The Book Club

Is Greer So Hardheaded That She Ends Up Being Hardhearted?

Dear Katha, Dear Judith,

The Female Eunuch is indeed self-contradictory. It’s shapeless. It’s wrong in (a lot of) places. It’s bound to its time and place not just by references to the Wilson government’s 1969 trade union initiatives but also by an embarrassing Aquarian hubris (“Eternal Eros is imprisoned now in the toils of the sado-masochistic symbiosis”). It is nonetheless a book so ambitious and beguilingly contrarian and frequently (no … almost constantly) ingenious that I’m dumbstruck that it ever went out of print. What a thrill it has been to discover it.

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It’s difficult, though, to say just what kind of book it is. It looks like an outline of six or seven unrealized books that would make up a respectable intellectual’s career. The chapter “The Object of Male Fantasy” is a Shrink-Lit version of Sexual Politics; “Misery” is a thumbnail of The Feminist Mystique. “The Middle-Class Myth of Love and Marriage” is an essay on medieval and renaissance literature along the lines of E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabethan World Picture.

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I’m not sure whether the position of women in society is The Female Eunuch’s subject or its pretext. More than anything, this strikes me as a cryptic autobiography, vengeance for a thwarted childhood and adolescence (which we can save for another day). It is one of those Promethean testaments of self-realization that are among the high points of most literatures. The pleasure in reading Greer is the same as the pleasure in reading Gide or Emerson. If this is feminism, it’s feminism of a particularly individualistic, un-co-opt-able kind—literarily fruitful but probably a political dead end. Jennifer Baumgardner’s introduction holds that Greer “stood outside of the organized political movement that ushered in her bully pulpit. This was tactical.” No, it wasn’t. The distance is heartfelt and striven for. Katha is obviously right that Greer owes a debt to recent feminists. But Greer’s studied obliviousness is not surprising. There’s not a single institution—left or right, male or female, elite or popular—that Greer doesn’t excoriate in this book, and there is no reason feminism would be any different. Maybe feminism was already beginning to show some of the rigidities of the society it critiqued; maybe it wasn’t. But even had it been God’s Kingdom on Earth, Greer would not have “joined” it.

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“The first exercise of the free woman is to devise her own mode of revolt, a mode which will reflect her own independence and originality,” Greer writes. I love that, but I’m not sure it’s realizable as politics. When Greer demands, in the 1991 foreword to this book, “freedom from shoes that make us shorten our steps and push our buttocks out,” she’s sounding a more familiar feminist note than she ever does in the book—pointing to a race-to-the-bottom in dignity under which the threat of spinsterhood goads a woman into a tawdry conformism that she would probably not freely choose. Solutions to such problems tend to be more social (and hence more radical, more authoritarian, and more threatening to men) than they would appear to a famously gorgeous Australian celebrity in her late 20s. Thirty years ago, Greer tended to sneer her way through such issues. If you don’t like those shoes, don’t wear them, she would have said. Indeed, although her sympathies are with the Labour Party, she often sounds a right-wing libertarian note: “The more the state undertakes to protect a man from illness and indigence, the more it has the right to sacrifice him to the common good …”

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That brings me to Christine Stansell’s dichotomy, which is as useful for placing Greer as Katha says. Greer writes:

The solution does not lie in offering adult women other alternatives besides home and children and all that. The adult woman has already established a pattern of perversity in the expression of her desires and motives which ought to fit her for the distorted version of motherhood: it will not disappear if she is allowed alternatives. Any substituted aim is likely to be followed in a “feminine” way, that is, servilely, dishonestly, inefficiently, inconsistently.

It’s no mystery on which side of the dichotomy Greer falls, and fair enough. It’s only common sense that if society is deforming women, then women will be deformed. The question is whether Greer isn’t so hardheaded that she winds up being hardhearted. I would defend her against this charge, largely on grounds of her writerly empathy.

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Greer’s literary gifts, while not always well husbanded, are extraordinary. It’s terrific the way she notes that the “structures of titillation” in Lawrence and Hemingway are the same as those in women’s romances—or that Lawrence, in the first place, “couples a strange reluctance to describe what his protagonist is actually doing with the most inflated imagery of cosmic orgasm.” Sometimes her phrase-making ability tempts her into cant. (What can it mean to describe flattery as “a version of prayer”?) But more often it does not, and the writing is aphoristic and memorable. (“Many women, one might say too many women, die of illnesses in organs that they have virtually ignored all their lives.” … Working-class girls seek to “dim the sheen of luxury by sheer natural loveliness; the few examples of such a feat are kept before the eye of the public.”)

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And she remembers all sorts of injustices and moments of private desperation with a vividness accessible only to the first-rate writer and thinker. Here she is on schoolgirl crushes:

The reaction of most teachers to “that sort of thing” is terribly destructive. I have even witnessed the public reading of a child’s love poem, accompanied with sneers and deprecating gestures, as a punishment, while the little authoress stood impassive, feeling the iron enter her soul, waiting for the blessed time when she could escape to the lavatory and enjoy the obscenity of tears.

On an adolescent girl’s self-loathing:

Many a silly girl swallowing Epsom salts and gin and parboiling herself in a hot bath is not so much endeavouring to procure abortion as punish herself for her female sexuality.

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On women picking fights with their husbands out of jealousy:

The fruitlessness of the reproaches and the endless reiteration of the same spurious complaints (spurious because she is ignorant of what her genuine grievance is) bring about an increasing stridency and a terrible disregard for the meaning of what she is saying. Her attacks grow more destructive and more unforgivable until she realizes in some helpless way that she is tearing down her house with her own hands, but she is by now powerless to stop brutalizing her own environment.

There is a Chekhovian sadness to these moments. Some of the insights, it makes me sad to say, are beyond the power of empathy to gather, calling to mind rather a particularly desperate kind of autobiography. But more on that—and a half-dozen other things—tomorrow.

Best,
Chris

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