Clarion call to a new generation
Sydney Morning Herald
Saturday March 6, 2010
Germaine Greer wanted The Female Eunuch to provoke furore and 40 years later, it still does, writes Gabriella Coslovich. Forty years after publication, Germaine Greer's seminal and incendiary text The Female Eunuch is still making headlines. Greer, in all her un-Botoxed glory, a lifetime of performance, protest and provocation etched on her face, hand gesticulating wildly, lips audaciously pursed, and no doubt about to spit out something challenging, is the cover-girl for the latest edition of The Monthly.In the magazine, which hit the news stands yesterday, the Sydney playwright Louis Nowra examines the role of The Female Eunuch today - it's a critique that rapidly slides into character assassination.Greer got it wrong, he says. She looks "like a befuddled and exhausted old woman", she reminds him of his "demented grandmother"."Her exhortation to women not to marry hasn't been taken up. And as for women opting out of their roles as principal consumers in the capitalist system, young women today love shopping more than ever," he writes.Gratuitous personal attacks aside, Greer would probably be neither surprised nor displeased by the virulence of Nowra's assessment. To polarise and galvanise was exactly as she intended."This book represents only another contribution to a continuing dialogue between the wondering woman and the world ... if it is not ridiculed or reviled, it will have failed its intention," Greer wrote in the introduction to The Female Eunuch, which was published in 1970.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".Quant, Greer wrote, "has had her pubic hair shaved into a heart-shape by her adoring husband, if that is what you fancy".So much for Greer being anti-fashion, anti-frippery or even anti-pubic-hair-removal.But The Female Eunuch, like any ambitious, contentious or poetic text, is open to interpretation - and manipulation. Where Nowra sees a critical misunderstanding of the essential nature of women, others see an enduringly powerful book that spoke to a generation of women who needed to hear that they could escape from their highly prescribed and limiting gender roles."An orthodoxy was shattered just by the book being published and read," says Dr Ann Genovese, a senior lecturer at the University of Melbourne's law school.Professor Mary Spongberg, a cultural historian at Macquarie University, agrees with most of Nowra's essay but nevertheless says he errs in underestimating the symbolic importance of Greer's book."I think it's easy to forget how blokey Australia was and how women were relegated very much as second-class citizens. She gave women a voice and power."Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex, not The Female Eunuch, converted Eva Cox to feminism. The leading spokeswoman for the Women's Electoral Lobby in the 1970s and its current national chairwoman, Cox witnessed the undeniable influence of Greer's book."The Female Eunuch had a huge impact. I have spoken to so many women who said the lights went off in their head. It was a very powerful book then, it is still a powerful book," she says.Cox is unequivocally scathing about Nowra's essay and the decision of The Monthly's editor, Ben Naparstek, to publish it."I don't agree with all that Greer says but there's a difference between disagreeing and sniping in this nasty, schoolboy manner."Nowra is not the first man to discuss Greer-the-woman at greater length than her work - although in the past men were more likely to fantasise about her looks than ridicule them.As noted by Spongberg in an article published in the Women's History Review in 1993, even fellow expatriate Richard Neville could not resist the temptation to delve into Greer's physical attributes, describing her as "both breasty and brainy, a scorching combination of Dorothy Parker and Raquel Welch"."Few of the men who wrote about Greer or The Female Eunuch ever dealt seriously with the issues she raised. What they discussed - often in copious detail - was the author's exotic looks, her outrageous behaviour and her negative view of women," Spongberg wrote in the article, colourfully titled, "If She's So Great, How Come So Many Pigs Dig Her? Germaine Greer and the malestream press."But Greer was no innocent by-stander - she'd baited media attention, as she does still. Her brash behaviour put her at odds with other feminists, who saw her as sabotaging and trivialising the campaign for women's rights.Greer monopolised the limelight but it was left to other second-wave '70s feminists, such as Cox and others in the Women's Electoral Lobby, to effect change. Greer played no part in the collective action that brought in domestic violence and sexual assault laws, equal pay legislation, no-fault divorce, unpaid maternity leave, child support, anti-discrimination laws and the establishment of women's refuges in Australia.Not that Cox holds this against Greer - she had her role to play and she played it well. Greer galvanised, others organised.So did '70s feminists get things wrong? No doubt about it, says Cox. Caught up in the idealistic spirit of the times, they "were way too optimistic about making changes"."We have not gone far enough and we have to go further," Cox says. "It's a very different world to the one we grew up with, but it's not nearly different enough. Women still earn less money, the workplace has become even more macho, people are working longer hours."Cox and Spongberg argue that women should have done more to challenge workplace structures and to question workplace cultures that reward workaholic tendencies which are detrimental to family life and difficult for many women to adhere to, given they are still most likely to fulfil the role of "carer". Instead, women simply slotted into masculinist modes of production."We thought technology would create leisure," Cox adds. "We got that thoroughly wrong and one of the reasons we got that thoroughly wrong was that the neo-liberal revolution turned up in the late '70s, with Thatcherism and Reaganism, and with that came that whole idea that the market would provide everything ..."The language used in the World Economic Forum's 2007 report into the global gender gap is telling. The point of the report is to highlight, and address, the enduring inequalities between men and women.And why? Because "gender-based biases are detrimental to today's global marketplace".The wording of the post-recession 2009 report is a little less narrow, acknowledging that "from a values and social perspective, empowering women and providing them with equal rights and opportunities for fulfilling their potential is long overdue".Unsurprisingly, last year's report finds there is still much work to be done in education, health, the workplace, legislation and politics before women around the globe enjoy the same opportunities as men. And in those countries where women are educated and healthy, they still face barriers entering the workforce and in achieving positions of leadership.This is something that Nowra's essay either wilfully or lazily ignores. He quotes US figures to support his argument that Greer got it wrong - showing that when she wrote her book, 4 per cent of American wives earned more than their husbands, "now this figure is verging on 20 per cent"."And today most women are well or better educated than their partners."Whether Nowra is talking about most American women, or most Australian women, or most women worldwide is unclear.It's true that in Australia, more women go on to tertiary studies than men. Why then do they continue to be under-represented in parliament, ministerial positions and as legislators, senior officials and managers?Why on average do they earn 17 per cent less than men and why have the pay differentials gone backwards in recent decade?Why is a superannuation crisis looming for women, who on average have $3 in their accounts for every $10 that men have?These questions either didn't occur to Nowra or he wasn't interested in asking them.For Eve Mahlab, a former Australian businesswoman of the year and the co-founder of the Australian Women Donors Network, the metaphor of the female eunuch - the castrated woman - remains powerfully relevant. The missing bit, as Mahlab sees it, is women's self-esteem.Is it any wonder? We live in times when women are constantly given advice on how to live and what to aspire to, to safeguard their most precious gift of virginity, to put having children before completing their PhDs, to lower their standards (as Lori Gottlieb suggests in her book Marry Him: The Case for Settling for Mr Good Enough), to stay skinny, cook, clean and do as men say (as Dante Moore suggests in his book The Re-Education of the Female, reasoning that "you're alone because you've forgotten ... you're a woman").Which brings to mind the words of de Beauvoir, writing in 1949: "We are exhorted to be women, remain women, become women. It would appear, then, that every female human being is not necessarily a woman."Amid all this cultural noise, Greer's clarion call to women to "find a will" has more contemporary relevance than some might care to admit.In the words of Zora Simic, a Sydney academic and the co-author of The Great Feminist Denial: "I know that for many feminists - myself included - any ambivalence about Germaine Greer, and what she's written, is usually balanced out by a deep gratitude that she's still here and she's still so compelling."