The Female Eunuch

What Does The Female Eunuch Say to Us Now?
New books dissected over email.
March 5 2002 2:57 PM

The Female Eunuch

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The Female Eunuch—first published in Britain in the 1970s, in the United States the following year, and quickly in more than a dozen languages around the globe—was an international sensation, and it's not hard to see why. It's erudite, funny, outrageous, contradictory, bold, and superconfident, and its author, Germaine Greer, was a major diva—tall, beautiful, young, photogenic, witty, commanding, outspoken, and Australian, which read as exotic, except in Australia, of course. More important, it combined the idea of women's liberation with that of sexual liberation—heterosexual sexual liberation, that is. This was a terrifying thought for many people of both sexes (most famously Norman Mailer, who championed old-fashioned, man-on-top sexism as the only alternative to a forest of wilted erections against Greer and other feminists in an uproarious "debate" at Town Hall in New York City), but it also offered visions of exciting new possibilities not just for women but for men as well. (This was in the days when mass culture had not yet decided whether feminists were lesbians or sluts.) It's not for nothing that Life magazine called Greer the "saucy feminist that even men like." Greer was hardly the first or only woman to connect the two revolutions—sexual freedom has always been a major theme in feminism, although you wouldn't always know it today—but she put them together in a particularly stirring way. Even 30 years later, The Female Eunuch sparkles with irrepressible, champagne-bubble optimism: All we need to do is clear away the old rubbishy assumptions about romance and marriage and family and sex, and all kinds of wonderful possibilities lie before us that we can't even imagine yet. Greer quotes Blake a lot, and you can see why: For her, as for him, Nobodaddy is the enemy, and energy is eternal delight.

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Or perhaps, in the case of Greer, Nobomommy would be more accurate. The historian Christine Stansell usefully distinguishes between two kinds of feminist: There are the ones like Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir, who focus on the way society has deformed women so that they really match the sexist stereotype of women as vain, immoral, weak, and foolish and must reform themselves as the first step to liberation; and then there are the ones like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan Faludi, who see women as already fine and upstanding and strong and even heroic, only needing society to stop squelching them and let them rip. As even the title of her book suggests, Greer is of the former type. With very rare exceptions, women for her are female eunuchs—castrated at puberty if not before, not just sexually but intellectually, politically, emotionally, and morally—dutiful but uninspired students, unambitious workers who accept demeaning, boring, underpaid handmaid-type jobs, passive and masochistic lovers, little-brown-hen "supermenials" to their husbands, and emotional tyrants to their children under the cover of noble self-sacrifice. "The characteristics that are praised and rewarded are those of the castrate—timidity, plumpness"—those were the days! —"languor, delicacy and preciosity" (Page 17). Greer stresses women's responsibility for this deplorable state of affairs: Of l960s Britain, she writes, "the cage door had been opened but the canary had refused to fly out" (Page 14). "In admitting women to male-dominated areas of life, men have already shown a willingness to share responsibility, even if the invitation has not been taken up." Yeah, right. You would never know that at the time Greer is writing about, there were quotas on women in British and many American universities, in professional and graduate schools; that women were barred from many fields of employment; that abortion and in many places (Connecticut for example) contraception were illegal; that a whole legal, educational, economic, political, medical, and social system existed that was, to say the least, discouraging to women attempting to step out of the handmaid role—and yet some did! You do not get the feeling that Greer likes or admires women much—this is where she connects with "anti-feminist feminists" like Camille Paglia—and this somewhat free-floating hostility extends particularly to other feminists. One of Greer's less attractive features was the extent to which she failed to acknowledge her debt to the women's movement, then went out of her way to attack it on small and sometimes ridiculous points. For example, she opposed the end of sex-segregated want ads, an early win for the National Organization for Women, on the grounds that this was a wimpy reform that would only encourage women to waste time applying for jobs they could never get. That bubbly optimism can turn sour in an instant when the need to be the most contrarian person in the room takes over. You can catch glimpses in these pages of the Germaine Greer who would go on to praise Third World sexual and gender arrangements, advise women to give up sex at menopause, and portray female genital mutilation as no big deal.

Thirty years is a long time, and many of the social arrangements Greer described have changed considerably—even in Britain, which was always more sexist than the United States—whether you look at sex or women at work or divorce rates. Last night, for example, my daughter, who is in the ninth grade, said half the kids at her school were bisexual. (Gay liberation is one of the big stories Greer missed—the numerous references to "faggots" have not aged well.) True or not, that's not a sentence a 14-year-old girl was likely to utter in the supposedly swinging '60s, even in Sodom on the Hudson. And yet a sexually active girl who doesn't abide by the conventions of romantic love is a "ho" while her boy equivalent is a "player."

So, Judith and Chris, do you think The Female Eunuch has important things to say to women and men in 2002? Do you see yourselves and your lives in its pages at all?

Curiously,
Katha

Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.