Best of 2010: Germaine Greer's utopia

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The Female Eunuch, Germain Greer

First published in Eureka Street on 22 March 2010.

This 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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It is great to see that the Eureka Street editor does not censure debate on such issues. I was slighty suprised that a good Catholic magazine such as Eureka Street would run an article that was in any way supportive of Greer's book. A book that denies one of the most core and constant social teachings of the Catholic Church. Whilst the book's main theme is that the family unit is designed by women-hating men to enslave women and turn them into animals and to demean children, The Church has unceasingly taught that the family unit of husband, wife, and children is the most basic unit of society that supersedes all others. A system given freely to us by a loving Creator for the nurturing and creation of children and for the spiritual wellbeing of the two spouses. It is disgusting to even suggest that my mother, a loving wife and mother of ten, did not, after the birth of her first child, willingly and unselfishly give up a promising professional career to dedicate the remainder of her life to the care and support of her children. Rather, Greer would have us believe that she was like animal castrated in the farmyard. A creature seperated from her libado. A women turned into a eunuch. How that is consistant with my mothers belief of the sixth and ninth commandments is something I fail to see. Of course a side note is that with ten children, at the risk of sounding slightly bawdy, the only way that my mother could have been a eunuch, even in the most figurative of senses, was if my father was no better than a rapist. As is pointed out in this article there exists a problem, as in all societies, of domestic abuse. It is my suspicion that telling a man that there is no need to respect or commit to a woman but rather use her for the fufilment of selfish lust, the natural consequence of Greer's posistion, will only result in the further sexualisation of women. This objectification of women can only lead to futher abuse. Also, if the basic family unit is abolished as Greer would have, where is a young male to find a good example of the most upmost respect that is due females by the male sex. In the smutty romantic films of holliwood where the appearence of a women is linked to how much attention is due to her? Or maybe he could find a good example in the pornographic movies so freely available these days. To get back to my main point however, I am sure that the only reason Eureaka Street would publish an article praising a bigoted book that could only be described as the antithesis of Christianity that undertakes to destroy the very basic unit of society, and by extension, society itself, would be to demonstrate the absurdity of that movement and a misguided attempt to show all sides of a debate without recourse to their merits. At least, that is the only charitable Christian way of looking at it. For the record, the "phrases" I have picked to paraphrase from Greer's book are not in my opinion "Highly contextual" and I have also tried to focus on the summary of the book rather than any specific phrases. However, if I have in fact misrepresented Greer, then I appoligize in advance and beg to be further enlightened as to how I have done this so I might avoid such a sin in the future.

Francis | 16 January 2011  

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