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The Female Eunuch – 40 years later

2010 was the 40th anniversary of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch. I decided to use the occasion to re-read the book and write a post about my thoughts. That was in November. The problem is that when I had finished I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to say. In conjunction with the The Female Eunuch I also read An Untamed Shrew, Greer’s unauthorised biography written by Christine Wallace. And of course at the start of the year I read that Louis Nowra piece in The Monthly.

I’ve been perplexed about which approach to take when writing the piece. An encompassing history of what the book means to Australian women? An historical perspective? The book’s flaws? All of these approaches felt too wide, so I have decided to write about my own relationship with the book.

Early in 2010 I was having a conversation with a woman who has returned to study at university as a mature aged student. She told me that she was shocked to hear many of the young female students beginning their sentences with the term “I’m not a feminist, but…” and continuing on to debate a feminist issue. She was wondering why the women spoke like this distancing themselves from feminism. I realised that I was exactly the same when I was at university. In my youth my sense of feminism was narrow. I took my university education for granted and coupled feminism with whinging or bizarre, elaborate attention seeking. I realise that was mainly due to Germaine Greer and her portrayal in the Australian media. As a young girl who had only been fed their images, without the history behind them, it seemed to me that to be taken seriously intellectually I needed to distance myself from the hysteria and emotional argument that I thought feminism created.

My view on this has changed, bit by bit over the years to the point where I now refer to myself as a feminist. I realised this point while watching Andrew Denton’s Elder’s series, and his interview with Isabel Ellende.

It was this passage that I identified with:

ANDREW DENTON: You saw feminism evolve over the 60s and 70s. What do young women need to know about their history?

ISABEL ALLENDE: I think that young women today er don’t want to be called feminists because it’s not sexy and ah they think that their mothers and grandmothers have achieved everything they want. They don’t know how poor women live, how women in rural places live, how 80 percent of women in the world are the poorest of the poor, how still today there are 27 million slaves, most of them women and girls. Two thirds of the work in the world is done by women. Women own 1 percent of the assets. Young women are sold into prostitution, forced labour, premature marriage, forced to have children they don’t want or they can’t support. They’re abused, raped, beaten up. Domestic violence is supposed to be a cultural problem. They are the first victims of war, fundamentalism, conflict, recession. And young women today who have access to education and health care and have resources think that everything was done, they don’t have to worry. Well that makes me really angry. I feel that I have to shake them and say, “No, it’s your responsibility to make things happen.” The women’s revolution, the women’s movement was something extraordinary that changed a generation. It began the movement. We still have a lot to do.

I have always gravitated towards the word ‘responsibility’, when I donate to charities, when I give money to homeless people, when I volunteer. I consider it my ‘responsibility’ as someone who has a happy, safe and educated life.

But I wasn’t always this drawn to feminism. It was 2004 when I first read The Female Eunuch as part of a university class called ‘Reading Suburbia in Post-War Australia’ at the University of Melbourne. This was the same university that Greer had studied at, and indeed I was doing the same course, a fact I only learned when I read her biography in December. Was this a deliberate omission from my lecturer, or had he told us and I simply forgot, or deemed the fact irrelevant? The focus of reading the text was to analyse its treatment of suburbia and its effect on women. It was studied closely with Louis Esson’s work and Christina Stead’s The Man who Loved Children. As a text I had a general interest in it, and identified with some of the themes, but I was still young, still living at home, and I took the elements of the text that were useful to my essay, had a vague interest in the other parts, and then returned the text to my bookshelf not to be looked at again for another 5 years.

Over the course of those 5 years I have begun to appreciate my degree, and I appreciate it in light of the stories of my mother and grandmothers, in light of the stories of women in third world countries, some of whom I have had the chance to speak to about their lives. I have begun to realise that there are still so many battles to be won, and that I am in a fortunate position to fight these battles on behalf of women who can’t.

So it is with this new approach to feminism that I have that I read Louis Nowra’s article on Germaine Greer in The Monthly magazine in April. I was shocked, horrified and disgusted for a few reasons. The Monthly’s attitude to its demographic was one thing. Clearly the thought is that their readers are male and of a certain age. Secondly that it got the front cover when it is flanked either side by investigative reports from some of Australia’s premier journalists, Margaret Simons and Mandy Sayer. Both articles used thorough research, had an argument and both ran rings around Nowra’s ridiculous piece. In particular it was these tracts that got my blood boiling:

Now ‘ Brazillians’ are common among young women…And as for women opting out of their roles as principal consumers in the capitalist system, young women today love shopping more than ever…Perhaps it is Greer’s assertion that women should give up such “fripperies” as clothes, make up and cosmetic surgery that she most clearly reveals her misunderstanding of women’s desires and urge for self-fulfilment. Cosmetic surgery was a rare operation when Greer wrote her book but now it’s common and Botox injections are virtually a women’s rite of passage.

(Author Note: and no, I haven’t removed any statistics or research – there just wasn’t any in the original article.)

I spent weeks forming a letter to the editor in my head. Crafting, then re-crafting an argument, but I realised that The Monthly only published 2 letters a month – and a great deal of the time they are contributors, writing back about their piece, or someone who was featured in a piece arguing that they were unfairly treated. I realised that for all the time and effort that went into that it would be pointless. I decided to start a blog where I could put pieces up like this, and allow a public discourse around them (and yes, I do realise that I have not yet written the piece about Nowra, I guess this is it).

It took me a few months after that to get around to re-reading The Female Eunuch. I underlined sections that I thought I would comment on. I search for an approach, it’s relevance to now, it’s impact at the time. I realised that my own reading of it had changed, in particular I was searching for references to women in developing countries. And when I finished that reading, I picked up An Untamed Shrew, the biography. It was here that I learned more about Greer as a person behind the media facade. I also learned the history of the book, how Greer was commissioned to write it and she didn’t want to, and her early student and professional life and her behaviour differing from the feminist approach.

So at the end of the biography I was in a bind. I was confused about what I thought. I had been searching for a clear approach, a clear argument and I realised that that can never be the case with Greer. She is complex and at times seems to have a personality of binary opposites. The same can be said of feminism. While some people argue for one clear path the reality can never be that clear cut. It doesn’t make for a great argumentative piece, but after 40 years some of us are still reading it.

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5 comments on “The Female Eunuch – 40 years later

  1. shawjonathan
    March 22, 2011

    Thanks for an excellent post, Melissa. I’m a man of a certain age I haven’t actually read tThe Female Eunuch, but I’ve been profoundly affected by it all the same. When it was published, my girlfriend bought it immediately, and read long passages of it to me. I gave a copy to my mother for Christmas. She commented, ‘You don’t go on in publich about how you feel about brushing your teeth. Why should you do it about all that?’ This may be the book she burned and later regretted, because it would have stopped my sisters-in-law from giving their money to the publisher if she could have lent them her copy. If the new editor of the Monthly at the time had had any sense, he would have rejected Louis Nowra’s essay. As it is, I can only think he published it with a callow intention of generatoing controversy. (I hope he was quietly taken aside by Robert Manne and Morry Schwartz, who had axed the excellent Sally Warhaft not long before.)

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  2. Pingback: The men who read The Man who Loved Children | Me fail? I fly!

  3. whisperinggums
    March 8, 2012

    I think I read this when you posted it Melissa but didn’t comment, because I didn’t know what I wanted to say! Greer is a fascinating person and seems contradictory though I suspect that underneath it are the same principles about self, about the need to be true to self without letting the trappings of society overtake that. But, I haven’t read all of her work and certainly not really her recent work to see if this stacks up. It might just be my wishful thinking.

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    • Melissa Watts
      March 8, 2012

      I agree, she is a facinating person, and unique in terms of being such a well-known Australian intellectual still (particularly globally).

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