Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1984
Mellowed perhaps by the years since she published The Female Eunuch(1970) but still outrageous in her witticisms and puns, Germaine Greer, in The Whole Woman, takes on the whole of the industrialized world (and thus the whole world) in her indictment of the situation facing women at the end of the twentieth century. “It’s time to get angry again,” she writes in her opening recantation of her vow not to write a sequel to The Female Eunuch. Greer, professor of English and comparative literature at Warwick University, England, has made a name for herself as a witty and controversial talk-show guest, refusing to agree with either standard feminist or conservative positions.
The book shows, in Greer’s inimitable style, how women are the losers in the equality game, in everything from plastic surgery to transsexualism and reproductive technology (in the “Body” section); the “Mind” section takes on the culture of work and sex roles, while “Love” and “Power” deal with relationships and backlash. In England, “women’s liberation” was the operative term for the women’s movement far earlier than in the United States, and Greer laments the loss of the goal of liberation, and the acceptance, instead, of a false equality. In every case, the single-word section and chapter titles play down the hard-hitting exposé of the text.
Using materials from media—newspapers, magazines, advertising, and film, as well as scientific studies and academic research— Greer critiques the industrialized world and interprets society with a vengeance. Interspersed with boxed quotations from celebrities, newspapers, talk shows, and critics, the text is bursting with an astonishing amount of information.
Tellingly, Greer begins the “Body” section with “Beauty.” Here she describes the multibillion-dollar beauty industry, calling it “a global pandemic” because women in China, India, and Africa are now the market for makeup, creams, hair products, and foundation garments. Illustrative here is the Miss World contest, outmoded in the industrialized world but popular in India and Africa. Much of this section details statistics and descriptions of the pain, expense, and time involved in the lengthy surgery and recovery period for breast implants. The time and money spent on cosmetic surgery around the world are ironically juxtaposed to the rising incidence of and lack of a cure for breast cancer.
The most important body part of a woman is her womb, but it is not celebrated in the Western world or even thought to be vital (once she has given birth). Certainly, women are not as identified as female by their wombs as they are by their breasts or their genitalia. Greer devotes a large section to the shocking rise of hysterectomies in the late twentieth century, especially in the United States, and asks if it is possible that the wombs of American women are four times as unhealthy as those of Swedish women, given that American women have four times as many hysterectomies.
Greer might be criticized by radicals for her strong refusal to accept transsexuals and transvestites as women, using the argument that breasts and reconstructed vaginas do not make a woman. Why are there so many more male-to-female transsexuals than female-to-male? Perhaps, says Greer, it is because males will not accept damaged males or those who do not wish to be males. She avers that women should not accept these individuals as females either. In any case, Greer notes the conservative nature of all sex-change surgery, which serves to strengthen sex-role stereotypes and stringent gender roles. Gender reassignment disavows the mother and the socialization process. If the transsexual demands to be accepted in women’s places, he is no better than a rapist, says Greer, penetrating female space.
The “Mind” section gathers material reported in diverse sources to show how, transculturally and transhistorically, women have done the majority of work in the world. She reiterates the now-usual argument that women’s unpaid labor is not included in economic analysis (gross domestic product) because it is unpaid and not recognized as work (child care, water or firewood carrying, hand cultivation, meal preparation). Leisure time is seen as a masculine privilege in most cultures worldwide. Additionally, Greer claims, a woman spends any remaining time “working on her body, her appearance, her clothes.” Men, she says, spend no time on this aspect, because their clothes are durable, their hair requires little maintenance, and their bodies are more acceptable, no matter the shape. Why is it, she asks, that women buy so few compact discs? Because they do not have the time to listen.
Housework has become more time-consuming and onerous, not less so, as standards of cleanliness have risen. Television commercials persuade that toilets and floors need daily cleaning, that laundry and carpets must be dosed often with detergents. Both women and men internalize these standards, thus helping to raise the divorce rate, as women cannot meet their husbands’ standards of immaculate order.
Women shop, buying upward of 80 percent of all retail goods. Men do not shop; they buy things—“cars, computers, CDs, photographic, sound and sports equipment. Practically everything else is sold to women,” asserts Greer. Women are trained for shopping from a young age, as girls spend hours in malls after school; even if they have no money, they learn the process. They are taught that in order to exist they must acquire.
The chapters on estrogen and testosterone are exposés of the way that pharmaceutical companies have oversold hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to doctors and to women and the current way that high testosterone is used as an excuse for male violence. In two hundred years, modern European females have experienced a rise in the average number of menstrual cycles in a lifetime from 30 to 450 (earlier menarche, fewer pregnancies, shorter lactation, later menopause). Additional estrogen adds more cycles; we do not know what this may be doing to the female body in the long term.
Women’s tendency to depression is the subject of Greer’s chapter “Sorrow.” Citing animal studies showing that serotonin levels fluctuate according to changes in status, as well as human studies showing that successful people have higher serotonin levels than those of lower status, Greer believes we should treat the situation that causes depression, instead of altering people’s reactions. She is predictably critical of the upsurge of use of Prozac and other selective serotonin-uptake inhibitors.
Greer interprets the outpouring of grief and sorrow after the death of Diana, princess of Wales, from the four-fifths of the mourners who were women as an expression of those women’s own pain. If the women’s movement could “harvest the energy in women’s oceanic grief,” asserts Greer, “we [could] move mountains.”
The “Love” section begins with “Mothers” and moves through the various relationships of women. True to her style and thesis, however, Greer continues to puncture preconceived notions. Citing growing numbers of single mothers in all areas from England to the Caribbean and sub-Saharan Africa, Greer reminds the reader of the rising number of women and children in poverty, in both the industrialized and the developing worlds.
The experts’ and media’s blaming the mother for the problems of children, both psychologically and physically (intrauterine), has become more strident and universal. Greer wonders how long it will be before human mothers are made obsolete. The artificial uterus is already scientifically possible. Like the early twentieth century Swedish radical feminist Ellen Key, Greer proposes motherhood as a genuine career option, with a pay and benefits-rewards system. If we were willing to honor our rhetoric about family values and child care, we as a society would not hesitate to pay handsomely for children’s welfare.
“Daughters” examines family sexual abuse and incest, while “Sisters” criticizes the assumption that all women, even of different generations, classes, and circumstances, are alike. As Greer notes, popular media cannot stomach contradiction, complexity, or paradox, thus “woman” must be either socially constructed or a universal essence, with no combinations tolerated.
What has happened positively since the second wave of the women’s movement is that friendship between women is now taken seriously, both for adults and for girls. That observation leads to Greer’s discussion on “The Love of Women.” Here she is at pains to point to the differences between gay men and lesbians—in levels and kinds of sexual activity, in monogamy or promiscuity. Greer summarizes some of the inconclusive genetic research purporting to have discovered a “gay gene” and concludes that both heterosexuality and homosexuality are most likely socially constructed. She is critical of the late twentieth century emphasis on orgasm rather than intimacy for all sexual orientations and notes that such a view is inherently masculinist.
The final section, “Power,” begins with a chapter on male impotence and the recent hype for Viagra. One of Greer’s virtues is her continued emphasis on the similarly problematic societal expectations for men as well as for women. When “penetrative sex” is assumed to be the only real sex—in films, advertising, and other media—it is no wonder that there is a growing incidence of sexual dysfunction in both men and women. Male fertility, as evidenced by sperm count, has dropped precipitously in the twentieth century all over the industrialized world; the reasons are not known, but we do know that extra testosterone lowers sperm count.
The “Fear” chapter demystifies flashers and exhibitionists. Greer believes that women should reject the exaggerated power of the phallus, noting that violence against women often includes injuries much worse than rape. Misogyny or hatred of women is explored in “Loathing”; women’s irrational belief in the batterer’s protestations of love is the biggest barrier to using the existing legal and social remedies against him.
Most important are the final chapters “Equality” and “Liberation.” Greer recapitulates her thesis that equality is not good for women because it posits patriarchal society as that into which women should be integrated, and that society is violent, inequitable, and tyrannical. Greer cites ridiculous but true case histories of England’s Sex Discrimination Act (1975), such as the outlawing of women-only swimming sessions at health clubs and the refusal to grant a license to a female-only taxi firm.
Liberation for women means changing society: distributing the world food supply rationally, providing clean water for everyone, promoting motherhood as an acceptable career, educating women worldwide (the best way to lower population growth). The multinational corporations use women as their territory, controlling research, information, hygiene, and food. Women will be liberated only if they are able to use their adaptability to survive and change, taking power instead of spending their energy on their bodies and their possessions. That power coup, says Greer, may likely begin with the poorest women of the world—Chinese women who are divorced for bearing daughters, Thai women ruined by prostitution and AIDS, or women incensed by Islamic fundamentalist beliefs on women’s education and sexuality (for example, “honor” killings for sexual infractions).
The real value of this book is its gathering of scientific and media sources on disparate subjects from reproductive technology and cosmetic surgery to sex changes and cancer, from housework to shopping and violence against women. Although most of the statistics and examples are from England, there is much information on the United States and other industrialized countries, as well as the developing world. Greer’s most telling charges are reserved for the market economy of the Western world, however. Her writing is clear, concise, refreshing, and witty, although she is given to generalizations supported by only one example. Though short on notes and references, her wide-ranging polemic is wonderful for beginning discussions. The book illustrates again and again that women’s issues are integrally related to the whole world; as Virginia Woolf put it in Three Guineas(1938), “My country is the whole world.”
Sources for Further Study
Booklist 95 (April 1, 1999): 1363.
Commentary 108 (September, 1999): 65.
Library Journal 124 (May 15, 1999): 113.
New Statesman 129 (March 12, 1999): 48.
The New York Times Book Review 104 (May 9, 1999): 19.
Publishers Weekly 246 (March 22, 1999): 76.