This year marks 40 years since The Female Eunuch was published. Its author, Germaine Greer, is easily Australia’s most famous feminist. Whatever your opinion of Greer, there’s no denying the power of this book.
But I have a confession to make. I haven’t read The Female Eunuch. Not all the way through, anyway. I have a browning paperback copy that I picked up at a second-hand bookshop once. It sits on my bookshelf alongside my copies of The Second Sex and The Feminine Mystique in the “Classic Feminist Texts I Should Have Read By Now” section.
I hope I don’t have to surrender my PhD after making such an admission.
While I’ve not read these books cover-to-cover, I’ve dipped into them and I think I’m still alllowed to write about the importance of Greer’s work. Especially since men like Louis Nowra are allowed to write annoying pieces in The Monthly criticising Greer for not knowing what make women tick. Apparently Greer got it all wrong.
Nowra reckons Greer was wrong in the way she criticised the trappings of femininity and consumerism. Wow, she really didn’t know what she was talking about – Look! – “young women today love shopping more than ever”, he says. And they get Brazilian waxes and “Botox injections are virtually a woman’s rite of passage”. Yes, he actually wrote that! Gee, Germaine, you really messed up. How silly of you to claim that these things might be oppressive, when actually, it’s what women really want! Lucky we have Nowra to tell us how things are.
In the same piece he has the gall to say “she looks like a befuddled and exhausted old woman” who reminds him of his “demented grandmother”. There was no way I could take his article seriously after that.
Germaine Greer was a member of the Sydney Push, a group of left-leaning anarchists and libertarians that used to hang around in Sydney pubs and talk about intellectual stuff. Quite a few other prominent Australians were also associated with the Push. It sounds like a pretty fascinating period in our history.
The Female Eunuch was published in 1970 and it really did have a big impact. There are stories of wives leaving their husbands after reading it, and women hiding the book from their husbands. The things she argued were that radical. But mostly you hear stories about how women’s eyes were opened and how they became drawn to feminism, after reading Greer’s work.
A combination of erudition and swagger made The Female Eunuch stand out from other feminist texts. Littered with literary, sociological and anthropological references, its central themes are that women are taught rules which disempower them and that the nuclear family perpetuates female subjugation and is a pernicious environment for the raising of children.
While I don’t agree with everything Greer has to say, there’s a power and a passion to her words that I admire. As Gabriella Coslovich writes in “Clarion call to a new generation”:
The work is a rousing, flamboyant and flawed polemic, which remains as seditious and confronting as ever. Greer wrote the book in the hope that “women will discover that they have a will”. She incited a generation of women to ponder the significance of their lives and some literally went wandering after reading it, leaving stifling marriages to forge a life beyond domestic servitude.
She encouraged women to think beyond their social conditioning. She challenged the concepts of marriage, the nuclear family and the obligation to breed. She pointed the finger at the prevailing culture of sexual harassment and wrote about the well-known television producer who “sneaked in a wet kiss and a clutch at my breasts as an exercise of his power”.
Greer also urged women to study, to become doctors, pilots and even fashion designers, holding up the likes of Mary Quant as proof that women could succeed in business and that being successful was not incompatible with “femininity”.
[image source: silversalty's flickr.]
Greer has always been controversial. She’s loud, audacious and she has the abiilty to polarise people. Even people with little knowledge of feminism will have heard of Greer. She is often considered synonymous with feminism, even though, of course, she never claimed to represent feminism as a whole. The women’s movement is much too diverse and complex to have a “leader”. It’s just that she was one of the most outspoken and feisty. And she pissed people off. The world needs people like Greer. Without people like her saying unpopular and controversial things – challenging the establishment – nothing would ever change.
The media love Germaine. She is probably more well known than lots of other feminists who were doing important and good things in the women’s movement in the 70s and 80s – eg. women like Eva Cox and Anne Summers and others who were on the ground making practical changes at the policy level (remember the term ‘femocrats’?). There was lots of stuff happening for women then and the popularity of Greer’s book is just one example. Anne Summers has written about Germaine Greer and the influence of The Female Eunuch here: Liberty Belle. (Read this instead of Nowra’s piece, would be my recommendation!)
As Summers points out:
Whether you admire Greer or find her infuriating or, like many people including myself, you have both reactions, often simultaneously, there is no getting around the fact that she was and remains a brave and passionate advocate for liberty, especially for women.
She has always been a flamboyant figure, not afraid of upsetting or shocking people, willing to be assertive and argumentative and to stride in polemically where others are too timid to tread. At the same time, she has chalked up impressive scholarly achievements as both a teacher and a writer of books on literary subjects including female artists and Shakespeare’s wife.
But her greatest achievement is, of course, The Female Eunuch, published 40 years ago, still in print, translated into 12 languages and a book whose influence is impossible to exaggerate.
Sometimes a book changes everything, and this was such a book.
I suppose I better get around to reading it then!