Gladiator of Women’s Lib
Photo: Helen Morgan – Cc By 2.0
Like many women with an interest in feminism, I’ve read The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer’s 1970 bestseller and starting gun for the Women’s Liberation Movement. Oddly, the part of the book I have found most useful, and which seems to underpin so much of what other feminists have tried to express since, comes in the preface to the 25th anniversary Paladin edition.
What, Greer asks, given all that women have obtained since she originally wrote the book, could women still want? “Freedom, that’s what,” she writes. “Freedom from being the thing looked at rather than the person looking back. Freedom from self-consciousness.
Freedom from the duty of sexual stimulation of jaded male appetite, for which no breast ever bulges hard enough and no leg is ever long enough.” A quick glance at ITV’s Love Island, or the endlessly filtered, contorted faces of influencers and wannabe influencers on Instagram, shows how far we still have to go to attain it – or perhaps, how far we have regressed.
Greer is that rare thing: a genuinely difficult woman who does not care at all about what people say about her and who, however unconscionable, is always interesting and very often – at least in some way – right. By turns a charmless shrew, a batty eccentric, a brilliant thinker and a true and tireless intellectual, she is loathed and treasured in equal measure.
But that widespread loathing, that deliberate pockmarking of her virtue with indefensible arguments, only adds to her gleam. Although she is generally considered a feminist, she isn’t really, at least not in the activist sense. After publishing The Female Eunuch, written in her spare time while working on a PhD on Shakespeare’s early comedies at Newnham College Cambridge, she shunned the marches and sit-ins of the women’s liberation movement in favour of journalism, scholarly pursuits and controversial photo shoots (such as the notorious naked image of her that appeared in Suck magazine in 1971).
In the long decades since, she has regularly and openly insulted other feminists, including Natasha Walter, Fay Weldon and Suzanne Moore (whom she described as having “hair bird’s-nested all over the place, fuck-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage”).
Conceptually, she has reliably bucked all contemporary feminist trends, arguing that #MeToo was silly and pointless, and that trans women aren’t really women – a position that had her no-platformed and pilloried the anglophone world over. “Just because you lop off your penis… it doesn’t make you a woman,” she wrote in a statement to the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show. Oops!
“Bad” Germaine disparaged Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid. She has come perilously close to a pro-life position (“abortion is killing, don’t pretend it isn’t”), and, in The Whole Woman, the 1999 sequel to The Female Eunuch, defended female genital mutilation as a cultural practice.
Then there’s The Beautiful Boy (2003), about the unique delectability of adolescent boys, a quasi-academic, rather dodgy perv-athon that she managed nonetheless to give an interesting feminist spin. “I know that the only people who are supposed to like looking at pictures of boys are a sub-group of gay men”, she responded to predictable furore, adding: “Well, I’d like to reclaim for women the right to appreciate the short-lived beauty of boys, real boys, not simpering 30-year-olds with shaved chests.” Err, amen, sister?
I’ve had two intimate brushes with Greer, both illuminating her particular brand of brilliant lunacy, her mixture of the odious and the splendid. The first was terrifying, since it involved personal contact in a debate setting and she was famous for her attacks on other women.
The debate was at the Oxford Union in August 2018, filmed as a series of Head to Head, the Al-Jazeera programme hosted by Mehdi Hassan. It saw Hassan taking Greer on about her mockery of the #MeToo movement, with panellists helping him in the case against her.
Luckily, since I’d been a critic of aspects of the movement, I was wheeled out to defend, not antagonise Greer. In the event it turned out she preferred being attacked (this was when her eyes sparkled) and barely took any notice of my attempts to back her up. Her position was classic Greer: infuriating but gutsy.
“It’ll be extraordinary if it makes any difference at all,” she had said of #MeToo. Pushed by Hassan, who accused her of being “pretty negative and pessimistic”, she doubled down, a cheeky glint in her eye. “I look at what’s happening now that we now have women claiming sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexual this and that [and] the first question to ask is, What took you so long?” Rageful clucks all round.
On the Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby trials: “They haven’t been victories for anybody. Sexual assault continues, abuse of women continues.” A further deliciously spiky interlude saw Greer insist that rape is a form of bad sex, and often isn’t violent. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, non-consensual sex isn’t always violent… What world do you people live in? I’m actually passionately opposed to double beds, they’re probably more responsible for bad sex than any other single piece of furniture… [rape] is non-consensual sex, which is bad sex.”
My second brush with Greer was in the archive in Melbourne in March 2020, where for a single day before the new covid pandemic closed everything down and I had to head back to London, I immersed myself in her correspondence, which is held in the university’s library. I got a glimpse of her world, the immense demands on her time, her true celebrity.
Everyone from feminist conference organisers to academics to Channel Four TV producers to magazine editors wanted things from her, constantly, and the responses of Carol Horne, her assistant, were often comic. In 1985, her attendance at a women’s conference in Canada is declined because Greer will only accept first-class travel and, Horne explains, she “feels that your budget will hardly stretch to such exorbitant expense and you would be better advised to spend the money some other way.”
In September 1998: “no fee, sorry no work”, and, in response to a TV documentary request: “Professor Greer has appeared in dozens of programmes about Australians in Britain. The only way to get her to appear in another would be to offer a fee. As no fee is offered the answer is no.”
In 2000, in a wry response to a round-table invitation from the The American Enterprise magazine: “Professor Greer regrets that she is unable to accept your invitation to consider Mrs Clinton as a female heroine.” There are fan letters and questions about gardening, a topic on which Greer wrote newspaper columns, and it is these she answered with both care and scrupulous generosity.
A Cambridge woman wrote in 2003 asking Greer to identify a plant she found which “sprang up in a pot containing a frail hydrangea” – Greer suggests she take it along to the Botanical Garden for analysis. Another woman’s letter elicits a surprisingly intimate, everywoman’s reply: “Perhaps it will surprise you to know that I tend to be an independent-thinking woman while I’m man-free, and then when I fall in love I become every bit as dependent, possessive and destructive as you do. It is a problem that I do not know how to solve.”
Having a go at apparently unsolvable problems is her life’ work, but what Greer’s response to that letter reveals is that, alongside all the fearless intellectual combat there’s a humble reality: for all the bluster, she’s not so different from you, me, or any woman whose sense of self is still hopelessly bound up in how men treat us. Thank god, that only makes her more of a warrior in the battle of the sexes; as she famously observed: “What women fail to understand is how much men hate them.”
Zoe Strimpel is a columnist and interviewer for the Sunday Telegraph and a historian of gender in modern Britain
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