Stubble and Breath

Linda Colley

  • The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer
    Doubleday, 351 pp, £16.99, March 1999, ISBN 0 385 60015 1
  • Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew by Christine Wallace
    Cohen, 333 pp, £18.99, March 1999, ISBN 1 86066 120 3

It is now almost thirty years since the publication of The Female Eunuch, and like most women of my age and background, I remember buying a copy. In my case, it was the famous paperback version, the one with a metallic trunk of a woman on the cover, hanging mutilated from a wardrobe rail.

In retrospect, you could argue this was a more apposite image than the artist intended. Greer’s women seem often to lack a head and its contents, not just other body parts. But at the time, the book grabbed with its brilliance. There were those brief, cumulatively hard-hitting chapters, and the irreverent, punchy writing style honed in underground journalism. Even the arrangement of the text (choice quotations outlined in black breaking up pages at random) seemed novel. What made the book a bestseller, though, was the multi-facetedness of its author. Here was an evidently very clever female academic trained in the arts of rhetoric and polemic, with an armoury of literary and historical references, who was also explicitly sexual. Of course, the author of an earlier feminist classic, The Second Sex, had also combined formal academic training with a tumultuous private life. But Simone de Beauvoir siphoned her more extreme autobiographical references into her novels. Greer, by contrast, drew spicily and in depth on her own biology and experiences. She was also beautiful and six feet tall.

So she challenged all sorts of preconceptions. Bluestockings were not expected to look like this. They were not expected to write about the things Greer wrote about. Still less were they expected to do them. That such flaunting outrageousness might become a trap may not immediately have been apparent. The conventional media have always celebrated Greer the phenomenon. It saves them from having to weigh and sift her ideas. The coverage of this new book, explicitly billed as a sequel to The Female Eunuch, has been wide and almost respectful in tone. Excerpts have even appeared in the Daily Telegraph. Sales have been considerable. Yet at present there is little sign of this work igniting the kind of excitement and debate provoked by its predecessor. The Whole Woman, the publishers’ blurb declares, ‘sets the agenda for the future of feminism’. As yet, this claim does not seem to be generally recognised. Why not?

Some would argue that women are no longer interested in a feminist agenda. Yet this country now has one of the poorest equal pay records in the EU, so the need for agitation certainly remains. And although some of Greer’s (many) feminist critics claim that her writings are out of touch with the debate as it is now, The Whole Woman is indisputably a radical text of a kind. It is also an uneven one. There are too many manifestly inaccurate statements. ‘Men will not buy cosmetics’ – has she never visited Boots? Some pronouncements are very strange; other simply daft: ‘The more or less hemispherical breast is typically Aryan.’ Greer now contradicts some of the arguments she set out in The Female Eunuch. She also makes statements in this new book which seem incompatible with each other. The Female Eunuch urged promiscuity. The Whole Woman recommends celibacy. If we must grapple with men for purposes other than reproduction, it must be oral sex only. Penetration by a male, we are advised, whether of a woman or another man, is always an exercise in subjugation: ‘the penetree ... cannot rule.’ Yet female fears of being raped by a stranger are deemed excessive: ‘of all the parts of a man that can hurt, a penis is the least’

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