Women's liberation or equality in a rotten system?


The Whole Woman
By Germaine Greer
Doubleday, 1999
330 pp., $24.95 (pb)

Review by Kath Gelber

"It's time to get angry again." So ends the introduction to Greer's latest book, The Whole Woman. It's a powerful book, a call to arms, a reminder that despite all the "post-feminist" posturing and "feminism has gone too far" heckles of those who still feel threatened by feminist activism, women still have a long way to go. If you're after an inspirational read that will remind you why it's important to be part of the women's liberation movement, this book is for you.

In 1970 Greer published the book which made her famous and which became essential reading for feminists. The Female Eunuch presented a critique of the manipulation of women within society.

With its emphasis on women's uniqueness, it was sharply criticised by feminists from other traditions, including socialists who viewed her insistence on individual renegotiation as contradicting the need for united feminist action to challenge the system which oppresses women. But as a consciousness-raising tool, The Female Eunuch was important for many women as they strove to understand the many ways in which women's oppression occurs.

During the struggles of second-wave feminism in the 1970s, the women's liberation movement in Western countries developed a number of theoretical streams which presented different arguments for the origins of women's oppression and how to achieve liberation. Liberal feminism, championed by women such as Betty Friedan, sought to bring about change by enacting laws against discrimination without seeking to change the structure itself.

Radical feminists, like Shulamith Firestone and Mary Daly, argued that men's control of women's sexuality and reproductive role, especially through the use of violence, formed the roots of women's oppression.

Socialist feminism tried to merge patriarchy theory with theories of class, while Marxist feminists argued (and still do) that feminism is a cross-class issue, but that achieving women's liberation requires a revolutionary restructuring of the class system which created and maintains women's oppression.

Greer's earlier work contained elements of patriarchy theory. Three decades later she has written a sequel, the book she said she'd never write.

Greer says, "Each generation should produce its own statement of problems and priorities". However, noticing both a reluctance among new feminist writers to adopt a liberationist approach and, more disturbingly, a willingness among many feminists of her generation to assert that feminism has gone too far, she decided to respond.

Greer laments the replacement of the term "women's liberation" with "feminism", not because feminism isn't necessary but because the name change reflected a change in the nature of the struggle. Instead of fighting for liberation, some feminists became content to fight for formal equality within a system which oppresses, exploits and discriminates.

This, she argues, is not real equality: "The visionary feminists of the late sixties and early seventies knew that women could never find freedom by agreeing to live the lives of unfree men ... if equality means entitlement to an equal share of the profits of economic tyranny, it is irreconcilable with liberation." She defends a feminism that fights to the end "a system that oppresses women worldwide".

These are the best aspects of The Whole Woman. Greer cites countless examples of the ways in which women remain oppressed. Her chapters are short and to the point, with one-word titles encapsulating the object of her criticism and the point she is arguing: womb, breasts, work, food, "manmade" women, shopping, oestrogen, mothers, wives, fear, "girlpower".

Greer's research is both comprehensive and up to date, but it is in the detail of her argument that she becomes vulnerable to criticism.

Greer bases much of her argument on an analysis of womanhood as inherently and unchangeably different from men. In some ways, of course, this is true. But Greer bases her argument for the liberation of women on a recognition and valuing of this difference. This means that at times she is unnecessarily harsh, and leaves little room for alliances.

Greer's argument relies on biological reductionism — that to achieve liberation, it is essential to recognise women's uniqueness. Because she does not recognise systemic features of women's oppression, it is unclear how her vision of a unique womanhood is supposed to counteract the systemic opposition it faces in trying to achieve liberation.

In the chapter "pantomime dames", Greer discusses transgenderism. She argues that although transgender people may suffer gender dysphoria, or gender role distress, the cure should not be mutilation of the sufferer but a radical change of gender roles.

To an extent, this argument holds true. If we lived in a world in which gender roles were not so embedded in society's norms, in which individuals' gender identity was not shaped and created by the same institutions which benefit from the exploitation of unequal gender roles, life would be totally different. Perhaps all people would feel able to express their sexual selves without having to fit into preordained parameters.

But our society constructs and reinforces gender roles as a means by which the oppression of women can take place.

Because Greer's arguments are based on biological differences, combined with a critique of the undervaluing of women, she cannot sympathise with a person who is chromosomally male yet "identifies" as a woman. "Women's lack of choosiness about who may be called a woman strengthens the impression that women do not see their sex as quite real, and suggests that perhaps they too identify themselves as the not-male, the other, any other."

This unwillingness to regard gender as more than chromosomal is based on her insistence that liberation is predicated on having the right genitals. If this is so, how are women to make the alliances necessary to achieve their own liberation? If liberation requires a recognition of difference, why is the only allowable difference that of a penis versus a vagina?

Nevertheless, there is a lot of useful information in this book. For example, in a powerful analogy, Greer compares Western outcries against female genital mutilation in developing countries with the acceptance and establishment's complicity in other types of genital mutilation in industrialised nations: the "trimming" of "unsightly" labia, the pumping up of vaginas to be "tighter" and genital piercing.

The rates of episiotomy, Caesarean section and hysterectomy vary so significantly between hospitals and countries that Greer is forced to conclude that they are carried out for reasons other than safeguarding the health of the birth mother or baby. Episiotomy during childbirth is sometimes carried out to minimise the risk of a malpractice suit: the doctor can claim to have made all reasonable attempts to ensure a healthy birth.

In her discussion of work, Greer takes issue with claims that "women are taking men's jobs", pointing out that "a woman is now slightly more likely to find a job than a man, entirely because of the restructuring of the job market in the employers' favour". The disappearance of permanent, secure, full-time jobs in favour of casual, poorly paid, un-unionised, insecure and part-time jobs favours women as employees because they are more prepared to accept these working conditions than men.

Furthermore, Greer holds trade unions to account for helping this process along. She argues that when unions had more bargaining power than they do today, they did not use it to enfranchise the women who worked with lower wages and conditions in cheaper sectors. And in spite of the higher numbers of women employed, British women still earn only 60% of men's earnings.

In the chapter on "beauty", Greer points out how strong the beauty myth still is. Even conventionally "beautiful" women are unhappy with their appearance. Obsessive behaviour regarding body image, considered normal in women, is considered a pathological disorder in men. It even has a name: body dysmorphic disorder.

In other chapters, Greer considers the lengths to which capitalist enterprises will go to encourage and exploit women's consumer potential by changing the position of products in the supermarket every week. This forces shoppers, who are mainly women, to negotiate a path through unwanted products to find those of their choice. Greer also describes attacks on the notion of sisterhood, and how the sexual revolution has been interpreted as an indictment of single women.

Her final chapter, called "liberation", reiterates her central point: that "a 'new feminism' that celebrates the right (i.e., duty) to be pretty in an array of floaty dresses and little suits put together for starvation wages by adolescent girls in Asian sweat-shops is no feminism at all". Women need, and still don't have, control over their fertility, child-care, access to education. The personal is still political.

Feminism, Greer argues, "rather than having crashed on to the shore, is still far out to sea, slowly and inexorably gathering momentum". Far from having gone too far, feminism still has a long way to go. "And the women of the rich world had better hope that when female energy ignites they do not find themselves on the wrong side."