Liberating Germaine Greer

Midge Decter

Copyright (c) 1999 First Things 96 (October 1999): 21-24.

I never met Germaine Greer, but I did see her once in live performance—and a most diverting performance it was. The year, as I remember it, was 1970. Norman Mailer had recently published a very long article on the then newly declared women’s revolution and had succeeded, as was his wont, in scandalizing both the revolutionaries and their conservative ill–wishers. Some enterprising showman (showlady, actually) arranged for Mailer to defend himself in public debate with three women: the literary critic Diana Trilling, who read a formal and somewhat inconclusive paper on Mailer’s vision of the thing between men and women; Jill Johnston, a lesbian activist and columnist for the Village Voice, who failed rather embarrassingly in her attempt to shock the audience; and last, and mainly, Germaine Greer.

Miss Greer had recently become famous as the author of a highly celebrated liberationist tract called The Female Eunuch, whose declared purpose was to open women’s eyes to how much men actually hated them and how successfully men had conspired to teach them to hate themselves. What was notable about her book—amid all the frenzied declarations and totally off–the–wall analyses of women’s lot that constituted the first wave of liberationist literature—was that it was highly literate, which no doubt contributed to the fact that it had become an overnight "classic."

Miss Greer, who was (and judging from the pho–tograph on the jacket of her new book, still is) a very beautiful woman, was the last of the lady panelists to speak. As she rose from her chair to walk to the lectern, those of us in the audience who were seated at some distance from the stage could see for the first time that she had, for reasons that would soon become apparent, gotten herself up for the occasion in a long and slinky black gown, while flung across her shoulder and dragged behind her on the floor was a long fur boa. She then proceeded to read a highfalutin little statement about art, the gravamen of which was that we should again seek for the glory days of the Gothic cathedrals, whose greatest works had been built by a community of anonymous artisans. The reason I remember what she said after lo these nearly thirty years is that in my surprise (which soon gave way to something else) I wrote down a mean–spirited little summary of it: "Germaine Greer says that if she can’t be a great writer, let all great works of literature be anonymous."

The "something else" my surprise gave way to was great amusement. For what Miss Greer was really up to on that occasion, what her dress, demeanor, and manner of speaking were clearly intended for, was not a discussion of the condition of women but, quite simply, the seduction of Norman Mailer.

In those days Norman Mailer was a friend, and I had by then with the same kind of amusement watched a fair number of women go after him in pretty much the same way. Something about him clearly invited female provocation, and, allowing, of course, for differences of personal style, usually just about as naked as this.

Now, whether Germaine Greer actually succeeded with Mailer I don’t know, but I suspect not—at least not that evening. But as for me, I was left on that occasion with a very important reminder: to wit, when you read feminist literature, always look for some barely hidden giveaway.

As with its author, so with The Female Eunuch itself, which I set about reading the next day. One of Germaine Greer’s declaratory purposes may have been to make women understand how much men really hate them, but the putative hatred of men for women can be as nothing compared with the sheer, relentless hatred of women expressed in and by that book. (Children were perhaps the only thing more hateful than women.) What I call the giveaway is perhaps best summed up in this passage:

The ignorance and isolation of most women mean that they are incapable of making conversation: most of their communication with their spouses is a continuation of the power struggle. The result is that when wives come along to dinner parties they pervert civilized conversation about real issues into personal quarrels. The number of hostesses who wish they did not have to invite wives is legion.

The number of such hostesses may or may not have been legion, but the author of that passage was certainly foremost among them.

To be fair, Germaine Greer was far from alone in her hatred of women. The whole literature of Women’s Lib—beginning by all means with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, considered by many people who have not actually read the book to be a "moderate" plea for women’s rights—represents a serious–to–pathological outbreak of self–hatred.

That was why I could not at first understand the hot response among so many well–heeled, well–tended, well–educated women to this explosion of angry declarations of their various incapacities. But it did not take long to see that in all of the women’s movement’s books and pamphlets there was both a message and an ur–message. In The Female Eunuch, for instance, while the message for women was that men have forever been making wrecks of them and they in their weakness have conspired in men’s doing so, there is at the same time another message, what I have called the "ur–message," and this one is directed to men. "You have the power to pick on the weak," it goes, "but don’t you just wish that you had the manhood to take on a real woman like me. I can talk as tough as you, and I know a lot more about sex."

To my knowledge (which was once considerable), all, or at least most, of the other feminist attacks on men are entirely and single–mindedly hostile, but in their talk of liberation there is an ur–message as well, this time for the women, and it is this implicit message rather than any radical vision of liberation that accounts for the overwhelming response of America’s educated middle–class women to the movement. "You are not responsible," sang the sirens of Lib. "Whatever you do that brings you no joy, from living in the suburbs and having babies to hanging out in bars and being promiscuous to spending your days in a job that bores you, is not your fault. They—men, society, your mothers, your fathers—made you do it." What can be more tempting than the notion that no decision taken in your life for which you may harbor some regret was a decision actually taken by you for yourself?

And thus the whining began, cast, to be sure, in the language of social justice and revolutionary determination, but whining all the same. And what comedy it sometimes produced, every bit as risible as watching Germaine Greer throw down the sexual gauntlet to Norman Mailer. For example, hearing members of the first class of women to have been admitted to Yale complaining that they had been socialized to be little girls in pink rather than achievers. For example, reading the published diary of a not untalented liberationist author named Ellen Willis on every page of which was at least one mention of having to do the dishes. (Might she not, instead of spending her time keeping a diary, have gone shopping for a dishwashing machine?) Perhaps most illustrative of all was an exchange at a women’s luncheon in a wealthy northern suburb of New York City at which I was the invited speaker. A beautifully turned out and coifed woman wearing a pink Dior suit rose during the question period and said, "I am sick and tired of having to feel guilty because I so loathe having to wash the toilets." "Madam," I replied to her, "I would be willing to bet the fee for this speech that you have never washed a toilet in your life." She was, of course, unable to demur.

So it went—and went with flying success—in those early years. Now it is three decades later. Young women are being as mercilessly exploited as young men in the white–shoe law firms, girl Marines slog through the mud at Parris Island, and females train for the attempt to land airplanes on aircraft carriers. Women are without opprobrium free to choose as many bedmates, or housemates, as they see fit. And never have the chores that were once so contemptuously referred to as "women’s work" (or, in the more elegant parlance of Women’s Lib, "s—twork") been so successfully, and even inexpensively, mechanized.

All’s right with the world, then—or at least on the way to being all right? Well, no. It seems, for example, that for too long children—having now become women’s "choices"—were choices one way and another put off for a bit too long, and a blind and somehow unexpected scramble has set in: to find the man, or to reassure the man already found, or simply to force him to be the provider of this newly longed–for accoutrement to the good life. For another thing, successful careers turn out to be a source not of liberation but of unending worry and demand.

In any case, having created untold confusion in the minds and spirits of America’s educated young women by means of imposing measures like affirmative action or the criminalization of an indefinable transaction called "date rape"—along with the establishment of the idea that "society" owes women happiness—the women’s movement seems finally to have folded its tent and stolen away to the safety of the university.

Germaine Greer, however, has neither given up nor changed the subject. She has if anything expanded the horizons of her loathing to incorporate all the so–called advances that the women’s movement has wrought. That her own influence has had a part in these "advances" is, as far as she is concerned, nothing to the point. In the introduction to her newly published book, The Whole Woman (Knopf, 343 pp., $25), she says:

The contradictions women face have never been more bruising than they are now. The career woman does not know if she is to do her job like a man or like herself. . . . Is motherhood a privilege or a punishment?. . . [F]ake equality is leading women into double jeopardy. . . . It’s time to get angry again.

So great, indeed, is Miss Greer’s anger these days that it seems to have cost her the articulateness for which she first became famous. The book is a series of disconnected chapters whose only cohesion lies in the fact that each is devoted to some putative horror imposed on women by men and/or the U.S. and/or British governments. Just to recite a few chapter titles might go some way to describing the problem: "Food," "Breast," "Pantomime Dames," "Shopping," "Estrogen," "Testosterone," "Wives," "Loathing," "Girlpower," and so on. Moreover, the text is interrupted throughout, mass–magazine style, with brief "pull quotes," taken from sources ranging from Herbert Spencer to Nina Simone but for the most part from a series of contemporary women whose views on things the author has encountered one way or another. A study of the notes at the back of the book indicates both that Germaine Greer has been at considerable pains to find warrant for her anger and that she has found it not only in a whole variety of books, but also in publications such as the Journal of Rheumatology, Psychoneuroendocrinology, and other medical journals, and in magazines with names like Sugar, Everywoman, Now, Minx, Woman’s Own, Women’s Art, make, Simba, Scars and Bruises, Girlfrenzy, Virago, and finally, and most copiously of all, the Guardian. Many works of junk social science, not to say junk journalism, are written this way, but the method in this case somehow feels incongruous with the message.

What is interesting about the hodgepodge of sources, as about the rather incoherent parade of concerns and topics that make up what the author seems to insist is a coherent work, is the way they bespeak a kind of desperation. It is as if the author is at long last desperate to feel some genuine love and respect for women. This eagerness, to be sure, can be signaled in strange ways. She will not, for instance, bring herself to oppose female genital mutilation, since in her view (insofar as one can actually make sense of her view) female circumcision and other like horrors are something frequently practiced and always approved by women themselves. Nor can she bring herself to endorse freedom of abortion, on the grounds that abortions, too, turn out to be means for men to cause suffering to women. But being no great admirer of children, as well as a rather pious leftist, she cannot at the same time endorse the pro–life position. So, in a tone suggesting she has found a wholly satisfying new position, she declares her commitment to . . . "women’s choice."

Some of what she writes about is simply tiresome: housework again, and, in a tone that scarcely can be said to reveal any sympathetic understanding, shopping. Some of what she attempts to deal with is scarifying and important—the growing number of young girls who starve themselves or mutilate their bodies—but you cannot, as she attempts to do, even begin to get near the subject from an approach that lays the blame on men and society, as if women were once again just so many handfuls of malleable clay.

And when it comes to men, gone is every last hint of the female provocativeness that added a certain leaven to her analysis. What is left now—perhaps because so many men so easily gave in to her analysis?—is both purely and boringly poisonous.

By the time the book is finished, one is left with the wish to liberate not women but Germaine Greer herself. She seems sunk in what is meant to be pity for her sisters but is in fact little more than low spirits and general bad temper. Her salvation, of course—were she ever to dream of being rescued from her present funk—lies in the discovery that women are deserving neither of her loathing nor of her unqualified admiration. They are, like all people, variously good, bad, and indifferent.

Then she could go back to being her old flirtatious, provocative self, hostess at dinner parties to which wives are not invited—on the off chance that their husbands are still available.

Midge Decter is a member of the Editorial Board of First Things.