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an evidently very clever female academic trained in the arts of rhetoric and polemic, with an armoury of literary and historical references, who was also explicitly sexual.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’

Self-indulgence and inconsistency characterised The Female Eunuch as well, but they were rendered unimportant by the book’s overall zest. In 1970, Greer wrote as an optimist in tune with her time, and shaping it. This is a less buoyant, less coherent volume by an older woman, and the effort to reprise The Female Eunuch feels synthetic. All this said, no one reading The Whole Woman can miss the distinctiveness and audacity of the mind behind it. Hence the value of Christine Wallace’s highly intelligent and abysmally titled Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew. According to Wallace, Greer opposed this study from the outset, presumably because of what it would reveal. We all cling to the illusion that we are unique and self-made, rising into being like Venus from the foam. But all of us are shaped in many ways by contexts which we do not choose and which inform even the nature of our individual rebellions. In Greer’s case, three of the crucial determinants were (of course) her parents, her home town of Melbourne and Roman Catholicism.

An eldest child, Greer got on unevenly with both her parents, while re-enacting in her own way their respective peculiarities. Her mother Peggy was a one-time milliner who made stabs at reinventing herself by working hard on her tan and sewing unconventional clothes. Germaine the child disapproved; Greer the writer now excoriates shop-bought fashions. Reg, the father who never loved her enough, was also an illusionist. Illegitimate, he assumed a suave and dapper manner and hinted at connections with the English gentry. His daughter would also try out bogus identities, but naturally ones that would outrage him. As a student at Melbourne and Sydney, she played at being Jewish, carefully losing her virginity to a Leon Fink.

Against the lace-curtained Anglophilia of Melbourne Greer seems to have reacted all her life as erratically as iron filings round a magnet. Moving in the late Fifties from its university (where she had a nervous breakdown) to Sydney was vital to the evolution of her ideas. It brought her into contact with a creative bohemian circle called the Push, and with Australian intellectuals who regarded Europe as a whole, and not just England, as a cemetery. Her own view that England was played out would subsequently find expression in scorching contempt for its menfolk. They were dead from the neck down, she would complain, their bodies when naked evocative only of ‘mildewed blancmange’.

Beneath such bubbles ran much deeper currents of suspicion of Anglo-Saxondom as a whole, including the United States. In The Whole Woman it is the ever-present enemy, capitalist, consumerist, warmongering, oppressive. Greer’s heart is with the ‘women who donned the chador and howled the Americans out of Iran’, for what can Anglo-Saxondom do for women – except (belatedly) educate them, allow them to testify in court, and give them the vote? ‘In white Anglo-Saxon Protestant society,’ she claims, ‘there is no tradition of sisterhood.’ Sharply, she pre-empts any refutation – ‘Enter the academics whose job it is to take the heat out of the situation and render the question academic’ – but we will attempt one anyway. Protestant nunneries? Girton and Newnham Colleges? And wasn’t there a book called Little Women?

Like other Australians obsessed with despising England, Greer seems incapable of leaving it alone. She chose to come to Cambridge University, where she was much influenced by Muriel Bradbrook and Anne Barton. She wrote her PhD dissertation there on Shakespeare. She composed The Female Eunuch in intervals between taking tea with Lord Brooke at Warwick Castle. And she has lambasted and lived in this country for most of her subsequent life, residing now in a cosy farm near Saffron Walden. According to Wallace, it is a place where the household gods are assiduously tended. Greer is an enthusiastic cook, a generous hostess, a devoted gardener, a maker of preserves. Is it residual Melbourne respectability, one wonders, which makes her remark fiercely in The Whole Woman that females should resolve to spend no more than an hour a day on housework? Does she not realise that many of us find meeting this requirement all too easy?

Greer’s Catholic upbringing has also been more persistently influential than cleanly sloughed off. Her many and varied sexual liaisons (while abiding initially and disastrously by the rhythm method of contraception), her delight in bawdy language and shock tactics, her obsession in print with the body and refusal to address the spirit: these are perhaps not all that surprising behavioural patterns for a bright woman educated by nuns in a convent school. More interesting is how far the Catholic attitudes to womanhood Greer imbibed at school went on to shape her subsequent feminism. Greer has never been interested in equal rights for women or in discussing what this might mean. ‘Equality,’ she declares in The Whole Woman, ‘is no substitute for liberation.’ Wallace touches on the possibility that the germ of this position lies in Greer’s early exposure to the nuns’ version of separate-spheres ideology. ‘I do not believe in the equality of the sexes,’ Germaine Greer the undergraduate declared in 1957, ‘but in the superiority of women in those fields where their special talents are of most value.’

Wallace quotes Greer as claiming that the nuns ‘were not smart enough’; that she would still be a Catholic ‘if I’d been taught by Jesuits’. If accurate, this exemplifies what rival feminists often accuse her of: a tendency to put down less able women and simultaneously to romanticise and flatter males. This is someone, after all, who opted to write her MA thesis on Lord Byron; who urged us in The Female Eunuch to emulate ‘the masculine virtues of magnanimity and generosity and courage’; who describes men in The Whole Woman as immune to sartorial vanity, as admirably brief and efficient in their grooming, and as ruthlessly focused on their objectives. It’s a point of view. And it’s a point of view which may derive less from Greer’s unrequited obsession with her father (which is what Wallace suggests) than from what has been, paradoxically, a sheltered life. Greer has never lived with a man for any great length of time; nor has she ever worked alongside men for any great length of time. Consequently, men feature in her writing as magnificent or malign, rarely as mundane. ‘I don’t like waking up with stubble and breath and all that,’ she is supposed to have remarked. But stubble and breath are what men are. Just like women.

Men are not generally treated by society just like women, however. Approaching Greer as one would any other influential thinker, by locating her ideas in context, does not mean that we should easily dismiss them. Beneath the excesses of The Whole Woman are some obviously valid points. Her verdict on Western women’s lot on the eve of the Millennium is bang-on: ‘Women’s lives have become more, not less difficult. They are better lives, but they are harder.’ She is right to argue that in many professions and businesses women are not just marginal but marginalised. She is right to claim that more women are now having to work longer hours than ever before, while simultaneously watching the costs of childcare soak up most of their wages. And she is right to argue that in this country the Sex Discrimination Act (SDA) and Equal Pay Act (EPA), both passed in 1975, have been of some specific value, without effecting anything approaching equality in the workplace.

The statistics are depressing while not always being easy to interpret. In 1998, the annual gross earnings here of full-time male non-manual workers averaged more than £26,500; average gross earnings of female full-time non-manual workers were some £10,000 less than this. Girls’ currently improving record at school vis-à-vis boys, plus the growing numbers of young women attending university seem to have made little impact on actual earning power. In 1998, the gender gap in pay was already conspicuous among young workers. Non-manual, full-time males between 21 and 24 picked up on average some £313 per week; their female counterparts £251 per week. Nor on this score are public employers any more impressive than private ones. The recent Bett report on British universities suggests that some female faculty are paid as much as £2000 per annum less for doing essentially the same job as male university staff.

As this last example suggests, the argument often advanced that the gender gap in pay results from the concentration of women in less well-paid jobs requires closer scrutiny. Traditionally poorly paid jobs seem often indeed to have become so precisely because women have traditionally opted to do them. If every road-worker in the country went on strike tomorrow, we would still stumble along. If every nurse went on strike, we would be on our knees. Yet nurses generally get paid less than road-workers.

What do we do about all of this? This is where I part company from Greer. As Wallace puts it, she has always been ‘terminally jaded about the political process’. In The Female Eunuch she dismissed the Suffragettes and the vote in a few lines. In The Whole Woman, New Labour’s bumper crop of female MPs fare, if anything, even worse. They only facilitate Blair’s control, Greer argues sexistly: ‘running around in little red suits ... like a Butlin’s holiday camp’. As for looking to the European Union for reform initiatives, a much younger Greer once dismissed the European project as ‘sucking arse to all these Germans’. As always, we need to probe Greer’s superficial boorishness, and investigate why her contempt for formal political processes is so very marked.

Before doing so, however, it is worth insisting that – while these responses may be ideologically founded – they are also irresponsible. To be sure, nothing the British state or Brussels can do will guarantee the women (or men) of these islands fulfilled and happy lives. But it is surely possible to conceive of political intervention facilitating better pay for some women, better healthcare, better childcare provision, and better opportunities of all kinds. Moreover, the prospects for legislative action are better than they have ever been before. Scotland’s new Parliament has the third highest proportion of female representatives of any legislature in the world. Westminster has more women MPs than ever before. And this should mean a marked increase in female ministers in the next Cabinet reshuffle. What has brought these changes about is, finally, an acceptance of the need for a measure of positive discrimination.

Even the Equal Opportunities Commission, a normally restrained body, now accepts that banning discrimination cannot by itself effect a level playing field for men and women, given the enduring force of custom, inertia and prejudice. Its recent paper submitted to Government, Equality in the 21st Century, calls for the SDA and EPA to be absorbed into a new, amplified statute, and in addition for ‘special measures’. It seems likely that in the near future public and private employers will come under increasing pressure to demonstrate not just that they do not discriminate against women, but also that they are taking active steps to enlarge women’s slice of the cake.

So why do none of these potentially interesting developments receive at least an approving mention in Germaine Greer’s new book? Why does she conclude by arguing that all women in this country can do is withdraw from male-dominated enclaves, and set up their own segregated communes along with their children, practising celibacy, and waiting for non-Western women to create the Revolution? The answer to these two questions is, I believe, essentially the same. Properly and historically understood, Greer is not primarily a feminist. More than anything else, she should be viewed as a utopian.

As Wallace points out, while at Sydney University, Greer was decisively influenced by Harry Hooton, a utopian anarchist who believed in the innate perfectibility of mankind. But Greer’s ideas have a much longer pedigree than this. As one would expect of a country which has always taken in marginals and rebels of all kinds, convicts, Chartists, Irish exiles, German Moravians and Italian socialists, Australia has a rich history of utopian experimentation. The first communal experiment there occurred back in the 1830s. Moreover, those Protestant Anglo-Saxons whom Greer so despises have their own utopian, millenarian tradition. Eighteenth and 19th-century groups like the French Prophets, ‘Mother’ Ann Lee and her Shakers, and the followers of Joanna Southcott all gave prominence to women; and some of them advocated segregation of the sexes and the ‘joys of celibacy’.

In 1999, Germaine Greer lives on an Essex farmstead, where she knows all the animals by name, resides over guests who ‘are all under my thumb’, noisily champions celibacy, and dreams of an Edenic community of like-minded women and fresh-faced children. A century or so earlier, she might well have called herself Mother Germaine. She would certainly have been deeply religious. And she would have terrified and mesmerised her followers in some wilderness rather stranger than Saffron Walden. But otherwise things might have been very much the same.