Wonderwoman

Carolyn Steedman

  • The Madwoman’s Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings 1968-1985 by Germaine Greer
    Picador, 305 pp, £9.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 330 29407 5

This is the year of the collected essays of many women. Six years of Ann Oakley’s lectures and occasional writings on medical sociology have recently been published, together with some of her poems, in Telling the Truth about Jerusalem, Elizabeth Wilson has recently produced Hidden Agendas, and Cora Kaplan’s collection from a ten-year period has just appeared in Sea Changes. Germaine Greer’s Madwoman’s Underclothes, designed, according to the dust-jacket, to demonstrate ‘what a force in our cultural life she is’, covers a much longer stretch of past time, from 1968 to 1985, starting with a piece from Oz and ending with a report on food aid in Ethiopia from the Listener of two autumns ago. The Sunday Times, Esquire, Spare Rib and Playboy lie in between. We are meant indeed to understand that the road has been a long one, the times always obdurate and absurd in their different ways, but – the stated premise of this collection – that the seeing eye has always been informed by a central vision, and the story told essentially the same one.

We cannot, though, test this proposition, for The Madwoman’s Underclothes is a selection rather than a collection. There was student journalism before 1968; and there must somewhere be a beady-eyed hoarder of back issues of Oz and Suck who could tell us what has been abandoned, along with all the other ‘millions of minute words that lay ... like sand on a beach’ in the pages of the underground press. Greer reminds us of those long-lost days when day-glo pink print over a day-glo green photograph meant that no one could read what had been written, only know that it had.

To collect together a lifetime’s writing and publishing, and then make selections from it, must always be, to some extent, an autobiographical act. The writer has two main options open to her. She can allow the pieces to function as a memoir, in which the focus remains (as it originally was in the body of journalism presented here) people met, events witnessed, ideas taken apart or lived through. The collection will then operate historically at an evidential level, and be a reasonably useful source for those who want to chart, for instance, the baroque turns that an understanding of female sexuality has taken over twenty years, or to know how very badly Norman Mailer behaved in New York Town Hall in 1972. Alternatively, the writer can take herself as the subject of the collection, and its various parts as the items of a life history. There are various ways of doing this. A young and naive writer will prune and polish the material itself, as did the 13-year-old Elizabeth Moulton Barrett in 1819, when she transcribed in an elegant hand, and edited, the stories and journal entries she had produced as a much littler girl. Adding maxims and epigraphs, she thus collected her own archives for a history of her childhood genius, so that ‘all [her] past days’ might appear ‘as a bright star’. This is not a strategy available to the published adult. Ann Oakley linked lectures and conference papers with autobiographical sketches and poetry. What Greer has done is to ask us to read both forwards and backwards through an account she gives in her Introduction of a three-month stay in a Calabrian village in the summer of 1967. This is the filter through which we are asked to interpret everything that has happened or been written between then and now. The description of dignified peasant womanliness, of human stoicism in the face of extreme hardship, should carry us safely through all the rest, from ‘Lady love your cunt’ (Suck, 1971) and ‘Seduction is a four-letter word’ (Playboy, 1973) to the harbour of ‘Resettlement, Ethiopia’, 1985 (unpublished). She was delivered up, she records, to those Calabrian people in 1967: ‘they made sure I always heard a different drummer ... the experience of those three months underlies all my thinking, to an extent that can surprise even me, even now.’

The inhabitants of that seaside hamlet are most movingly described; the glow of true romance envelops them. But as their appearance in the Introduction is for the quite transparent purpose of making narrative sense out of the differences between the woman who was labelled architect of the permissive society and the dour prophetic voice of Sex and Destiny (1984), they only serve to emphasise the disjunctures that will be found in any body of writing produced over twenty years. No one sits down and writes a corpus; people change their mind, say inconsistent and contradictory things, make points that are bound to end up looking ridiculous after a while. If the narrative device works at all, it will be because no one is going to work very hard at those early pieces. Habits of the text change, and just as it is now impossible to imagine transcribing Sixties-speak, reading it is also very hard work in these hard-sentenced Eighties.

This Calabrian seaside hamlet has made its appearance before. The region was briefly mentioned as a fitting place in which to rear children in The Female Eunuch (1970), and Greer’s conversations with 16-year-old Rosetta, her informant on its sexual mores, which were reported in Sex and Destiny, are elaborated here. The cast of characters is increased in the Introduction to The Madwoman’s Underclothes by the appearance of eight-year-old Mario, affectionately called Marriuz’, Greer’s ‘regular escort’ during these three months. His intelligence and charm allow his foreign protégée, the tall and elegant young woman with the red typewriter and a thesis to complete, to reflect, twenty years on, on ways and means of bringing up children, on the constant and loving attention he received as a baby which had made Mariuzz’ such a nice person. Partly he is there to add grist to Greer’s contention, in Sex and Destiny, that the industrialised West doesn’t like children very much.

Mariuzz’ clearly was a very nice child, and Greer liked him much more than she now likes the children of her friends, and approved of him in a way that she cannot of babies ‘stuffed into padded ski-suits, encumbered with vast bags of disposable nappies and bottles of formula, and several changes of clothes, propped in the laps of women who have no recourse when they writhe and weep than to poke the teat of the feeding bottle into their mouths’. His function, like that of his whole family, of the entire village, has largely to do with romance: he is the measure of our lost dignity, and of our Western arrogance in assuming that we are better than ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’ peoples at organising the difficult matter of living and procreating and rearing children. His symbolic function doesn’t allow Greer to see that most eight-year-olds, from rural Calabria or industrial Coventry, are like that, are the same good company as he was, funny and attentive, not necessarily out of a good experience of toilet-training and lots of skin contact, but because of their own (as yet incomplete) researches into sexual politics: good companions for grown women, their latent appreciation of one’s sexiness accompanied by a serious and gratifying belief, read out of their relationship with their mother, in women’s power and importance.

Germaine Greer returned to Rossano Calabro a couple of years ago, and was distressed to find that Marriuz’, now 26, had made a small garden round the family house which only he now inhabited: ‘I felt a cold fear that the coming of the fair stranger that summer had deflected the course of his life; it seemed all wrong that he should be keeping an English flower garden where nine of them had lived together.’

Greer’s most recent writing has been fired by the laudable aim of showing respect for all the strange and marvellous and depressing ways in which human societies have organised sexuality into systems of sex and gender. In particular, she has set about exposing a cultural imperialism which assumes that people do not know what is good for them when they produce children in situations of extreme poverty. But if we are, for example, to take on board the notion that ‘the African women who practise genital mutilation do so primarily because they think the result is more attractive’ (‘One man’s mutilation is another man’s beautification’, unpublished, 1983), and to understand, however reluctantly, that there are arguments that see even clitoridectomy and infibulation not solely as practices originating in man’s oppression of women and the traumatic exigencies of particular marriage markets but as propelled also by women’s own painful desires, then we need a consistent political stance on the part of the person who is guiding us through these anthropological thickets. Such a political stance would involve extending to a much wider range of people the assertion that people know what they’re up to. It would involve the writer in showing the same sympathy towards women taking the Pill in modern Britain, towards women stuffing babies into padded suits and rubber teats into those babies’ mouths, and towards young men keeping flower gardens going through a Calabrian summer: in short, showing just as much sympathy and cultural empathy at home, or near home, as is shown towards more distant and painful and exotic cultural practices.

Newly arrived at the University of Warwick from the Calabrian plains, Germaine Greer huddled in her bedsit ‘waiting in vain for one of my colleagues to invite me to meet his family or eat a meal with them’. In this cold climate, affection for Calabria grew apace. Seventy-odd years before, in 1889, just round a corner or two from the vulgarly grand Neoclassical square where that bedsit lay, another temporary inhabitant of Leamington Spa had reflected, as Greer was to do, on ‘what ghastly lives some people lead.’ Alice James was thinking, not of her neighbours in Holly Walk, but of the basket-weaver’s family which provided the household with eggs: 15 children, a father who had ‘not been sober since Christmas’ (it was June), a 19-year-old who looked after all of them and was abused by his father; the endless round of work, and pregnancy, and work; the eternal production of children.

Staying close to home often has the salutary effect of removing the romance from cultural practice, of allowing the observer to see things in the cold light of economic necessity, resented yet endured, both at the same time. Yet in spite of all the obvious difficulties that motherhood has presented to women, Greer asserts that ‘the more I see of human beings, the more I believe that for most human females, their greatest love affair is with their children.’ Sex and Destiny presented several vignettes of the riotous fun to be had by women at children’s tea-parties in the women’s quarters in various places around the world. Women are very good at making the best of a bad job, and children do indeed bring many pleasures, not only, as Greer shows so clearly in Sex and Destiny, to those who bear and suckle them, but, as she also knows, to those who talk to them and laugh at their jokes (even, perhaps, in this northern and benighted clime). But we are asked (briefly in The Madwoman’s Underclothes, at much greater length in Sex and Destiny) to see maternity as the organising principle of female sexuality.

There are responsibilities evaded here. It would, for example, have been appropriate to discuss whether or not such an assertion in effect marks a return to the argument for a femininity constructed out of biological necessity; to consider the two hundred-year-old debate on the question of women as nature and man as culture; to place the argument within the rising tide of pro-family conservative feminism which originated in the US but whose echoes in the new maternalism can be felt on Europe’s shore. There is, on the one hand, the responsibility of the good cultural critic to situate the argument on a common political map (in Sixties-speak, to say where you’re coming from); and, on the other hand, the need to acknowledge that at some point Greer’s argument connects with what Mary Wollstonecraft noticed, in her sad reckoning of 1792: that the world as it is may not be organised in the best possible way – that ‘in the exercise of their maternal feelings, Providence has provided women with a natural substitute for love.’ We ought to be asked to consider whether or not women’s love for children reveals people doing their best with what life hands out to them.

People are indeed brave: they love and bring up children under desperate circumstances. That we are moved and touched by this should not lead us to believe that poverty and the constraints of tradition are the necessary concomitants of maternal love – though this really is the tenor of Greer’s argument. The Third World and peasant women she has met on her travels ‘talked in the concrete terms of day-to-day experience, because they knew nothing of ideology or the use of words for mystification. In everything I was their pupil; in everything I have written I hope can be found the imprint of my love and respect for poor women, women’s women.’ I really must claim the right to be thought wonderful, even though I live in relative comfort, have no children and a certain fondness for abstraction.

Greer’s argument is, in fact, constructed in the mode of the political pamphlet, and this is one of the reasons why the pieces of journalism from the Seventies make generally unsatisfactory reading: she is too inclined to move away from the good journalist’s practice of making narrative sense out of something observed or heard, of just telling the story. Pamphleteering engages with an argument, now one, now another as it becomes necessary, in order to reach a conclusion on a matter of topical interest. In Greer’s version of this form, there is no engagement with a central argument: but lots of small ones are set up and demolished, to get to the aim in view. The Sunday Times and Playboy and Spare Rib all imposed constraints of space, and the rhetorical structure of the polemic was thus confined. To work at its best, the kind of argument that Greer employs needs to move on, demolishing criticism, employing irony against the ridiculous and personal anecdote told by way of illustration: and the device works well in the longer pieces of the late Seventies. (It’s questionable, though, whether it can structure a whole book: Sex and Destiny reads like a collection of much shorter polemics.) Moreover, this pamphleteer and polemicist was never anonymous. Greer has always been in the business of constructing an image of herself, her very point being to make outrageous and idiosyncratic statements. Only the pre-1968 journalism might have shown us what it was possible for her to do when she wasn’t a media star.

The pamphleteer uses the resolute voice of common sense, and consistently reveals the world as it is, in all its absurdity (since her fight with Freud in The Female Eunuch, Greer has not had much time for the notion that appearance can be a mask as much as a sign, nor for the idea of the unconscious). She is bound in this way to say some outrageous things along the road, about adult-child sexual relations (‘Seduction is a four-letter word’) or genital mutilation. Where there is enough space to work through an enormous number of contradictory things-as-they-appear-to-be (as in ‘Women and Power in Cuba’, 1985), an exegesis of quite stunning clarity can be achieved.

Simone de Beauvoir said, shortly before she died, that we were all of us bound to like women best, to find them sexier than men, because their complexions are so much better, they wear more interesting clothes, and they possess irony. Greer is at her funniest when she laughs at herself: in her title, for example, which is certainly a reference to that terrifying injunction to go knickerless in the Sunday Times of September 1971: but also, I think, to that éminence grise of feminist literary theory, Gilbert and Gubar’s Madwoman in the Attic.

She has irony; and, on her own evidence here, has always been a snappy dresser. She’s been to a lot of places and seen a lot of things, and thought relentlessly about them along the way. She has terrified a lot of rather dreadful men, and this can only have been for their own good. She has paid serious attention to the question that no one bothers about very much: of how the girls might get to have a good time; of how, out of hard-working and difficult lives, women might snatch some kind of satisfaction before they go down into the dark. She is that rare woman: one who simply does not care – the Proper Lady has never held her in thrall. She has not been bound by the modesty, deference and niceness that most women carry around like lumpy bags of shopping. On the evidence of the life-story covertly presented here, there’s room for thinking that she is really rather a wonder, in her own way.