The Book Club

What of the Poorer, the Plainer, the Less-Educated?

Dear Katha, Dear Judith,

Greer’s (individualist) kind of feminism must be considerably more exhilarating for its practitioners than Betty Friedan’s (institution-changing) kind. To be “brutally honest,” to “rip away the veil” from a concealed power structure, as Greer constantly does (“When abandoned women follow their fleeing males with tear-stained faces, screaming you can’t do this to me, they reveal that all that they have offered in the name of generosity and altruism has been part of an assumed transaction.”) is ever gratifying to the intellectual ego.

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Greer has the admirable English belief that no subject is so important that readers will endure drab writing to learn about it. She doesn’t just say that bourgeois life is constraining; she says, “The ‘normal’ sex roles that we learn to play from our infancy are no more natural than the antics of a transvestite.” So ferocious is Greer’s indictment, however, that it paradoxically absolves her of having to think about power—i.e., power structures—at all. The pragmatic business of real people in real relationships confronting real institutions need never be faced head-on if pragmatic is only a synonym for “corrupt” or “mendacious.”

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Too frequently, when her arguments lead her to a juncture where she must lay down an alternative model for human relations, she goes AWOL. At the point where the fate of children in a marriage-less world comes up, Greer resorts to an evasion: “To begin with, the problem of the survival of humanity”—and who brought that up?—”is not a matter of ensuring the birth of future generations but of limiting it.” This is merely instructing women about what they ought to want and what they ought to think.

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Her big evasion comes when she addresses that bugbear, women’s (people’s) yearning for security. To wives nervous about what will become of them and their families if society is disrupted wholesale, she replies: “There is no such thing as security. … Husbands die, pensions are inadequate, children grow up and go away and mothers become mothers-in-law …” Sorry, what she’s proved here is that there’s no such thing as absolute security, which is a different point not just in degree but in kind. People—especially disadvantaged people—are intelligent enough to play the percentages. “Many a housewife staring at the back of her husband’s newspaper, or listening to his breathing in bed is lonelier than any spinster in a rented room.” Well, yeah, but again Greer ignores the question of likelihoods and percentages. Greer’s point is true only in the sense that, for a person who slips in the shower, Ivory soap wreaks more destruction than the Wehrmacht. Most spinsters (to use her word) are lonelier than most wives. Greer’s beloved Strindberg made this point repeatedly about men, too.

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So, here’s one of those paradoxes Katha was talking about. On the one hand, Greer’s vision, in its no-stone-unturned totalism, is more frightening to the power structure than NOW’s. One might even accuse Betty Friedan, as Greer does, of merely seeking “free admission to the world of the ulcer and the coronary.” On the other hand, Greer’s vision, while exciting enough to change minds, is too vague to change power relations. She is attacking a system, but she is a poor systematizer. “It is not true that to have a revolution you need a revolutionary theory,” Greer says. But she’s wrong. The man of 1965 who sought stubbornly to continue to inhabit his man’s world has had considerably more to fear from Betty Friedan over the past decades than from Germaine Greer.

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Whether men now have too much power and control, or too little, or just the right amount, is beyond my powers to figure out. At the risk of going over territory that has been argued to exhaustion in feminist circles, I’d like to ask how Greer fits into a particular logistical difficulty feminism has that other revolutionary ideologies do not. In the French Revolution (at least after 1793), it was unnecessary to ask what would become of royalty; in the Marxist model, workers do not envision “living with” capitalists under the new dispensation. Unlike them, feminism cannot simply remove its oppressors but must reach a negotiated equilibrium with them. Separation is not an option, as Greer makes plain:

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An all-female commune is in no way different from the medieval convents where women who revolted against their social and biological roles could find intellectual and moral fulfilment, from which they exerted no pressure on the status quo at all. … Lesbianism and masturbation as alternatives to integration do not weaken the force of the convent parallel significantly.

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So, the alternative, at least in Greer’s mind, is to stand and fight.. She doesn’t quail—at least rhetorically—from the prospect of all-out warfare. (“The battle is universal and deadly serious unlike the isolated skirmishes of the women’s liberation movements with the male establishment.”) But since that battle can’t be waged without threatening the ability of the sexes to live together, there will always be a strong temptation to cut the other sex more slack than it, strictly speaking, deserves. It’s a good thing on the whole, but Greer would not see it as such. Greer thinks husbands do this with their wives’ achievements, citing the woman “who gave up her Stradivarius to make a good wife to her husband, to whom everybody is too polite to point out that she would have made a lousy violinist anyway.” And I wonder if some of Greer’s misogyny—to call it by its name—isn’t just a masochistic infliction on her own sex of grievances that are more properly addressed to the other. That is, I wonder if she’s not being a bit hard on her subjects (starting with the little lady with the Stradivarius).

I regret we haven’t talked more about the central role of sex in all this, especially since it’s an open question whether Greer’s feminist vision is workable at all for women who are poorer, plainer, or less educated than Germaine Greer. But maybe we can do that tomorrow.

Best to you both,
Chris

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