Germaine Greer: Liberal, not Liberated


Clip Job: an excerpt every day from the Voice archives.
June 3, 1971, Vol. XVI, No. 22

Germaine Greer is a liberal woman
By Minda Bikman

Last August 26, after 50,000 women marched down Fifth Avenue, a panel of feminists gathered in the studios of Channel 13 for a televised discussion on the future of women’s liberation. In the midst of a lively debate, Frances Beal of the Third World Women’s Alliance sounded a warning. “Don’t let the media organize your movement,” she said. “They will only distort it. That’s a mistake we made in the civil rights movement.”

Nearly a year later, after the professionals had predicted that women’s liberation was a passing fad, the movement has garnered hundreds of pages and thousands of words in the nation’s slickest magazines and produced a plethora of books. Now Germaine Greer has arrived from England with “The Female Eunuch.”

She’s debated Norman Mailer, her photo was on the front page of the Post and Life, and her book has been touted in half-page ads in the New York Times. Widely reviewed, it has been proclaimed by many to be perhaps the best book on feminism — which it isn’t.

To her credit, Greer is an angry woman. Born in Australia, she was beaten by her mother and taught to distrust sex by the nuns in the private Catholic schools she attended as a child and adolescent. Not able to understand why women seem to have accepted their secondary and debilitating status, she turns her anger toward them, and only occasionally hurls her barbs at the men in her life who have also hurt her. She is a neophyte, with good feminist instincts. Lacking a feminist politic, she turns to a desultory leftist rationale for her answers.

Ideas are mental constructs, distilled from one’s observations and experiences. If they are good, they will strike responsive chords and shed insight into the condition they seek to describe. Theoreticians can stake out the new terrain, and popularizers will communicate it to a vaster audience. Greer, who is not a member of any of the English feminist groups, does have a role to play. She has made feminism palatable, especially to a hostile male press. But throughout her book, she too often exhibits a lack of understanding of the complex forces which have created separate and disparate psychologies and social roles for women and men.

“Working-class wives,” she writes, “manage to ration their husband’s recreation severely, apportioning the money for it after they have taken the pay packet out of the old man’s pocket when he has finally arrived home on pay-night. One of the few acts of defiance against the welfare state is the refusal of security which gambling represents and this form of release is most severely opposed by wives, who are acting out their parts in anchoring their men in the system.” (Emphasis mine.) One could infer from her statement that, if only the men could gamble, they would release their energy and bring down the state. That small-time gambling opiates the poor into fantasies of easy riches and an elegant escape from their grinding poverty is evidenced in the flourishing numbers game here, whose only beneficiaries are the operators. That the working-class wives might desperately need the money to feed their children is not even considered.

Greer is quite right in assuming that a great deal of our oppression is based on sexual politics. What she fails to investigate are the psychological strictures which have, until the present, prevented women from rebelling. We have all been brutalized by the double standard, taunted and tantalized with the image of the prostitute to keep us in line, especially if we grew into adolescence during the repressive ’50s.

Marilyn Monroe, exploited by the male schizophrenia which dichotomized sec into naughty and conventional, was a symbol of the decade. The flighty blonde in the skin-tight evening sheath, her bosom spilling over the top of her strapless dresses, she was the best in her class. Unwittingly using great comic skills, she was the woman who rejected the housewife role only to act out an even more insidious stereotype — the voluptuous “sex bomb.” Ten years and a suicide later, Esquire magazine would award her the posthumous title of “most neurotic woman of the year.”

…In her next-to-last chapter, Greer airily dismisses the American feminist movement as being merely “rebellious.” She has since recanted, claiming she hadn’t realized the degree of sophistication in the American movement. It was there from the earliest beginnings, present in the writings she disparagingly quotes, for it is that systematic and rigorous analysis which has given and continues to give the movement its strength. Those early contributors have provided the basis for an increasingly more radical appraisal of the everyday reality of women’s lives. The radical feminist movement is still primarily organized in small groups, and the level of thought in these groups, largely unrecorded, is far more sophisticated than Greer’s book, which fails because it haphazardly describes but cannot get to the root of the problem.

“Revolution,” her final chapter, is also her weakest. In positing her own ideas of revolution, she too frequently sounds like a columnist for a fashion magazine, dispensing hip advice. In failing to brush up on her history, she has overlooked a very basic principle — revolution cannot be separated from rebellion, a revolution is only that rebellion which has succeeded. The privileges Greer and the rest of us enjoy, however scanty they might be, were won for us by our feminist grandmothers from a society even more truculent than the one we have now.

Germaine Greer is a liberal woman but she is not a liberated woman. None of us are liberated. Yet.

[Each weekday morning, we post an excerpt from another issue of the Voice, going in order from our oldest archives. Visit our Clip Job archive page to see excerpts back to 1956.]