The Female Eunuch Turns 40

If the most successful feminine parasites do not find [The Female Eunuch] offensive, then it is innocuous.

— Germaine Greer, The Female Eunuch, 1970

Explosive texts tend to get less combustible with time.  Calm returns and with it, a degree of disillusionment.  What started as unmentionable at first instance becomes palatable and benign.  Enraged revolutionaries put down their guns and take up official, often dull positions, wondering if things might have genuinely changed.  So, what of Germaine Greer’s feminist spectacular, The Female Eunuch, which turns forty in shops this year?

When it came out, its propositions shook the establishment and dazzled readers.  Sex had to be saved from such institutional shackles as monogamy and the enervating nuclear family.  ‘If marriage and family depend upon the castration of women let them change or disappear.’  Women had to embrace their humanity in holding out ‘not just for orgasm but for ecstasy.’  Making sex thrive in what Arnold Bennett described as the awful ‘dailiness’ of marriage has been the perennial challenge.

Others can’t forgive Greer for being an astonishing publicity machine, one who steps into the limelight with repetitive predictability.  Particularly jarring was that tasteless but lucrative stint in Celebrity Big Brother, a brief venture that netted her both income and the usual write-ups.  ‘Snapped on the set, she looks like a befuddled and exhausted old woman,’ wrote the dismissive playwright Louis Nowra in the Australian magazine, The Monthly.  From being an unsettling, moving provocateur, Greer had become ‘pathetic’, lounging about ‘a cheap, often-degrading reality TV show.’  Yet those who condemn Greer for such acts surely never understood her ability to farm publicity and nurture it for her own ends.  Polemics and play matter above all else.

Nowra’s swipe at Greer is most damning on the issue of women, that most touchy of subjects. And if there is a touchy subject, it is women writing on women, a task that often ends up as a cannibalistic enterprise.  Just as war should not be left to generals, Nowra seems to wonder whether Greer should ever have been allowed to be let loose on members of her own sex.  Certainly, she should have been prohibited from deeming them ‘castrated’ like eunuchs.  The proposition enraged an Australian writer Helen Razer in Crikey (Mar 8): ‘Greer attracts violent spittle of th[is] type not because she is a polemicist, but because she has a cunt.’  But cunt talk is itself dangerous.  The line between a vibrant, reflexive feminism, and one that passes into the infirmary, as Camille Paglia so colourfully put it, is a fine one indeed.

The character portrait of Woman, then, is vicious, animated by that ‘demon-figure of the mother’.  In The Female Eunuch, we find insecure women, their libido suppressed, their tendencies vicious and destructive.  She is on the hunt for the ‘feminine parasites’ lurking within the body of freedom.  They were as much the subject of extermination as the most patriarchal of men.  Observations by Greer about successful women are given short shrift by Nowra.

Nowra is not alone in this attack.  We need merely go to an issue of the International Socialist Review in the summer of 1971, featuring an assessment by an unimpressed Evelyn Reed.  For Reed, the patriarchy was left swooning at The Female Eunuch, but left reeling from the assault by Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, out at the end of the 1960s.  Millett was the militant feminist foot soldier, while Greer was a mere poseur in ideological drag, ‘catering’ to men as a feminist Life Magazine described as ‘saucy’.  ‘Greer,’ wrote Reed, ‘is a model for those men who want more sex and less politics from women writers in the feminist movement.’  Sally Kempton of the New York Radical Feminists, writing in the New York Times Book Review (Apr 25, 1971), found Greer’s work brilliantly scripted but speculative, a ‘polemic which is almost completely devoid of policy proposals for the feminist movement.’  The cannibals were already getting their cutlery ready.

BINOY KAMPMARK currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

 

WORDS THAT STICK

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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