Spring 2015

The Meaningful Disappearance of Germaine Greer

The contributions and contradictions of a feminist icon

Carmen Winant

One great thing about the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was its ability to make a scene. Take the unforgettable “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” a panel that took place in New York City in 1971 in which four female delegates were tapped to speak in a discussion moderated by Norman Mailer, who had just published the decidedly un-feminist The Prisoner of Sex. Billed as a dialogue, the result—documented in filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall—more closely resembled a riot. The teeming crowd became unruly even before the event had started, with one heckler yelling out above the din, “Women’s lib betrays the poor! Norman Mailer betrays the poor!” The audience, which included Betty Friedan and a soft-spoken Susan Sontag, came to hear about the burgeoning revolution. They came to see Mailer publicly attack, and be attacked by, the women’s libbers about the politics of sex. But most of all, they came to see Germaine Greer. 

Above and below: The multifaceted Germaine Greer. Studio collages by Carmen Winant, 2015.

She was something to be seen: clad in a black fur jacket and a glamorous floor-length sleeveless dress, the thirty-two-year-old Greer was six feet tall, angular verging on bony, and in possession of a thick crown of frizzed-out black hair. Her style on stage was less performance than poised seduction. Despite her languid manner, which noticeably awed the other panelists, Greer’s responses to both Mailer and the audience were so razor sharp it’s hard to believe they were delivered extempore. At one point, Greer chastens a man who inquires what he might expect of sex in the feminist age, what women are “asking for,” by responding without hesitation (and more than a little unkindly), “You might as well relax. Whatever it is they’re asking for, honey, it’s not for you.” Unabashed and wildly charismatic, Greer was the most important feminist in the world. Today, few remember her name.

Greer was born in January 1939 in Melbourne, during a record heat wave (it averaged 110 degrees Fahrenheit the week she was delivered) and in the wake of the Black Friday Fires, which burned nearly five million acres of Australian bush. She grew up in the suburbs, went to private Roman Catholic schools, and, by all accounts, was exceptionally smart. According to her rambling but occasionally moving 1990 book Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, Greer’s World War II veteran father was an anxiety-riddled wreck who was abusive toward her mother and distant around his children. The book also alludes to abuse suffered at the hands of her mother, later described as a “terrorizing force” by Greer biographer Christine Wallace. By 1954, Greer was sixteen, five feet eleven, and having a love affair with a female classmate. By age seventeen, she was enrolled in the University of Melbourne, possessing—again, according to Wallace—an “intellectual arrogance” and a tendency to be bullying in arguments. She started wearing long gowns, took up acting, dated a philosophy professor whom she would later describe as her most important romantic partner, and studied Lord Byron. By age twenty, she was a self-made, self-described anarchist communist.

It wasn’t until moving to Cambridge, England, in 1964 to pursue her PhD in Elizabethan drama that Greer uncovered her real revolutionary ambitions and began to court public notice. Greer’s various pursuits included acting on stage, where she went by the name Rose Blight; cohosting, along with the DJ Kenny Everett, the comedy television series Nice Time; penning satirical garden columns under the pseudonym Dr. G.; playing the sex-kittenish lead in a short film called Darling, Do You Love Me?, and cofounding the radical pro-pornography magazine Suck. (Greer herself appeared nude in its pages, as well as in Oz, another underground periodical based in London; a few photos, more slapstick than smutty, still live on online.) She married a construction worker and divorced three weeks later. Presumably influenced by the New York Radical Women’s protest at the Miss America Pageant around the same time, she called bras “a ludicrous invention” and spoke openly against monogamy; to the then thirty-year-old Greer, both were conditions of a deeply socialized patriarchy that desperately needed upending. Everyone who knew her reported that she was funny, exceedingly quick, and vulgar, using phrases like “cunt-lapping,” “motherfucking,” and “cocksucking” while making discursive arguments about sexual power. (She would be arrested in 1972 for using similar language during a talk in New Zealand.) Greer was wildly unapologetic about her opinions, her manner of speaking, and her commanding body. She had, to paraphrase Mailer, the gift of impossible presence.

The Female Eunuch, Greer’s first book and the central node of her career, came out in 1970. It was a sensation, selling out its print run in a matter of months and establishing Greer as a leading mind in women’s liberation and an international intellectual celebrity. More than other books that came out around its time, including Kate Millet’s 1969 text Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, also published in 1970, Eunuch was written to be read by women who were not intellectuals, and existed outside of the movement. According to Greer, feminism was, and had to be, for everyone. This was a book written to women and not just for women. Divided into cogent sections called “Gender,” “Curves,” “Hair,” “Sex,” and “The Wicked Womb,” it described the ways in which sexism was institutionalized in every woman’s life, from hair products to housewifery. Even when Greer’s ideas themselves were risky or rarefied, her colloquial, often-vulgar style of writing helped her to connect with common women. The book’s most often quoted line gives a good sense: “If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood—if it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go.”

The strategy worked. Eunuch had tremendous reach, selling out its first two runs and eventually being translated into eleven languages. The book was discussed on late-night talk shows and in middle-class living rooms. It has never gone out of print. Gloria Steinem and Letty Pogrebin founded Ms. magazine the year after its release; following Greer’s lead, feminist activists were finding a way to popularize and disseminate their message into the mainstream.

While it touched on issues from consumerism to menstruation, Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives. “What many women mistake for happiness is in fact resignation,” Greer told an Australian reporter the year Eunuch was published. More importantly, she made the case that this deeply inculcated sexism was the product not of fear but hostility. It was a loaded idea that would inform feminist, and eventually queer, theoretical discourse to come. In a now famous, blunt line from the book, she wrote, “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.” This societal structure, according to Greer‘s text, repressed women sexually and severed them from their libidos—hence the title of the book, a premise initially derived from a 
chapter of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul 
on Ice entitled “Allegory of the Black Eunuch.” Divorced from their sexuality, women were not self-
empowered, but rather submissive, demeaned, and, in some cases, enslaved. Lacking agency of their own, they had come not only to be hated by men but by themselves. “Out of her own and her man’s imagination,” Greer wrote, “she will continue to apologize and disguise her ... crippled and fearful self.” This idea, that power was tethered not only to making money and asserting physical dominance but ownership over one’s sexual desires, was novel. Just seven years prior in her book The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan had written of the malaise of the American housewife as “the problem that has no name.” The Female Eunuch, as a title and an idea, claimed just the opposite. Greer’s words cut like a precise blade; reading them one recalls just why the sexual revolution was called a war.

It was a daring thesis for a daring time, and Greer met praise and backlash in equal measure. Both responses prompted her to become the public face of women’s liberation, a position she took on with gusto. Greer travelled around the world being photographed, giving lectures, granting interviews, and engaging in debates. Unlike other feminist radicals such as Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan, Susan Brownmiller, Sheila Jeffreys, or Mary Daly, she was fast becoming a household name, intent on delivering her message through literary and pop channels alike. Greer’s contemporary Gloria Steinem was perhaps the only other figure in the movement to become a public personality, appearing on the covers of Newsweek in 1971, McCall’s in 1972, and People in 1974. Greer undoubtedly courted media attention; to what extent she did so because she felt it necessary to act as the ambassador of her cause, as opposed to simply desiring personal fame in its own right, remains unclear. 

Several months after her book was published, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation created a short documentary about Greer on her return trip to Melbourne, which was nationally televised. In a particularly powerful scene, a group of local teenage schoolgirls describe how the book helped refashion their sense of self-worth. One pig-tailed girl states, “They are conditioning us to take the place of an average housewife.” It is Greer’s text, she reports, that has opened her eyes to society’s attempts to “brainwash” her into submission. Greer herself is interviewed for the film while leaning against a brick wall and smoking a cigarette. Coolly self-assured, she appears custom-built to lead a modern women’s revolution.

The following year, in 1971, Greer was featured on the cover of Life magazine reclining on a park bench under the imprudent title, “Saucy Feminist That Even Men Like.” (One reader smartly wrote in to the editor, “Now that you are taking oppressed people so seriously, I am looking forward to the companion article: ‘Saucy Black Militants That Even Whites Like.’”) The magazine—which pictured Greer yelling at a protest; laughing at a party as she sits on the floor with a long-haired young man, their limbs entwined; carrying a bundle of branches in the countryside—attempted to create a holistic, if whitewashed, portrait of the young, pioneering feminist. With the exception of Greer’s statement that “women should never marry,” the article was tame; consider by comparison the titles of her pieces “I Am a Whore” and “Welcome to the Shit-Storm,” contributed to Suck and Oz magazines, respectively, the same year. Within a few months’ time, Greer was interviewed by Playboy and wrote a story for Harper’s about George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee. Her name appeared much larger than her subject’s on the cover. 

In a 1973 debate on the resolution “This House supports the Women’s Liberation Movement” at her alma mater, Cambridge University, Greer took on the American conservative William F. Buckley. In contrast to the language in her book, the debate was highly intellectual in tone—“I am not talking to this audience as I would talk to those of my sisters who are working in factories,” Greer acknowledged—reminding her contemporaries that she was not just a radical, but a radical with a PhD. She triumphed so decisively that Buckley wrote in his 1989 memoir Firing Line: “[Greer] trounced [me]. ... Nothing I said, and memory reproaches me for having performed miserably, made any impression or any dent in the argument. She carried the house overwhelmingly.” From a man who made a career of debating, facing off against public intellectuals with progressive values such as Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and James Baldwin at the same Cambridge dais, among others, the defeat is telling.

During this time, Greer is said to have had trysts with Warren Beatty, Federico Fellini, Martin Amis, and, of all people, her regular sparring partner Norman Mailer. She was popular in every sense of the word. Described by her biographer as having “the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy” to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation. In her wake, more and more women were self-identifying as feminists and organizing consciousness-raising groups within their local communities. The revolution was finally being substantiated through the kind of collective ownership she had so vehemently fought for. And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant.

Some probably saw it coming. For one thing, Eunuch had its problems. It did not propose concrete solutions to the questions it raised, prompting frustration within the ranks. Greer never mentioned abortion or reproductive rights in the text, failing to anticipate what many would claim as the critical feminist issue of the next four decades: Roe v. Wade would be written into law just four years after Eunuch was published. As with most second-wave leaders, Greer spoke to gender alone as a source of oppression for women, failing to acknowledge how poor or non-white women might be oppressed by other forms of socialized patriarchy. And, despite her early and progressive views on gay rights, Greer was, and continues to be, largely transphobic. In Eunuch, for instance, she alludes to the story of a man who wants to become a woman, understanding the impulse as identification with, and craving for, feminine subjugation. This attitude persisted most notably in Greer’s 1999 book The Whole Woman, in which, in a chapter entitled “Pantomime Dames,” she chastised society’s acceptance of male-to-female transsexuals, writing, “The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.”

Other controversial views in Eunuch included Greer’s propositions that families raise their children communally, that testosterone “is a rare poison,” and that even “the most basic assumptions about feminine normality” should be banished. It is likely that Greer was being deliberately inflammatory; the movement needed impropriety and even fury. But these provocations, no matter how strategic, don’t always sit well. Phrases such as “female faggots” and “professional nigger,” which make their way into the text at various points, feel misguided and derogatory. Ultimately, this kind of prodding radicalism, which had initially propelled Greer into the limelight, was her popular undoing. By the early 1980s, Eunuch came to be viewed as largely hyperbolic and out of date. 

Greer was, in some important ways, always out of step with herself and her party. She chastised women who allowed men to define their image, but posed nude herself in the pages of sex-positive magazines. She plucked her eyebrows to oblivion despite calling upon women not to spend worthwhile energy “keeping themselves pretty [as it] reflects a dissatisfaction with the body as it is,” and generally self-presented as a sex icon. (Her sexiness was, undoubtedly, part of her charismatic appeal.) Greer supposedly had an affair with Norman Mailer, who was notoriously anti-contraception, anti-abortion, homophobic, and, according to many, anti-feminist; nicknamed “a male chauvinist pig” by the writer Kate Millett, was he not in some sense the very man that Greer was talking about when she wrote that “men hate women”? And, despite her loathing of publicity outside of her control—Greer does not grant interviews under any circumstances and described her unauthorized biographer as “flesh eating bacteria” (what she would think of this piece I can only imagine)—in 2005, after having published twelve other books and taught in various universities, Greer appeared as a cast member on Australia’s edition of Big Brother, a lowbrow reality television show that constrains contestants to a house and films round the clock. If the personal is indeed political, as the second-wave feminists of her era championed, it’s hard to reconcile Greer’s decisions with her credo.

Most importantly, there are real philosophical contradictions within Greer’s own inveterate dogma. In her 1984 book Sex and Destiny, Greer—a woman who made the persuasive case that women had been alienated from their potential sexuality as a source of independence—suggested chastity as a desirable method of preventing unwanted births and “conserving energy.” In The Whole Woman, which even many of her devoted followers felt went too far, Greer critiqued, among other things, contraception (“Male interference with conception and birth”), medical screenings for cervical and breast cancer (“Many times more likely to destroy a woman’s peace of mind than it is to save her life”), abortion (“The masculine medical establishment and the masculine judiciary”), and Western efforts to counter female genital mutilation in Africa (“An attack on cultural identity”). For someone who indirectly helped pave the way for these advances in women’s heath—reproductive, sexual, and otherwise—it’s a series of confounding postures that ultimately prompt one to wonder if Greer has always been more interested in provocation than solidarity.

More than anyone else in the feminist leadership, Greer was, and is, rife with contradictions. Unlike her peer Gloria Steinem—a figure that, like any good politician, was rarely inconsistent in her actions or rhetoric, and far outlasted her for this reason—Greer was highly unpredictable, behaving like a feminist who, as she herself put it, did “not represent any organization.” While Steinem founded the Ms. Foundation for Women, the Feminist Majority Foundation, National Women’s Political Caucus, Women’s Action Alliance, Choice USA, and the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Greer was a lone wolf. (She was a regular contributor to Oz and Suck, and would go on to found Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, but was never part of particularly influential or inclusive collectives.) It’s a position that allowed Greer to speak for herself but ultimately left her vulnerable to attack. Years later, this behavior would prompt Helen Lewis, the deputy editor at The New Statesman, to describe Greer as the movement’s “arsonist.” In other words, women’s liberation had needed the incendiary rhetoric of someone willing to burn things down—including, quite possibly, herself.

Though her fame began to seriously wane in the late 1970s, Greer has not entirely dropped out of sight—she remains a vaguely public intellectual. Greer has taught at various institutions, including the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, Newnham College, Cambridge, and Warwick University. She continues to write books that range in topic from menopause to aboriginal disenfranchisement to Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway. Her latest, White Beach, about rainforest reclamation, was published in 2014. Greer consistently pens articles for UK-based magazines and periodicals like the Guardian and the Sunday Times. “On Rage,” from 2008, was turned into a short book. She has written collections of poems and branched into art criticism. As a quasi-celebrity, Greer has appeared on numerous TV shows in addition to Big Brother, such as Extras (2006) and The Female of The Species (2006), decisions that recall the on-screen, performative pursuits that predated her writing.

No text or cultural shape-shift by Greer has come close to matching the influence and persuasion of Eunuch. That is a tall order; with the exception of the encyclopedic, collectively written Our Bodies, Ourselves, published in 1971, no other book of that decade took such an accurate reading of the cultural temperature. It’s not an extended slump; Greer’s scholarship and popular journalistic and critical pursuits have veered miles away from the contemporary zeitgeist that she once so perceptively had helped to form. “The Greer I was reading was so different from the one I remembered and liked,” wrote Margaret Talbot of The Whole Woman in a 2014 essay for The New Yorker. It’s a sentiment echoed by nearly every feminist of that generation. 

The possibility of rehabilitating Greer’s public image is not, at this point, interesting or even viable. What remains compelling about Greer is the question of what her irrelevancy reveals about the state of contemporary gender politics, or feminism as we know it. As with any party, who is pushed out the door is just as telling as who’s allowed in. If we understand Greer to be in the way, what exactly do we consider her to be in the way of? 

It’s a difficult question to approach, much less answer. As our female pop stars so readily demonstrate, contemporary feminism is a messy, complex, and often bewildering affair. Look no further than Katy Perry declaring herself not to be a feminist despite “believ[ing] in the strength of women” in a recent acceptance speech for Billboard’s Woman of the Year award, or Madonna notoriously electing to call herself a “humanist” instead of a feminist. Or think of Selena Gomez decrying fellow pop star Lorde for not being “very feminist” in attacking her lyrics as sexist and regressive: “That’s not feminism. [Lorde is] not supporting other women.” Gomez may have confused feminism for a sleepover party. In any case, it’s a confusing time to be a liberated woman.

Understood as a symptomatic clue, Greer’s marginal status points to some obvious features of today’s popular feminism: it champions women’s reproductive health as a central concern; is aligned with trans and gender self-identification rights; does not privilege sexual pleasure as much as sexual power, believing in a woman’s freedom to wield her sex and sexuality as a vehicle of authority and intervention. And, a few non-obvious ones: it is reluctant to embrace plucky leadership or stake potentially divisive positions within culture (the movement ultimately objected to Greer’s stances, yes, but also to her divisive radicalism itself). The closest thing to popular leadership we have at the moment might be Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook, whose ongoing campaign discourages the labeling of ambitious girls as “bossy.” It’s a virtuous cause, if a little safe and a lot elitist. The success of Sandberg’s “lean in” strategy demonstrates, if anything, that current feminists wish to co-occupy conditions that The Female Eunuch posits as fundamentally irreconcilable—to be both polite and liberated, at once. Is such a thing possible? Greer would likely argue not, and it’s hard to disagree.

Germaine Greer wasn’t right or wrong but both, and better: she was a productively destructive force, intent on razing male dominance. She embodied the profound contradictions of her time. Unlike some more cautious, prudent, and arguably effective second-wave feminists, she didn’t have a single cause and her actions and opinions often clashed. It has become fashionable to discredit Greer as the crazy aunt of women’s liberation, but this is not her due. The early 1970s needed a blunt, unapologetic radical unafraid to jolt the movement alive. (It was a time, let’s remember, in which women could not get a mortgage without a male cosigner.) Talbot, again writing in The New Yorker, confessed to missing “Greer’s swagger.” Coupled with her intelligence, it was, perhaps, the source of her potency. 

While Greer is undeniably at odds with the goals and rhetoric of today’s complex and often convoluted feminism, women’s liberation as we know it would not exist without her daring in the first place. As Helen Lewis wrote in tribute, “a softer, sweeter, more accommodating woman wouldn’t have written The Female Eunuch. Today’s feminists shouldn’t airbrush her legacy into something we find more palatable—particularly when the movement still so often demands that its pioneers also be saints.” We should resist discrediting Greer, who would have been unsuccessful if she hadn’t been defiant, flawed, abrasive, and, to use Lewis’s word, “un-sisterly.” Selena Gomez, take note. Greer was the catalyst. Let’s remember that as we rightfully tell her to get out of the way.

See press about “The Meaningful Disappearance of Germaine Greer” on Arts and Letters Daily and Sur.

Carmen Winant is an artist and writer. Currently a professor of visual theory and feminist art history at Columbus College of Art 
and Design, she is at work on an experimental book about the nature of practice.

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