The impulsive, fatally naive diva of feminism made the world a better place in spite of herself.
There’s a remarkable moment late in Christine Wallace’s new biography “Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew.” At 50, Greer has just published a memoir about her father (“Daddy”), and an old schoolmate from the all-girl Catholic academy that Greer attended during her teens in Australia is telling the school’s principal, Mother Eymard Temby, how dismayed she is to find that Greer is still brooding over her childhood. She offers to lend the nun a copy of Greer’s book. “‘Don’t lend it to me,’ Eymard replied emphatically. ‘I couldn’t bear to think that Germaine is so sad. I couldn’t bear to read that that wonderful girl is so sad.’”
Greer, now 60, had been a rebellious if bright student who went on to become an intellectual celebrity who renounced the church, advocated rampant sexual freedom for women, trashed marriage and the family and fulminated against the imposition of Western values on indigenous peasant cultures throughout the world. In short, Greer had repudiated every value Mother Eymard had lived by and attempted to instill in her, but the nun nevertheless remembered her as “that wonderful girl.” Likewise, Gloria Steinem recalls her with warmth, shrugging off the way Greer disparaged feminist activists in her fabulously successful 1970 book “The Female Eunuch” and despite the dismissive account Greer wrote for Harper’s of the National Women’s Political Caucus Steinem had fought to send to the 1972 Democratic Convention. Steinem reminisces about dining with Greer at a restaurant as the Australian loudly extolled the importance of vaginal secretions to the scandalized delight and fascination of a table of women. “I remember thinking it was a very valuable piece of information, being very grateful to her and wonderfully entertained at the same time,” Steinem told Wallace. “She was terrific.”
Clearly, Germaine Greer is one of those individuals to whom the ordinary rules of good conduct don’t apply; that is, she hasn’t been held to them by the rest of us, so powerful is her charisma, so winning her good looks. This charm, though, only imperfectly protects her work. Greer’s latest opus, “The Whole Woman” — trumpeted as her follow-up to “The Female Eunuch” — is a bestseller in England, where the memory of Greer’s first book has lingered longer than it has in the United States, but most critics, like the New Republic’s Margaret Talbot (who calls Greer “the female misogynist”), are exasperated by Greer’s disorganized, self-contradictory diatribe and disgusted by her positions on such issues as female circumcision (pro) and pap smears (con).
Members of the media, who once found Greer’s long legs, bawdy braggadocio and paeans to group sex irresistible (Life magazine dubbed her a “saucy feminist that even men like”), are crestfallen to learn that she has recanted the doctrine of free love and now condemns all men as brutal, lazy sperm factories incapable of offering women emotional or sexual satisfaction. The bold liberationist who once scolded women for not stepping up to the plate and claiming the professional opportunities offered to them now bemoans weekly food shopping at the supermarket as “exhausting” and soul-killing work foisted upon victimized women by male authorities.
What changed? Not all that much, actually. Greer insists that she hasn’t done an about-face on any of her earlier positions, and in a weird way, she’s right. She’s simply followed her premises to the conclusions implicit in them from the very beginning. And her writing hasn’t evolved much, either. It’s rather that we — her readers, her world — have transformed around her. To be disappointed in “The Whole Woman” and to then go back and re-read “The Female Eunuch” in search of the Germaine Greer who fired up so many women in the 1970s is as disconcerting as seeing a horror movie that terrified you as a child only to realize that it’s pitifully tame.
I can remember discovering “The Female Eunuch” in my early teens and finding it exhilarating and galvanic — so much so that I held onto my copy of it for years. Wallace’s sources tell her that when the book first came out it provoked knock-down, drag-out fights over dinner tables, that copies of it were thrown across rooms at unsuspecting husbands, that one woman kept the book wrapped in brown paper and hidden among her shoes because her spouse forbade her to read it.
Nevertheless, and to my dismay, when revisited, “The Female Eunuch” turns out to be almost as thin a gruel as “The Whole Woman.” Its occasional passages of stirring rhetoric or (more rarely) perceptive analysis float in a miasma of supposition, dubious research, trendy “revolutionary” posturing, the patent settling of personal grudges, strategic vagueness, U-turns in logic and arguments that are Potemkin Villages built out of sheer, unadulterated bravado. Greer can be flabbergastingly categorical, especially when she’s wrong, whether she’s attributing homosexuality to “the inability of the person to adapt to his given sex role” or noting that ovaries and wombs almost always “go wrong.” Worse, the book isn’t anywhere near as fun as I remember it being, mostly because it lacks any sustained idea or vision, because it doesn’t expertly track and stalk a conclusion the way all top-notch polemical writing does. Greer hasn’t got the attention span to pull that off. “The Female Eunuch” is a fitful, passionate, scattered text, not cohesive enough to qualify as a manifesto. It’s all over the place, impulsive and fatally naive — which is to say it is the quintessential product of its time.
So was Greer. By Wallace’s account (Greer refused to cooperate on the biography, maintaining that all such efforts should be left until after their subject’s death), Greer was always a sexual liberationist first and a feminist second. During her college years in Sydney, she hung with a bohemian crowd known as Push, a group of artsy anarchists who practiced non-monogamy. Once she moved to England to pursue postgraduate studies at Cambridge, she attached herself to a series of alternative and underground magazines with names like Oz and Suck, for which she often posed nude and wrote articles describing the glories of being a rock groupie or warning against the “bourgeois perversion of motherhood.” If “The Female Eunuch” can be said to have a predominant message, it’s that the sexual repression of women devitalizes them (hence the “eunuch” of the title) and cuts them off from the dynamic, creative “energy” they need in order to summon the will to achieve independence, excellence and full selfhood. Sexual liberation was the path to fulfillment.
Greer truly believed all of this — that’s the only explanation for her current bitterness. In “The Whole Woman” she blithely writes, “We were sold sexual ‘freedom’” and “the lie of the sexual revolution,” breezing past the fact that she was one of the preeminent hucksters for this particular brand of snake oil. Ideologically speaking, as a feminist, that is, as a thinker who specializes in advocating the improvement of women’s lives, she’s made a 180-degree switcheroo. But Greer’s writing is only ostensibly about women; at its palpitating heart it’s really just about her. (The veneer of universality wears comically thin at times, as in the supermarket rant from “The Whole Woman,” in which Greer describes the generalized indignities suffered by a typical Everyshopper. This generic woman suddenly embarks on a hypothetical search for “a jar of pimentos.” She searches the Tex-Mex section, then “among the pickles” and finally resorts to asking “a man in a suit with a company pin,” who tells her he never heard of them, implying that “the customer is mad … She shows him fresh red peppers and explains that she wants skinned, seeded peppers in brine …” and so on. Gee, that happens to me all the time!)
Greer doesn’t feel she’s been inconsistent because her method — inflating her own personal trials into theories about the condition of women — remains the same. When it comes to sex, she genuinely feels swindled. During her years among the Push crowd in Sydney, the ethic of free love got her into numerous “scrapes” (the group’s term for unwanted pregnancies), which ended in several abortions accompanied by other undefined gynecological problems. As a result, in her late 30s, when she desperately wanted a child, Greer was unable to conceive and turned to expensive and difficult medical interventions, all of which failed. Greer’s resentment of the sexual utopianism she once so avidly championed springs in large part from this misfortune — she describes sex in the late 1950s and early ’60s as “a bloodsport.” Her denunciation of elaborate fertility treatments as causing untold “damage” to desperate women only makes sense when you understand that the process raised her hopes only to trample them — and finally broke her heart.
In the 1980s Greer suffered another rude awakening: She got older. The young Shelley Winters once chirped that in Hollywood a pretty face is just like a passport, to which the British journalist Julie Burchill later rejoined that beauty is indeed very much like a passport: It runs out. Greer ought to have seen it coming, but her sense of herself as exempt from the ordinary limits on human existence was part of what made her a quintessential figure of the ’60s and ’70s. Middle age altered the dynamics of Greer’s sex life in a way she couldn’t countenance.
“She enjoys what most women do not enjoy, and therefore it’s valuable, which is going out and doing battle with men,” Steinem notes about Greer as a political animal, but the observation applies to her personal life as well. Wallace’s biography is studded with anecdotes about Greer’s sexual aggression — approaching an open-shirted stranger at a party and theatrically pinching his nipple is only one example — all incidents in which flirtation is laced with domination. “I owe it to my poor brothers not to get too uptight,” she smugly told Screw when explaining why she didn’t object to street harassment. “I am a woman they could never hope to ball.” Greer, in the manner of most free-love proselytizers, preached eroticism as pure, innocent, loving joy, but she practiced it as an exercise of power, and as her youth faded, so did the edge she had long maintained over her lovers. By the time she’d reached her late 40s she’d embraced celibacy and claimed to have realized that sex wasn’t that important after all.
If Greer were a bit more honest and had a bit more perspective, she’d have a useful message to relay to young women about the perils of confusing sexual autonomy with the real but ephemeral ability to manipulate men. She could elucidate the difference between a sexual freedom that abuses body and soul and a sexual freedom that cherishes and respects them. But Greer has always spoken directly from the tangles of her personal experience, shamelessly extrapolating from her own condition to the rest of womankind and seemingly unaware of her presumption. (“She’s about as introspective as a sweet potato,” Barbara Grizzuti Harrison once observed.) In the ’70s, she admonished women who lacked her confidence, stylishness and libido for their timorousness. Today, feeling betrayed, she’s become grim and hectoring, a feminist more cartoonishly man-hating than the ones she supposedly defied in the ’70s, nattering on about body hair and bras.
It’s ironic, then, that a portrait as unflattering as Wallace’s should come along to remind us of what is valuable about Germaine Greer. She has never been much of a thinker, but her ideas weren’t what really mattered to people. As much as I admired “The Female Eunuch” the first time I read it, I could never quite recall what, beyond heterosexual intercourse, Greer actually advocated. What I did take from the book was an ethic of adventure and courage, of a zest for taking on the world. Her challenge to women who called themselves emancipated — “consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood” — didn’t really mean anything, but it was thrilling just to know that somebody had traveled that far out into the territory of acceptable female behavior and planted her flag there. It created more room for the rest of us.
Like most divas — for that’s what she is, a glorious, melodramatic, chaos-making performer — Greer has made a mess of her life. She believes she has suffered greatly, but she has engineered plenty of misery for others: Wallace’s biography is a veritable catalog of bad behavior, blatant hypocrisy and double-crossed friends and family. Yet few of her associates hold this against her. “The curious thing is how Germaine can say the most unjust things, yet be so compelling, even winning,” Wallace writes. A special grace is reserved for the rare person who can cast this kind of spell. In many cases, they produce great art, but in Greer’s the accomplishment is less tangible. In her prime, in the ripeness of her cultural moment, Greer worked a kind of magic, even if in retrospect it seems concocted from pure illusion. An Australian contemporary of hers, Susan Ryan, reminded Wallace that “women who were housewives, who were pretty miserable … felt inspired by her book and their life changed. They didn’t become megastars, but they became a librarian or something. I’ve heard women say again and again when the subject of Germaine comes up: ‘Well, her book changed my life for the better.’ And they’ll be modest women living pretty ordinary lives, but better lives.” Women entirely unlike Germaine Greer, the feminist who improved the world in spite of herself.