Germaine Greer's utopia

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The Female Eunuch, Germain GreerThis year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, an impassioned call to arms written by a woman who became the pin-up girl of feminism, loved and hated with equal passion by women and men alike. Of the many feminist manifestos published over the years, this has been one of the most influential. The very fact that it continues to incite such vociferous debate today attests to this.

In marking the book's anniversary, a debate has broken out in the Australian media around the impact and relevance of the ideas articulated in The Female Eunuch to women and society at large. This debate is not a new one. In many ways it rehashes critiques of Greer and her book that have flourished since its publication in 1970.

A recurring criticism is that the book's impact on women has been negligible, and that the feminism it propounds is of little relevance in today's world, with some going so far as to argue that it was never really relevant. These arguments are often based more on attacks on Greer personally, and feminism generally, than considered critiques of the value of the feminist agenda set out in The Female Eunuch.

By focusing their arguments on demonstrating how Greer has failed to convert all women to feminism, pointing out for instance that women love to shop, wear make-up and high-heels, get 'brazilians', and be stay-at-home-mums, critics (notably, and most recently, Louis Nowra, writing in The Monthly) miss her point entirely.

Greer's work is not a directive to women, it is a call to arms: a polemic designed to mobilise women to recognise and shake off the myriad shackles that prevent them from realising their full potential as free and equal members of human society.

Critically, it places the responsibility for women's situations squarely on women themselves: women must decide for themselves to fight for their freedom, and they must decide for themselves how they're going to go about it.

By picking out incendiary and highly contextual phrases from The Female Eunuch and taking them literally, as many do, Greer's critics are liable to draw conclusions that are divorced from the reality of the book.

For instance, some commentators take Greer's criticism of women spending their money on clothes, make-up and cosmetic surgery as a condemnation of women who do such things, and as an attack on the legitimacy of women seeking self-fulfilment through these activities.

Although there are obvious problems with suggesting that cosmetic surgery is a legitimate way for women to pursue self-fulfilment, Greer does not call on women to abandon their interest in clothes and cosmetics. Quite the opposite: she recognises that 'it is possible to use even cooking, clothes, cosmetics and housekeeping for fun'.

For Greer, the issue is whether women are acting out of compulsion, or because they are genuinely seeking their own pleasure. The key here is that women should consciously decide how to present themselves and spend their time. They should not be forced by social norms to act, dress and live in ways that sustain existing gendered power structures, but should have the real freedom to be self-determining individuals in a society that accepts that there is more than one way to live. This is as relevant and as legitimate today as ever.

Many of Greer's critics also overlook the hopeful and utopian bent of The Female Eunuch. Greer's book is underpinned by a faith that women can and will rouse themselves to fight for equality and freedom. Its admirable goal is to inspire women to claim a meaningful place for themselves within society, where they don't measure themselves merely by the impact they have on men.

As a young woman reading the book, one phrase always stayed with me. After exploring the ways in which the desire for 'security' can influence women (and men) to settle for less than ideal home situations, Greer wrote that 'a lover who comes to your bed of his own accord is more likely to sleep with his arms around you all night than a lover who has nowhere else to sleep'.

What better or more empowering advice could a woman be given than this? More than anything else, it highlights the importance of holding your own in relationships, being yourself rather than what society or your partner wants you to be — and promises that honest, fulfilling relationships will follow.

One of the major and enduring strengths of Greer's work is its inclusiveness: she does not envision a world where women no longer need men or who struggle simply against men. A fundamental pillar of her argument is that the current gendered balance of power is bad for men as well as women.

Further, she calls on women to recognise, not just how the patriarchy oppresses them, but also how they oppress themselves and each other. Thus, the struggle for women's freedom is actually a struggle for freedom for all.

Unfortunately, Greer's seminal work continues to be misrepresented and attacked on many fronts, often by men who speak on behalf of women, but also by women, telling us that feminism is no longer relevant to our society. 

It's true that we've come a long way since the 1970s, but feminism is as relevant now as ever: Australian women earn, on average, 17 per cent less than men; domestic violence remains the leading contributor to death, disability and illness for Australian women; women make up less than 11 per cent of board members in Australia's top 200 companies; the sexualisation of women, and particularly young women, in the media is rife and increasingly regarded as acceptable by men and women alike.

We still have a long way to go. Feminists still have work to do.

And importantly, feminists don't all speak with the same voice. Feminism isn't about all women believing the same thing, it's about women standing up for what they believe in and having the freedom to make their own choices. That said, the belief that women and men are inherently equal and offer equally valuable contributions to society is a uniting principle among feminists, as is the conviction that the struggle for gender equality is continually evolving.

Greer doesn't claim to have all the answers: she saw The Female Eunuch as just one contribution to the ongoing feminist dialogue. It's our responsibility, women and men alike, to keep that dialogue alive in the pursuit of equality and freedom, and not to be discouraged by critics that would neuter the women's movement and silence outspoken activists like Greer.

As Greer asked at the end of her book 40 years ago, 'What will you do?'


Jasmine-Kim WestendorfJasmine-Kim Westendorf is a PhD candidate in La Trobe University's Politics and International Relations Program. She is co-founder of The Democracy Project, which explores issues of gender and democracy, and the Melbourne Free University, which will be launched in May 2010. 

Topic tags: Jasmine-Kim Westendorf, TheFemale Eunuch, Germaine Greer, Louis Nowra, Feminism

 

 

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The notion, so vividly expressed by Germaine Greer, that a free, and willing lover is better than one whose embraces may be the caresses of the inert and insecure highlights well, in my view, the inadequacy of slavish allegiance to any party line – whether Marx or Church – and the enormous potential for self-deception in how we might characterize our degree of independence and objectivity in our thinking and our motives. There are people who love, and - as I understand Aristotle to have argued the unity of virtue - this becomes evident in their other attitudes and behaviour, which tend to become more generous and considerate. And there are people who genuinely consider ideas and arguments, prepared to ditch their Marxism or their Catholicism (or whatever), or parts of them and who do. But how many of us can say that we fit squarely into this category of the free and willing?
Stephen Kellett | 22 March 2010


“What will you do?” What should parents do? What should the community do?

Society must adopt a whole new way of thinking and taking responsibility for its actions. For a start:

1. Mothers bring up your daughters and sons to be people of dignity and character.

Why? On weekends when I go socialising, I keep seeing young women dressing like "quot;porn-stars” with nothing left to the imagination and certainly with no dignity in their behaviour left to respect. Young men’s attitude has become to not care of outcomes to such women and even extending to all other women who do not deserve to be treated badly. According to an overheard conversation by a group young men , almost all the girls present looked like “hookers“; that “they seem to be looking to being used, chewed-up and spat out”.

2. Bring up all you children to respect other humans and to respect their rights; that every person’s soul and body is a temple because we are all created in the image of God; therefore must be respected and never abused with drugs, irresponsible sex before marriage, that infatuation is not love, etc.

3. Wage a war on society’s acceptance of pornography unhealthy attitudes towards sex in film and video games featuring it and the appalling attitude and violence towards women and the “normalisation” of these horrifying attitudes in society.

4. Wage a war on sexualization of children by advertising agencies, trying to make an even “faster-buck”; and the attitude of even young girls that they must now dress and behave like “temptresses”, as do their favourite pop-stars.

5. These suggestions are just a start and they emanate from careful consideration of the meaning and application of the Ten Commandments. So teach your children the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus, and their application to everyday life and how they can transform their own lives, society and the world to work for a genuine “common good” for all humans and the entire planet.

Unless at least the suggestions above are implemented, society will be “white-anted from the inside” by ruthless evil people intent on “making a fast-buck” or intent on exploiting weaknesses in society for their own ends - in which case Greer’s book would be a total waste of time.
AO | 22 March 2010


An excellent and objective critique, Jasmine. Thanks. The Female Eunuch is one of the two most important books written in the past 50 years for both women and men to understand feminist philosophy. The other book is Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex. Fiction writers such as Jane Austen and Doris Lessing have also made valuable contributions. It is disappointing that in the first decade of the twentieth century, the majority of both men and women in Australia still struggle to have a rational and logical debate on both feminist and masculinist philosophy; refer the recent Louis Nowra article and irrational comments in the Age blog. Masculinist philosophy still dominates most of our life and institutions - family, government, public service, university, business, church and trade union. Apparently, most men still do not do an equal amount of domestic work at home when both men and women have full time jobs. Also, there is still too many men who are misogynists who need domestic violence to get their own way; most of these men live in the outer suburbs of Melbourne and Sydney where there are some serious social problems of poor education, marginalisation and domestic violence. Finally, Jasmine can you please let me know more about The Democracy Project and the Melbourne Free University.
Mark Doyle | 22 March 2010


What a succinct and engaging article on the impact of Germaine Greer, in stark contrast to Louis Nowra's meandering and selective assault published recently. Germaine Greer is a visible and successful feminist writer and commentator. For the best part of four decades, she has participated in public debates about issues relevant to women, from surrogate pregnancy to pornography to transexualism. Intelligent, insightful and highly readable, Greer has made an incalculable contribution to the canon of feminist thought as well as having an untold impact on women’s understanding of themselves. To construct a "critique" of Greer’s life's work based on a 21st Century re-reading of her first polemic while focusing in detail on her personal flaws, as Nowra does, is intellectually dishonest and I suspect, sexist (ie. would Nowra treat a male contemporary in the same way?). To my generation of women who have had unprecedented opportunity in their lives, yet no model for how to live them, Greer has always been there for us – thinking, writing and speaking on our behalf. I am deeply grateful to Greer for her relentless intellectual curiosity, her searing honesty and her willingness to live her life publicly for the rest of us. Shame on Nowra for exploiting her visibility and vulnerability in his bitchy attack. All praise to Westendorf for her cogent and insightful defence.
Louise Watson | 22 March 2010


What an excellent article - articulate, lucid and right on the mark. Yes, the point was about compulsion or freedom. It isn't about what women choose to do or not do - it's about how freely they are able to choose it. Society still has very strong ideas about how women should behave - witness the letter by a fourteen year old girl who didn't want to have oral sex with her boyfriend, but was advised by the 'agony aunt' that she was passing up an important way to greater intimacy with him. What happened to the girl's likes, dislikes or moral opinions in the matter? Society seems to tell girl in a thousand ways that they must be sexually active and attractive according to external opinions. Nothing's changed since society was telling them they mustn't be sexually active except under the circumstances dictated by society. In either case - cui bono, eh?
Joan Seymour | 22 March 2010


A footnote - Ms Westendorf repeats the standard feminist "glass-ceiling" complaint that women are under-represented on company boards and in the higher professions. It is only these glamorous areas of work that excite feminist discontent. Driving around the city, one cannot help notice that practically everybody laboring on a building site in the dust and the grime, laying tar on the roads in the summer heat, doing the heavy lifting as delivery drivers, etc., etc., etc., is a man. Under-representation of women in these areas of work doesn't bother feminists. Maybe they should also think about the under-representation of women in prisons, suicide statistics, cancer deaths, exclusion from child custody, etc. Male preponderance does not always work to the advantage of men.
Sylvester | 22 March 2010


Sylvester's curmudgeonly complaint suggests he has never been open to fairly considering Germaine Greer's analysis (and thereby illustrating my original point). Germaine Greer has never argued women and men were the same or selectively complained about female representation. She has never been about statistics, which is a patriarchal game. She has always challenged the structural assumptions that confine and stereotype women as inferior. Feminism is not primarily about particular choices, but about the freedom of women to choose and not pander to or be manipulated by male/patriarchal agenda. Sylvester may have a particular model of femininity in mind. The point is, women are individuals and thus should not be expected to conform to it...except by their truly free choice.
Stephen Kellett | 22 March 2010


Thanks everyone for your comments.

Mark, The Democracy Project is a media monitoring, research and analysis website that examines the way gender interacts with democratic processes and debates. We aim to collapse those areas that are currently considered 'women's issues' into broader societal discourse and research. Our central goal is to show that a healthy democracy requires us to re-negotiate the boundaries between gender and society. We publish our research periodically in newsletters and on our website, www.the-democracy-project.org.

The Melbourne Free University is a new project that aims to create a forum for learning, discussion and debate that is accessible to all, and can act as a counterpoint to the very outcome oriented education system in Australia. We hope to offer a space where people can engage with current ideas and issues, combining academic presentations with open discussions. It's essentially about learning for the sake of learning, the pursuit of knowledge purely for the sake of knowledge. The first MFU seminar will be held on 1 May, and all the information about the project can be found at www.melbournefreeuniversity.org .
Jasmine Westendorf | 23 March 2010


I was 18 when The Female Eunuch was published. It made the scales drop from my eyes and articulated so much of what I had been feeling and thinking. Germaine Greer set me on the path to analysing, and sometimes trying to do something about, the way power works against particular groups, especially women. I have been grateful to her ever since. Thanks Jasmine for such accuracy and clear sightedness - in a time when it is so 'uncool' for a woman to be a feminist and when some young men, aggressively insisting they are feminists, tell women how to manage their lives.
Anna McCormack | 23 March 2010


I wasn't complaining, merely making an observation which Stephen Kellett does not address. Statistics, which must underpin any discussion about over-representation or under-representation, is hardly a 'patriarchal game' or, if it is, it is game which radical feminists are quite happy to play when it suits.
Sylvester | 24 March 2010


40 years ago, Germaine Greer turned on the light for me. That light is still shining.
Susan Hooke | 26 March 2010


I think what you're all forgetting is that Greer's underlying aim is to create a Marxist society, and that she considers the nuclear family to be a bar to achieving that utopia.

The role of women is just one element of society, and I think we tend to forget this when we talk about feminism.

Women are the most powerful sex, given that our society's existence rests on their ability to reproduce. By removing these proposed shackles of the nuclear family, the woman becomes yet another worker within the capitalist (or Germaine's Marxist) system. I don't think Germaine failed in liberating women from the nuclear family; there are far less nuclear families than ever. Rather I think it is the idea that a woman is liberated outside the family that has failed.

Our society, which is full of 'liberated', childless women (like Germaine) is in a process of self-destruction. Without children to take care of them as they grow older, Germaine's generation is costing my generation more than the entire GFC in aged care costs.

Germaine's ideology is built on individualism; it doesn't account for the role of these individuals within a society. For this reason, it has failed.
John Smith | 27 March 2010


Surely the litmus test of feminist theory is whether, on a Worldwide basis, women are in a "better place" than they were before the theory was expounded? Otherwise, what is it for? I suspect that the name Germaine Greer means very little to Aboriginal women in Ausralia and women in the developing World...but then such women are not her "audience" are they? Such women would be employed on a low wage to do Simone De Beauvoir's housework or any Western middle class university graduate's child minding. You see, the human struggle has always been a class divide, one of rich & poor, not male & female.
dom | 07 May 2012


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