The Female Eunuch
Dear Judith, Dear Chris,
You are both quite right to note the buried—well hardly, let's say three-feet-under and not at all embalmed—autobiography in The Female Eunuch. Her ma just didn't do anything right: She sent her to an expensive private Catholic girls' school, for example, and then made young Germaine feel guilty about the money it cost. There are days when I wonder why any woman has children, when it is so very likely those kids will be lying on a psychiatrist's couch one day, if not penning a best seller, reshaping all Mom's mistakes, doubts, confusion, mixed motives, inattentions or over-attentions into monstrous acts of intentional sadism. I am quite sure that if Mrs. Greer had sent her brilliant daughter to the local public school we would be hearing about her eagerness to thwart Germaine's gifts and consign her to the typing pool. Greer's own child-raising ideas are pretty unrealistic—she writes that she wants to buy a farmhouse in Italy and have a commune with likeminded friends who were also mothers—the fathers would "visit the house as often as they could, to rest and enjoy the children [!] and even work a bit." How nice for those lucky fellows, "resting" (from what herculean labors we are not told) while the moms do all. Well, not quite all: "[T]he house and garden would be worked by a local family who lived in the house."
And yet, Greer rightly points out that this rich-hippie fantasy is no stranger than "normal" child-raising practices, in which an isolated woman focuses, in solitude, 24/seven on her child. One of the things I like about The Female Eunuch is the way Greer depicts ordinary practices and conventions in ways that make us see how awful they are. She is very good on suppressed rage—wives who sit dressed up in the pub with no one to talk to and nothing to say while their husbands yammer on about sports—the end result of courtships that begin with a teen-age girl giving up her own friends and interests for a teen-age boy who may put her on a pedestal for a while but whose real life—whose real love—is his "mates." This, she suggests, is what "romance" produces—too much loss of self for women, too much disconnection of sex from the rest of life for men. I have to say that as a veteran romantic this rang very true for me. Judith speaks of the welter of awful '70s ideas that pervade the book, but it's not like the conventional ways work out so well! But if you run into trouble doing what's expected, people sympathize with you, while if you try something else and flop everyone says, "You see?"
As you both suggest, Germaine Greer belongs to the individualist wing of feminism—she isn't interested in using politics or collective activism to achieve general legal or social changes for women; in fact she's rather skeptical of that approach, since in her view women are so supine (or were when she wrote) they don't even avail themselves of the opportunities they already possess. She seems to think the key is for women to just stop being wimps—kick off those high heels, hit your boyfriend back, work as a temp instead of as a loyal slave to a male boss, figure out a new way to live, and if you can do it in an Italian farmhouse instead of a suburban Colonial, so much the better for you. Both these aspects of feminism are necessary—the social and the individual, the personal and the political are entwined in complicated and contradictory ways. I would say that both kinds of feminism are experiencing mixed fortunes today, and for the same reason: The underlying structure of gender relations has not changed enough. Men (to put it primitively) still have too much power and too much control, and for all sorts of reasons, including the ones Greer talks about, women put up with it or manipulate it to their own advantage or call it something else—love, for example, or Christianity or "the children." Today, for instance, motherhood is the explanation for all the supermeniality that used to be frankly attributed to marriage.
What's interesting, too, is the way that both feminist approaches struggle with continual co-optations. Thus, political feminism tends to pursue a minimalist agenda—abortion rights, anti-discrimination, anti-violence, the election of more feminist women to public office—within the framework of party politics: It wins a few, it loses a few, the years go by, and soon we're all dead. The individualist wing, which Jennifer Baumgartner in her introduction connects to Greer, focuses on pop culture, fashion statements (Hello Kitty backpacks?), sex—all in the context of a consumerism loaded with many, many layers of irony. It's as if, having made a massive shift in the early '70s, society has settled in to a new gender order—officially egalitarian but, in reality, mostly not. It's too bad Greer has turned into such a nut. I'd really like to know how she would extend her analysis to the present day, when it is certainly not possible to maintain that women don't want interesting work, prefer male physicians, and see their aim in life as sitting on the sidelines hating their man for having a good time.
Over to you two,
Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.