The Female Eunuch 30 years on

Issue 

Picture

The Female Eunuch 30 years on

BY MARY MERKENICH

The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer was first published in 1970. They were turbulent times. Many mores, laws and beliefs were being challenged and the mass movements for black rights, civil rights and women's rights, and against the Vietnam War, had begun to change the face of Western society.

Betty Friedan's 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique, had given voice to the disquiet and unhappiness felt by women in the West in the 1950s. It was an overnight best seller. In mid-1966, the National Organisation for Women (NOW) was set up in the US, with Friedan as its president.

In 1968, women's liberation groups, breakaways from the male-dominated student movement, began to appear around the US challenging the sexism in the progressive movements. In New York, in February 1968, NOW demonstrated for the repeal of abortion laws. The abortion campaign grew with the formation of feminist groups and began to emphasise women's right to choose (rather than law reforms which did not give women control over their bodies).

In July 1968, women's liberation groups demonstrated at the Miss America beauty contest in Atlantic City and on Mother's Day 1969, the movement demonstrated outside the White House for "Rights, not roses".

In May 1969, Canada legalised abortion and homosexuality, and in July, the National Coalition of American Nuns was formed to support the civil rights and anti-war movements and to press for equality within the Catholic Church. Also that year, Kate Millet's ground-breaking book Sexual Politics became a best seller.

In Australia too, the '60s social rebellion began to challenge the hegemony of the church and conservative forces, which became increasingly nervous about the changes occurring in marriage and family life, the emergence of "juvenile delinquency" and the decay of moral standards (as they saw it).

By the late 1960s, the notion of assimilation of migrants was being questioned, the movement for Aboriginal Australians' rights was stronger than it had ever been, the movement against Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War movement had begun, and the women's liberation movement was taking off.

The generalised youth radicalisation challenged not only sexual roles, but also monogamy, marriage and the family. Some believed that the road to emancipation was to be found in alternative lifestyles and began to experiment with communes, small communities of like-minded individuals, shared households, defacto relationships and other alternative forms. Materialism, private property, consumerism and middle-class values were out. Fuzzy ideals of peace, freedom, love and a better world were in.

Sexual liberation

This was the backdrop for The Female Eunuch. Greer had been involved with progressive Australian and British intellectuals who espoused sexual liberation. Consequently, much of Greer's understanding of and solution to women's oppression had to do with sexual relations between men and women.

The book had a big impact on many women and men, and generated a lot of debate and media attention. It was criticised from both outside and inside the women's liberation movement. Anti-feminist critics accused Greer of being a bitter man-hater and some feminists accused her of catering to men and castigating women for the sexual disabilities of society.

I was about 18 when I read the book and I remember feeling anger as my eyes were opened. I couldn't watch television without feeling and expressing, to the chagrin of my father and brother, my indignation about the sexism I now saw in everything.

Greer's book explained how the differences between the sexes have been exaggerated and how sex roles are learned, not "natural". Both sexes, said Greer, deform themselves in order to conform to socially given gender roles.

The first six chapters of The Female Eunuch examine the body in order to support these assertions. The rest of the book examines the processes by which girls are conditioned to conform to the feminine stereotype, but also their struggles against it.

Greer debunks the fantasies of romantic love and the happy family, and describes the misogyny around us and the misery of unfulfilled female lives. The final chapters present her criticisms of other feminist perspectives on women's emancipation and her own solutions.

On re-reading the book this year, I was struck by the many statements like: "As a female lecturer at a provincial university, I have to tolerate the antics of faculty wives, but they are fairly easy to ignore", and, "It is true that opportunities have been made available to women far beyond their desires to use them. It is also true that the women who avail themselves of opportunities too often do so in a feminine, filial, servile fashion." Or, "Female revolt takes curious and tortuous forms, and the greatest toll is exacted by the woman upon herself. She finds herself driving her husband away from her by destructive carping, fighting off his attempts to make love to her, because somehow they seem all wrong. Frigidity is still a major problem, but know-how about the female structure and orgasms will not change it."

Such statements indicate that the young Greer was scornful of those "sisters" who had not achieved her level of emancipation. She graphically describes their plight, but in a tone that blames and castigates them for it. On the one hand, Greer seemed to understand the processes which turn many women into passive, defensive and unhappy people, but, on the other, she displays contempt for them.

Marxist anthropologist Evelyn Reed noted in her 1971 review of The Female Eunuch that although the word "eunuch" is defined as "a castrated male person", Greer claims that it is the woman who is castrated. According to Greer, Reed said, "frigidity in women, unconnected with any frigidity or impotence in men, lies at the bottom of the joyless sexual relations between the sexes today".

No strategy

Perhaps Greer's contempt for women is due to the fact that she has no idea how women can change their circumstances and therefore themselves. Her message — you can change yourself and the situation of women through individual defiance — has little relevance for most women, for whom it is not so easy to leave their working-class or even middle-class families behind and embark on a road of sexual experimentation and liberation. As Reed commented, "A few women, favourably situated, can indulge in personal defiance", but the mass of ordinary women can't.

Towards the end of the book, Greer's message of liberation through personal defiance reaches its absurd, even reactionary, conclusion. She states, "It is true that men use the threat of physical force, usually histrionically, to silence nagging wives: but it is almost always a sham. It is actually a game of nerves, and can be turned aside fairly easily. At various stages in my life I have lived with men of known violence ... and in no case was I ever offered any physical aggression, because it was abundantly clear from my attitude that I was not impressed by it. Violence has a fascination for most women ..."

Ultimately, Greer is pessimistic about the ability of women to change themselves: "The idle wife girds her middle-aged loins and goes to school, fools with academic disciplines, too often absorbing knowledge the wrong way for the wrong reasons". Mothers get a bit of a bashing too. For example, "What happens to the Jewish boy who never manages to escape the tyranny of his mother is exactly what happens to every girl whose upbringing is 'normal'".

But the most important shortcoming of The Female Eunuch is its lack of a strategy to end female oppression. Sally Kempton, a member of the New York Radical Feminists in 1971, wrote for the New York Times Book Review: "It is brilliantly written, quirky and sensible, full of bile and insight ... [However, it] is a conglomeration of fact and speculation and polemic which is almost completely devoid of policy proposals for the feminist movement." What women need now, said Kempton, "are programmes for revolutionary change and of these, Germaine Greer offers little".

In fact, Greer belittled or ignored the efforts of women campaigning for child-care facilities, equal pay and the right to abortion. She reveals no understanding of the problems women workers face or how to overcome them. Referring to workplace discrimination she wrote: "By and large women themselves are not interested in the problem."

Greer ignores the source of women's oppression and sexual alienation. While she criticises the family institution, her analysis does not acknowledge, let alone explain, its fundamental role in causing and maintaining gender inequality in capitalist society. Consequently, she cannot present a viable strategy for achieving freedom.

Instead, in line with her "strategy" of individual defiance, she calls on women to let the men do the leafleting at factories and for women to revolt by refusing to buy on hire-purchase. She predicts that admitting women into politics will result in the abolition of Othe state and marriage, revealing her illusions that female politicians are inherently more radical and egalitarian.

Ideas like Greer's — that liberation could be won through individual defiance, changing yourself, setting up female communes or alternative lifestyles within capitalism and getting more women politicians elected — were widely held in the Western feminist movement. Thirty years on, it is absolutely clear that they are wrong ideas which have not even seriously shaken the capitalist, male supremacist system, let alone liberated all women.

Instead, they led women away from effective political action. The project of building a strong, militant mass movement of feminists which could challenge capitalism was replaced by a focus on creating alternative lifestyles or trying to join the male decision-makers in the bureaucracy and political establishment.

Today, with the women's liberation movement almost entirely demobilised and coopted, many women's lives are getting harder and harder as social services are de-funded, real wages and working conditions are eroded and women once again work double shifts (paid and unpaid at home). Ironically, Greer's most recent book, The Whole Woman, documents some of this and angrily refutes the claim of some feminists that women have achieved their liberation and can now rest easily. She states: "Fake equality is leading women into double jeopardy. The rhetoric of equality is being used in the name of political correctness to mask the hammering that women are taking.

"When The Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves. On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief and pain, in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners. It's time to get angry again."

In this, Greer is right at last.

If you like our work, become a supporter

Green Left is a vital social-change project and aims to make all content available online, without paywalls. With no corporate sponsors or advertising, we rely on support and donations from readers like you.

For just $5 per month get the Green Left digital edition in your inbox each week. For $10 per month get the above and the print edition delivered to your door. You can also add a donation to your support by choosing the solidarity option of $20 per month.

Freecall now on 1800 634 206 or follow the support link below to make a secure supporter payment or donation online.