Who are we to invade the marriage bed of veiled women?”
There is no denying that our civilization is far from ideal; but if we seriously believe that feminist principles have no application to the women of non-Western societies, our feminism cannot run very deep. Since most cultures are sexist, to refuse to criticize the beliefs and practices of other cultures is equivalent to acceptance of sexist beliefs and practices.
This is exactly what we find in Sex and Destiny. For instance, Greer finds that the Islamic religion treats “the lowest and least prestigious groups as deserving of the same respect as the highest” and that, accordingly, in veiling its women, Moslems are “conferring upon them a new kind of value and, hence, self-respect.” She appears to admire the “heroic determination” of Yanomamo Indian women, who submit themselves to a method of abortion that consists of the pregnant woman lying on her back while a friend jumps on her belly. And perhaps most oddly of all, whereas the author of The Female Eunuch poured her fiercest vitriol on the Western tendency to deny female sexuality and misrepresent it as “passivity,” the new Greer has nothing to say against the “value systems” of Mediterranean societies like the Greek Sarakatsani shepherds, who believe that “intercourse must occur in darkness, without speech, and the woman must remain motionless and passive.” This value system, Greer tells us, is a way of “promoting the importance of sexuality.” She doesn't tell us if it is specifically female sexuality that it is so effective in promoting.
Greer's form of cultural relativism is misconceived. It may arise out of a well-meaning and sensible desire to avoid ignorant Western tampering with social practices that have important beneficial consequences. For instance, as Greer points out in her discussion of infanticide, many societies have used infanticide as a means of spacing dependent children, who would become an impossible burden if there were too many at any one time. Westerners encountering this practice for the first time may find it shocking, and try to stamp it out, without realizing that in the absence of any alternative method of spacing dependent off-spring, the results will be disastrous both for the children and for their mothers. A better understanding of the practices of any society may lead us to see virtue in what at first seemed horrific.
From this simple truth, however, it certainly does not follow that all cultures are equally good, or that we are never justified in criticizing the social practices of a different culture. Sometimes social practices will not benefit the society as a whole, but only one section of it, and at great cost to another section of the society. Slave societies are obvious examples, but a feminist would not need to be reminded of the fact that some social practices exist for the exclusive benefit of the dominant group. We must sometimes choose between, on the one hand, the principles of sexual equality that are expressed in feminism, and, on the other, our desires to avoid the cultural imperialism that seems to be implicit in suggesting that the traditional ways of doing things are not always the best. On the evidence of this book, Greer has not chosen feminism.
Greer's unthinking acceptance of an untenable form of cultural relativism is one major reason for rejecting many of her conclusions. But even without this, her book is so riddled with inconsistencies, errors, and downright absurdities that it cannot stand as a serious work.
First, some examples of the inconsistencies. The theme of the first chapter of Sex and Destiny is that we in the West do not like children: “modern society,” Greer tells us, “is unique in that it is profoundly hostile to children.” Greer suggests, as we have already seen, that Western society offers powerful disincentives to childbearing, and that it is “anti-child.” As evidence she offers an English restaurant which advises patrons to “leave under-fourteens and dogs at home.”
If these claims do not strike a responsive chord, and the evidence cited seems insufficient, there is no need to take the trouble of finding counterinstances. Greer does it for you. In the second chapter she writes of our extreme reluctance to tolerate involuntary sterility, and in the third chapter she tells us that “Western women may spend a fortune and masochistically undergo repeated surgical procedures in an attempt to bear a child.” If this does not create confusion enough, she also throws in the suggestion that our attempts to regulate the fertility of others derive from our fear that the exploding populations of the world will challenge our own subgroup and “compromise our survival as the biggest, richest, greediest and most numerous group on earth.” Greer apparently sees no need to reconcile this suggestion with the fact that she has just been belaboring Western society for its hostility to children and the difficulties it puts in the way of childbearing.
For a second example of Greer's confusion about what she really wants, consider her attitude to eugenics. She devotes a forty-six-page chapter to retelling the story of the eugenics movement, from the Social Darwinists through Francis Galton and Hermann Muller to William Shockley. The tone, as might be expected, is one of contempt and horror:
Practical eugenics denies all the values which justify our civilization. When we have a clearer idea of our own ignorance, we shall see that eugenics is more barbarous than cannibalism and far more destructive.
In preferring cannibalism to eugenics, Greer was no doubt influenced by the assumption that eugenics is a Western idea, while cannibalism belongs to those other cultures that are so much wiser than our own. Unfortunately she has forgotten that in an earlier chapter, discussing infanticide, she came to precisely the opposite conclusion: there she praised infanticide as practiced by non-Western societies, describing it as a method of “culling the newborn.” In unfavorable contrast to such practices, she describes modern man (yes, “man”) as having a greater chance of “bearing genetically incompetent children” and yet still being morally bound to keep children alive as long as is humanly possible.
These unreconciled contradictions suggest that the book was written with insufficient care. It appears to have been researched in the same style. There is, for instance, a brief account of the development of in vitro fertilization—“test-tube babies” as the press likes to describe it. The discussion appears to be based on a two-page article that appeared in Science in 1978, and even this article has not been properly taken into account. Greer describes Patrick Steptoe as working at Cambridge on the fertilization of animal ova in a petri dish, and then “sneaking” off to “Royston” to try out the technique on human patients. She also asserts that “his experiments were the outcome of millions spent on luxury research.”
This account is garbled from beginning to end. Patrick Steptoe never worked at Cambridge and never did experiments on animal ova in petri dishes. Steptoe is a gynecologist whose major contribution to in vitro fertilization was his skill at laparoscopy, a then-novel technique for seeing inside a patient's abdomen. This technique made it possible to recover ripe eggs from the ovary, for fertilization in the laboratory. The work on animal ova was carried out by Robert Edwards, a Cambridge scientist. It was modestly funded and did not receive “millions” (though in any case it is not easy to see why Greer, who considers fertility to be of such paramount importance, should consider this “luxury” research). Edwards did not “sneak” away to conduct experiments on human patients. He contacted Steptoe after reading a paper Steptoe had written on laparoscopy, and suggested that they team up in an attempt to help some of Steptoe's infertile patients. The work was done at Royton (not “Royston”) near Oldham, because that is where Steptoe had his practice and his research facilities, and there were no funds available to set up similar facilities in Cambridge.
This instance is enough to suggest that the reader should not take Greer as a reliable authority when she discusses recent developments in fertility research—and large sections of the book discuss just that. It also seems that Greer is unreliable on other subjects. She criticizes Ferdinand Mount, “that champion of the nuclear family,” for failing to notice that Jesus Christ had no brothers or sisters. Had Greer read the Gospel according to Matthew, she would have known that Jesus had at least four brothers, and sisters too. (Or were they only stepbrothers and stepsister? But this fine point would scarcely help Greer. See Matthew 13:54-57; see also Matthew 12:46-47 and John 7:1-10.)
Even with respect to the subject of her doctorate—Shakespeare—Greer is disappointing. She commits the common but nonetheless deplorable error of using the quotation “a custom more honored in the breach than the observance” as if it meant simply that the custom was more often broken than observed. Hamlet meant, rather, that the custom that had been mentioned was one that it would be more honorable to break than to observe.
Finally, Greer makes statements that are not so much errors as absurdities. What is the reader to think when confronted with a flat statement that in our society “the role of mother is socially marginal”? How about: “Common morality now treats childbearing as an aberration; there are practically no good reasons left for exercising one's fertility.” Perhaps the limits of silliness are reached with this comment on voluntary sterilization: “Sterilization is not a substitute for contraception because it is the destruction of fertility: it makes as much sense as blinding a man who needs glasses.” Vivid prose is one thing, but this kind of nonsense can only irritate the reader and discredit the writer.
All of this is a pity, because struggling within the fat of Sex and Destiny is the skeleton of a good book waiting to be written. No doubt there is much wrong with the way in which Western population experts go about trying to persuade people in other countries to control their fertility. It would be valuable to have a careful study of the mistakes that such experts have made, and the ways in which we need to be more sensitive to the cultures of other people. Greer might have even been able to make plausible her startling contention that the best forms of birth control for most people are those that require no technology at all—the rhythm method, coitus interruptus, and sexual abstinence—backed by easy access to safe abortion. She might even have been able to say something challenging about the importance that Western society places on sex, as compared with the importance we place on enjoying our children. This would have been an interesting and provocative book.
Unfortunately Sex and Destiny is not that book. In her preface—which she dramatically entitles “Warning”—Greer says that the function of polemical writing is to stimulate creative thought and to break down “settled certainties.” To challenge orthodoxy successfully, however, it is necessary to argue carefully, accurately, and consistently. This Greer has not done. The only conventional opinions that Sex and Destiny is likely to change are those about Greer's argumentative skills, and her commitment to feminism.
SOURCE: “Feminism Ad Absurdum,” in Commentary, Vol. 78, No. 2, August, 1984, pp. 71-2.
[In the following review, Iannone offers unfavorable assessment of Sex and Destiny.]
Anyone reading this book might find it hard to believe that its author also wrote one of contemporary feminism's pioneering texts. The Female Eunuch (1970) was a racy, radical, best-selling manifesto that posited sexual freedom as the key to women's liberation. Germaine Greer, with her disheveled Anna Magnani-style sexiness and sharp dry Cambridge wit, became a talk-show and counterculture celebrity, shocking her then perhaps eager-to-be-shocked audiences with outrageous ideas, such as the obsolescence of marriage and the dispensability of underwear.
Times of course have changed, but even changing times cannot fully account for what appear to be the violent reversals of her newest book. To be sure, Miss Greer has not lost her power to shock. Where The Female Eunuch deplored every inhibition placed on women by the patriarchal West, the present book manages a good word for such Third World practices as the veil, menstrual segregation, and even polygamy. Where The Female Eunuch preached spontaneous self-realization against the oppressive forces of civilization, the present book speaks glowingly of the self-sacrificing collectivity of extended families in underdeveloped countries. Where The Female Eunuch suggested that we find ways to deepen our sexual delight (because “the sexual personality is basically anti-authoritarian”), the present book decries the cooptation of sex by consumer society and tersely recommends chastity as a form of birth control.
In Miss Greer's current view, the West is now oversexed, subfertile, and hopelessly materialistic. Our skimpy nuclear families are centered on the consumer-oriented “copulating couple,” who indulge in “recreational sex” and barely manage to turn out a child or two as they contend for orgasmic bliss. In addition, because of our insistence on genital sex without conception, we have accepted the dangerous pharmacological hardware of modern birth control, and lost the ability to remain chaste or to employ the healthy varieties of anal sex and coitus interruptus.
Moreover—and this is the second theme of the book—we are, true to our imperialist selves, enforcing our own corrosive arrangements all over the world. Miss Greer excoriates Western efforts at birth control in developing countries. Declaring that overpopulation is a myth concocted by elderly right-wing millionaires, she argues that we are imposing our own hatred of children, together with our fevered consumerism, on countries where children are loved and enjoyed—all to insure that the darker races not inherit the earth.
Sex and Destiny contains so many startling shifts in thought that one might expect they would be accompanied by deep soul-searching and lengthy explanations. In fact, they are barely acknowledged. A few superficial admissions here and there cannot disguise the profound lack of self-insight that is one of the book's presiding deficiencies. Nowhere in this 500-page harangue, for instance, is there any speculation on how Miss Greer's own former beliefs helped prepare the ground for the state of affairs she perceives today. Traditions she attacked and helped destroy in The Female Eunuch still receive from her nothing like the sympathy she now extends to traditions supposedly threatened by the advance of imperialist capitalism.
The book's weighty scholarship is suspiciously one-sided in its deployment. Miss Greer catalogues anything incriminating she can find in Western practices and omits anything that might serve as balance. One needs to read between the lines to surmise that great numbers of women in developing countries are gladly availing themselves of birth-control devices, Miss Greer's rehearsal of the horrors associated with them notwithstanding. After hearing idealized stories of the tender care afforded the elderly in traditional societies, one is startled to be reminded (in a separate context, of course) that there are far fewer old people in these countries than in our own—a factor that might well influence differing approaches to the problem.
In truth, despite plentiful research, most of Sex and Destiny is simply an angry, impressionistic, and tendentious tirade against the Western way of life. Traditional societies are described at their best; ours at its worst. Sunny Third World moppets disport themselves with loving female kin while irate Western mothers stuff sweets into the mouths of their screaming young to quiet their greed. Stately, beloved matriarchs are contrasted with our own lonely “blue-rinse widows.” When Miss Greer speaks of the hapless Indian surrounded by children he cannot afford, she compassionately invokes the mysterious powers of sensuality under which he has struggled and lost. Our own failures at chastity, however, are simply due to selfishness, laziness, and irresponsibility. Even the book's one or two tender moments are edged and sharpened by disdain for the West. She remarks on the sweetness of children, but cannot resist adding that this sweetness is more apparent to people worn out from toil than to our own “smooth-skinned, overfed selves.”
The West, then, is utterly worthless, and Miss Greer cannot use the word democracy without putting it in quotation marks. We have, according to her, no values; what values we think we have, we have no right to promote. She openly declares that the annihilation of our whole civilization would be of little consequence. A feminist counterpart of those starry-eyed Western travelers to totalitarian dictatorships, Miss Greer praises or condones practices in underdeveloped countries—abruptly dismissing clitoridectomy and the unbelievably barbaric practice of female circumcision—that she would never tolerate in her own.
Miss Greer thinks as little of the natural processes which gave her life as she does of the civilization that nurtured her. Despite, or perhaps because of, her own prodigious and much chronicled sexual indulgence, her hatred of sex, men, and biology itself runs deep. She remarks with irritation on the wastefulness of the human reproductive process: “billions of sperm are doomed to struggle and die completely pointlessly.” But sperm at least call up some admiration in her for being “lively,” while their female counterpart, the blastocyst, earns Miss Greer's contempt: “torpid,” “passive,” “lumbering.” In her promotion of anal sex, one senses a scorn of the womb; despite her frenzied enthusiasm for large families, she commends the Marquis de Sade for calling this form of sex “‘la plus délicieuse’ of the ways of cheating nature.” In the insistent way in which she argues for coitus interruptus, one senses a disdain for male potency (she characterizes male ejaculation as the “trivial spasm,” although elsewhere she is forced to concede that it is this “spasm” that produces life).
Ironically enough, given her “liberation,” Miss Greer does not really seem capable of handling the immense freedom of Western women; certainly she praises more prohibitive arrangements as superior. Although she reasserts in this book her old sentimental belief that it is only the consumerization of sex she deplores, and that human libido can renew the earth, she means by this nothing so definite as the urge to reproduce. This libido, rather, appears to be an ideological construct, Miss Greer's vague and fitful version of the God she cannot bring herself to believe in.
In the end, after one has considered the startling reversals of Miss Greer's earlier views, a certain demented continuity emerges. For what Sex and Destiny most clearly reveals is that feminism—at least in its messianic, world-transforming manifestations—was less a rational program with fixed goals than an irrational shriek of hatred against the human condition itself, one that will not be silenced until every aspect of life, with its attendant irregularity, imperfection, and inequality, has been eradicated. This book is a reversal of feminism only if one assumes that feminism is the humane movement it purports to be. In fact the book is no reversal at all, but a logical, if absurd, conclusion.
SOURCE: “Her Own Thing,” in New Statesman, November 21, 1986, pp. 29-30.
[In the following review, Maitland offers unfavorable assessment of The Madwoman's Underclothes.]
When I was an undergraduate I heard Germaine Greer speak: she was indeed weird and wonderful and, as it turned out, the evening transformed my life. A short while later I bought a copy of The Female Eunuch and pored over it—alone and with others—and thus she was the instrument, if the image may be so pressed, of my birthing into feminism. I owe her a debt of gratitude which I suspect is shared by many women, even though I am sure that if I read the book again I would be appalled by its contents and amazed at the impact that it had on me.
I relate all this anecdotal stuff only because it explains how I come to approach The Madwoman's Underclothes with the sort of tolerance that is normally reserved for beloved but slightly senile old ladies. I truly want to do the best I can for her, as I attempt to make something coherent out of this collection of her ‘essays and occasional writings, 1968-1985’. Because, dear God, she really is bonkers. What we see in the progression through these 50 or so pieces of, predominantly, journalistic writing is libertarian individualism running amok and ending up not in anarchic chaos, as our elders and betters once feared, but in a manic individualism which is frequently charming, occasionally brilliant and fundamentally arrogant and patronising. Right from the beginning in the Oz pieces of the late 1960s she conflated ‘doing your own thing’ with ‘political revolution’. ‘To kill a man is simply murder: it is revolution to turn him on.’ (Go tell that to the ANC or, indeed, any serious revolutionary, even a feminist one.)
Perhaps it is not really fair to hold such youthful expressions against anyone but, first, Greer has chosen to reissue these burblings and, second, in them lie the seeds of her improbable present conviction: that she is the only person in the world who has got it right. These papers cover an enormous diversity of subjects, from vaginal deodorants to the distribution of aid in Ethiopia, with underclothes, premenstrual syndrome, cosmetic surgery and transexualism thrown in, and in none of these articles does anyone, by name or by ideology, come in for any praise (except possibly the Cuban women's organisation who, they'll be glad to hear, are doing more or less okay). Well, not no one—there is one person who knows where it's at and will be pleased to correct you, and that is Dr Greer herself. Most recently she has taken up the causes of various victim groups, as she sees them, in the Third World. It is not her sincerity that is in doubt here; it is her conviction that no one else in the whole of the West is sincere. And interestingly she ends up speaking of them exactly as Victorian men spoke of women: they are purer, nobler in their suffering and poverty than we can ever be; they are ‘closer to nature’ and able to teach us moral truths so long as we do not contaminate them with our evil materialism; they are too innocent to know what they really need, but luckily they have Greer to tell them.
Despite my delight in her stunt acts, my old debt and my agreement with so many things she says, none of this is enough. Feminism was born out of libertarianism and has had to struggle to grow out of it, to replace manic individualism with solidarity and discipline itself with political analysis. Of course we need that crazy flamboyance too, but Greer does not write like someone who is auditioning for the role of Court Jester, more like someone applying for the job of God. Frankly, despite the mess we are in—which she so often notes perceptively—this career opportunity is not currently being advertised.
SOURCE: “Notes of a Nag and a Roisterer,” in New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1987, p. 14.
[In the following review, Blandford offers positive assessment of The Madwoman's Underclothes.]
Germaine Greer has never truly been a writer. Her spirit has illuminated her written word as if the very act of expressing herself were but a brief, rushed gathering-up of her living. She is, perhaps, one of the marvelous letter writers of an age that no longer trifles with them much. Her essays, columns and books—transcripts as they are of a heroic heart and intellect—seem to have been dashed off in the fire and dispatched to her many sisters. Feminism as a literary family.
To come unawares upon The Madwoman's Underclothes, a collection of her essays from 1968 to 1985, is to intrude unexpectedly into another's family reunion. All those private jokes, shared memories, intimate confidences, demands and contradictions: a noisy, emotional, overbearing, lusty family, loving and cursing across the dinner table. Incomprehensible, or simply an embarrassment, to those who are not of it and hungering for its warmth. It is not, after all, the madwoman's collection of hats that is at stake here but her underclothes. (“In Australia,” Ms. Greer has said elsewhere, “if you leave your room in a terrible mess, your mother says: ‘Look at this room … it's like a madwoman's underclothes.’” The journey of woman's life defies order and good taste—if she is lucky.)
It is not possible, in short, to read these essays dispassionately, to approach this as a book per se. Here are our history, our gladdened days, our shame and disappointments. Germaine Greer is nearing 50 now. She lives in a farmhouse in the English countryside: rain boots by the back door, everything wind-weathered and drizzle-gray. Her public and youthful randiness settled into big-heartedness, perhaps.
This collection—arbitrary, quixotic, untidy—starts when Germaine Greer was a lecturer in English at Warwick University, a dull and worthy town, a good third choice for the best undergraduates. She was Australian—a synonym then in middle-class, prim-lipped parlors for being brash, vulgar, easy. Being an outsider gave her freedom, however. She wrote, largely unpaid, for Oz (as in Ozzie, Aussie, Australian), an underground paper in England that was then being prosecuted under the obscenity laws and became a famous counterculture rallying point.
In 1970 came The Female Eunuch—denouncing the image of woman unable to love, only to bargain, worship or be worshipped, an object, a sexual marionette. It was a clarion call and was followed by the debates in New York's Town Hall with Norman Mailer—much of the tension of which, we see now in wiser days, hinged on her sexuality. It mattered that she was so desirable, he so used to desiring.
There were many such battles over the years, most of which are chronicled here: about abortion, rape, pornography, seduction as “a four-letter word.” She wrote for The Sunday Times of London at its most trendy, before Rupert Murdoch. There was, most of the time, a sexual roistering to her writing. But also, apropos of abortion: “The compelled mother loves her child as the caged bird sings. The song does not justify the cage nor the love the enforcement.”
Her strengths and weaknesses, successes and failures are all here; they are the human stumblings of feminism itself, wanting it all while wanting none of it. There was the lure of becoming a celebrity, a television personality, a pop expert and thereby colluding with the censors about The Acceptable. The Sunday Times, in the end, started to spike her riskier, more controversial columns. She was a nag when she was meant to amuse. She still is. Fortunately.
It is hard to quote much of her early writing here: her usual expletives could hardly be Acceptable. It is the language not of the family breakfast table but of the women's baths. In truth, much of her early writing is also irritating. How innocent it seems now, gamboling over naked bodies and others' beds. How irrelevant after AIDS, how childish after Chernobyl.
Unlike most collections of journalism, it is the later writing that is the finer. Here is what she did not grow into: a whiner or wimp, embittered, tired, smug or even very rational (a point with which she might disagree). She, as others, in the end turned to embrace the wider world. Vietnam, briefly, but later Brazil, Ethiopia (drawn by disgust at “the media binge on pictures of the dead and dying”).
It will be said, of course, that she is politically naïve. (“The Cubans are involved after all in a much bigger adventure than sex, speed and smack could possibly supply. Their morale is towering.”) But at heart, she is on the side of neither regimes nor ideology but of individuals. The best essay of all describes, in the long introduction, her time in a poor village in the south of Italy: Mariuzz', her 8-year-old “escort”; Rosetta, the young unmarried woman waiting for marriage; the Mafiosi bombing the fish. Not a word of invective and each word convincing.
The Madwoman's Underclothes, like the feminist movement, is nevertheless about being white, middle-class and well-educated. The empathy with those who are poor, black, brown, in terror or dying is, in the end, that of a traveler from another, bountiful land. We cannot help it. It is the condition of privilege. At least, let it be said that Ms. Greer is not afraid to look, to care. Poverty, hunger, oppression, despair: here is Death's dominion. And to attack Germaine Greer would be to betray one's own to the enemy.
SOURCE: “Mother Country,” in The New Republic, March 26, 1990, pp. 33-5.
[In the following review, Lee offers positive evaluation of Daddy, We Hardly Knew You.]
The real problem is Mummy. “Reg Greer” is called Daddy by his middle-aged daughter, even after his death, because she would still like to love him, and would like him to have loved her. But Mummy, very much alive, is never called anything else but “Mother,” a word, we are told at the outset, “admirably adapted for saying through clenched teeth.” As the world's most famous feminist sets out, teeth clenched, across the world in search of her father's true life story, she is balked, mocked, and misled by her terrible mother, who sits perpetually tanning her aged body on her sunbed in a Melbourne suburb, made up to the nines and shrieking with demonic laughter.
It's an Australian version of Conrad's grimly knitting ladies, placed like Norns or “tricoteuses” at the gateway of Marlow's journey toward the fraudulent Kurtz. To account for the catastrophic ill luck and frustration that dog her quest toward her own particular heart of darkness, Greer evolves a fantasy of a primal elder's curse, like Noah's curse on his sons for uncovering his nakedness. One myth tends to leak into another with this global thinker, so the biblical curse turns into a pact with an Indian goddess and a pursuit by the Eumenides. These Furies bear a marked resemblance to one inescapable figure. Who forced the father to plead and sob, who “foamed at the mouth” like a “mad dog,” who took all the old man's possessions and threw him out to die, who never cared enough to find out who he really was? Who called the daughter a foul-mouthed liar and told her that everything she ever achieved was rubbish? Why, mother, mother, mother!
It might seem surprising that Germaine Greer, whose life as a performer and writer has been dedicated to establishing a coherent system of values for women, should present us with “mother” as the embodiment of sadism and stupidity. In fact, the combination of terrible mother and fraudulent daddy is the key to her life's work. Daddy, We Hardly Knew You is an autobiography (and a detective novel, and a travelogue, and a history of Australia, and a collection of the usual breathtakingly opinionated Greerisms) that reveals the autobiographies inside the earlier “public” works.
Greer introduced her 1988 collection of essays, The Madwoman's Underclothes, with a euphoric reminiscence of her first experience, twenty years before, of peasant life in Calabria. Like Daddy …, it is a story of pride before a fall: one of Greer's most endearing characteristics is that she never minds looking a fool. Arriving with a baggage of hip Western prejudices about freedom, independence, and sexiness, she began to learn the virtue of traditional communal life from her neighbors' extended families. The son of the shepherd next door was embarrassed for her that she had no husband and no mother:
His voice would drop to a whisper, as if he was asking something deeply shameful, “Why did your mother send you away?” I tried a hundred ways of answering that one, but to Mariuzz, not loving your mother above all earthly things was unimaginable. If I tried to explain that I left home at eighteen and neither my mother nor I ever tried to make contact, his face became haggard with trying to understand such a nightmare.
The memory culminates in an emotional celebration of “the only perfect love … not sexual love, which is riddled with hostility and insecurity, but the wordless commitment of families, which takes as its model mother-love.”
This early education in nontechnological, extended family living was the basis, she says, of all her writing. Lately, Greer has been accused of betraying her past. Those who cut their teeth on the radical liberationism of The Female Eunuch were dismayed by Sex and Destiny's reactionary and sentimental preference for matriarchal peasant families over the liberated, “child-hating” West. Certainly the tone has changed from the raunchy outrageousness of Greer's sixties style: the voice of the Oz trial and the Town Hall Mailer duel and the Amsterdam Wet Dream Film Festival and Suck (“the first non-sadomasochistic sex paper”), telling us to drink our own menstrual blood, abandon the missionary position, and throw away our underwear. Now it's all heartfelt polemic about the evil effects on the underdeveloped world of Western technology, or the inadequate international responses to the Ethiopian famines.
Still, she is right to insist on her consistency. She has always taken a high moral tone on the nastiest effects of capitalism, from cultural imperialism to pornography. “It is curious,” she says in The Madwoman's Underclothes, “to find myself an architect of the permissive society, when all the time I was one of its bitterest opponents.” Her romantic attraction to Third World matriarchies provided her from the start with an antidote to the sexual narcissism of the West. Now we can see the roots of the argument.
Daddy … is full of alternative family models, like the calm, graceful (and wholly idealized) Brahman household of her hosts in India, or the good-humored friendliness of a Queensland country party. What they contrast with, of course, is “mother.” After her first visit to a rural Australian family home, at fifteen, Germaine told her father that “these country women were real people”:
If we lived in the country I reckoned Mother's energy would be absorbed, and not frittered away in flightiness. “I didn't know women could be like that,” I said. “Like what?” Resourceful, straightforward, capable, funny, proud, independent, you know.” I might have said, “Not vain, capricious, manipulative, unreliable, girlish, affected, infantile.”
That unspoken reply became The Female Eunuch.
Since so much of her writing consists of prescriptions for family life, Greer's own childlessness is a bitter irony, which this book touches on with dignity. (I was less moved by her compensating soppiness about animals, from the red Essex cat who shares her moods to the squashed kangaroos on the Queensland roads.) “A woman with neither father, husband, nor son,” she sets out, in a sense, to give birth to her own father, to re-create him, to take possession of him: “I wanted to find my own father, not my mother's husband.” Giving birth to the real “Reg Greer” is a process as painful, mentally, as parturition, and comes to feel more like a death than a birth. But it involves a more positive form of re-creation, too, a subversive rewriting of the male history that created female eunuchs like “mother” and failed fathers like “daddy.” So the book takes an exhilarating revenge, not only on a father and mother, but also on a mother-country.
Revenge, though, is embroiled with the need to know and the need to forgive. (These mixed motives are compounded, as “mother” is the first to observe, by the need to earn back a large advance from Heinemann. At times, as Germaine tours the world, appears on chat shows, and consults famous friends in her pursuit of the Greers, the whole thing takes on the look of a canny promotional package: great locations, great plot, and all that human stuff.)
There seems to have been a great deal to forgive. What she remembers about Daddy is, first, that he wasn't there. When she was five, he came back from the war, looking old and ill. That was in 1944. Thereafter, he kept his clever, aggressive, curious daughter at bay. He never hugged her. He never praised her. He favored her brother. He made silly jokes when she asked him questions. He told her nothing about himself. He despised everything that was beginning to interest her: books, music, culture, the wider world. She “hardly knew him”—and then she left home.
Forty years after his return from the war, she went back to Australia because he was dying, and found him, abandoned and pauperized, in a horrible derelicts' hostel: “In every subtle and crazy detail the work of my mother.” Rescuing him, and watching him die, her ignorance of him began to obsess her. In an article written before this book, she described (with a typical mixture of vulgar sentimentality and urgent curiosity) “a certain expression” that she found in his face in the last few months of his life, “an almost indescribable look which contained elements of trust and puzzlement, of skepticism and innocence. It was as if all the veils of social attitudinizing and defensiveness had been stripped away and for an awful moment I could see into my father's soul.” What was in there?
She knew a few things. Reg Greer was a newspaper advertising salesman, but he was “posh”: dapper, leisured, condescending to his peers. He was supposed to be English, born in South Africa to parents passing through Natal on their way to a “temporary sojourn” in Australia, and brought up in Launceston, Tasmania. In 1937, when he was thirty-two, he married Peggy LaFrank, a part-Italian Catholic nineteen-year-old would-be model, whose family, in true Australian style—“no names, no pack drill is the Australian way”—didn't bother to find out anything more about him than that he seemed “a good bloke.” In the war, he worked on secret “cipher duties” in Cairo and Malta. He told everyone he had endured the terrible siege of Malta in 1942. Invalided out for “bronchial catarrh” and “anxiety neurosis,” he came home via India, which he hated. For the rest of his life, he resisted any attempts to fill in the gaps in this patchy and dubious biography.
“Reg Greer” turns out to be a hollow man, a set of ignominious secrets. One of the few true facts, his war work for ULTRA, the Allied operation for decoding German signals, seems too good to be true, since Germaine's decoding of Reg Greer's ciphers begins and ends with misleading documents. She has a passion for libraries—places where Reg Greer would never have set foot—and (hence) takes a naive and touching pleasure in describing herself in them. She forges through bureaucracies worthy of an Australian Dickens: the Registrar-General's Offices in Hobart and Melbourne, the Archives Office of Tasmania, the Melbourne Veterans Affairs building. Like the RAF intelligence officers in wartime (“our deception people,” as the bosses called them), she “sinks up to her armpits in bumf”: her parents' marriage certificate, back issues of Tasmanian newspapers, passenger lists of ships, her father's RAF forms, his repatriation file. … What she can't track down is his birth certificate. As she tours the world and comes back full circle on her “demented pilgrimage,” “Daddy” falls apart.
His war illness, it transpires, was anorexia—a pitiable and “girlish” disease—not the strain of the Malta bombardment, which he in fact missed by several weeks. Like the faked-up war record, the “posh” manner, the “English” background were all an act. There were no English Greers going from Natal to Australia, no Greers in Tasmania, no Greer journalist on the Launceston paper, no “Reg Greer” at all. “Daddy” was the illegitimate child of a domestic servant, who was the daughter of a farm laborer, granddaughter of convicts, and he was fostered, along with numerous adoptive siblings, by a remarkable woman (also from a family of convicts and laborers) called Emma Greeney, whose name, family, and upbringing Reg Greer entirely repudiated. It's this betrayal of the true mother, the extended family, the working-class Australian history, that his daughter cannot forgive.
By the end of the quest, no piece of him seems real to her. He smoked a pipe to make himself look more distinguished. His “beautiful teeth,” which he said were lost in the war through poor diet, were a false set. His dark hair and mustache, which made him look so like the English actor Basil Rathbone, were dyed. He is like Edgar Allan Poe's “The Man That Was Used Up,” an impressive-looking military man who, deconstructed piecemeal by the amazed narrator, turns out—chest, scalp, voice box, and all—to be a total artifact: the “real man” is, horrifyingly, a squeaky little lump of blubber.
Poe's story makes a grotesque satire on male heroism. Greer wanted her father to be a hero, not a bounder, but she recognizes the desire as a weakness. Her quest is, in the end, not merely personal. It sabotages the official male version of war and colonization, and rewrites her father's history as “herstory,” “puncturing” the false ideology that made him pretend to be toff, a hero, and an Englishman. The deconstruction of Daddy involves, too, a demystification of Australian facades: genteel pretensions, suburban domestic respectability, picturesque tourist spots, and unecological agriculture are all vociferously exposed.
The tone is bossy and enraged. Germaine Greer loves to lecture, she is relentlessly moralistic, and she has a passion for educative details. So there are energetic sermons on the Australian ecology and some splendid effusions, for instance on pioneering life in a small Tasmanian town, circa 1910:
They arranged fêtes, bazaars, raffles, contests, made cakes, garments, bibelots, etc. for the fêtes, bazaars and so forth, attended race meetings, cricket matches, regattas, football, cycling, hockey, rifle shoots, lectures on theosophy, hypnotism, spiritualism, exotic religions, gave parties for engagements, weddings, anniversaries, visitors from the mainland, retiring dignitaries, grew things, cooked, embroidered and preserved things for the local show, and competed in practically every human activity including rabbit-skinning, sheep-shearing, and the wood-chop.
If her research takes her to a 1919 Launceston menswear shop, we get a lip-licking list of the fabrics on sale (“the taffetas, in fashion shades of mole, mastic, putty, nigger and bottle”); if to a local theater, we get the full program of shows and artistes. No opportunity is lost for a display of horticultural or culinary know-how. Maltese goat an unpalatable wartime diet? No problem!
If the goats' meat had been properly hung or marinaded in a smidgen of garlic and oil in sour goats' milk or yogurt, or rubbed with pepper, it would not have smelled so disgusting that only the starving dogs and cats would eat it.
But fear and dread underlie the bustling energy; and that's what makes this an impressive and troubling document. Greer says of the book's heroine, Emma Greeney, that she knew that “the doctrine of inherited moral defect was a doctrine of despair.” She herself emphasizes all the points of difference between herself and her father. But these differences may, rather, be reactions: because he was secretive, she won't put up with anything “hush-hush”; because he obscured himself, she became an exhibitionist. “There is no bucking the genes.” And if she is like Daddy, she may also—a much worse thought—be like Mother. The specter of determinism, the “doctrine of despair,” looms over this superstitious narrative. One of the contemporary world's most redoubtable, self-invented public characters confronts the possibility that she has had no choice. She looks in the mirror, and sees the staring face of a woman possessed.
SOURCE: “Germaine Greer as Dogged Daughter,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, April 8, 1990, p. 8.
[In the following review, Mairs offers unfavorable assessment of Daddy, We Hardly Knew You.]
“The Quest,” Germaine Greer titles the opening chapter of Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, a memoir of her search for her father's past begun after his death in 1983, as if to lift her pursuit to mythic heights. But the premise of the heroic quest is that its object possesses unique, often mysterious, even sacred, value, capable of transforming at least the searcher and generally the wider world as well. In these terms, Greer's is an anti-quest: “a classic example of herstory [sic], puncturing the ideology” of the hero.
Although she knew her father for more than 40 years. Greer learned almost nothing about his background, and what little information he released, she discovers, was fabricated. Reticence this absolute seems all but implausible, but apparently the “anxiety neurosis” with which Reg Greer returned from World War II effectively barred all inquiry.
“You will be wondering why I did not simply ask my mother,” Greer says. Yes, indeed, that's exactly what I was wondering. “Suffice it to say that for Mother language is a weapon rather than a means of communication.” Two less appealing creatures than Reg and Peggy Greer, as seen through their daughter's eyes, would be hard to imagine. But at least their singularly uncooperative natures provide her the pretext for a book.
And a book of sorts she produces: part childhood reminiscence, part travelogue, part genealogy, part history, part social commentary. Unfortunately, the lack of something meaningful at the center (Daddy, I believe) prevents these elements from coalescing. Greer is a skillful writer, and there are plenty of terrific passages here: quick insights (“Our whole lives are lived in a tangle of telling, not telling, misleading, allowing to know, concealing, eavesdropping and collusion”); painterly descriptions of landscape from Tasmania to Tuscany; a breathtaking evocation of conditions during the siege of Malta. Too often, however, the insights are facile.
This clutter becomes especially troublesome with regard to the book's central purpose: the revelation of the “truth” about Reg Greer's life, which his daughter confounds with the knowledge of his origins and antecedents. Now, as the popularity of Alex Haley's Roots demonstrated some time ago, many people are fascinated by their lineage; at least half a dozen of my friends and relations pursue their forebears with varying degrees of preoccupation. But it seems a queer sort of obsession for a feminist to take up with scant reflection; and really this author of an early and influential feminist text, The Female Eunuch, has given herself over to her patrilineal search with far fewer and less sophisticated questions than readers might reasonably hope.
Instead, with prodigious expenditures of money, time and energy, she amasses and recounts quantities of genealogical detail. She is nothing if not the “doggedest of daughters,” and the descriptions of her research methods, frustrations and victories may prove instructive to other genealogists. The rest of her readers must simply slog along in her wake (wondering, perhaps, why she perseveres until they read: “I cannot go backward. I've spent too much of the advance.” Ah, Knopf has paid for a book, and a book they shall have).
For naught, it turns out. Because, after transforming herself into “a Greer-ologist, a Greerographer, a Greeromane” and summarizing one Greer pedigree after another (perhaps so that her readers can experience the same sense of wasted time she endured), she turns out to be “not a Greer” at all but a Greeney by adoption, a Hamilton by birth. Her father's lies and evasions masked no “prince in disguise”; he was simply ashamed to have been an illegitimate child reared by poor but honest folk whom he left without looking back.
“No matter how I try,” Greer writes, “no matter how loyal I feel, I cannot make this man a hero.” And perhaps it's this incapacity that dooms the book. Perhaps, if you're going to set out on a quest (itself conventionally considered a heroic undertaking), its object must be rare and precious in some way. Perhaps it—in this case he, Reg Greer—can't be a “liar,” a “bounder” an “office masher,” snobbish and cowardly and small-minded. Perhaps the failure lies in the unworthiness of the object.
“Daddy, we hardly knew you,” Greer complains. “Why would we even want to?” the reader may sadly ask.
SOURCE: “Hagiography,” in New Statesman and Society, October 11, 1991, p. 23.
[In the following review, Maitland offers positive evaluation of The Change, though finds fault in Greer's lack of practical instruction.]
I am 41 years old; my menstrual cycle, which for over 20 years has behaved with discreet but impeccable regularity, has recently turned funny on me; I have odd pains in my wrist, and attacks of savage ill temper; my lovely daughter has left school, started being kind to me and departed for Paris. I am full of strange regrets (that I didn't have eight children, that I didn't become a contemplative nun) and strange desires (to live alone in the country, to scream very loudly in supermarkets). Last week I bought the shortest skirt I have worn since 1970. A woman not just of a “certain”, but of a “dangerous” age.
Now what? I ask, along with others who entered female adulthood to the trumpet blasts of liberation and the revolution, and read The Female Eunuch in 1970. And there are not a lot of answers, frankly, even if we can bear to ask the right questions. Not even medical answers, if Dr Greer is right; or rather, there are masses of answers, mainly contradictory, ill-proven, male-biased, and frequently dangerous to women's health.
The depth of ignorance and prejudice and guilt-inducing psychopoop ought to stagger us. It does not, of course, because we have had the same business with contraception and fertility and orgasm and childbirth and lesbianism and menstruation. Given how obsessed by women's bodies men are, it is continually fascinating how unbelievably ill-informed they remain: imagine a train spotter who couldn't distinguish between a steam engine and an Intercity 125.
In short, no one knows anything useful about the menopause at all: not what it is, what is going on, what helps, what is “healthy”. There isn't even an agreed list of symptoms, or a clear distinction between what is menopausal and what is, more simply, ageing.
Well, I shouldn't say no one. Germaine Greer, none of us will be surprised to discover, knows lots and tells it to us at considerable length (over 400 pages). This is Greer's best book for years: she is just right for the subject. At her best, she has always had a savage truculence, and at her worst a strident self-righteousness, combined with a maudlin romanticism. But the situation of the menopausal woman in western society calls for both truculence and self-confidence, and in the absence of almost any positive images of ourselves, a strong dollop of romanticism goes not amiss.
At the core of Greer's argument here lies her belief that sex is overrated. This flies in the face of modern orthodoxy, which preaches that heterosexual penetrative sex is good for you. Not to have it is bad for you, and not to want it proves that you are bad. Much treatment for menopausal symptoms is to keep your sexual bits, physical and psychological, in good working order for your man, who, against statistical odds, is dreamed into existence for everywoman. For example, the increase of both rage and independence found by some researchers is deemed pathological, instead of a sensible response to a grim reality.
The reality is that:
“The tiny nuclear family built about the copulating couple is unsafe for women and children. It is arguable that it is unsafe because of the primacy given to the sex relation between the couple, the maintenance of which may be thought to justify all kinds of distorted behaviour and certainly conflicts with the demands of small children.”
Women who want hormone replacement therapy and silicon breast implants, women who can't or won't live without sex, who refuse to grow up, all play into the hands of a self-defeating and degrading anophobia (irrational hatred of old women) which re-imprisons women at the very moment when they could be free.
“Don't buy it,” Greer tells us, which is good. And she is so good at telling us: funny and quick on the trial of double-think and self-satisfaction; sharp in the analysis of both ignorance and silence; full of information, perception and energy.
But then, she goes on. “Instead, be like me”, which is more dubious. Because, although she paints a rosy picture of herself as crone and witch, invisible on the street and strong in her head, renewed, freed, joyful (“Before I felt less on greater provocation; I lay in the arms of young men who loved me and felt less bliss than I do now”), she singularly fails to tell us how she got there. Her pages of excoriating contempt for Simone de Beauvoir's fear and hatred of age, for Marquez' sentimentalisation of geriatric intercourse, for medicos and silly women, for Joan Collins and Jane Fonda, are not matched with better strategies.
We need practical strategies at this point, and narratives. The witch and crone remain only archetypes, until they are placed in stories. We know the story of the witch: its moral is that “it is better to marry than to burn”. Greer claims to know a better story. I wish she would tell it; we get the happy ending, but not the plot. A few pages less on other women's failures to negotiate this passage, a few pages less of damning everyone everywhere, a few pages less of ecstatic utterance, and a little more about the nitty-gritty could have changed a useful book into a precious one.
SOURCE: “The Transit of Woman,” in New York Times Book Review, October 11, 1992, pp. 1, 32-3.
[In the following review, Angier offers favorable analysis of The Change, though finds fault in Greer's “loose and flippant” medical recommendations and attacks on the healthcare establishment.]
This is a brilliant, gutsy, exhilarating, bruising, exasperating fury of a book, broadly researched, boundlessly insightful and yet so haphazardly presented that this reader was driven more than once to slam shut the volume and curse the author for what seemed like a willful lack of discipline. It may not be fair to judge Germaine Greer for having failed to produce the book one wishes she had written, but The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause is so tantalizingly close to being a potential feminist classic on a par with The Female Eunuch (1970) that one cannot help seeing its repeated lapses into muddiness as almost tragic.
For many of us baby-boomer women who are tottering uncomfortably on the rim of middle age, the 53-year-old Ms. Greer might have been the perfect guide to leaping gorgeously to the other side, an antidote to the sorry nail biting of books like Gail Sheehy's best-selling “Silent Passage.” But perhaps in keeping with the underlying message of her text, Ms. Greer refuses to make our lives easy. Menopause, or, as she prefers to call it, the climacteric, is a huge and complicated event, one perhaps best experienced by facing the storm of change head on. In that sense, then, reading The Change is probably as good a rehearsal as any.
Unlike other books about menopause, which focus on such particulars as hot flashes, thinning vaginal walls and the debate over hormone replacement therapy, Ms. Greer's seizes on everything directly or even peripherally affecting the middle-aged woman. Seeking any mention of the aging female, she has rummaged through historical accounts, memoirs, correspondence from the court of Louis XIV, old medical textbooks, anthropology tracts, novels and poems both familiar and obscure.
Ms. Greer discusses the role of the matron in non-Western societies and, to some degree, romanticizes the power these women command once they have survived the dangerous years of childbearing. She talks with unvarnished candor about the invisibility of the middle-aged woman in our own culture the unfairness of a system that lionizes the silver-haired male while scorning his female counterpart as beyond use, pathetic, desiccated, desexualized, a crone. On occasion she uses herself and her friends to make a point, describing, for example, a sad lunch she had in France with a woman her own age. Both had sailed through their 40's barely noticing the passage of time, but now, at 50, they could ignore it no longer. Sitting near their table were two older men and their lithe young female companions, prompting Ms. Greer's friend to begin bitterly railing against the injustice of it all.
“‘It's bloody unfair. Those men can have their pick of women of any age. They can go on for years, and here we are, finished. They wouldn't even look at us.’ The unkind sunlight showed every sag, every pucker, every bluish shadow, every mole, every freckle in our 50-year-old faces. When we beckoned to the waiter he seemed not to see us.”
Ms. Greer will provide no illusions for anybody expecting soothing reassurances that the middle-aged woman really isn't finished as a marketable commodity, and that she can find love and fulfillment at any age if she only keeps her spirits buoyant and her genitals moist, with either estrogen or drug-store lubricants. Being an older woman in this society is damned difficult, Ms. Greer says, and to pretend otherwise is an act of pathetic self-deception.
“There can be no suggestion that feeling tired and disillusioned at 50 might be the appropriate response and that convincing yourself that you are happy and fulfilled might be self-deluding to the point of insanity,” she writes. Not that complaining is likely to do any good; a woman fretting about menopausal symptoms or her fears of getting old alone is likely to be blamed for her own misery. “If you haven't managed to get a husband, let alone keep him alive and by your side until you are 50, if you haven't borne any children or have been unable to get the ones you have brought up to treat you decently … then you'll probably make a hash of the menopause as well.”
The author views menopause as an enormous turning point in a woman's life, seeing it as so important she dislikes calling it “menopause”—a word that she argues “applies to a non-event, the menstrual period that does not happen.” She prefers “climacteric,” from the Greek word meaning critical period. And because no formal celebration or ceremony has ever been devised to mark a woman's transition from fecundity to infertility, Ms. Greer suggests that women will have to invent one of their own. If it is honest, the ritual will undoubtedly be solemn, an acknowledgment that one is mortal and that the climacteric is “the entry into the antechamber of death.” But even with the realization that “summer is long gone and the days are growing ever shorter and bleaker,” one can move beyond morbid preoccupations to a more profound sense of life and one's place in it. “Only when the stress of the climacteric is over can the aging woman realize that autumn can be long, golden, milder and warmer than summer, and is the most productive season of the year.”
Ms. Greer sees the medical profession as offering scant help and potential harm to the aging woman, and she snidely refers to physicians who attempt to treat the symptoms of the climacteric as “Masters in Menopause.” Gathering evidence from old medical texts, she lists the sometimes dreadful therapies the masters have prescribed. “They have let blood, prescribed violent purgatives, sent women to spas and mountain resorts, dosed them with bromide, mercury, sulfuric acid, belladonna and acetate of lead. … Everything, and nothing worked.” Only with the isolation of natural estrogens in the 1920's could a more rational approach be designed for treatment of the sharp drop in hormone production that accompanies menopause.
It is on the difficult subject of hormone replacement therapy that the weakness of Ms. Greer's elliptical and fidgety style becomes most evident. On the one hand, she is scathingly critical of the medicalization of middle aged women and menopause, and she attacks those who have relentlessly promoted lifelong estrogen treatment as a cure, not only for such temporary menopausal symptoms as hot flashes and mood swings, but also for aging itself. She faults the medical establishment for its ignorance about many of the details of menopause, and the pharmaceutical industry for hawking pills and patches indiscriminately. On the other hand, she seems to support the use of estrogen replacement in many cases, at one point saying, “What cannot be denied is that patients usually do feel better on estrogen, a great deal better, so much better that they realize for the first time just how unwell they had felt before estrogen. … One is obliged to question the morality of withholding estrogen, rather than the wisdom of prescribing it.”
The reader is likely to be equally confused by the book's lengthy discussion of traditional treatments like henbane, a coarse and foul-smelling plant historically associated with the practice of witchcraft. Taking on her multicultural-research mantle, Ms. Greer seems to view the famous little plant as a useful sedative for menopausal symptoms, but she also describes it as highly poisonous—it is a member of the nightshade family—and in need of a dilution that she fails to explain. In addition, she blithely repeats questionable theories with little scientific evidence to support them, like the idea that liquor is bad for an older woman because alcohol will burn up what little stores of estrogen she has left, and that the aging woman should take up gardening as a way of breathing in native estrogens found in many types of plants. Ms. Greer is no fool, but she is sometimes as loose and flippant with her medical reporting as she accuses the established health-care system of being.
In the end, though, much is redeemed by Ms. Greer's glorious final chapter, called “Serenity and Power,” which is so rich with song and wisdom that it alone is worth the price of admission. Here we read Emily Dickinson (“Our Summer made her light escape / Into the Beautiful”) and Elizabeth Bishop (“The art of losing isn't hard to master; / so many things seem filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster”) and we are given hope—not that we can remain forever and fatuously young, but that we can surmount with our minds and our senses the choke hold of self and self-pity.
Here Ms. Greer talks about the chance that aging gives a woman to step outside the prison of the ego and its “illusions of omnipotence and perfectability,” and instead to rejoice in the abundance of the moment, to walk out one fine day and suddenly see the “great boil-up of cloud” and “the green snouts of the crocuses poking through the snow.” She suggests that the middle-aged woman take a cue from her newfound invisibility and become invisible to herself, to shuck off at last her desire to please, her endless obsession with her own skin, lips, breasts and buttocks, and to take in the theater of life, “to be agog, spellbound.”
The boundaries of body and skull remain, of course, and we can never help thinking of ourselves as the starring actors in the minor plays of our lives; yet a truly wise actor learns to savor with calm delight the displays of others on the stage. “The discontent of youth passes when you realize that the music you are hearing is not about you, but about itself,” Ms. Greer writes. “Only when a woman ceases the fretful struggle to be beautiful can she turn her gaze outward, find the beautiful and feed upon it.”
SOURCE: “Cronehood is Powerful,” in New York, October 12, 1992, pp. 74-5.
[In the following review, Koenig provides a summary of The Change and Greer's unconventional ideas. Koenig concludes, “it's unlikely that many readers will march behind Greer's custom-made banner.”]
No one following Germaine Greer's work would expect her to go gently into that good night—or anywhere else—but even her most devoted readers may not be prepared for the way she takes leave of her youth. “The stereotype of the snowy-haired granny beaming affectionately at her apple pie,” she says, “needs to be balanced by her dark side, with ‘tangled black hair, long fingernails, pendulous breasts, flowing tongue between terrible fangs.’”
A witch may be a daunting model for the average rider of the IRT, but Greer has plenty of others: philosopher, artist, menopausal femme fatale. In The Change, she not only upsets the applecart of received wisdom but uses its scattered contents to pelt the media, the medical establishment, and others who give the aging female a view of herself that is unrealistic and depressing. “The purpose of this book,” Greer states, “is to demonstrate that women are at least as interesting as men, and that aging women are at least as interesting as younger women.” At 53, she has written a lively, provocative, and funny guide for the baby-boomers wondering nervously about life on the other side of the hill.
Greer has less than no time for those who protest “ageism”: Calling old a dirty word, she says, is offensive in its assumption that there is no value in aging, just as those who insist there is no difference between men and women demean inherently female qualities. Worse than the practitioners of Newspeak are the Jane Fondas, Joan Collinses, and Helen Gurley Browns, so many stretched and painted and grimacing corpses dangled before us as examples of how boundless expenditure and tireless energy can procure eternal youth.
Worse still are the doctors, male and female, who treat menopause as a terrible disease rather than as a natural transition (one surgeon Greer quotes says that women of that age “are no longer women”) and prescribe painful, extreme, and often irrelevant (though not necessarily inexpensive) treatments. Nineteenth-century patients were treated with electric shocks to the uterus, early-twentieth-century ones with a bombardment of X-rays. Today, women nearly twenty years past the safety limit are prescribed oral contraceptives; they are given hormone-replacement therapy, about which too little is known; and, at the first sign of trouble, they are often told to have their wombs carved out.
While Greer does not deny that menopause can bring with it many distressing physical symptoms, she feels that hysteria over the change has been induced by our patriarchal and sex-mad society. To the worry that older women are not attractive to men, Greer has a two-part response: Yes, they are, and If not, so what. In a chapter entitled “Sex and the Single Crone,” Greer considers the cases of Colette (who at 51 met the 36-year-old man with whom she lived until her death 30 years later) and George Eliot (who at 58 married a man 20 years younger). Elsewhere, she tells us about Diane de Poitiers, who was two decades older than her lover, Henri II, and Ninon de Lenclos, the seventeenth-century courtesan who, in middle age, seduced the son of one of her former conquests.
If your personal charms are not up to those of a French king's mistress, however, Greer counsels you not to be envious of menopausal women with husbands or boyfriends. She sees the emphasis on sex in the twilight years as emanating from men, who believe that the main purpose of women is to gratify their own sexual needs. But, Greer asks, do men care that much about making women happy? “If [a woman] is one of the many women who have been f———ed when they wanted to be cuddled, given sex when what they really wanted was tenderness and affection, the prospect of more of the same until death do her part from it is hardly something to cheer about.” Greer says that the menopausal woman's fractiousness and instability may result not from hormonal changes or unhappiness at losing her sex appeal but from “justifiable rage too long stifled and unheard,” anger at the years of self-sacrifice and repression of desire that bursts forth when a woman finally decides to put her own wishes first.
Instead of pills, plastic surgery, and other remedies designed to make them more pleasing to men. Greer advises women to enjoy the company of other women, to take up gardening, religion, and homeopathy, and to brood less about their pimples and more about the mystery of existence. “Women who do not adhere to a particular creed will nevertheless find that in the last third of their lives they come to partake of the ‘oceanic experience’ as the grandeur and the pity of human life begin to become apparent to them. As one by one the Lilliputian strings that tie the soul down to self-interest and the short view begin to snap the soul rises higher and higher, until the last one snaps, and it floats free at last.”
While writing as spirited as this is itself exhilarating, many of Greer's attitudes are self-interested, her premises contradictory. Greer's descriptions of older men as smelly and ugly (and, therefore, unfair in demanding that their mates be alluring) partake of the same sort of sexual materialism for which she criticizes them. She will also inspire few readers with her examples of menopausal success stories—all more remote than Hollywood harpies. For Greer, a woman who takes a new career path is not someone who designs stationery or goes to law school, but Baroness Blixen, who at 48 became Isak Dinesen. Nor does Greer acknowledge that the rising of the soul—not to mention prolonged bouts of contemplation and gardening—is considerably assisted by the serenity and free time that accrue from a large bank account. Essentially, Greer's program for the good life after 45 seems to be women for friends and a boy for sex, one that will not suit those who don't share her allure, money, or misandry. As polemics go, The Change is bright and brassy, but it's unlikely many readers will march behind Greer's custom-made banner.
SOURCE: “The Romantic Climacteric,” in The New Yorker, November 2, 1992, pp. 106-12.
[In the following review, Pollitt provides analysis of The Change and commends Greer's provocative observations and intelligence, though finds fault in the book's disjointed and one-sided arguments.]
It seems only yesterday that Germaine Greer was exhorting young women to throw away their inhibitions, their engagement rings, and their underpants. With the publication of The Female Eunuch, in 1970, Greer burst into international celebrity—an inescapable media presence, brash, brilliant, and beautiful, as exotically plumed as some wild Australian bird, and equally given to preening. Her love affairs were legendary, her admonitions—Flaunt your tampons! Taste your menstrual blood! Stop expecting men to take care of you! Live!—a heady mixture of rebellion and flirtatiousness. While the press, then as now, delighted to portray the women's movement as motivated by hatred of men and led by frumps and neurotics, it made an exception for Greer. She was, as Life put it, the “saucy feminist even men like,” and the one who never let men forget how much she liked them.
Well, that was then; this is now. Having publicly mourned her inability to get pregnant in her forties—and having produced Sex and Destiny, an anti-contraception polemic and paean to Third World motherhood—Greer has passed through menopause and emerged, in her early fifties, on the other side. It was hardly to be expected that she would experience the transition calmly: rage and passion have always been her strong suits. (Indeed, since Sex and Destiny they have sometimes seemed to be her only suits.) Still, among the millions of female baby boomers now moving toward middle age there must be many whose hearts leaped up when they beheld the publisher's announcement of The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause. Who better than Greer to deploy a fiery contrarian sword against society's contempt for older women, drug-company hormone pushing, and the hand-wringing to be found in Gail Sheehy's best-selling The Silent Passage, in which woman after woman mops her hot-flashing brow and wails “Why can't I be me anymore?”
Greer does brandish a fiery contrarian sword in The Change. But something has gone terribly wrong. Perhaps she dashed the book off too quickly: repeated sentences, haphazard organization, the grab-bag inclusion of irrelevant material (a five-page bone-dry synopsis of Iris Murdoch's novel Bruno's Dream, for instance) all suggest a rush to publish. Or perhaps she was overwhelmed by the scope of her task—disputing just about everything that has been thought, said, written, and done regarding women and age for the last two hundred years—and lost the thread of her arguments in the general contentiousness. That would explain why she could spend pages excoriating doctors for handing out estrogen like candy and then, noting that the hormone does seem to make women feel better, reverse gears and “question the morality” of withholding it. In any case, The Change is a maddening and frustrating book, in which passages of brilliance, wit, and lyricism alternate with murky and carelessly reported science, crackpot health advice, and a portrait of modern female aging that goes well beyond the evidence in its gloom and despair. And that, given the real difficulties that women face as they get older, is saying a lot.
The Change begins promisingly, with a rousing indictment of modern attitudes toward older women. Greer notes with some bitterness that our supposedly youth-crazed culture is really a girl-crazed culture: men acquire social power along with wrinkles and gray hair, and often a young bride or mistress, too, while their female contemporaries are often consigned to the sexual scrap heap, if not, indeed, the poorhouse. She quotes a friend on the May-November couples around them in a restaurant. “‘It's bloody unfair. Those men can have their pick of women of any age. They can go on for years, and here we are, finished. They wouldn't even look at us.’ The unkind sunlight showed every sag, every pucker, every bluish shadow, every mole, every freckle in our fifty-year-old faces. When we beckoned to the waiter he seemed not to see us.”
Greer has a word for what that waiter feels: “anophobia,” the irrational fear and hatred of old women. In many pre-industrial societies, she argues in a somewhat hedged reprise of Sex and Destiny, older women are vigorous and respected members of extended families, and, while ultimately subject to men, wield a good deal of informal social power. It is only in the modern West, where women are valued primarily as sex objects, families are small and isolated, and “hostility to the mother … is an index of mental health,” that the aging woman is an outcast—expected to be unobtrusive, compliant, and grateful for any crumbs of attention that fall her way. Eventually, when he has nothing better to do, that waiter will amble over to her table.
Surrounded as women are by the negative stereotypes of popular culture—harridan mothers-in-law, strident shoppers, comical grandmas—and facing, moreover, the actual fact of their declining value in the sexual marketplace, it's hardly surprising that many regard the prospect of aging with anxiety, or that a vast beauty-exercise-surgery-quackery industry has arisen to exploit their fears while seeming to soothe them. Today, women are told that with enough effort, time, and, of course, money the years need hold no terrors: celebrities like Jane Fonda, Cher, and Joan Collins are touted—and tout themselves—as proof. But, as Greer shrewdly points out, the cult of these bionic sexpots only reinforces the prejudice against the aging female. To urge women to ape youth with an “imitation body” is to declare unacceptable the body they really have.
No wonder the male-dominated medical establishment regards menopause as a trauma and a tragedy. It marks the end of a woman's usefulness to men, and since in Greer's view society permits her no other purpose, doctors are quick to offer, and some women to accept, alarming remedies. (Greer has a scary chapter on the history of useless, painful, and sometimes even fatal treatments for menopause: electric shocks to the womb, X rays, animal-gland extracts, hysterectomy, hormone cocktails.) A woman who finds menopause rough going is invariably blamed for her symptoms: she had no children or was “over-invested” in maternity; dulled herself with domesticity or masculinized herself in the workplace; staked all on romance or failed to make hay while the sun shone. Declining sexual interest in middle-aged marriages is perceived as the woman's problem: if her husband withdraws, it's because she is sagging and nagging; if she does, it's her hormones. Why not, Greer pointedly inquires, ask if the man is a sensitive lover, an affectionate and respectful partner? Maybe he has let himself go: “Many a man who was attractive and amusing at twenty is a pompous old bore at fifty.” If intercourse has become painful (at menopause the vaginal walls become thinner and drier), why dose the woman with potentially dangerous hormones so that she can have more bad sex, instead of proposing more imaginative ways of lovemaking—or just letting her call it quits?
That, in fact, is Greer's suggestion to women: Give up. It's degrading to turn yourself into a geisha for a man who thinks he's doing you a favor by sticking around. Anyway, it won't work. No one mistakes a chemical peel for the rose-petal skin of youth. To the plaintive question “Is one never in this life to be allowed to let oneself go?” Greer offers a bold answer: Yes! Right now! Today!
Greer wants women to welcome menopause—she prefers the old-fashioned term “climacteric”—as a sweeping natural transition. Yes, it is physically turbulent: like Sheehy, Greer dismisses women who pass through it easily—the vast majority, actually, although you'd never know it from either writer—as anomalous, if not liars. And, yes, it is sad: a time to take stock, to mourn old losses, and to come to terms with death. But it also holds out the promise of freedom and tranquillity: “Autumn can be golden, milder and warmer than summer, and is the most productive season of the year.” Rejected by men, and thus freed from “the white slavery of attraction duty,” the female eunuch can become, at last, “the female woman”: a sibyl, a witch, a crone.
Greer's portrait of cronehood is so charming, so spirited, so seductively rendered—especially when it's contrasted with the situation of the wistful wives, desperate party girls, and breast-implanted exercise addicts which for her constitutes the only alternative—that the reader may find herself barely able to wait. Why not take up nature study, herbal medicine, travel, contemplation? Make women friends—and a fuss if you're ignored by the waiter! One notes a certain class bias here, an assumption of leisure and posh tastes: no bowling, or volunteering at the local hospital—or, apparently, earning a living, either. There's an anti-intellectual bias, too: the graying Eternal Feminine is not to sign up for courses at the New School. Still, who wouldn't like to sink into the Bath for Melancholy she cites from an Old English receipt book (“Take mallowes pellitory of the wall, of each three handfulls; Camomell flowers, Mellelot flowers, of each one handfull; hollyhocks two handfulls”)? Or stroll beside the sea with a girlhood chum, like the Sicilian matrons who, before the days of tourism, had the island beaches to themselves? Or start a huge garden, like Lady Mary Wortley Montagu—or Greer, a famous gardener herself? Greer calls us to middle age as to a grand spiritual adventure, and one with distinguished literary antecedents, too. This must be the only book ever written on women's health that illustrates its advice with seventeenth-century poetry and the letters of Mme. de S‚vign‚.
But there's a catch—several catches, actually. The would-be crone must become her own doctor—a dangerous prospect if she uses Greer's incomprehensible chapters on herbal and homeopathic medicine as a guide. (Henbane, for example, is a sedative on one page and a poison on another.) She must follow a diet that seems punitive in its frugality. (Giving up smoking and hard drinking makes sense, but red meat, cheese, coffee, tea, wine, beer, and chocolate?)
And—but perhaps you suspected this was coming—barring a miracle, she must give up sex. Now, this is indeed strange, because Greer herself presents a whole gallery of celebrated women who, without benefit of plastic surgery, found romance in mid-life and beyond. It is almost as though she began The Change with the idea of championing mature female sexuality—a casual reader might even think she has done so—and suddenly reversed herself in mid-book. One way or another, she dismantles her shining examples: in Colette's last years, her much younger husband never saw her “devastated body” or her face without its “powdered mask”; George Eliot's husband jumped out of the window on their honeymoon; Elizabeth Barrett Browning grew disenchanted with her Robert; Simone de Beauvoir's mid-life affair with Claude Lanzmann “fizzled out” after ten years. “Fizzled out” seems an odd term in this context—a decade is not exactly a summer romance—but it shows how determined Greer is to take a negative view of middle-aged sexuality. For men and women alike, it is unaesthetic and faintly grotesque, but for women it is also potentially tragic, because it exposes them to humiliation and exploitation at the hands of layabouts, philanderers, bisexual flirts, and neurasthenics. Who else, the clear implication runs, would even pretend to be interested? The women whose libido vanishes with menopause are, for Greer, “the lucky ones.”
Could it be that Greer is a bit of an anophobe herself? Certainly she seems in a hurry to hustle women out of the bedroom and into the herb garden: by the end of The Change, she is lauding peasant cultures in which women don the black dress of matronly celibacy at thirty-five. One waits in vain for her to make the obvious rejoinder to our culture's hard view of older women's sexuality, to challenge the equation of female attractiveness with youth. Why, after all, should not a lined face and gray hair connote in women, as they do in men, experience, strength, staying power, character, sexual self-knowledge? Must older women give up being sexual subjects because Hollywood casting directors do not regard them as sexual objects? Greer cannot challenge the dominant masculine view because, in her heart, she shares it. The best she can do is caricature middle-aged men as “fat, beefy, beery, smelly, tobacco-stained” satyrs and recommend that older women who absolutely can't do without sex take boys (or women) as lovers.
How accurate is the picture of contemporary female middle age presented in The Change? Although Greer's books are packed with data, she has never let inconvenient facts stand in the way of her enthusiasms. In The Female Eunuch, sex had to hold no dangers, and so she pooh-poohed domestic violence as mostly idle threats that the occasional foolhardy woman drove her man to carry out. (The basis of this extraordinary assertion? Greer's affairs with two young roughnecks, who, despite their criminal records, behaved like perfect gentlemen.) Sex and Destiny's romantic portrait of Third World womanly life dismissed clitoridectomy—inflicted on millions of African, Asian, and Middle Eastern girls each year—in a single sentence. The Change, too, ignores reality when it contradicts theory—only this time it's the good news, not the bad, that gets left out.
So, for the record, numerous studies demonstrate that most menopausal women do not, as Greer thinks, regard the cessation of ovulation with anguish or dread, do not undergo bouts of irrationality and rage, and do not lose their libido, their partner, or both. Middle-aged women are actually a fairly cheerful group—perhaps because few of them are living the contracted, empty-nest, husband-focussed domestic life that Greer imagines is still the contemporary norm. Nor is middle-aged and elderly married sex typically the quasi rape Greer imagines, in which a dirty old man subjects his estrogen-drugged wife to beastly practices while he fantasizes about young girls. According to one recent study, couples who make love after sixty are the happiest in America, and the more they make love—and not just in the missionary position, either—the happier they are.
It is curious that Greer, who began her career as a sexual swashbuckler, should end up preaching celibacy. There are doubtless many who will see this intellectual trajectory as a powerful rebuke to feminist hopes of equality. If biology is the culprit—if men are programmed to desire only youth and fertility, and if estrogen, as Greer claims in a particularly paranoid passage, is the “biddability” hormone that keeps women under the male thumb during their child-bearing years—then sexism really is destiny, from which menopause is the sole hope of escape. But a feminism that can envision freedom and self-determination only at the margins of the female life cycle—before twelve and after fifty—has surely taken a wrong turn somewhere.
Yet Greer has never really been a feminist, although the media labelled her one. She has no interest in political action or collective solutions to individual problems, no skepticism toward essentialist accounts of sexual difference, and no hope that men can change their personal priorities or that women can obtain an equal share of economic or political power—the “spiritual” power of cronehood is the best women can manage. What she is is a romantic egotist—a dramatizer of her own exemplary life—and a critic of modernity. In the former capacity, she resembles no one so much as her old antagonist Norman Mailer; in the latter, the Mexican priest and sociologist Ivan Illich, whose attacks on Western medicine and Western feminism her own work closely parallels. She has never been able to hold all the aspects of women's lives—sex, maternity, work, love, domesticity, passion, reason—in her mind at the same time. She has always seen femininity through the lens of her most recent life crisis, and called on all women to jettison whatever hopes and behaviors have just proved problematical for her. When she was a sexual freebooter, monogamy and children were traps. When she wanted a child, contraception and sexual egalitarianism were suddenly rationalist plots against nature's plan for true female happiness. Now, as she has repeatedly announced, she's through with the whole business—sex, romance, men—and so we must all hang up our spurs and join her in a nice cup of henbane. The Change is an original and provocative book. But the only woman who is fully reflected in its pages is the one who wrote it.
SOURCE: “Killed with Kindness,” in New Statesman and Society, October 6, 1995, pp. 37-8.
[In the following review, Adcock outlines and analyzes Greer's theses in Slip-Shod Sibyls.]
This long, scholarly book seems destined to be received simply as another instance of Germaine Greer putting the boot into feminists, this time by firing at some of their icons and questioning the place in the literary canon of most poetry by women before the present. Sappho is a myth; Katherine Philips, the “Matchless Orinda”, let her work be rewritten by male advisers; Aphra Behn was not a self-sufficient woman of letters but a victim; Christina Rossetti and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, like many 20th-century successors, were neurotic self-destroyers.
These are over-simplifications—mine, not Greer's. In fact, her book offers several distinct theses about the difficulties under which female poets laboured. This is not a unified survey but a series of separate monographs held together by a prologue and an epilogue. There is a chapter on the Muse, one on “The Transvestite Poet” (androgyny and cross-gender impersonation on and off the page), and several devoted to individual cases, including Sappho's textual history and a long study of Letitia Elizabeth Landon, billed as “the story of the exploitation and destruction of an extremely talented but uneducated young middle-class woman at the hands of the London literary establishment of the 1820s and 1830s”.
On the whole, Greer is sympathetic to her and her like. If they were under-educated that was not their fault; if they messed up their careers and led miserable lives, that is understandable. Success went to their heads, and they were culturally conditioned to be easily manipulated by their mentors.
The status of the woman poet varied. In 16th-century Italy, Vittoria Colonna was praised without condescension. English-speaking societies were more sexist; and the more women wrote, the greater the threat. “It is only when women begin to make inroads on the male preserves”, writes Greer, “that sophisticated strategies of devaluation begin to be employed.”
In the 17th century the Duchess of Newcastle was a figure of fun. Pepys called her “a mad, conceited, ridiculous woman”. Her contemporary versifiers took more care over their self-presentation, apologising humbly and irrationally for publishing at all. Many burned their juvenile poetic efforts. Poetry was seen as an excusable indiscretion in the young, to be avoided later—in the 18th century, most known poetry by women was written in their youth. The approved subject was religion; meekness was all. Those who stepped outside the boundaries got into various kinds of trouble.
It is not news that for centuries women poets have been undervalued, misrepresented and exploited by men—although the case histories here make grimly fascinating reading. More controversial is the other main strand in Greer's argument: her claim that women poets cooperated in their own downfall. They took bad advice; they fell for flattery; they wrote too fast and without revising sufficiently; and they failed to understand “what was involved in making a poem”. Their difficulty was not in finding a publisher—hundreds of them were published, some to enormous acclaim—but in “taking poetry seriously”. Hence their work seldom reached the high standards aspired to by dedicated male poets.
There's plenty to argue with here (these failings were not confined to women, for example). But it is the epilogue that is perhaps calculated to provoke the greatest outcry. Greer complains that: “Too many of the most conspicuous figures in women's poetry in the 20th century not only destroyed themselves … but are valued for poetry that documents that process.” She'd rather have them alive, without the poetry.
As a lead-in to her roll-call of suicides—Charlotte Mew, Sara Teasdale, Amy Levy, Anna Wickham, Robin Hyde, Marina Tsvetaeva, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton—she cites Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who went about the process gradually. Self-starvation and drug abuse killed her off in a more socially acceptable fashion. (The deterioration of her marriage dated from the publication of her passionate Sonnets from the Portuguese, written for her husband but concealed from him until three years after the wedding. Such a typically “female” outpouring of emotion was too much for him: “That was a strange, heavy crown, that wreath of Sonnets,” he wrote to a friend.
Then follow the 20th-century examples. The list is selective, but it certainly carries weight. Greer does not forget the male “confessional” poets who went in for self-destructive behaviour, but only one, John Berryman, happened to die by his own hand. Women were less cautious; we get Anne Sexton's famous account of how she and Plath, sitting over drinks after classes with Lowell, “talked of death with burned-up intensity, both of us drawn to it like moths to an electric light bulb”. As Greer more or less admits, two such self-obsessed individuals were hardly likely to settle into contented normality, poets or not.
Surely, then, poetry was merely a chance instrument? (Think of all the self-destructive women in Hollywood or the music industry). But no: “I would argue”, says Greer, “that poetry as presented by the male literary establishment … enticed the woman poet to dance upon a wire … and ultimately to come to grief”.
Others will argue back. No consensus will be reached, and Greer will enjoy the hubbub. On the earlier poets, though, she has dared to say what most of us secretly believed: there was never a female Milton, Donne or Pope (let alone Shakespeare). This book illuminates some of the reasons why: the ebb and flow of pressures on women poets, the rise and fall of reputations. But they will stay in the canon, and perhaps we may read them with greater understanding.
SOURCE: “The Female Eunuch,” in Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew, Faber and Faber, 1998, pp. 155-74.
[In the following essay, Wallace provides analysis of the feminist perspective, mass appeal, and critical reception of The Female Eunuch.]
The ‘advocacy of delinquency’ among women was Greer's chief purpose in The Female Eunuch.1 We have to question the most basic assumptions about ‘feminine normality,’ she argued, when for so long female sexuality has been denied and misrepresented as passivity. ‘The vagina is obliterated from the imagery of femininity in the same way that the signs of independence and vigour in the rest of her body are suppressed,’ Greer wrote. ‘The characteristics that are praised and rewarded are those of the castrate—timidity, plumpness, languor, delicacy and preciosity.’ Physically and psychologically the suppression and deflection of women's energy had rendered them eunuchs in modern society. It was time to revolt.
Some women were already well along the path to liberation. Grass-roots feminist activism had emerged throughout the urbanized West as the 1960s progressed. Betty Friedan had articulated middle-class American women's dissatisfaction with their suburban lives as early as 1963 in The Feminine Mystique. In 1966 Friedan founded the National Organization for Women (NOW) to campaign for equal rights for women. At the same time many Western women were involved in the burgeoning array of activist movements that blossomed, intersected and overlapped in the 1960s—the civil rights and anti-war movements, the student protest movement, the New Left and the counterculture. Radical political groups and the counterculture proved fertile ground for feminism: small groups of women began meeting to discuss and analyze their unsatisfactory experiences as women in these movements and elsewhere. ‘Men led the marches and made the speeches and expected their female comrades to lick envelopes and listen,’ Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell note in their history of the women's movement, Sweet Freedom. ‘Women who were participating in the struggles to liberate Blacks and Vietnamese began to recognize that they themselves needed liberating—and they needed it now, not “after the revolution”.’2
There was nothing new in women talking to each other, Coote and Campbell point out. What was different was that women were beginning to draw political conclusions from their experiences. At the same time, there were some isolated protest actions drawing attention to society's sexist foundations. In 1965 two women chained themselves to a public bar in Brisbane, protesting against the exclusion of women from front bars in Australian hotels.3 In 1968 women demonstrated at the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City, throwing bras and girdles into a bucket—without setting fire to them, contrary to media reports—to draw attention to the event's intrinsic sexism. Two years later a hundred British women would disrupt the Miss World competition at London's Albert Hall.
By 1969 the New York Radical Feminists and the New York Redstockings were publishing feminist manifestoes; Kate Millett was writing the doctoral thesis that would be published in 1970 as Sexual Politics;4 and Gloria Steinem had given her first major speech, ‘After Civil Rights—Women's Liberation,’ to the Women's National Democratic Club in Washington. In Britain Juliet Mitchell was running a course on ‘The role of women in society’ at the ‘Anti University’ launched by radical academics. Sheila Rowbotham published Women's Liberation and the New Politics, linking housework with unequal rights at work, making explicit the objectification and silencing of women, and challenging Marxists to confront male hegemony.5
The new sexual orthodoxies accompanying the counterculture's ‘free love’ ethos were also being undermined. Feminists on both sides of the Atlantic were reading the Redstocking Anne Koedt's paper, ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,’6 which identified the clitoris rather than the vagina as the center of women's specific sexual pleasure. In attacking the notion that the penis was the only possible—indeed, according to Reich, the only legitimate—source of sexual satisfaction, Koedt weakened the struts buttressing 1960s counterculture-style permissiveness which, as Coote and Campbell put it, ‘kidnapped’ women and ‘carried them off as trophies’ in the name of liberation. ‘In the era of flower-power and love-ins, of doing-your-own-thing and not being hung up (especially about sex), “girls” were expected to do it, and impose no conditions. The more they did it, the more “liberated” they were deemed to be.’ Young women were beginning to rebel against being set up ‘in their mini-skirts and mascara, alongside the whole-foods and hippy beads and hallucinogens, in a gallery of new toys with which men were now free to play.’7 The implication of Koedt's work was clear: when it came to women enjoying orgasms, men were an optional extra.
The industrial sphere was another key site for early second-wave action. In 1968 women machinists at Ford's Dagenham plant in Essex and the Halewood plant in Liverpool went on strike to have their work reclassified from unskilled to semi-skilled. The following year in Melbourne activist Zelda d'Aprano chained herself to a government building to protest against institutionalized pay discrimination. Women campaigning for equal pay boarded Melbourne trams and insisted on paying only 80 percent of the fare, in line with the lesser wages to which they were legally entitled.8
By the time The Female Eunuch was published in October 1970 the women's movement was rapidly gathering pace, its public forays often reported in the media. At the level of activism, though, the movement was still relatively small. In the course of their daily lives the mass of women did not often run across the paths being beaten through the patriarchal thicket by the early second-wave feminists. Others lacked a sense of commonality with the women in the movement's vanguard. Others again, many of them interested and potentially willing to embrace change, found feminist polemics too remote to move them.
Then came The Female Eunuch. Greer may have been ‘last with the latest,’ as Beatrice Faust puts it, but her book had the virtue of being magnificently accessible. It was bawdy, witty, provocative, dotted with intimate personal testimony and delectable historical titbits. Women wanted to read The Female Eunuch, relishing its daring and derring-do. ‘I myself did not realize that the tissues of my vagina were quite normal until I saw a meticulously engraved dissection in an eighteenth-century anatomy textbook,’ Germaine wrote, for example, at the beginning of a fascinating historical assemblage of snippets on women's genitalia in which she highlighted the fact that women had not always been so reluctant to discuss their sexuality.
Her approach was different. Many, many women responded to the book in a way they were not responding to other feminist literature—if, indeed, they had access to any at all.
Apart from anything else, Greer's language caused a sensation. The Australian feminist Anne Summers says it is hard today to describe the dimensions of the book's impact in the early 1970s. ‘The [Sydney Morning] Herald had only just started using the word “pregnant” and “virgin,”’ she recalls. There were no sexual references of any kind. ‘In the underground press there would have been a bit of stuff around, and some of that was pretty confronting, but this was in a mainstream book—not something sold on street corners at midnight.’ Women read Greer, listened, and noted her example well. Promoting the book in Australia, she mentioned she never wore underpants. ‘So we all stopped wearing pants for a while,’ says Summers. ‘It was a bit breezy! We were all trying to be incredibly free. That was a much bigger deal than not wearing a bra, I can tell you.’
Greer's style was both a strength and a weakness. Structurally, there is little sense of a developing idea in the book, which is more a series of restatements of her core analysis from a variety of thematic vantage points. This is a quibble, though, when one considers the power with which she could cast common experiences in a shattering new light. Greer could really see, and Greer could really write. Take, for example, her compelling description of the dynamic of many miserable twentieth-century marriages:
The real theatre of the sex war. … is the domestic hearth; there it is conducted unremittingly. … The housewife accepts vicarious life as her portion, and imagines that she will be a prop and mainstay to her husband in his noble endeavours, but insidiously her unadmitted jealousy undermines her ability to appreciate what he tells her about his ambitions and his difficulties. She belittles him, half-knowingly disputes his difficult decisions, taunts him with his own fears of failure, until he stops telling her anything. Her questions about his ‘day at the office’ become a formality. She does not listen to his answers any more than he heeds her description of her dreary day. Eventually the discussion stops altogether. It just isn't worth it. He has no way of understanding her frustration—her life seems so easy. She likewise feels that he cannot know how awful her days can be. Conversation becomes a mere power struggle. She opposes through force of habit. Why should he be always right? Ever right?9
Another of The Female Eunuch's strengths is its convincing revelation of the dark ambivalence of men toward women that is embedded in everyday social practices, many of which were taken for granted at the time of the book's publication, and to a significant extent still are. ‘Because love has been so perverted, it has in many cases come to involve a measure of hatred,’ Greer contended. In extreme cases it takes the form of loathing and disgust, manifesting itself in sadism and guilt, hideous crimes on the bodies of women, and abuse and ridicule through casual insult and facetiousness.10
At the same time, she argued that women had to stop collaborating in their own oppression. If women were to be better valued by men, they had to value themselves more highly: ‘They must not scurry about from bed to bed in a self-deluding and pitiable search for love,’ she wrote, ‘but must do what they do deliberately, without false modesty, shame or emotional blackmail. As long as women consider themselves sexual objects they will continue to writhe under the voiced contempt of men and, worse, to think of themselves with shame and scorn.’11 The belittling of women would not diminish until women stopped ‘panhandling’: ‘In their clothes and mannerisms women caricature themselves, putting themselves across with silly names and deliberate flightiness, faking all kinds of pretty tricks that they will one day have to give up.’12
Greer made the clarion call to change in such emotionally appealing, idealistic terms that it was virtually irresistible. ‘Sex must be rescued from the traffic between powerful and powerless, masterful and mastered, sexual and neutral,’ she wrote, ‘to become a form of communication between potent, gentle, tender people, which cannot be accomplished by a denial of heterosexual contact.’13 She made the social ‘delinquency’ she sought to provoke so delectably inviting that few who read the book could fail to feel its attraction, in theory at least. ‘The woman who realises that she is bound by a million Lilliputian threads in an attitude of impotence and hatred masquerading as tranquillity and love has no option but to run away, if she is not to be corrupted and extinguished utterly,’ her argument ran. ‘Liberty is terrifying but it is also exhilarating.’14 The book closed with the confrontational question: ‘What will> you do?’15
The Female Eunuch triggered a shock of recognition in tens of thousands of Western women who read it, and in hundreds of thousands of women who received Greer's analysis via the media. It was feminism's smash-hit bestseller, generating scores of photographs, television and radio interviews and thousands of column-inches of newspaper and magazine copy, and making Greer popularly synonymous with women's liberation across the Western world. It prompted an untold number of women to rethink their self-perceptions, their relations with men, the entire basis of their existence. ‘It changed my life’ is the most common anecdotal response when the book is mentioned to women who read it in the early 1970s. Middle-class dinner parties broke up in bitter arguments on the book's contentious themes. Some women bought The Female Eunuch and hid it from their husbands, fearing the consequences of being found with such an inflammatory tract.
Gloria Steinem recalls the book's impact on two artist friends. While the woman artist's work was as good as her male partner's, he got the profile, the attention, and was generally taken more seriously. He returned home one day to find his partner reading The Female Eunuch, which suddenly came whistling through the air aimed at his head. The couple's professional and personal relativities were drastically reordered as a result.
Yet The Female Eunuch‘s influence on the women's movement itself was in inverse relation to the book's popular impact. While it can still be readily bought from airport bookstands, it is essentially invisible on reading lists for women's studies’ courses, hardly referred to in the annals of second-wave feminism and seldom rates even an isolated footnote in the vast literature generated by the women's movement. In later works that traverse similar territory, it gets such passing references that it might almost not exist at all. It is as though, as far as the women's movement is concerned, the book is lost in space.
MacGibbon & Kee published The Female Eunuch in 1970. The title was unmissable in bold block letters—dayglo pink on a white background. The blurb on the inside flap announced that the book would offend many, including conventional psychologists, economists, moralists and the ‘conventional woman—the female parasite.’ Women themselves were clearly going to be among the targets to whom Greer would assign blame. Quotes from the book on the back cover contained reader-grabbing hooks under such headings as ‘Love,’ ‘Marriage,’ ‘Misery’ and ‘Revolt.’ The first heading, ‘Upbringing,’ was followed by: ‘What happens to the Jewish boy who never manages to escape the tyranny of his mother is exactly what happens to every girl whose upbringing is “normal.” She is a female faggot.’ Inside, Greer continues the comparison: ‘Like the male faggots she lives her life in a pet about guest lists and sauce b‚arnaise.’16 Greer never made clear in the book why she gave campery such a flogging, why homosexual men produced in her such obvious disdain.
Sales of the book began slowly, then took off. MacGibbon & Kee printed a second run in 1970, but by the beginning of 1971 there had to be monthly reprintings to keep up with demand. Paladin published the paperback version later that year. In the ensuing two decades it was the imprint's biggest and most consistent seller, reprinted a score of times and earning a twenty-first anniversary edition with a new foreword by Greer.
John Holmes's front cover illustration for the Paladin edition was one of the most intriguing and instantly recognizable images in post-war publishing. A naked, headless, legless mature female torso with a handle sprouting from each hip hangs by the shoulders on a pole like some fibreglass cast on an industrial production line. Holmes's first effort, never used, showed a naked woman from the abdomen up, breastless and faceless but unmistakably Germaine from her ‘Universal Tonguebath’ period, hair fashionably afro-frizzed, waist-deep in a pile of stylized breasts, presumably amputated in the creation of a ‘female eunuch’ based on an assumed equivalence of testicles and mammary glands.
The Female Eunuch is both exhilarating and exasperating to read. Greer's rhetoric soars, inspires; many insights are sharp, potent and motivating. Yet the book is so studded with political naiveties and passing shots at other women that it is difficult to reconcile as a whole. Its grand sweep, pacy prose and telling revelations encourage the reader to skate over the jagged edges and ride forward on Germaine's romantically anarchistic vision of assertive women in hot pursuit of pleasure, independence and spontaneity. In its popular consumption, this is precisely what happened.
The Female Eunuch contains six sections. Four of them—‘Body,’ ‘Soul,’ ‘Love’ and ‘Hate,’ each containing numerous mini-chapters, some just two or three pages long—are sandwiched between two free-standing sections, ‘Summary’ at the beginning and ‘Revolution’ at the end. Germaine began by declaring The Female Eunuch part of the second feminist wave, gently deriding the first wave, whose evangelism she said had withered into eccentricity. The old suffragettes had served their prison terms and lived through the gradual admission of women ‘into professions which they declined to follow, into parliamentary freedoms which they declined to exercise, into academies which they used more and more as shops where they could take out degrees while waiting to get married.’ The cage door had been opened but the canary had refused to fly out, she claimed, going on to suggest that organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) in the United States were the modern, and by implication equally ineffective, incarnations of the old suffragettes.17
Greer noted the daily exposure of women's liberation in the media: everyone was suddenly interested in women and their discontent. ‘Women must prize this discontent as the first stirring of the demand for life; they have begun to speak out and to speak to each other,’ she wrote. ‘The sight of women talking together has always made men uneasy; nowadays it means rank subversion. “Right on!”’18 Yet in the next breath she dismissed the likely impact of the ‘organized liberationists,’ who she said were a well-publicised minority, the same faces appearing every time a feminist issue is discussed. Thus, only a few pages into the book, Greer began the gratuitous trashing of activists and their practices that would all too often be a feature of her public forays. She devalued the grinding techniques for promoting grass-roots change, arguing that ‘demonstrating, compiling reading lists and sitting on committees are not themselves liberating behaviour.’ ‘As a means of educating the people who must take action to liberate themselves,’ Greer continued dismissively, ‘their effectiveness is limited.’
There was an alternative for the woman alienated by conventional political methods: ‘She could begin not by changing the world, but by re-assessing herself.’19 Consciousness-raising was an important practice for the early second wavers: in ‘CR’ groups women shared their problems, experiences and insights together and drew conclusions accordingly. Right from the outset, however, Greer chose the risky course of encouraging women to locate the problem within themselves, without positioning the challenge in a wider framework. This was at best necessary but insufficient, at worst reactionary and individually destructive. For what could be less likely to wreak revolution than a series of individuals contemplating the problem in them, in the absence of a wider framework for change?
Some in the women's movement were more generous about Greer's book than she had been about the work of the movement and its prominent figures. Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell later judged her book ‘powerfully written and often wise … widely publicised and wildly popular.’ The Female Eunuch dug a channel, they argued, from the ‘Love Generation’ through to the women's movement, introducing many thousands of women to a new sense of self.20 At the same time, Coote and Campbell drew attention to the reactionary potential of what they termed ‘heterosexual chauvinism,’ for which they considered Greer set the tone.
As well as developing fault lines over issues of class and political strategy, the women's movement was already beginning to be split by a futile disagreement about whether or not women should consort with men. Greer, herself becoming a public symbol of rampant heterosexuality, argued explicitly that sexual liberation could not be achieved ‘by a denial of heterosexual contact.’21 To be whole, to be liberated, was conditional on having active heterosexual relations. ‘At its most glamorous and flamboyant, heterosexual chauvinism appeared like a revamped femme fatale,’ according to Coote and Campbell. ‘It was the kind of feminism men liked best. It slapped their knees for being sexual slobs and chastised women for being sexual slovens. Above all, it promised the superfuck.’22
Greer might have had faith in the socially disruptive possibilities of sexual liberation, Coote and Campbell argued, but The Female Eunuch was really protecting the conventions of heterosexuality rather than changing them. Greer's insistence that ‘genuine gratification’ must involve the vagina ‘did not identify any difference between the vagina as a place of pleasure and the place;’ the hierarchy of sexual values remained intact.23
Lynne Segal, originally a Push libertarian herself, acknowledges the book's widespread influence, but considers it ‘surely a pre-feminist text or at the very least an unusual feminist text,’ given its tenuous connection to the women's movement. ‘Despite popular opinion,’ Segal says, ‘The Female Eunuch is unrepresentative of women's liberation in its early days; the movement predominantly dismissed Greer's individualistic anarchism and dismissal of collective action.’24
The Female Eunuch is less a sermon from a high priestess than the call of the Siren's song—alluring provided one is prepared to accept her dictum that sexual liberation, which Greer used as a synonym for women's liberation, ‘cannot be accomplished by a denial of heterosexual contact.’ Nor did Germaine's book allow for the possibility that a lesbian could be liberated, for example, or that a celibate woman could be liberated, or that a woman content simply with self-pleasuring could be liberated. In this respect The Female Eunuch is one of the prescriptive extremes of second-wave feminism, every bit as wrong-headed as the other extreme dictating that only lesbians could consider themselves true feminists.
So was this all that liberation required—giving up one's panhandling ways, forsaking false modesty, shame and emotional blackmail, slashing away the ties that bind and pursuing potent, tender heterosexual relations? After Greer's pungent, meandering, often brilliantly written catalogue of insights into the position of women, the solution she prescribed was negated by a dose of empiricism about the sexual revolution. Germaine trounced her own Utopia by describing how the old malign forces had already adapted to the new sexual freedoms that had been brought by the contraceptive pill in conjunction with the 1960s protest movement, the counterculture and mass media.
The permissive society has done much to neutralize sexual drives by containing them. Sex for many has become a sorry business, a mechanical release involving neither discovery nor triumph, stressing human isolation more dishearteningly than ever before. The orgies feared by the Puritans have not materialized on every street corner, although more girls permit more (joyless) liberties than they might have done before. Homosexuality in many forms, indeed any kind of sex which can escape the dead hand of the institution—group sex, criminal sex, child-violation, bondage and discipline—has flourished, while simple sexual energy seems to be steadily diffusing and dissipating. This is not because enlightenment is harmful, or because repression is a necessary goad to human impotence, but because sexual enlightenment happened under government subsidy, so that its discoveries were released in bad prose and clinical jargon upon the world. The permit to speak freely of sexuality has resulted only in the setting up of another shibboleth of sexual normality, gorged with dishonesty and kitsch.25
This analysis was typically Germaine, highlighting the intellectual influences which underpinned The Female Eunuch. There is the conjunction of the Push's anarchistic pessimism and Leavisism as she blames the bleakness of relations under the new social mores on her claim that sexual freedom had increased under ‘government subsidy,’ leading to ‘bad prose.’ Neither idea is explained, but the implication is clear: the state and inferior writing are doing their wicked damage again. There is the lumping in of homosexuality with the crime of pedophilia and undefined ‘criminal’ sex; and there is the Push's correct-line Reich, in which homosexuality is contrasted adversely with ‘simple sexual energy,’ for which read heterosexuality. There is the lack of interest, too, in reconciling key parts of the thesis she is developing with other parts of her analysis and conclusion—or even in acknowledging the gaps and disjunctures that exist in it.
Three other serious problems in The Female Eunuch were largely neglected at the time of its publication: its contradictory position on marriage, Greer's analysis of male violence and her treatment of her mother.
The book is premised on the Push's inherent disposition against marriage. Given the personal reflections and anecdotes dotted through The Female Eunuch, the chapter on ‘The Middle-Class Myth of Love and Marriage’ might have been expected to draw on Greer's tear-drenched three-week-long marriage to Paul du Feu. Instead it is the vehicle for what look suspiciously like off-cuts from her doctoral thesis. There is far more on the Renaissance and Shakespeare in the chapter than on modern matrimony and the tyranny of Mills and Boon.
The most significant element of the book's chapter on marriage is Greer's renewed endorsement of the Petruchio-Kate model from The Taming of the Shrew. Kate has the ‘uncommon good fortune to find Petruchio who is man enough to know what he wants and how to get it,’ she wrote in a reprise of her doctoral thesis. ‘He wants her spirit and her energy because he wants a wife worth keeping. He tames her like he might a hawk or a highmettled horse, and she rewards him with strong sexual love and fierce loyalty. … The submission of a woman like Kate is genuine and exciting because she has something to lay down, her virgin pride and individuality.’ She continued at length, giving legitimacy to Kate's defence of Christian monogamy on the grounds that ‘It rests upon the role of a husband as protector and friend, and it is valid because Kate has a man who is capable of being both, for Petruchio is both gentle and strong. … The message is probably twofold: only Kates make good wives, and then only to Petruchios; for the rest, their cake is dough.’26 Neither the thoroughly patriarchal nature of the Petruchio-Kate relationship, nor its contradiction of her call for women to slough off the Lilliputian ties that bind them to their men, emerged as a critical issue in the book's consumption. This conflict remained at the heart of Greer's life and subsequent work.
There was also a strange disjuncture between her insights into misogyny and her views on male violence, where she assigned the blame to women themselves. ‘It is true that men use the threat of physical force, usually histrionically, to silence nagging wives: but it is almost always a sham,’ she wrote. ‘It is actually a game of nerves, and can be turned aside fairly easily.’ Germaine claimed that she had lived with men of known violence, two of whom had convictions for it, but they did not subject her to violence ‘because it was abundantly clear from my attitude that I was not impressed by it.’ Most women are fascinated by violence, she argued: ‘they act as spectators at fights, and dig the scenes of bloody violence in films. Women are always precipitating scenes of violence in pubs and dance-halls. Much goading of men is actually the female need for the thrill of violence.’27
To blame women for inciting male violence was at best naive and, arguably, something much worse. Lynne Segal cites Greer's view as encapsulating the ‘nonchalance’ of many liberals, and sexual radicals in particular, toward questions of male brutality—an expression of the denial and public tolerance of men's violence to women.28 In Greer's case the stance was particularly strange given that she had been the victim of male violence herself. Surely she did not think she had incited her rape back in Melbourne in the 1950s? Or did she not consider rape a manifestation of male violence?
Greer's deep-seated antagonism toward her mother Peggy is the other striking aspect of the book. Not far into The Female Eunuch, Germaine presented her mother and grandmother literally trying to contain her. She recalled her grandmother begging her mother to corset her as a teenager on aesthetic and health grounds, to counteract her youthful ungainliness and support her back, which Liddy feared might not be able to bear Germaine's ultimate six-foot height. There was no sign that Peggy took the advice. She warned Germaine instead against emulating Australia's famous female swimmers, claiming their training regime produced broad shoulders and narrow hips.29 This is the only neutral comment on Peggy in the book.
The first substantial discussion of mothering in The Female Eunuch comes in the chapter on ‘Altruism.’ As children, Greer wrote, we ‘could see that our mothers blackmailed us with self-sacrifice, even if we did not know whether or not they might have been great opera stars or the toasts of the town if they had not borne us.’30 Then in the chapter on ‘Misery’ comes damnation for women—specifically Peggy—pursuing education to overcome the unhappiness of their situation at home:
The idle wife girds her middle-aged loins and goes to school, fools with academic disciplines, too often absorbing knowledge the wrong way for the wrong reasons. My own mother, after nagging and badgering her eldest child into running away from home (a fact which she concealed for years by talking of her as if she were present, when she knew absolutely nothing of what she was doing), took up ballet dancing, despite the obvious futility of such an undertaking, studied accountancy, and failed obdurately year after year, sampled religion, took up skiing and finally learnt Italian. In fact she had long before lost the power of concentration required to read a novel or a newspaper. Every activity was an obsession for as long as it lasted—some lasted barely a month and those are too numerous to list.31
Peggy's efforts to educate herself were valiant attempts at just the sort of delinquency The Female Eunuch was supposed to be promoting. Yet in Peggy Germaine portrayed this behavior as pathological rather than liberating.
The chapter called ‘Resentment’ explores the use of children as weapons in domestic in-fighting at its most sinister. Greer depicted Peggy as more desperate than other mothers, muttering to Germaine as a child that Reg was a ‘senile old goat.’ Women promote their children's dependence as insurance against any attempt to disown them, according to Greer; they attack their husbands for ignorance of children's needs and are jealous of their children for enjoying more freedom than they themselves experience.32 Without supporting evidence, Greer described it as ‘very common’ for mothers to enlist their sons in acts of violence against their fathers, especially in poorer families where the father's inadequacies can be ‘ruthlessly underlined.’ In Greer's argument, the son ‘accepts mother's account of her suffering at the hands of his brutal father, and endeavours like Saturn to displace him in his own house.’ Germaine claimed that her brother, as a three-year-old, was brutally deployed by her mother against her father in a ‘less intense Oedipal’ twist on the phenomenon: ‘my mother knelt on my small brother's chest and beat his face with her fists in front of my father and was threatened with violent retaliation, the only instance of my father's rising to her bait that I can recall.’33 She wrote of being beaten by her mother for giving away all her toys at the age of four when she no longer wanted them—probably a reference to the punishment that followed her giving her trike to the needy Pammy in Elwood.34 Peggy's horror of the schoolgirl affair between Germaine and Jennifer Dabbs is graphically described, as is Germaine's capitulation.
The villain of The Female Eunuch, her portrait woven subtly through its pages, is Peggy Greer, depicted by Greer as physically brutal, manipulative, an emotional blackmailer and homophobe. Reg Greer, barely present in the text, has a bit part as victim. Without self-consciousness, Germaine nevertheless noted in the chapter ‘Family’ that when dealing with the difficulties of adjustment ‘children seize upon their parents and their upbringing to serve as scapegoats.’35
How did she manage to elicit such interest and sympathy among general readers even as she did such unsympathetic things as attacking her mother, blaming women for male violence, and endorsing a patriarchal marriage model? Some clues to the power of Greer''s book can be found in a paper by Rodney Miller subjecting The Female Eunuch's last chapter, ‘Revolution,’ to a linguistic analysis.36
Miller reveals the traditional rhetorical ploys driving the verve and persuasiveness of Greer's writing. Germaine alternated between active and passive voice and welded the colloquial imaginatively into her prose. She created an ebb and flow by combining extremes of abstract and everyday language. ‘This balance between extreme formalism and colloquialism can be seen in other public figures seeking a wide audience,’ according to Miller, who also cites Bob Hawke's ‘peculiar mix of extremely formal sentence structures with colloquialisms and a nasal almost “ocker” voice.’37 Hawke went on to become Australia's longest-serving Labour prime minister. While still president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) in the 1970s, he bettered Greer in a television debate—virtually the only occasion in memory when she has come off second-best.
Greer also relied on rhetorical questions and parenthetical clauses to create a sense of cut-and-thrust in her writing. The question-and-answer form surges forward and then arrests the reader's attention. These rhetorical features often occur in the middle paragraphs, ‘which to the casual reader may appear merely to be outlining matter that incorporates only a slight amount of rhetorical organization,’ writes Miller. ‘Although one must look more closely at certain paragraphs to observe their rhetorical components, the extensive occurrence of these features … reflects the constant presence of Germaine Greer as rhetor.’38 The lasting power of The Female Eunuch's final paragraph, according to Miller, comes from the close combination of emotional forcefulness with prescription, setting up Greer's ultimate rhetorical question: ‘What will you do?’
But there was more to it all than appealing to reader emotion, deploying personal pronouns and the like. Miller notes that the higher the proportion of verbs to nouns and adjectives in a piece of prose, the more interesting and persuasive the writing is perceived to be. On this criterion, Greer's style is vigorous and highly verbal. ‘Dr Greer's language is forceful and her argument is aggressively competent,’ he concludes. ‘Perhaps this is the most important model that she provides.’ Greer's style, by Miller's analysis, represented a significant departure from the norm for women writers, who had often been associated with a more passive style, relying heavily on nouns and adjectives: ‘By integrating language features once characteristic of males, Dr Greer is requiring readers to reassess how they view male and female.’39 Ever the iconoclast, Germaine managed simultaneously to use traditional rhetorical techniques, to offend against them, and sometimes to transcend them altogether.
The conventions of rhetoric were originally developed in part to establish fair rules for discourse—to ensure, among other things, that speakers addressed each other's arguments rather than engaging in personal attacks. Greer used the techniques of traditional rhetoric to great effect in her polemic while breaching the form's politesse, attacking—as Australians put it—the player, not the ball. On top of this she incorporates intimate comment and stories, personalizing the polemic rather than confining it to the abstract space constructed by conventional rhetoric. Greer rooted her rhetoric in the body—through anecdote, often her own body.
Drawing on Plato's Gorgias, Iris Young points out the erotic dimension in communication, the fact that ‘persuasion is partly seduction.’ The most elegant and truthful argument may fail if it is boring: ‘Humour, word play, images and figures of speech embody and colour the arguments, making the discussion pull on thought through desire.’40 Greer understood this implicitly and used it brilliantly.
Her deployment of personal testimony—with the traditional tools of rhetoric rather than instead of them, as was the case with most other feminists using the testimonial form—created a massive multiplier effect, heightening the power of her prose. Her story-telling technique carried ‘an inexhaustible latent shadow … that there is always more to be told,’ as Iris Young describes it.41 This lifted The Female Eunuch from earth and made it fly.
At the time of its publication, The Female Eunuch did not receive the close critical analysis it deserved. There were honorable exceptions—the English feminist Sheila Rowbotham, for example, and the Australian feminist Beatrice Faust—but they were confined to book reviews. Arianna Stassinopoulos, at Cambridge a little after Germaine, replied with the book-length work, The Female Woman,42 but it was essentially a light-weight vehicle for anti-feminist backlash. Lynne Segal later took issue with Greer's flawed analysis of male violence. However, the only lengthy analysis to appear relatively close to the time of The Female Eunuch's publication came from Juliet Mitchell in her book Psychoanalysis and Feminism—though even this was not much longer than a substantial book review.43
Mitchell was responsible for stimulating a re-examination of Freud among English-speaking feminists after his comprehensive trashing at the hands of Greer and Millett, among others. One need not agree with Mitchell's stance on Freud to recognize her insights into the lesser side of Greer's polemical style. Mitchell referred to Greer's ‘disarmingly cavalier attitude’ to mistakes in The Female Eunuch. ‘She compounds many errors—with facility and wit,’ says Mitchell. In the first paragraph of one chapter alone, Mitchell showed Greer referring without differentiation twice to psychoanalysis, six times to psychology and twice to psychiatry, before moving on to begin the next paragraph with: ‘So much for the authority of psychoanalysis and the theory of personality.’44
Mitchell criticized Greer for setting up a false polarity in Freud between creation and destruction, aggressors and victims, Eros and death. She noted The Female Eunuch's tendency to self-serving intellectual sloppiness as well as the combative implications of even Greer's most ostensibly peace-loving goals: ‘If she accepts (and simplifies) Freud's notion of eternal Eros at war with his immortal adversary the death-drive, and then makes Eros (or rather Eros denied) equal women, and death equal men, so that the only way to save the world is for Eros-women to overcome death-men, then surely that accords a very aggressive role to Love?’45
One feminist had raised a warning flag about Germaine's warrior ways even before The Female Eunuch was published. In April 1970, Oz ran a piece written by ‘Michelene’ called ‘Women on the Moon … Or the End of Servile Penitude, a Reply to the Slag Heap Erupts and particularly Germaine (Cunt Power) Greer.’46 The piece responded to Germaine's anticipation of the imminent publication of an edition of Oz containing a ‘positive statement of Cuntpower’ which would expand on her view that the ‘cunt must take the steel out of the cock.’47 (The eventual edition was titled, much more satisfactorily from the censor's standpoint, ‘Female Energy Oz.’48 Michelene took exception to Germaine's barely latent aggression, and objected that the women's movement did not want to replace ‘penis-power by Cunt-power, or any generalised power.’
On the whole, in contrast with her strong public identification as a women's movement leader, Greer missed out on serious critical engagement with other feminists. Her loose logic and rhetorical excesses, her occasionally obvious impatience and condescension toward women who did not conform to her own notions, were not polished by critical interaction with informed peers. This set the pattern for her future work. It could be one reason why there is so little sense of growth and development in her later thinking and writing. In its absence, Greer would largely extrapolate in her writing from the particular life passage through which she was traveling at the time.
Oz unwittingly pointed to a key aspect of the way The Female Eunuch would be read in the two reviews it ran side by side. ‘Reading The Female Eunuch I felt that there was not one Germaine Greer but several,’ wrote Sheila Rowbotham. ‘There was one I liked a lot, who had the defiance, the controlled, if sometimes desperate dignity, of revolutionary feminism. … But in the midst of the defiance and the irony there's a gawky, forlorn girl, miserably dragging sanitary towels about in her school satchel, uneasily moving into an unhappy adolescence, not liking her mother, self-conscious about being tall and dreaming of crushing her nose into a giant's tweed suit.’ Rowbotham confessed that she had her own version of the tweed-suited giant fantasy—though in her case he was leather-clad and swept her off to the hills on his motorbike—but, like Michelene, she identified Germaine's general disconnectedness from the women's movement as a problem. Greer's analysis had ‘an external quality,’ Rowbotham argued; she lacked the passion and self-criticism of the women working within the movement. As a result she had missed out on learning from working alongside other women, being forced to re-examine preconceived notions, often painfully and painfully often.
‘Oh wow it's been done before Germaine,’ Rowbotham wrote:
Ever heard of scarecrow radicals? They frighten the sparrows a bit at first until they get used to them. Scarecrows can look very impudent but they can't do anything. There have been lots of scarecrow feminists, lots of bold women who resisted the servile lot of other women, who made a great flurry and a show, and who ended up like George Sand rejecting the feminist socialist groups to perform for a male audience. You avoid the stiff tense humourless tightness you see as a feature both of feminism and of the revolutionary groups, and you suddenly find yourself becoming a sophisticated brand of titillation on the media. It's a trap that destroys people ruthlessly.49
Tim Harris in the accompanying Oz review argued that most people lacked the energy or capacity to live their lives in accordance with Greer's blueprint for freedom. Yet his reaction to The Female Eunuch's essence echoed one that can still be heard today from women not involved in the movement recalling their first encounter with the book: ‘suddenly one becomes conscious of a whole area of experience previously blinded by habitual response. To have altered our perceptions, enlarged our world, and amused us in the process, that is a brilliant feat.’50
In its inimitable style, Oz managed to capture the divergence in the review headlines: ‘How to Get Your Man …’ over Harris's review, and over Rowbotham's ‘. .. The Book That Men Love and Women Hate.’ It was almost right. Many men did love the book, but so did many women. It was just that the less a woman had had to do with the women's movement at the time, the more likely it seemed she was to be impressed by The Female Eunuch. Women who were already active feminists read it with far more guile and could see the problems in it.
The Female Eunuch is arguably the book of the television age. It is not the most brilliant, the best-written, the best-selling or most insightful book; but it exemplifies so many key features of writing, publishing and reading in the mass-marketing era. If one had to choose just one book through which to illustrate the path post-war writing, publishing and popular thinking has traveled, this book would be a good choice. Take a great title, arresting cover artwork, a promotable, quotable author, add sex and install liberally in airport bookstands, stand back, enjoy the controversy and watch it sell its paperback cover off: it is a trite but true formula for modern publishing success. The book's author became a celebrity on three continents, and the man who contracted it eventually went on to New York to head one of the most prestigious publishing houses in the world.
Other elements also speak of its time. The style combines journalese and anecdote with the quasi-academic. It is studded with pull-out quotes, anticipating the drive to break up blocks of text as the march of computer graphics and MTV-length attention spans proceeds. It is a polemic of personal change whose influence attested to the powerful conjunction of ideas and the modern media; and it is an item designed for mass consumption. Its only atypical trait is, perhaps, its long shelf life. The book is still in print and widely available more than a quarter-century after publication.
Representing it like this in purely commercial formulaic terms is not meant to trivialize the book but rather to expose its business brilliance in pure, stripped-back form. The Female Eunuch is much, much more than the sum of its considerable commercial parts, more than a text tweaked into shape by the changing moods of Sonny Mehta's eyes. Its success in the marketplace and Greer's success as its author vastly expanded the scope and scale of her opportunities for ‘delinquency’ in Britain and abroad. Germaine Greer was launched. The world, for which read New York, was about to acclaim her the star that feminism was waiting for.
Greer, Female Eunuch, p. 25.
Anna Coote and Beatrix Campbell, Sweet Freedom, 2nd edition (Basil Blackwell: Oxford, 1987), p. 5.
Gisela Kaplan, The Meagre Harvest: The Australian Women's Movement 1950s-1990s (Allen & Unwin: Sydney, 1996), p. 32.
Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (Touchstone: New York, 1990, first published 1970).
Sheila Rowbotham, Women's Liberation and the New Politics (Spokesman: London, 1969), pamphlet no. 17.
Anne Koedt, ‘The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm,’ paper presented to the Women's Liberation Conference in Chicago, Thanksgiving 1968, reprinted in Notes from the Second Year (Radical Feminism: New York, 1970).
Ibid., pp. 11-12.
Kaplan, Meagre Harvest, p. 32.
Greer, Female Eunuch, pp. 322-3.
Ibid., p. 20.
Ibid., p. 300.
Ibid., p. 304.
Ibid., p. 21.
Ibid., p. 22.
Ibid., p. 371.
Ibid., p. 86.
Ibid., pp. 13-14.
Ibid., p. 15.
Ibid., p. 16.
Coote and Campbell, Sweet Freedom, p. 12.
Greer, Female Eunuch, p. 21.
Coote and Campbell, Sweet Freedom, p. 240.
Ibid., p. 241.
Lynne Segal, Is the Future Female? Troubled Thoughts on Contemporary Feminism, 2nd edition (Virago: London, 1994), p. 88.
Greer, Female Eunuch, pp. 50-1.
Ibid., p. 234.
Ibid., pp. 354-5.
Segal, Is the Future Female?, pp. 84-5.
Greer, Female Eunuch, p. 36.
Ibid., p. 169.
Ibid., p. 316.
Ibid., p. 324.
Ibid., p. 325.
Ibid., p. 364.
Ibid., p. 266.
Rodney G. Miller, ‘After the Evolution? Language for Social Comment in Germaine Greer's Book, The Female Eunuch,’ a paper delivered at the 4th National Congress of the Applied Linguistics Association of Australia, University of Sydney, 27 August 1979, p. 3.
Ibid., p. 11.
Ibid., p. 12.
Ibid., pp. 20-1.
Iris Young, ‘Communication and the Other: Beyond Deliberative Democracy,’ in Margaret Wilson and Anna Yeatman (eds.), Justice and Identity: Antipodean Perspectives (Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1995), pp. 146-7.
Ibid., p. 147.
Arianna Stassinopoulos, The Female Woman (Davis-Poynter: London, 1973).
Juliet Mitchell, Psychoanalysis and Feminism (Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1990), first published 1974.
Ibid., p. 340.
Ibid., p. 345.
Oz 27, April 1970, pp. 18-19.
Greer, ‘The Slagheap Erupts,’ p. 19.
Oz 29, July 1970.
Sheila Rowbotham, ‘… the book that men love and women hate,’ Oz 31, November-December 1970, p. 18.
Tim Harris, ‘How to Get Your Man …,’ ibid.
SOURCE: “Still Strapped in the Cuirass,” in Times Literary Supplement, March 19, 1999, pp. 6-7.
[In the following review, Mount provides a summary of The Whole Woman and unfavorable evaluation.]
“She's back and she's angry”—thus the Daily Telegraph puffed its extracts from Germaine Greer's new book. Can one imagine house-room being given in such a quarter to a serious enemy of comfortable society—Marx or Foucault, say? This kind of mock-alarming reception is normally reserved to drum up custom for an ageing boxer or tennis star whose legs have gone but who can still gouge an ear or terrorize an umpire. Despite her best efforts, Professor Greer has always been held in some affection by those whose certainties she purported to undermine. In my experience, middle-aged tycoons are particularly responsive to her charms, much in the same way that Masters of Foxhounds often have a penchant for the ballet. For a British audience, being Australian helps in this respect. We find it difficult to take umbrage at the foulest language if hurled at us in a North Queensland accent, let alone shrilled in Germaine's pleasant Melburnian mezzo. Greer also lays about her so vigorously, belabouring weak sisters and feminist backsliders with as much vim as she belabours brutal and cloddish men, so that no one group of her victims can feel unfairly singled out. The Whole Woman is no exception to her usual practice, and it follows naturally at another decade-and-a-half interval from her earlier works, The Female Eunuch (1970) and Sex and Destiny (1984), to form a remarkable trilogy.
Those who aspire to chart an alteration, even a repentance in her, are, I think, picking and choosing from her work, taking discourse A from one book and contrasting it with discourse B from another, when in fact A and B are to be found, perhaps in varying dosages, in most of what she writes. No pentita she, except in her willingness to denounce her former comrades.
If we are honest, what many of us remember best about The Female Eunuch is that soft cuirass on the dust-jacket, representing the burden of femininity strapped on woman by oppressive man. This prosthetic device has a brilliant ambiguity: who exactly designed it? Can you put it on yourself? What are we to imagine lying under it? Another woman-shaped body with all its attendant inconveniences and miseries? Or some untrammelled physique, simultaneously angelic and feisty, which is equipped to enjoy life at its richest—children, sex, art, sun-dried tomatoes—without any of the old inconveniences? Sometimes Greer embraces the warm, smelly, blood-soaked physical destiny of being a woman. Sometimes she dreams of women escaping from their fleshly burdens and living in sisterly bliss with their children. In The Female Eunuch, for example, she imagines communes where children are free to choose their parents, while grown-ups stroll from one weightless love to the next.
All her major books (Sex and Destiny much less so, being the least showy, least remembered and, I think, best of the three) are peppered with these inconstancies. But that is part of their appeal, their vivacity. And inconsistency is not the kind of accusation likely to slow the author down. As Walt Whitman pointed out, that's the only way to sing the Song of Myself:
Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes).
The Whole Woman is made up of four sections—Body, Mind, Love, Power—each divided into half-a-dozen “chapterkins” averaging ten pages each and devoted to specific topics, such as “breasts”, “shopping”, “sorrow”, “wives” and “emasculation”. It has not, I think, been much noticed that The Female Eunuch follows exactly the same pattern, uses several of the same headings and, alas, quite a few of the same arguments. Still, every page she writes is never less than readable and sometimes fizzes with sardonic aperçus, but taken as a whole this method doesn't work too well. The array of topics is so overwhelming and the chapters so short and packed with statistics and chunks from teen 'zines, interspersed with boxed quotes from feminists, most of whom are a good deal wilder or sillier than Dr Greer, that the total effect is filling but curiously unsatisfying, like a meal in a Chinese restaurant. Arguments are pursued with great ferocity, then undercut or dropped.
This choppiness also prevents any coherent historical analysis of what has happened to women, let alone to men, over the past thirty years. There is a curious reluctance to mention the most obvious landmarks since 1969—the advent of women priests, the appearance of women prime ministers all over the place (Margaret Thatcher is mentioned only as the victim of a “sexist” putsch—after eleven years in power, surely a rather slow-burning sort of sexism). In some cases, Greer actively refuses to take note of change in the real world, continuing to assert, for example, that newspapers are all run by older men, when in fact Rosie Boycott, among other things has edited the Independent, the Independent on Sunday and the Daily Express, and tabloids have been edited by women, not to mention the phalanx of younger female deputy editors on the broadsheets. The truth is that achieving too much reform is bad for business. For rage and indignation must be maintained at boiling-point. Greer has a reputation to keep up. The victims' club accepts only life members. It is hard not to feel that she is a victim herself, a victim of success, and that her supple mind has been prostituted to the need to keep her audience whooping.
More damaging still, we are left with the impression that the “women's movement” or the “feminist revolution” started more or less from scratch in 1969. There is no mention of Simone de Beauvoir, let alone of the suffragettes or Marie Stopes. This short perspective is no accident, since to refer back to that earlier movement would be to recall a struggle which really did have implacable declared enemies.
The eerie thing about the post-60s feminism is that it has had few proper opponents willing to show themselves. The gates of each decayed Bastille turned on their rusty hinges—the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, the Stock Exchange, the Jockey Club—to reveal only a handful of frightened middle-aged men falling over themselves to show their new colleagues around.
The only serious fight that could be picked—and Greer is nothing if not a scrapper—was within the sisterhood, with men as bemused bystanders. This ideological equivalent of female mud-wrestling (an analogy Greer herself uses in The Whole Woman) was not exactly new. Its terms of engagement had changed little since the days of the New Woman and Mrs Humphry Ward. In the red corner, there was the insistent and uncompromising quest for equality between the sexes always and everywhere. In the blue corner, there was the claim that women were deeper, more creative, closer to the mysteries of life, in harmony with the moon and the tides, singled out not by a curse but by a wise wound, white witches, goddesses. These two driving principles, one of absolute sameness, the other of profound difference, do not have to be driven very far before they come into conflict. Nor is either of them entirely unfamiliar or even uncongenial to some of the male bystanders: gender equality has been part of the egalitarian ideal from 1789 onwards, and it has been a central theme among authors from Goethe to Graves, men who would no more have dreamed of joining the women's movement than of taking up ice hockey, that only das ewig weibliche can revivify the poor dried-up male and reconnect men to the roots of being.
Greer herself wobbles a bit here. Now and then, she rehearses the standard line that there is a natural condition of “femaleness” which has been overlaid by a false and oppressive social construct of “femininity” (the same for men, of course, except that both the natural condition and the social construct seem to be pernicious). But as the book goes on, femaleness seems to envelop almost everything, leaving only flirting and a taste for frilly underwear as the affectations of femininity. Women, it seems, by nature love more passionately, bear pain more uncomplainingly, work harder, are averse to violence, are endlessly forgiving. Towards the end, even conventional feminist assertions about the ill effects of gendered upbringing—boys are demand-fed, potty-trained later—give way to a resigned admission that “no matter how gender-free their upbringing, children will invent gender for themselves”.
Greer frequently sneers at the sort of “feminists everyone can like” who are content to work for mere equality. Women, she says, should not waste their lives trying to imitate men and clawing their way into those oppressive male hierarchies, such as Parliament or the Armed Forces. Yet, of course, a good deal of what she demands depends on just those dowdy campaigners for equality in pay, in political representation, in access to the professions and so on. If they expect any gratitude from Dr Greer, they can forget it. Some of these campaigners happen to be men. If they expect any recognition of this fact, they can forget that too.
She can write acutely and touchingly and does so here now and then, about motherhood and children, for example, or in her chapterkin on the necessary place of sorrow in life. But even there she feels duty bound to go over the top: every woman has to learn that men will never admit her to true comradeship, we are living “in a poisoned world that becomes crueller and more unjust every day”, in which “there is no longer any free space where individuals might develop alternative cultural and social systems”.
Turn over to the next chapterkins, of course, and you will find little parenthetical admissions that, on the contrary, women's lives are better, if more challenging now, “the forces of darkness having been by and large routed”, that women are carving out free spaces for themselves and that quite a lot of machinery to remedy discrimination against women is now in operation—although naturally she has to complain that it is warped and inadequate.
But these qualifying asides are brief, and the diatribe quickly picks up steam again. The chapterkin on daughters is almost entirely taken up with the subject of father-daughter incest. “These behaviours”, we are told, “are less aberrant than normal. They may be outlandish, but they are manifestations of the governing principle that runs the everyday.”
The only fathers who have not yet got around to doing a bit of manifesting are, it seems, those who have already deserted the nest to avoid their obligations—or those who are too busy beating up their wives. The chapter on fathers is entirely composed of horror stories about violence and delinquency.
Not that staying home to help raise the kids will earn you any remission of guilt. You will merely be perpetuating the oppression of women and adding to the laundry bills. Perhaps Greer's fiercest condemnation—fiercer even than her fury against cosmetic surgeons and the “fertility moguls”—is reserved for housework in general and the washing machine in particular. Far from these domestic appliances being a boon to the “housewife”—“an expression that should be considered as shocking as ‘yard nigger’”—they have made cleaning more time-consuming than ever. Yes, and switching on the heating is so much more exhausting than chopping firewood.
The Whole Woman shares with other great dogmatic texts—Marx, Freud, Foucault—the quality of being irrefutable. Any instances that might on the surface seem to weaken or contradict the teachings of liberation feminism can be shown in reality to reinforce them. You might think, for example, that because female genital mutilation is now condemned as a violation of human rights by every international organization, while male genital mutilation is ignored, women for once were better off. Not a bit of it. The campaign against female circumcision merely shows Western man's determination to impose control on women in the Third World. Again, the obsessive determination to improve screening for cervical cancer, while prostate cancer is neglected, is not a sign that we care more about women's health but rather one more example of the determination of men to control the sexuality of women. Nor should you imagine that male doctors are attempting to bring joy to childless women by inventing new fertility treatments. On the contrary, “fertility treatment causes far more suffering than it does joy”, and the “fertility magnates” are simply exploiting women for their own gain and glory.
I would not advise any male suffering from our sex's deplorable excess of testosterone to retort that women continue to live on average five years longer than men, that five times as many young men as women commit suicide, that men are twice as likely to be unemployed and find it twice as hard to get another job, that men are infinitely more likely to suffer industrial accidents and diseases which may destroy their lives. None of these apparent disadvantages begins to compare with the misery—Greer's favourite word—daily endured by women, and in any case men deserve it.
Men can't win and shouldn't. Who needs them anyway? Greer entertains a suspicion that “if heterosexuality is not in future to be buttressed by law and religion and family pressure, it will collapse”. Not that Greer cares that much for gays; to her they look just as violent as and rather more promiscuous than other men. She is not even very enthusiastic about lesbians, and she is positively contemptuous of transsexuals' blundering efforts to deny their biological nature.
But there remains, of course, one small problem in a world where men are properly marginalized and left to stew in the pub and the locker-room. How are children to be brought up? Even after we have consigned to history's dustbin “the ghastly figure of the Bride”, there remains the awkward fact that, in her words, “A woman without a partner and with children is usually a woman in trouble.” Greer, in a significant shift, concedes that “In The Female Eunuch I argued that motherhood should not be treated as a substitute career; now I would argue that motherhood should be regarded as a genuine career option.” And now that they have this licence to breed professionally, women should be paid enough to raise a child in decent circumstances.
But who is to pay them? Who is to be the “partner”? Not, of course, a man, though every social statistic screams that a child brought up by two parents does better in life. Not the extended sisterhood of traditional society, the loss of which she mourns now as in 1969. Sisters may provide a network of comfort and support, but they cannot be expected to win the bread. Naturally the answer is the age-old one of all utopians: the State must be the new father.
The State doesn't snore or get drunk, the State doesn't beat you up or waste its weekend gawping at muddied oafs or torturing fish, the State doesn't call out “nice tits” as you walk past, and it never says “how like a woman”. And if it seems a touch paradoxical that a movement that yearns for total liberation from oppression and commitment should end up by shackling itself to the railings of Whitchall, that would not be the first time this has happened. Egotism has a habit of drifting into statism. That is why egotism is not enough, as I am sure Nurse Cavell would have said if she had survived to see the women's movement in full flow.
Everything that Greer argues—and in places she argues so magnificently, with such wit and zap—leads, it seems to me, to precisely the opposite of the conclusion that she sets out to draw. Ghastly as men are—in fact, precisely because they are so ghastly—the only hope of even half-civilizing them, and their male children, must lie in some social institution, some pattern of shared obligations, which looks remarkably like old-fashioned marriage, looser, more equal, purged of its grosser patriarchal aspects but none the less recognizably marriage. Many marriages are unhappy and most marriage have their unhappy patches, but Greer's insistence that, at the deepest level, women today are no happier than they were thirty years ago does not suggest that she has found a better option.
SOURCE: “Back to the Barricades,” in New York Times Book Review, May 9, 1999, pp. 19-20.
[In the following review, Paglia provides a summary of Greer's life and career through evaluation of Christine Wallace's biography of Greer and offers negative assessment of The Whole Woman.]
After a year of divisive White House scandals, the feminist movement in the United States has been struggling to regain its bearings. Reminiscence rather than innovation is the trend, as memoirs and biographies of older feminists pour from the presses.
Two books arrive as timely reminders that feminism is a world movement. The first, by Christine Wallace, an Australian journalist, is a biography of Germaine Greer, author of the 1970 feminist classic, The Female Eunuch. The second, by Greer herself, is the “sequel” she vowed she would never write.
Wallace pursued her biography under fire from her displeased subject: Greer called her “a dung beetle” and “flesh-eating bacteria” and blocked access to key sources. Suspicion was probably warranted: Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew veers into partisan sermonizing when it rebukes Greer for being insufficiently feminist (as the term has been narrowly defined by what feels like a shadowy female collective breathing down Wallace's neck).
Wallace should have just stuck to her story, which is spell-binding. Many of today's young feminists outside Britain, where Greer has lived as a formidable public presence since 1964, have never heard of her and badly need a primer in feminist history. Middle-aged feminists, on the other hand, still relish Greer's swash-buckling 1971 American book tour, which was as provocative as Oscar Wilde's 1882 visit.
Though she wonderfully illuminates Greer's early life in Australia, Wallace too often impugns Greer as a faux feminist who latched onto the women's movement for publicity. The facts show the contrary: that well before Betty Friedan's 1963 manifesto, The Feminine Mystique, the young Greer was boldly challenging conventions of feminine speech and behavior. She exemplified the revolutionary spirit of the generation rising after World War II.
Born in “conservative, Anglophile, stultifyingly predictable” Melbourne in 1939 to a dapper advertising representative and his “headstrong” wife, Greer was rigorously educated in Roman Catholic schools. She was “terrorized” by her mother, who beat her with a stick or toaster cord. Her “distant, sometimes tortured” father, absent overseas in the Royal Australian Air Force, was in Greer's opinion “weak, craven, feeble” for not protecting or praising her.
Greer's seething sense of defraudation and her stinging portrayals of men as cheats and parasites appear rooted in her disappointment with her father. She would cross the world in obsessive quest of his true identity: Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1990) charts her sleuthing into her murky, shame-filled family origins.
“Lanky and clever,” Greer was an awkward six feet tall by adolescence. She took up fencing and had an affair with another girl. Arriving at the University of Melbourne in 1956, Greer already had “intellectual arrogance” with a persistent “Catholic intensity.” “Bullying and obnoxious in argument” but with “a palpable vulnerability,” she sank into misery and made “a melodramatic gesture at suicide” by flinging herself down a cliff.
Greer's shocking language and odd dress got her satirized by a student newspaper as “Germaniac Queer.” She aspired to a male sexual freedom, and there were abortions and gynecological problems, whose scarring affected her fertility when, in maturity, she longed for a baby.
Wallace examines Greer's rape at a football club barbecue, a trauma that she later publicized as emblematic of male oppression. A witness raises questions about Greer's judgment and actions at the time and insists, contrary to her claims, that sympathetic male students came to her defense.
Wallace gives an invaluable overview of the bohemian coteries and intellectual trends of Melbourne and Sydney University, where Greer received her M.A. in English literature. The combination of anarchism, moralism, and libertarianism in Greer's thinking is deftly traced to such disparate influences as the sex theorist Wilhelm Reich and the critic F. R. Leavis. But Greer's devotion to Byron, her thesis subject, is badly handled by the uncomprehending Wallace. At Sydney, Greer dabbled in theater and fell in love with a libertine male philosopher—the most serious relationship of her life.
Leaving Australia for doctoral study at Cambridge University, Greer found a female mentor in the Renaissance scholar Muriel Bradbrook. Greer's thesis, on love and marriage in Shakespeare's early comedies, is distorted by a hostile Wallace, who can't reconcile Greer's real-life “sexual braggadocio” with the male conquest in The Taming of the Shrew—when in fact Greer was asking searching questions about virility and female desire that feminism still cannot answer.
Wallace vividly documents Greer's rise to celebrity. A tour with Cambridge's Footlights Club, where Greer starred in musical revues, led to television offers that introduced her to the booming British rock scene. Greer's life was split between swinging London and the University of Warwick, where she taught for five years.
In London Greer spotted the rugged, hard-drinking Paul du Feu, a well-educated construction worker whom Wallace describes as “the heterosexual equivalent of a rough trade fantasy come true.” Du Feu was captivated by what he called Greer's “frizzed-out soul-sister hair,” “pre-Raphaelite beauty” and “tough-guy” sexual style. Their hasty marriage lasted three weeks. Greer's new “theology,” according to du Feu (who later posed nude for a Cosmopolitan centerfold), was sexual promiscuity, as espoused in underground periodicals like Oz and an Amsterdam-based, radically pro-pornography magazine Greer co-founded.
Wallace is scathingly negative about Greer's 1969 manifesto, The Universal Tonguebath, a paean to rock groupies and group sex. Her political disdain for popular culture is a salient weakness in this biography; Wallace should have noted the striking parallelism between the 1960‘s Greer and the resurgent pro-sex wing of 1990’s feminism, which embraces rock-and-roll instead of condemning it as sexist. Mocking the Oz Greer as “grooviness personified,” Wallace droningly indicts her “anachronistic passivity” and “hegemonic heterosexuality.” Yet Greer's vitality and wit leap off those pages.
The genesis of The Female Eunuch, Greer's trenchant analysis of the modern female condition, is ascribed to a woman agent and to Greer's Cambridge friend Sonny Mehta, now the editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf. Wallace's wholesale rejection of the criticisms of feminist activists in Greer's famous best seller misses Greer's prescience about what would indeed go badly wrong with second-wave feminism.
But Wallace's chronicle of Greer's American tour, notably her tumultuous debate with Norman Mailer at Town Hall in New York City, is a major contribution to cultural history. Wallace unfortunately talked only to feminist leaders—thus committing the same “elitist” sin she accuses Greer of. In attacking Greer for belittling Kate Millett's Sexual Politics, Wallace fails to realize that that 1970 book, with its stridently anti-male premises about art, split feminism down the middle. The cultivated Greer was right about Millett's philistinism.
Wallace hurries through Greer's later career—her four years at the University of Oklahoma, her residence in Italy, her active support of third world causes and her books on art and poetry. Though she charts Greer's reversals—“disengaging from sex in her middle 40's” and abandoning concern for her looks—Wallace lacks psychological insight into the Greer who declares “I don't have any enduring relationships of any sort except with animals and plants.” But despite its hatchet-grinding and its mundane literalism about esthetics, this biography is a treasure trove of information about one of the world's leading intellectuals—whom women's studies programs, as Wallace observes, have outrageously neglected.
The Whole Woman gave Greer a golden opportunity to retake center stage by reassessing feminist history in her own terms. Alas, the book, which reads as though it was rushed into print to counter Wallace's biography, is exasperatingly disjointed and scattershot. It is overconcerned with Greer's British opponents and provincial feuds. Most American readers, for example, will be baffled by Greer's dark allusions to her angry resignation from Cambridge over the appointment of a male-to-female transsexual astrophysicist to a woman's college. And there are cryptic references to Greer's clash with catty women journalists who falsely claimed that she had had a hysterectomy and whom she charged in turn with excessive, brain-rotting use of lipstick. That battle, showing Greer's rejection of vixenish post-feminism, cries out for fuller detailing.
Like its precursor, The Whole Woman is structured in four parts: “Body,” “Soul,” “Love” and “Hate” (in The Female Eunuch) have become “Body,” “Mind,” “Love” and “Power.” Is Greer acknowledging that the sexes must get beyond mutual recriminations and that women have made slow but substantive advances in public life? Not at all: she insists that she never called for “equality” but only “liberation,” and she dismisses as inconsequential women's professional gains. “It's time to get angry again,” she proclaims about “the false dawn of feminism.”
The book is shot through with unhelpful and pass‚ invective against men. “Patriarchal authority,” we are told, strangles medicine, the stock market, and media and entertainment. Men are portrayed as filthy, lazy louts, sponging off women's labor. Greer bizarrely claims that “our culture is far more masculinist than it was 30 years ago.”
Though she says that “the identification of feminism with the United States has dishonored it around the world.” Greer freely borrows without attribution from American writers, as in her critique of the sexual revolution for having liberated men but exposed young women to exploitation and infection.
Among Greer's questionable assertions: ultrasound scanning of pregnant women may cause dyslexia in infants; the Pap smear is “the dragooning and torturing of women”; the “real powers” behind Roe v. Wade were male doctors, judges and mobsters who made “fortunes” in “the abortion industry,” unleashing “a tide of feticide” that swept the world. In Greer's grisly scenarios, modern medicine is simply “300 years of male professionals lancing women's bodies as if they were abcesses.”
Too much of the book consists of citations from recent magazine articles. Tantalizing points are raised but not developed—for example, Greer's attack on post-modernist gay theorists for making the vagina and rectum equivalent or her fascinating juxtaposition of African genital mutilation with Western plastic surgery and breast augmentation. Her gibes at recent pop music and the Internet have a third-hand quality, and she makes breathtaking misstatements—like saying that women's studies faculty members have been “regularly refused tenure” (what planet does she live on?).
The tone of this book is seriously unbalanced: Greer's normal humor and oratorical propulsiveness seem lost in her orgy of contemptuous sardonicism. I miss the mature, contemplative voice of celebration of nature in The Change, Greer's 1992 meditation on menopause. The Whole Woman, in short, does not give us the whole Greer. Ironically, Greer emerges with more dignity and stature from Wallace's acid-etched biography, which is also a far better read.
SOURCE: “The Female Condition, Re-explored 30 Years Later,” in The New York Times, May 18, 1999, p. E10.
[In the following review, Kakutani offers negative assessment of The Whole Woman.]
When Germaine Greer's swaggering call for sexual liberation, The Female Eunuch, appeared in 1970, it created a sensation. The book urged women to embrace their sexuality, to become self-reliant and to repudiate the passive roles in which they have traditionally been cast. It laid out these dictums with a rollicking sense of humor and a marked sympathy for men, two qualities in decidedly short supply among feminist theorists of the time. Indeed, Ms. Greer's book anticipated the thinking of later feminists like Naomi Wolf who would treat men not as adversaries but as potential partners.
Now, some 30 years later, Ms. Greer has written a sequel of sorts to The Female Eunuch. It's a book that is as sour as Eunuch was exuberant, as dogmatic as Eunuch was original, as slipshod in its thinking as Eunuch was pointed. Instead of drawing upon her readings in psychoanalysis, literature and cultural history as she did in that earlier book, Ms. Greer relies in these pages on highly selective anecdotal evidence (from newspaper stories, court cases and polls) to support her assertions. Instead of drawing her disparate observations together into a coherent thesis, she settles for giving the reader a scattershot—and often highly contradictory—series of reactions to an assortment of phenomena, including sexual discrimination legislation, deadbeat dads, anorexia, self-mutilation and the rise of Madonna and the Spice Girls.
Throughout this messy volume, Ms. Greer tries to argue that things are worse than ever for women. Although she acknowledges that “feminist consciousness now leavens every relationship, every single social and professional encounter,” she insists that our culture is “less feminist than it was 30 years ago.”
“When The Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves,” she writes. “On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain, in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners. It's time to get angry again.”
Perhaps one reason Ms. Greer is so pessimistic has to do with her willful—and often perverse—insistence on seeing developments most feminists would embrace as signs of progress as symptoms of some vague male conspiracy. Modern contraception, she suggests, does not give a woman greater control over her body, but turns her into “a manmade nonmother”: it is another instance of “male interference with conception and birth.” Reproductive technology, in her view, does not exist to offer unfertile women the hope of having babies but to make women subsidiary to the process of reproduction. Screening for cervical and breast cancer, she declares, “is many times more likely to destroy a woman's peace of mind than it is to save her life.”
“Women are driven through the health system like sheep through a dip,” she writes in a typically dogmatic passage. “The disease they are being treated for is womanhood.”
As for the legal right to have an abortion, Ms. Greer sees it as a reflection of the power of “the masculine medical establishment and the masculine judiciary”: “there were fortunes to be made in pregnancy termination,” she writes, “at a time when advances in the technology were making a risky procedure fool-proof.” In her opinion, all that women won with Roe v. Wade was “the ‘right’ to undergo invasive procedures in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies, unwanted not just by them but by their parents, their sexual partners, the governments who would not support mothers, the employers who would not employ mothers, the landlords who would not accept tenants with children, the schools that would not accept students with children.”
While Ms. Greer noisily assails the Western establishment for forcing women to conform to stereotyped standards of beauty, she denounces Western efforts to stamp out female genital mutilation in Africa as “an attack on cultural identity.” Although she admits that genital mutilation “represents a significant health risk,” she argues that “it must also be a procedure with considerable cultural value because it has survived 50 years of criminalization and concerted propaganda campaigns.” Although the brutal procedure is frequently performed on girls who have no say in the matter, Ms. Greer writes that “we should be considering the possibility that F.G.M. acts in a similar way” to tattooing and body piercing “to assert the individual woman's control over her genitals and to customize them to her specification.”
Such patronizing, ill-considered remarks do nothing to inspire confidence in Ms. Greer. Nor do her hectoring denunciations of men as lazy beasts who increasingly prefer masturbation to “the services of actual women” or her churlish reluctance to regard male-to-female transsexuals as women.
As for her recommendations for change, they not only sound impractical but often loony as well. She suggests that women “should consider the possibility of deploying grief as a subversive force”—as a means of protesting, even stopping Governments from making “war on a helpless civilian population.” She also argues that women—who, she now believes, will always be ignored or treated as sex objects by men—should “make a conscious decision not to want men's company more than men want women's,” even if that results in a segregation of the sexes.
While reporters have already made much of the fact that in the 30 years since The Female Eunuch Ms. Greer has changed her mind about everything from motherhood as a career option to sex as a liberating (or enslaving) force, she would argue that “women's changeability” can be a “corrective to masculine rigidity.”
What is unfortunate about The Whole Woman is less that she has changed her views than that she has done such a weak job of articulating her evolving vision and that her writing—and thinking—have grown so vituperative and shrill. None of the thoughtful insights into male and female psychology that animated The Female Eunuch are to be found in this volume, just as none of that earlier book's intellectual analysis is to be found in its pages.
The Whole Woman is a castrated book.
SOURCE: “The Trouble With Women,” in Washington Post Book World, May 23, 1999, p. 8.
[In the following review, Ward offers unfavorable assessment of The Whole Woman and Christine Wallace's biography of Greer.]
“It's time,” announces Germaine Greer in the preface—or “recantation”—to her new book, “to get angry again.”
Oh. Had she stopped? According to her biographer, Christine Wallace, “Dr. Grrrr” has been angry with the world since she was a child in 1940s Melbourne: with her parents, with men, with other women (especially other feminists, from the suffragettes to the ERA campaigners) and ultimately with society in all its multiple oppressive manifestations. After the great whip-crack of The Female Eunuch, Greer can hardly be said to have sat back paring her fingernails while the tyrants and traitors got on with it. Perceived transgressions large and small have regularly called forth trumpet blasts of Greerian ire, although not such sustained ones. Lately, she has been very angry indeed with her compatriot Wallace, whom she has rather intemperately compared to a “dung beetle” and “flesh-eating bacteria” for having presumed to write an unauthorized and, what is worse, ungrammatical biography of her.
Anger, in short, is Greer's shtick; she makes an art form of it, albeit more street theater than literature. Had she been born a couple of generations earlier, she might well have found herself a real Sunday-afternoon soapbox at London's Hyde Park Corner rather than the virtual soapbox she has constructed out of her academic and polemical publications and her talent for deploying the media to her advantage. She is an English professor at Warwick University and a longtime occasional journalist but so much more besides: performer, prophet, avenging angel, lash of the ignorant, scourge of the complacent, foe of despots. If this sounds less like a c.v. than a litany, it is only appropriate to the near-religious sense of mission informing Greer's entire career. “I am an anarchist, basically,” she told a British interviewer recently, which—given the scope of her rage—is really her way of saying that she, too, brings not peace but a sword. People with such lofty aspirations tend to wobble on the knife-edge between brilliance and battiness. It is to Greer's credit that, through the years, she has tumbled off on the wrong side somewhat less often than she has found herself on the side of the angels.
So, The Whole Woman: not a new anger, then, but an old anger taken to a whole new level. Readers of The Female Eunuch—and there were literally millions of them back in the '70s—will recognize its ghostly influence here, right down to the cosmic chapter headings (“Body” and “Love” are back, but “Soul” has become “Mind” and “Hate” has mutated into “Power”) and inset boxes of poetry and other quotations. The opening “recantation” is simply Greer going back on her vow never to write a sequel to that first, furious, infuriating, oddly inspiring, ultimately quixotic book. Things have not worked out as she had hoped—or prescribed—so, at the age of 60, she is taking another tilt at the windmill. The Female Eunuch, she points out, was “one feminist text that did not argue for equality.” It argued for liberation, for doing “as much for female people as has been done for colonized nations.” Looking about her nearly 30 years on, Greer saw women everywhere continuing to bend and attune themselves to a male-ordered world, laboring under crushingly “contradictory expectations” in everything from health care to housework to sexual harassment. That, she said, is what the spurious notion of equality had amounted to: equality with slaves, freedom “to live the lives of unfree men.” Hence her rekindled anger; hence this book.
Without question, the world Greer paints for us, brush stroke by sweeping brush stroke, is a desolate one, almost apocalyptically so. We Western women, it appears, still have not shucked off male ideas of female beauty; the voluntary mutilation of plastic surgery bears witness to our thralldom. We continue to buy into the myth of male-pleasing penetrative sex, locking ourselves into a cycle of hazardous contraceptive practices, abortions that we ludicrously celebrate as “a right” (rather than mourn as “a sad and onerous duty”), and exploitative fertility treatments. We fight for the right to be soldiers and boxers and CEOs; certainly we should have those options, she responds, but why would we want to? Armies are bastions of “conscientious inhumanity.” Professional boxers are little better than performing animals, promoters' commodities—an opinion shared by Muhammad Ali. And a woman who succeeds in business (or politics) usually ends up doing it, Thatcher-like, over the bodies of other women.
In an extraordinary chapter on “Sorrow,” at the literal center and philosophical heart of the book, Greer berates us for confusing our real, rational feelings of sadness with illnesses to be medicated or outbreaks of hysteria to be shushed and apologized for. “Disturbed animals in the zoo are given Prozac too,” she writes, “not for the misfortune of being [a tiger] but for the misfortune of being in a zoo; female depression could as likely be a consequence not of being female but of an inhuman environment.” (What other feminist, by the way, would risk her PC credentials by starting such a chapter with an invocation of the Mater Dolorosa herself, “Mary the mother of Jesus”?)
On and on she goes, cataloguing the injustices and misguided aspirations that diminish and embitter our lives. Not just ours, either: Scouring the earth for “a glimpse of a surviving whole woman,” Greer found everywhere, from Africa to China, from rural Oklahoma to Central Australia, the insidious encroachment of the Western feminine stereotype, with its sad baggage of high heels, lipstick, contraceptives, baby formula and eagerness to please.
Of course, demurrals bubble up as one reads. The bleakness is so absolute it matches the experience of no woman I know on four continents. There is a curious absence of compassion for men: If they are so unfree and oppressed themselves, what about their rational feelings of sadness, bitterness and inadequacy? “To be male is to be a kind of idiot savant—” We know what she means, but we also know that it is unfair and untrue. What about the patient, humorous, gentle, generous men who have as little time for the sexist jocks and violent jerks as women do? The fact is, Greer's jeremiad is so sweeping it scarcely allows for such nuances and often pushes her over the edge into outright silliness. The solution to the housework problem is not to advise a woman to pack up her stuff and become an “apple-cheeked bag lady” on a park bench. Revulsion at plastic-surgery abuses in Western societies does not somehow put the Third World practice of female genital mutilation in a better light. Nor would there seem to be much of a future for the human race in all-female communes.
And yet The Whole Woman remains a marvelous performance. Certainly it is dark, but Picasso's “Guernica” and Tennyson's “In Memoriam” are dark, too, and we recognize those as true, if partial, representations of our complex human experience. Besides, like them, it is oddly exhilarating. Greer may have grim things to say, but she has a rip-roaring time saying them—the soapbox syndrome again. No feminist writer can match her for eloquence or energy; none makes us laugh the way she does. “Feminism,” she quotes deluded optimists as saying, “has served its purpose and should now eff off.” “Men are no more likely to submit their testicles to official care and attention than they are to wear their muffler when it is cold and keep their feet dry.” “Women are to be taken care of whether they like it or not.” “Women are worker bees; males are drones.” “When cultivation is done with mattocks and hoes, women do it; when a tractor comes along, men drive it.”
Again and again, too, she interrupts some tirade or lament with a jolt of profound wisdom or glancing poetry, like that great central paean to female sorrow, which throws us back onto her side all over again. Provided, of course, one can even keep hold of her “side” on this intellectual and emotional roller-coaster ride.
Nobody has ever found it easy to pin down Germaine Greer—and that includes her biographer. True, Christine Wallace's much-resented attempt has resulted in a diligent, intelligent and in many ways enlightening book. It is useful to know, for instance, of Greer's longtime hostility toward her mother, her rape as a university student, her single, three-week fiasco of a marriage and her unsuccessful attempts in later life to have a child. It is helpful to learn of her anarchist “training” (as Wallace dubiously insists on calling it) as a member of the Sydney bohemian and libertarian group known as the Push. Wallace's view of The Female Eunuch as essentially a mirror of Greer's own “psychic wounds” is thought-provoking, and at least one sharply worded sentence should be borne in mind in any assessment of The Whole Woman: “Testimonial feminism has an important and honorable role in the history of the women's movement, but extrapolating social theory from a statistical sample of one is a dangerous enterprise.”
Still, though the portrait of Greer as a disturbed, manipulative, inconsistent, self-promoting, genius-tinged maverick is persuasive, one is not persuaded that it is complete. Perhaps because Wallace was unable to talk to her subject, aspects of Greer that show up in all her books are missing here: notably her humor, her sadness and her odd likableness. More than anywhere, though, the temperamental mismatch of biographer and subject is evident in Wallace's style. If there is one thing Greer handles beautifully, it is language. She must have found it particularly galling to have her life laid bare in English as graceless and lumpy as this: “Far from being a matter of inconsistency, her stance was often a result of her adherence to anarchistic pessimism—which provided a framework within which seemingly contrary positions could have their own internal consistency”—a typical, though by no means the worst, example of Wallace's prose.
In the end, a reader can probably glean more of the essential Greer from one chapter of The Whole Woman than from all of this conscientious, plodding biography.
SOURCE: “The Female Misogynist,” in The New Republic, May 31, 1999, pp. 34-40.
[In the following review, Talbot offers negative evaluation of The Whole Woman, citing serious faults in Greer's “men-are-dogs” perspective and contradictory arguments that undermine the well-being of women.]
Whatever else Germaine Greer's new book will be called, it will almost certainly be called a work of feminism. There are reasons for this, but they have almost nothing to do with the book itself, which is a sour and undiscriminating litany of charges against men—all men, men as nature created them—wrapped around the willfully obtuse argument that little or nothing has improved for American and European women over the last thirty years. The Whole Woman presents men as irredeemable and equality as a hoax. For this reason, the book is just a sideshow, a shrill distraction from the humane and transformative and exhilarating vision of justice that has animated the enterprise of feminism since the late eighteenth century.
In that vision, let us remind ourselves, the struggle for equal dignity, equal possibility, and equal worth was supposed to change and to benefit men, too. Women's rights were thwarted by culture, not by nature; by cruel social arrangements, not by timeless male troglodytism. “We do not fight with man himself,” the nineteenth-century feminist Ernestine Rose observed, “but only with bad principles.” In the great feminist vision, neither men nor women were to be defined by, let alone reduced to, their anatomy. For liberal feminism, as Martha Nussbaum has argued, sex, like caste and rank, was a “morally irrelevant characteristic” that acquired its significance historically and not biologically—through law and custom, which are amenable to moral and historical agency. Otherwise politics are meaningless, and women have reason only for despair.
In Greer's view, however, men are “doomed to competition and injustice, not merely towards females, but towards children, animals, and other men.” The concept of doom never served much of a purpose in feminism, which is, at its core, hopeful and ameliorative; but Greer presses it into service. After all, she writes, men are “freaks of nature … full of queer obsessions about fetishistic activities and fantasy goals.” They are single-minded, and “single-mindedness produces hideously anti-social behaviors, from paedophile rings to waging war.” They are slothful and sponging—and irredeemably so, because their “anthropoid ancestors” were slothful and sponging, too. A woman who burdens herself with a man in the form of a husband will likely find that “the cost of feeding him, grooming him, humouring him, and financing his recreation is way out of proportion to the contribution that he makes in return.”
The home truth is that men hate women. And “there is no point in trying to establish” why. (Why think, when you can rage?) “Men bash women because they enjoy it; they torture women as they might torture an animal or pull the wings off flies. …” So repelled are they by their girlfriends, their wives, their sisters, their mothers, and their daughters that they are doing their malevolent best to eradicate us altogether. As Greer barmily puts it, “If state-of-the-art gestation cabinets could manufacture children and virtual fetishes could furnish sexual services, men would not regret the passing of real, smelly, bloody, noisy, hairy women.” (Smelliness and bloodiness and noisiness and hairiness being the signal qualities of “real” women.) If that is what you really believe, what is the point of any concerted movement for social reform? The answer is simple: Greer sees no point in it. The only tattered hope that she holds aloft is her own naïve enamorment with the gender apartheid of certain Middle Eastern cultures. “I gazed at women in segregated societies,” she writes, “and found them in many ways stronger than women who would not go into a theatre or a restaurant without a man.” The “dignified alternative” for women in the United States and Europe would be to segregate themselves, perhaps in “matrilocal families.” Purdah-hood is powerful!
Why, then, will such fatalistic claptrap be dignified with the good name of feminism? Why, for that matter, is The Whole Woman a bestseller in England? Why does the Knopf catalogue praise the book as a “shattering critique” and a “call to arms?” (Even PR should show a little decency.) One reason, certainly, is Greer's reputation as a fire-starter of 1970s feminism, a writer who galvanized and outraged. Another reason, a more alarming one, is the insidious reach of an attitude that we will call Men-Are-Dogs-ism. This increasingly popular sensibility represents a convergence of influences: the animal determinism of evolutionary psychology; essentializing bromides of the sort made famous by Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus; sitcom-style girl-bonding; the frightened, triumphalist rage of a certain strain of women's rock-and-roll. In the end, it is this way of thinking—or rather, this escape from thinking—that Germaine Greer exemplifies. The Whole Woman is empty-headed vehemence of a discouragingly familiar kind.
In 1970, The Female Eunuch made Germaine Greer famous, and it made feminism famous, too. “Every self-respecting woman on the Left owned a copy or still owns a copy somewhere around the house, dog-eared and coffee-stained with use,” Lisa Jardine recently recalled in the London Observer. “[F]or women born in the immediate postwar years, there was ‘before Greer’ and ‘after Greer’; the book, and Germaine's attention-grabbing brand of stand-up comic, in-your-face assertiveness taught us all how to behave badly and take control of our lives.” The Female Eunuch was the sort of book that wives read in defiance of their husbands, copping a thrill of insurrection. It was the sort of book, according to Christine Wallace's informants in Untamed Shrew, her new biography of Greer, that broke up dinner parties, sending fondue sets crashing to the floor. (The copy that I recently took out of the library—the original hardback with Greer in a feather boa on the back and her name on the front in bloopy purple letters—contained this time-capsule inscription: “Sheila the Peela: Don't tell Pat about this. We decided a little lib would be good for you.”)
Greer herself was a 31-year-old Cambridge Ph.D. in 1970, transplanted from Sydney and living the Boho life in London. Within a year of publishing The Female Eunuch, she had debated Norman Mailer in a truculent disputation at Town Hall in New York, turned up on the cover of Life magazine as the “saucy feminist that even men like,” and inspired innumerable women to stop wearing underpants. She was, in short, the “libbers'” first real celebrity, a crossover-hit, with one Mary Quant-ified leg firmly in the counterculture and one firmly in the bestseller lists.
It must be said, though, that The Female Eunuch has not aged especially well. In this regard, it is quite different from, say, The Feminine Mystique, whose thick description, scrupulous reporting, and acute diagnosis of the social and psychological costs of restricting women's orbit make it, even now, illuminating to read. Betty Friedan's book even has a very particular utility today, as an antidote to Nick-at-Nite nostalgia for an era in which suburban housewifery really was the dominant outlet for female talent and Donna Reed really was the model. All those conservative women who wax rapturous about stay-at-home-momdom (while pursuing ambitious writing careers themselves) should be obliged to re-read it annually.
The Female Eunuch, by contrast, is thoroughly steeped in the patchouli-scented idiosyncrasies of its time and its place, and especially of its author. It is written with vigor, certainly; but its vigor is what hobbles it. There is a great deal of hectoring of women for cooperating in the suppression of their own libidos (Greer was under the sway of the Reichian religion of sexual energy) and adopting the characteristics of the castrate: “timidity, plumpness, languor, delicacy, and preciosity.” There is a certain amount of head-girl disdain for lesser—and especially less sexually liberated—females. This privileged sisterly snobbery seems a bit off-point for a time when women still faced institutionalized job discrimination, a criminal justice system preoccupied with the sexual purity of rape victims, a general disregard of, and lack of resources for, women who were beaten by their husbands, and other unglamorous barriers to just bucking up and getting on with things.
The Female Eunuch, like The Whole Woman, is dismissive of organized feminism past and present, and bored by political solutions. Still, it is flushed with a sense of possibility—dizzy at times, but inspiriting—that is almost entirely missing from the new book. In 1970, Greer writes stirringly of female independence, of “joy in the struggle” for it.
Joy does not mean riotous glee, but it does mean the purposive employment of energy in a self-chosen enterprise. It does mean pride and confidence. … To be emancipated from helplessness and need and walk freely upon the earth: that is your birthright. To refuse hobbles and deformity and possession of your body and glory in its power, accepting its own laws of loveliness. To have something to desire, something to make, something to achieve, and at last something genuine to give. To be free from guilt and shame and the tireless self-discipline of women. To stop pretending and dissembling, cajoling and manipulating, and begin to control and sympathize. To claim the masculine virtues of magnanimity and generosity and courage.
It was a humane vision; but so much of this vision of new womanhood was to be achieved, in Greer's view, by specifically sexual means: by smashing monogamy, by promoting the commitment-free fuck, and so on. Greer's self-satisfied hedonism crippled her manifesto. In the first place, there were the Greerian idiosyncrasies that made it unlikely to mobilize a real following: she doted on the vagina, at a time when other feminists were cheering the rediscovery of the clitoris. For Greer, the real significance of her favorite female organ resided not so much in its capacity for pleasure as in its capacity for power, since it actively “embraced and stimulated the penis instead of taking it.” A minor distinction, you might say—ever hear of Kegel exercises?—but a distinction that promised, for Greer, nothing less than emancipation. More importantly, the Greerian dream of sexual liberation had little relevance for the spheres of life in which women spend most of their days and define much of their identity—work, family, citizenship.
At the time, though, Greer's high-minded randiness—and her gleeful exhibitionism, as when she posed nude for Screw magazine, called herself a “super-whore,” and wrote paeans to pornography and to the joy of sex with rock stars—had a kind of propagandistic purpose. It signaled that feminism need not mean sexlessness. At a cultural moment when flaunting one's sexual attractiveness and seriously committing oneself to women's advancement really were regarded as contradictory acts (as they no longer are, the latest round of complaints against feminist puritanism notwithstanding), this was probably useful. Indeed, what has been so odd about Greer's incarnation of the last fifteen years or so—during which she has written at least two books (Sex and Destiny and The Change) in which she broadcast her disgust with promiscuity and argued that intercourse itself degrades women—is that she has made no attempt to explain her reversal, or even to acknowledge it.
There is nothing wrong with changing one's mind in the light of experience. Greer is hardly the first feminist to recognize that the sexual revolution was not an unmitigated blessing for women. What is striking about Greer is that she is so unwilling to take responsibility for her earlier positions, and so averse to arriving at a middle ground. Most feminists—most women—have little difficulty with the notion that neither rock groupiedom and the “zipless fuck,” nor the renunciation of intercourse and contraception as so much pandering to men's “penetrative” agenda, hold much promise. Lots of people in their forties and fifties look back with a wince or a smirk on their own days and nights of Aquarian bed-hopping—but they do not devise an entire theory of gender relations on the basis of it. Greer, though, is a creature of absolutes. The substance of her ideas matters less to her than their radicalism. And so her internal gyroscope is permanently out of whack.
She is in the outrage business. In England, Greer's lurchings from hyperbole to hyperbole—combined with her polemical flair in countless television and radio appearances—are often taken as signs of genius. Her more bizarre and offensive positions—such as her defense of female genital mutilation, which may be found in The Whole Woman—are met with argument, but not with disgust. Her spiteful attacks on other women—she assailed the journalist Suzanne Moore for her “hair bird's-nested all over the place, fuck-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage,” and remarked of the novelist Fay Weldon, “I know she has had a facelift, and I know she's on HRT, but would that have such a devastating effect on the cerebellum?”—elicit the sort of nervous titters with which you might flatter a formidable and eccentric aunt. Greer may be eccentric, but she is also, as one British journalist put it, “dangerously close to becoming a national treasure.” This sort of indulgence presupposes that Greer is still producing something resembling real and original analysis. But what is remarkable about The Whole Woman—Greer's particular crotchets aside—is that it has so much in common with the general run of Men-are-Dogs-ism. She is no longer travelling to the beat of a different drum. Her stunts have become banal.
In the men-are-dogs theory of life, anatomy is destiny. Men always have been, and always will be, loutish, messy, insensitive, and helplessly programmed to spread their seed far and wide. Women always have been, and always will be, the moral betters of men, and also their dupes. Real women sometimes talk this way, of course; but it is in television humor and other artifacts of mass culture that this line of thinking receives its fullest elaboration. In pop fiction, it is the language of bitch sessions at the wine bar. (“Bastards!” yells one of Bridget Jones's friends in the eponymous diary, “pouring three-quarters of a glass of Kir Royale straight down her throat. Stupid, smug, arrogant, manipulative, self-indulgent bastards. They exist in a total Culture of Entitlement. Pass me one of those mini-pizzas, will you?”) In pop psychology, it is the language of Mars and Venus. You hear it in you-go-girl jokes about Lorena Bobbit. You see it in those posters hanging in dorm rooms that say “10 Reasons Why a Dog is Better than a Man.” You see it in Must-She TV and in commercials where wives joke smugly about how “well-trained” their husbands are, and in the explanatory use to which pundits put testosterone.
Lately, Men-Are-Dogs-ism has acquired some intellectual respectability from the pop psychology of our day, which is evolutionary psychology. The new Darwinists are strangely obsessed with the supposedly deep and constitutive and ineradicable difference between men and women—differences that are allegedly “hard-wired” by the machinery of natural selection. Since the most successful of our tree-swinging ancestors were those males who propagated their genes most widely, men today are more promiscuous than women. They just can't help it. They also have stronger sex drives, and seek out the sort of dewy-skinned, dewy-eyed (read: young) partners likely to provide a happy uterine home for their seed. And women, whose tree-swinging ancestors cared for little else but finding a nice papa monkey for their young, have lower sex drives and prefer the kind of hominid who can give them stability—the older and the richer, the better. (By this calculus of genetic self-interest, as Natalie Angier has pointed out, baldness ought to be a real turn-on for women.)
There is plenty of empirical evidence to complicate and to counter these generalizations, not least our own experiences of women and men who fit neither mold. There is a preponderance of studies that show that most psychological sex differences are small to moderate, and exceeded by variation within each sex. In few other aspects of life, certainly, would we regard animal behavior or the behavior of our anthropoid ancestors as inescapable blueprints for our own actions. (Indeed, as Angier puts it in her delightful new book, Woman: An Intimate Geography, “many nonhuman female primates gallivant about rather more than we might have predicted before primatologists began observing their behavior in the field—more, far more, than is necessary for the sake of reproduction.”) Most importantly, it is a fundamental lesson of human history that a change in cultural norms can effect a change in sexual behavior—so that, for instance, when women are given the social opportunity and the cultural sanction, many of them will not feel it necessary to hide their libidos (and their thongs). For the evo-psycho school of misogyny (and it is misogyny, whether it is delivered in liberal or conservative voices), it is enough that we have all known men and women who resemble the evolutionary stereotypes. But in truth it is not enough. The reality of biological differences is undeniable, but it is also not the only reality, or the most significant reality. Yet Darwin brings so much comfort to unregenerate males. …
Men-Are-Dogs-ism finds other support in the culture as well. It draws on the sort of “difference feminism” in which women are seen as morally superior creatures—more empathetic, kinder, better listeners, and so on. This tradition of feminine self-congratulation extends from the subset of suffragists who argued for the sweetly civilizing consequences of the women's vote to Carol Gilligan and Deborah Tannen in our day. It need not rest on a theory of innate difference, and many of its adherents explicitly say that they are talking about socialized characteristics; but their accounts have a way of slipping into essentialism—all the more so since they place so much value on the traditionally feminine virtues. These feminists restore women to the pedestal that they set out to destroy.
The difference feminists could have argued that there are jerks of both sexes, and that men in general are prodded by a variety of social clues to express their jerkiness in one way—by crushing beer cans on their heads, say, or by pummeling people—while women in general express their jerkiness in another way—by emotional manipulation or verbal abuse; and they could have argued that both these tendencies are subject to change as cultural expectations change, though they will in all probability never be interchangeable. But that is not what the difference feminists wish to argue. They are not especially struck by the infinite variety of human beings. Like the evolutionary psychologists, they prefer to believe that men are one way and women are another way, and so it has been and so it shall be. And what point is there in social and political reform, if the problem is biological? Genes are impervious to legislation.
From the early chapters of The Whole Woman, it is clear that Germaine Greer's feminism has devolved into Men-Are-Dogs-ism. She likes to explain obnoxious male behavior by reference to animal behavior. If men are reluctant to do their share of housework, it is because they inherited from their “anthropoid ancestors” a resentment of work and “a positive ambition to do nothing, which women do not share … Females, be they gorillas or worker bees, are naturally busy.” (Does Greer forget the Queen Bee? Oh, well.) “Lionesses do the hunting to feed their cubs and their father.” “Male animals are conspicuously less busy than females, yet somehow the human male has convinced the human female that he not she is the worker.” Never mind the accuracy of Greer's zoology. What on earth does it have to do with the chores of living? Are we really compelled to divide our labors as lions or penguins or cockroaches divide theirs?
Another clue is Greer's tendency to elevate minor complaints about men to the status of gender oppression. Not only are men bellicose and competitive and slovenly. They also “pay less heed to traffic lights” and “brake harder and later.” Oh, and they fish too much. Greer has a real bee in her bonnet about fishing, which I must say would seem to be rather a benign pursuit, unless you are a trout. Yet she sees it as yet another male plot to escape us. She insists, darkly, that “women of any age are not welcome on the riverbank.” The danger is everywhere.
Then there is Greer's rush to condemn with whatever opprobrium springs to mind, however contradictory or baffling. Men are obsessed with penetrating women—but they are also obsessed with evading women, and therefore with masturbation. This is one of Greer's dicta on the subject: “Masturbation is easy; relationships are difficult.” It is not quite as devastating as Lenny Bruce's remark that the nice thing about masturbation is that you don't have to send your hand home in a cab. Or consider the following assertions, at once absurd and unfalsifiable: “In some British circles, women are now expected to perform fellatio on demand.” “In the last third of the twentieth century more women were penetrated deeper and more often than in any preceding era.” “There are many, and more and more each day, who think a rectum has more character [than a vagina] and that buggery is more intimate than coitus.” What British circles? How does Greer know? Why the syntax of social science, as if “deeper and more” were amenable to some sort of statistical proof? If men are perpetually fleeing intimacy, why would they seek a more “intimate” kind of sex? And why the preoccupation—and take my word for it, it is a preoccupation—with the supposed eclipse of the vagina by the rectum?
To establish her case that men in the United States and Western Europe (as opposed, say, to Afghanistan) are engaged in an unprecedented assault on womanhood, Greer defines all manner of medical interventions as attempts by “male-dominated governments” or the “patriarchal medical establishment” to subdue unruly females. “Women,” she writes, “are the stomping ground of medical technology, routinely monitored, screened and tortured to no purpose except the enactment of control.” (Notice the easy slide from “screening” to “torture.”) Contraception is bad because it allows men to keep penetrating women, exposing them to “male hyper-fertility.” If we are not actively involved in conceiving a child, we ought to be celibate or to have sex without intercourse, thus avoiding the “wastage of so many embryos.” Our wombs, in other words, should determine the way we have sex. Again and again, anatomy is destiny. The only explanation that Greer can offer for the persistent popularity of intercourse (this is a mystery?) is its “symbolic nature, as an act of domination.” Pity the woman who experiences sex symbolically.
There is more. Screening for cervical cancer is bad because cervical cancer is not all that common, and also because the pap smear is not a fool-proof test: it returns a lot of false positives and women worry when they have to go back to their doctors for a second time. Or as Greer puts it, “the result is an epidemic of terror.” Why this should be regarded as a misogynist assault on the womb, as opposed to a medical procedure open to improvement, is left unsaid. Even a seemingly neutral medical instrument such as the speculum is an instrument of oppression. In Greer's dire description, “it's usually cold, extremely hard-edged and hurts, even if it does not pinch the tissues of the vaginal introitus. What hurts physically can also hurt psychologically. …”
There is still more. Episiotomies—the minor incisions made to women's perineums during labor to avoid a tear—are bad, because they are terrifically painful and the pain can last for months or even years. (This is certainly not the experience of anyone I know, but maybe they are too intimidated by the patriarchy to speak of it.) Cesarean sections and hysterectomies are also bad—which is a more substantiated and fair enough charge; journalists have been reporting for years that the rates of both operations are going up, and for reasons that have as much to do with medical economics (fear of malpractice suits, for instance) as with good medical sense. But Greer depicts women who choose hysterectomies as victims of “a female predilection for self-mutilation,” hopelessly out of touch with their essential wombitude. Women who want the operation because they have been truly uncomfortable or inconvenienced and want no more children will find this sort of uterine fetish patronizing in the extreme, and who can blame them? Greer is a hysteric about hysterectomies.
I do not mean to say that medicine is blameless, or free of biases, or undeserving of criticism. Indeed, feminists have long been among the most intelligent critics of the practices with which doctors have sometimes infantilized women. In this way feminists have helped to win welcome reforms, such as the establishment of alternative birthing centers in hospitals and the opening up of delivery rooms to fathers, and they have encouraged more women to become doctors. In 1998, 43 percent of entering medical school students in the U.S. were female, a fact that seems to undercut the idea of medicine as an unrelenting masculine citadel.
But Greer plays fast and loose with facts. She claims that “there is no pressure group within the medical profession lobbying for the right to save men's lives by regularly examining their prostate.” This is wrong. Prostate cancer, like breast cancer before it, has become one of America's trendy diseases. And Greer's comparison rests on an odd notion of fair treatment. “Men have the right to take care of themselves, or not, as they see fit,” she writes, “but women are to be taken care of, whether they like it or not.” So men have the right to die young, but women do not? (Some patriarchy.) Nowhere is there any sense that in many parts of the world advances in medicine have helped eradicate one of the most oppressive fates imaginable for a woman: dying in pain and in fear, giving birth to a child whose conception was not her choice.
Greer exaggerates the coercive power of the medical profession. Nobody is obliged to get a pap smear. I doubt that any women in the United States or England are “pressured” by “the health establishment” and “the state” to have abortions. They are certainly not “required” to undergo “investigations of their pregnancies for which there is no treatment but termination.” If a pregnant woman has “the tests, say for Down's syndrome,” Greer claims, “and refuses the termination she will be asked why she had the test in the first place. And she will probably be talked into the termination.” This is nonsense. For one thing, some doctors in England and America will now do surgery in utero for conditions such as spina bifida that have been diagnosed in a fetus. Moreover, some people would prefer to know in advance whether the baby that they are carrying has a birth defect, even if they would not have an abortion. And far from pressuring women to have an amniocentesis or to terminate a pregnancy on the basis of it, most doctors are reluctant to issue a direct recommendation of any kind on the subject, if only because they do not want to be held responsible for a decision that a woman may regret.
It is true that the availability of new medical tests makes it likelier that they will be used and even overused, and that they will encourage unreasonable or unethical expectations of our own perfectibility. Technology always creates its own imperatives. It is also true, as Greer says, that the aggressive expansion of the fertility industry means that many women will undergo expensive, protracted, and even painful fertility regimens that are ultimately disappointing—and that some of those women would have been happier had they never been given the option. And it is also true that we now have tests that diagnose diseases (in both sexes, I might add) for which there is no cure and no clear course of action, such as tests that detect the gene for Huntington's disease.
These are all fair and important points. So why does Greer caricature them? Her intensity is hardly an excuse for her demagoguery. Does fertility treatment really “cause far more suffering than it does joy?” Not if you are one of the many thousands of patients each year who end up with a healthy baby. And Greer's indictment of the medical profession is suffused with an offensive condescension toward women themselves. In her account, women who opt for hysterectomies for whatever medical reason are deluded self-mutilators who are allowing themselves to be “spayed.” Women who have abortions have submitted themselves to “the gynecological abattoir.” Infertile women who want a child ought to be purged of the notion through hypnosis. And women in general, she avers, “are driven through the health system like sheep through a dip.” Like sheep? Through a dip?
In a way, Greer's deprecation of women's minds, her denial of the capacity of women for intelligent choice and personal agency, is not so surprising. The logic of Men-Are-Dogs-ism demands, after all, that women be earth angels, and earth angels can easily be mistaken for ninnies. The womanly qualities that they display must always be qualities of the heart, not the head. And they must always be self-sacrificing. “Love of the father, love of the partner, love of the child, all remain for the vast majority of women, unrequited,” Greer writes. “A woman's beloveds are the centre of her life; she must agree to remain far from the centre of theirs.” This is the Tammy Wynette view of the world. It is certainly not a mature or nuanced picture of the twists and the turns of real love between real people. (In real marriages, even in good and lasting marriages, wives sometimes hate husbands and husbands sometimes hate wives.) Nor does Greer's line of thought comport particularly well with the fact that it is women who initiate more divorces, and who report greater levels of happiness afterwards.
“Women love all kinds of things, places, animals and people.” We are to infer that men love no kinds of things, places, animals, and people. “They can love animals with such tenderness that they will die for them, whether in a burning home clasping an old cat or under the wheels of a lorry loaded with live calves for export. They love undaunted by ill-treatment, abandonment or death, returning good for evil. They do not kill the things they love but cherish them, feed them, nurture them, remaining more interested in them than they are in themselves. They do not come to love the objects of their love by fucking them.” And so on and bathetically on.
It is not enough to point out that women commit many fewer homicides and other violent crimes than men do, which is manifestly true. Greer must also explain away the behavior of women who do commit such crimes, arguing that their brutality toward others is only “an outgrowth of self-destructive behavior.” (This was the point sometimes made about Susan Smith, who was going to kill herself along with her two little boys but decided against it.) Aren't many male criminals also self-destructive? Don't men commit suicide—literally self-destruct—at a much higher rate than women do? Well, yes and yes, but never mind. We left the real world long ago.
Greer is not content to rehearse the familiar argument that women often feel pressured by advertising to buy useless beauty products and to fret about the adequacy of their appearances. She must also refuse to acknowledge that clothes and make-up can ever be a source of pleasure or creativity for women, to contend dolefully that “preoccupation about her appearance goes some way towards ruining some part of every woman's day.” Even having our teeth fixed is a coerced concession to false gender consciousness that starts us down the slippery slope to plastic womanhood.
Sometimes Greer must flatly deny that women do certain things that, in fact and to no great shame, they do. “I suspect that even if fertility clinics offer significant sums for oocytes women will not respond, not simply because being farmed of oocytes is painful and dangerous but because women do not regard their seminal material as light-heartedly as men do, and have no ambition to spread their genes through the ecosphere.” But many women appear to harbor precisely such an ambition: egg donation is one of the fastest growing sectors of the fertility business. When a wealthy couple recently offered $50,000 for an egg from an Ivy League-educated woman, two hundred women responded within a day. When I interviewed the “egg donor administrator” at a fertility clinic in L.A. a year or so ago, she claimed that many women who give eggs are motivated in part by the desire to spread what they regard as their superior genetic goods.
Liberal feminists and egalitarians of both sexes have usually made it a premise of their thinking that none of us can know precisely the essence of womanhood in the absence of social conditions. “What is now called the nature of woman,” John Stuart Mill observed, “is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.” American women in 1999 are no longer such constricted houseplants, clipped to bend in one direction and unable to grow in another direction, but neither do they exist in a sexless utopian zone. Surely humility on the subject of what constitutes a whole, a real, an essential woman is in order.
But not for Greer. She is quite sure of what a real woman is. The secrets are in her possession. “Real” women are women who live in sexually segregated societies. Chinese women were real before Western marketing distorted them. The post-menopausal woman is authentic, too, because menopause “burns off the impurities,” which is a strange way of referring to the capacity to bear children. But the “whole woman” is also, confusingly, a woman who is acutely aware of her uterus at all times—to the point of embracing the old canard about the wandering womb as the cause of hysteria and the barrier to women's intellectual achievement.
The whole woman is certainly not a woman who seeks to compete with men, to enter professions in which men have previously dominated. For she can have no hope of changing such male enclaves, and the men lying in wait for her there will humiliate her. Still less is she the woman who buys convenience food, wears make-up or otherwise enters with any enthusiasm into the capitalist marketplace. Greer's “whole woman” is just a sentimentalization of the natural woman. Her quarrel is finally with civilization.
This leads her to some very dotty ideas. On the harmless side, there is Greer's nostalgia for chicken-plucking, chip-frying, and the like, and her confident assertions that laundry was easier before the washing machine (you only did the washing one day a week, though a whole day a week), and that women were appreciated and respected more when they had to do all the cooking and therefore exerted a kind of authority as food providers. “That female role has now disappeared. It could only last as long as there was not a shop on the corner selling things more delicious than mother could ever make.” It was just a matter of time, I suppose, before the shop on the corner metamorphosed into advanced monopoly capitalism.
But not all of Greer's nostalgia is quite so harmless. Her glorification of preliterate societies, and of female illiteracy in general, is very disturbing. “The preliterate woman lived within a self-validating female culture that was to be obliterated by the authority of the printed text. It is not until women learn to read that they internalize the masculine schema. When women become literate they are brought up sharply against the prevailing misogynies. They will only accept them if they are in the process of swallowing the masculinist cultural package of which they are a part.” Oh sister, go and read A Room of One's Own, with its desperate yearning for the wide vistas of the word. Read The Mill on the Floss, with its unforgettable picture of what it is like to be a girl whose mind has always been called “quick” but who will never be permitted to set that mind to a task worthy of it. Read only the epigraph to Sex and Society by Martha Nussbaum, in which a Bangladeshi woman named Rohima explains how learning to read transformed her life:
If there had been no change, then how could I have learned and understood all this? … Mother asked: ‘What do you see in the books?’ I said, ‘Ma, what valuable things there are in the books you will not understand because you cannot read and write.’ If somebody behaves badly with me, I go home and sit with the books. When I sit with the books, my mind becomes better.
It is astoundingly naïve to think that illiterate women have no way of being “brought up sharply against the prevailing misogynies.” In societies in which women are veiled, kept in purdah, stoned for adultery, infibulated, chronically underfed, burned for their dowries, or cursed when they bear girl-children, they know a thing or two about misogyny. I would venture to say that women also knew a thing or two about misogyny in early Europe, where they were persecuted and tried as witches and generally thought more susceptible to deviltry, where their suffering in child-birth was complacently regarded as the price they had to pay for Eve's apple.
Yet Greer's idealization of miserable women—which is to say, her denial of their misery—is worse than naïve. It is cruel. Consider her defense of female genital mutilation—the ritual, practiced in a number of African countries, whereby young girls are subjected to the forcible amputation of their clitorises (and in some cases of the inner lips of their vaginas as well). These disfigurements have devastating results, which range from life-threatening hemorrhages and infections in the immediate aftermath of the operation to chronic infection and infertility later. Genital mutilation also makes it unlikely that a woman will ever be able to experience sexual pleasure. That is the point of the ghastly procedure. It is designed to make women more tractable.
Greer contends that the “criminalization of FGM can be seen to be what African nationalists since Jomo Kenyatta have been calling it, an attack on cultural identity.” But this coarse outburst of multicultural romanticism assumes that cultures are monoliths, and that the only objection to FGM comes from outside African societies—from the World Health Organization or from pampered Western feminists. In fact, there are passionate critics of genital mutilation in all of the countries in which it is practiced; and they have been sufficiently influential to have gotten it officially outlawed in some of those countries. Moreover, there is no reason to consider African opponents of FGM—such as the valiant young women who have sought asylum in Europe and the United States to avoid being cut—any less authentically African than those who uphold it. And even if you could establish a reliable scale of authenticity, the moral value of protecting human beings from forcible mutilation must take precedence over the preservation of cultural customs. Mustn't it?
Ever eager to denounce the West, Greer asks how we can possibly condemn FGM when we countenance plastic surgery, genital piercing, and the circumcision of male infants. “If an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?” A right to FGM! But circumcision is not comparable to clitoridectomy; the comparable operation for a male would be the removal of most of the penis. Unlike FGM, circumcision is generally regarded as medically neutral or mildly beneficial. And unlike FGM, it is not practised in the absence of adequate sanitation or anesthesia. Plastic surgery in the West is not forced on very young girls. (Greer insists on referring to “women” who undergo FGM, when it is usually children between the ages of five and twelve, who have no choice in the matter.) And even if you want to argue that women who choose plastic surgery are constrained to choose it by the “beauty myth,” a reasonable person would still recognize that being pinned down, screaming, by four adults with a knife is not quite the same as reading a copy of Vogue.
Nor is Greer satisfied with her cultural relativism. She insists also upon a positive good for FGM, even if it flies in the face of her own pronouncements on women in the West. “Certainly in many of these cultures tightness in the vagina is prized by both men and women … penetrating a tight, dry vagina causes pain but pain can be indistinguishable from pleasure in a state of high arousal.” I see. Only Western women ought to be renouncing intercourse. Only Western medical practitioners are to be reviled if they suggest that an episiotomy can help to restore vaginal muscle tone. FGM cannot be bad for women, Greer contends, because women are the ones who perform it. But you don't have to be a man to mistreat a woman.
The problem with Germaine Greer is not only that she is no friend to men. It is also that she is no friend to women. What friend of women could have written this apology for their forced mutilation? What friend of women could have written most of this ugly and loveless book? When we are “brought up sharply against the prevailing misogynies” of our own time and place, we will have to number this famous feminist's misogyny among them.
SOURCE: “Compelling, If Sloppy, Feminist Manifesto,” in The Los Angeles Times, June 3, 1999, p. E3.
[In the following review, Linfield offers tempered assessment of The Whole Woman.]
Germaine Greer may be a lunatic. But after years of cautious, tepid yuppie-feminism—of being told that women do, or at least can, have it all, and that “it” is well worth having—a lunatic may be just what we need. Many of Greer's more bizarre opinions will probably bewilder, if not appall, large groups of readers. (While she considers mammogram programs sadistic, she supports female genital mutilation.). Yet though too much of The Whole Woman—Greer's follow-up to her 1970 manifesto The Female Eunuch—is sloppily argued, badly sourced and easy to mock, it is, in its essentials, right on.
First, a rightfully angry Greer argues, feminism is international and egalitarian, or it is nothing; the prosperity of a few select women in developed countries cannot rest on the poverty of others.
“A ‘new feminism’ that celebrates the right (i.e. duty) to be pretty in … little suits put together for starvation wages by adolescent girls in Asian sweatshops is not feminism at all,” Greer writes. “Lifestyle feminism has been a sideshow. The main event, the worldwide feminization of poverty, is a tragedy that is moving inexorably and unseen to an unimaginably terrible denouement.”
Second, Greer argues, feminism must be pro-mother and pro-child. But Greer severs the welfare of mothers and children from that of the nuclear family, an institution that in her view is clearly failing. All children must be guaranteed a decent standard of living regardless of whether they live with one or two (or no) parents, and regardless of the economic situation of those parents. Governments and their constituents must make an unbreakable commitment—not just ideological, but financial too—to every child's education, health and safety.
Third, Greer insists that feminism always assumed a radical critique, and radical transformation, of the repressed, inegalitarian, violent, compartmentalized world that men have created.
“If we accept that men are not free, and that masculinity is as partial an account of maleness as femininity is of femaleness, then equality must be seen to be a poor substitute for liberation. … If women can see no future beyond joining the masculinist elite on its own terms, our civilization will become more destructive than ever.”
Greer reminds us of several other things that are usually ignored in popular-press discussions of feminism. It is true that more and more women have paid jobs, but it is to “the deconstructed work force of the '90s”—characterized by low-paid, part-time jobs with zero security—that women have been so warmly welcomed. And all over the world it is women who perform the bulk of unseen, unappreciated, unpaid work—from shopping to raising children—upon which every culture depends. “Women are worker bees; males are drones,” Greer writes. “Yet somehow the human male has convinced the human female that he, not she, is the worker. His work is real work; her work is vicarious leisure.”
As the above quote suggests, Greer does not feel particularly cuddly toward men. But in response to charges of man-hating she points out that it is woman-hating—sexism, patriarchy, call it what you will—that's the real problem and, furthermore, that this problem is systemic. Individual women may hate individual men, but nowhere in the world do women as a group physically or sexually terrorize men; nowhere in the world do women control wealth and deprive men of it; nowhere in the world do women deny men economic, reproductive or legal rights.
Greer's outlook is neither pessimistic nor triumphal; The Whole Woman seeks not to depress women (a clearly redundant task) but to alert them to how and why things are still so bad.
“On every side we see women troubled, exhausted … lonely, guilty, mocked by the headlined success of the few,” she writes. “Every day we are told that there is nothing left to fight for. We have come a long way, but the way has got steeper, rockier, more dangerous, and we have taken many casualties.”
SOURCE: “Germaine Greer's Trouble With Men,” in The Washington Post, June 12, 1999, pp. C1, C5.
[In the following essay, Frey discusses Greer's views on men, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, children, and relationships.]
Germaine Greer is in a bit of a fuss over a man. Not men as a universal group, although she has quite a few issues with them, too. Greer is plenty clear in her new book, The Whole Woman, what she thinks about men. “To be male,” she writes, “is to be a kind of idiot savant.” Men are “freaks of nature.” They are slothful. They are spongers. They are mean.
But this fuss isn't about men, it's about A Man. The Man. The man she gave—oh dear, how embarrassing—a tape of her voice so he wouldn't miss her too much during her current American book tour. She's desperate to get that tape back now that she's dumped him. That's right, she “blew him out,” to use her exact words. She had to, after all. He had her in “a tumult.”
How can she work if she's worrying about when he's going to call her, if he's going to call her, what he's going to say when he calls her, what she's going to say back? Impossible! She can't be wandering around the world giving lectures about the failures of feminism, or the evils of the male-run medical system, or men's tendency to be hateful to women, while wondering why all she gets is that vile recording when she calls his cell phone.
“He was deliberately keeping me on short rations,” Greer confides over lunch at the Four Seasons Hotel. “It's a power play. Always a power play. So in the end I just thought, ‘I can't be doing this.’ I have too much work to do, it's making me crazy, and of course I began to be worried about the motivations.”
“So I blew him out. Stopped. Gone.”
“Oh,” she says, in a long exhale, “I shouldn't be so lucky. It's not over. There's a bit of shouting to go on, I think. Shouting is left.” Greer sighs. “It's one of the hardest things I've ever done.”
Greer is 60 now, and still furious at the world. “It's time to get angry again” is the anthem of her new book—a book she swore, years ago, that she'd never write. But a lot has changed in the 28 years since she became a feminist icon with the publication of The Female Eunuch, a smart, witty book that brought a fresh analysis of the modern female condition. A lot has changed and, in Greer's opinion, not enough has changed. Not nearly enough.
“Even if it had been real, equality would have been a poor substitute for liberation,” Greer writes in the introduction to The Whole Woman. The book is not The Female Eunuch—not as sharp, and not likely to have anything approaching the first's impact. She makes some astute points and, as reviewers have noted, she also makes some outrageous points: She compares an episiotomy to female genital mutilation in Third World nations. She declares Roe v. Wade to be a tool of a greedy male medical system eager to make money off women's suffering. She suggests that excessive ultrasound tests during pregnancy cause dyslexia in children.
In other words, she's still Germaine: fascinating, opinionated and more than a little outlandish.
[O]urs is a culture in which elevated testosterone levels are sought, prized and rewarded, no matter how destructive the consequences. Consider the vogue of road rage.
—From the chapter titled “Testosterone” in The Whole Woman
Greer is contemplating Mike Tyson. Tyson and his history of rape and violence and, most recently, road rage. Tyson, who appeared recently on the cover of Esquire kissing his young son during a prison visit. It was the Father's Day issue. Greer finds this a bit hypocritical. Which brings her, quickly, to the Clintons.
“It's a bit like Hillary and Bill groping each other for the cameras, which I find disgusting,” she says, cringing a bit to emphasize her distaste. “The meaty hands on the shoulder. The holding hands getting out of the plane. Ah, you want to drop him, don't you? You want to drop them both.”
Greer had a somewhat infamous run-in with President Clinton years and years ago, when he was studying at Oxford and she was lecturing there. In her oft-told and reported recollection, she was talking about how men marry women of a lower class, for comfort, while women try to marry up—to marry their rivals. What women really need, Greer explained, was to marry for comfort as well. That's when Clinton stood up and said, as Greer recalls it. “Would a middle-class boy from Arkansas be in with a chance?” She was floored.
“I couldn't believe,” she says now, “he was coming on to me in front of 500 people.”
Greer is amused by Clinton and the whole Monica Lewinsky thing. She watched Jon Snow interview Lewinsky on British television and was fixated on the way that Snow, in her opinion, stared at Lewinsky's mouth throughout the interview.
But Lewinsky bores Greer. To tears. “Monica has nothing to say except ‘poor me,’ and as far as I'm concerned, yes, poor her, I agree,” she says. “She was abused, but she did most of it to herself like we usually do. She told herself it was not squalid and not impersonal and that it was something that it wasn't.”
She saves her venom for Hillary.
“I never liked Hillary,” she confides, leaning in as if this is some kind of confession. Then she sits back and smiles.
“The nicest thing about Hillary,” she continues, “is her [rear end]. Because it's big and fat and close to the ground, and there's [nothing] she can do about it.”
No one ever accused Greer of being tactful.
HER SOFT SIDE
It may be that persecution of mothers is a permanent feature of patriarchal societies, but at the end of the millennium contempt for the mother seems to have assumed a new dimension.
—From the chapter “Mothers”
Greer is enraptured. There is a baby in the restaurant, a tiny little girl, 2 months old at most, wearing a frilly white dress and a matching headband dotted with pink rosebuds.
“A baby,” she says, almost breathily. “All that cuddling.”
Greer wanted a child. She attempted fertility treatments without success, and she angrily attacks reproductive technology in general in The Whole Woman. On the subject of babies, though, she melts.
“Babies can handle all the love you can give them,” she says. “That's what is so great about them. They let you love them. They put no obstacles in your way. When they do those things that they do, like when they rub their hands up and down your ribs, or they put their hands on your face, ah, it's heaven. Just heaven.”
This is her soft side, a side sometimes lost in her humor, intelligence—and anger. She adores her dogs. She adores her filly. “I don't care how she races—and this is a very womanly thing—I just want my horse to be happy.”
Greer is also a godmother. In fact, she has 13 godchildren, by her latest count, and several other children she considers “good friends.” Like Matthew and Oliver, two 12-year-olds who drove her nuts over a recent game of pool. They told her what to do, how to play. She rolls her eyes.
“I potted three balls on one break, and they still didn't think I knew how to play pool,” she says. “It's because they're boys. Boys think they have a right to criticize anything females do.” She says this with affection, but underneath she is completely serious.
LOVE IS HELL
From the beginning feminists have been aware that the causes of female suffering can be grouped under the heading “contradictory expectations.” The contradictions women face have never been more bruising than they are now.
—From the chapter “Recantation”
Greer is her own bundle of contradictions. She has been widely quoted as saying that lipstick rots women's brains, yet she wears makeup. In her book The Change: Women, Aging and Menopause, she longs for a time when older women can let their bodies settle into their natural shapes, yet she admits going on a diet for this book tour. And she pulls at her Issey Miyake blouse to demonstrate how it will “hide anything.”
She complains about men ruling women's lives, then she agonizes over her soon-to-be ex-boyfriend (whom she declined to name) and how his failure to phone affects her day-to-day existence.
And she refuses to call him. Outright refuses. Well, she called twice. That was it.
“He wanted me to ring him,” she says. “It was that simple.”
And now, it's over—maybe, probably—and she's doing that typical girl thing. She's pining. Missing him. Missing it. Telling herself she'll never find another man.
“I'm 60 years old, girl,” she says. “The miracle was that this man responded.”
She says she's taking “precautions” so that she won't let it happen again.
“It's been hell,” she explains, sounding for all the world like a teenager jilted by her first lover. “Five minutes of bliss for 50 hours of hell. Isn't that what love is? Oh, damn! I can't stand it anymore.”
She left him because that's how she keeps her sense of power and control. It's also how she makes her life fit her philosophy. Dating him was a feminist act. She made him better at being a man.
And booting him?
“If he regrets my sudden departure,” she says, “let him regret. It will teach him a lesson, and some other woman may be the beneficiary someday.”
SOURCE: “Blast from the Past,” in Commentary, Vol. 108, No. 2, September, 1999, pp. 65-6.
[In the following review, McCracken offers a summary of Greer's “so-called” arguments in The Whole Woman.]
Three decades ago, the English writer Germaine Greer erupted into the world with The Female Eunuch, a cleverly titled book whose core argument, as she recently summarized it, was that “every girl child is conceived as a whole woman but from the time of her birth to her death she is progressively disabled.” As summary, that is accurate enough, but it fails to capture the qualities in the book that provoked such a remarkable mixture of admiration and outrage when it was published. The radical, erudite, witty Greer was then, as she is now, a sui-generis feminist—mutatis mutandis, a kind of Camille Paglia of the 70's.
Greer has been reasonably prolific over the past 30 years, but other authors have come along to shock while she has gradually acquired the patina of an object surviving more or less unaltered from a previous age. This clearly could not be allowed to continue. Although she explicitly forswore any sequel to her first book—on the grounds that, when the time came, a younger woman would have to write it—now, like a congressional supporter of term limits discovering the virtues of experience, she has decided that “it's time to get angry again.” And so The Whole Woman—a title that invites confusion with Marabel Morgan's antithetical The Total Woman (Morgan advises doting on one's husband 24 hours a day)—picks up where The Female Eunuch left off.
The reason for Greer's current anger is, in a nutshell, that feminism has not worked out the way it was intended. Women have attained legal equality, but they have not attained liberation. Instead, men have been the primary beneficiaries of the sexual revolution. If this suggests a possible change of mind on Greer's part—perhaps feminism misread what women need, or want?—nothing could be farther from the case: “The old enemies, undefeated, have devised new strategies, new assailants lie in ambush,” she writes, meaning, by enemies, men and the social arrangements they have invented. “We have no choice but to turn and fight.”
There follows a series of tractates organized under the rubrics of Body, Mind, Love, and Power and adding up to a catalogue of how women have either failed to become better off or have actually become worse off since the 1960s. Wherever Greer looks, she finds evidence—whether it exists or not.
Sometimes the problem as she sees it is simply the continuation of an old evil, like women's male-imposed obsession with their own bodies, a/k/a “beauty.” But sometimes the problem is the new rights that women have fought for and now think they enjoy, like the right to be soldiers, which turns out to be only the right to one long course of abuse by men (except, Greer is quick to add, in guerrilla armies, which provide women with the requisite political “education” to understand why armed struggle is necessary). And sometimes it is technology—that is, male technology.
In-vitro fertilization, for example, is a process leading to “man-made mothers.” Mammography is particularly perverse, in Britain because it is free only to women over the age of fifty, elsewhere because it is painful, especially for younger women. Abortion, too, exemplifies the exploitation of woman by man; pregnancy, after all, occurs because of inadequate contraception, and what is that but a consequence of the male demand for, as Greer puts it, access to the cervix during intercourse?
The subject of bodily mutilation gets an entire chapter, one that finely illustrates Greer's attitude toward sex in general and toward her own, female sex in particular. There are, it emerges, two kinds of mutilation. The bad kind comprises caesarean sections, hysterectomies, and episiotomies: the good, believe it or not, includes genital piercing and the clitoridectomies widely performed on infants and young girls in Africa. Both, to Greer, are examples of women asserting control over their own bodies—female technology, in other words—whereas efforts to end clitoridectomy, whether led by men or by their female patsies, are simply one more subcategory of the male will to dominate.
And speaking of the will to dominate, what about shopping? First the male-run corporations show their enmity toward women by making available in supermarkets the raw foodstuffs historically provided by women themselves. Next comes the insult of processed and frozen foods. And now you can buy ready-to-serve meals prepared in in-store kitchens. The final infamy is that women still must do all the shopping themselves—this last being one of the myriad pristine assertions in The Whole Woman that appear never to have been sullied by simple empirical testing.
A fair amount of ink has been spilled by earnest reviewers taking issue with the arguments, so-called, of this book; the New Republic devoted almost 7,000 words to a solemn rebuttal. But what is there, really, to say? The Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote better than it knew in describing Germaine Greer in a recent edition as an “Australian-born English writer and feminist who championed the sexual freedom of women.” Assuming the statement was ever true, the past tense says it all.