Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
Feminism’s gains are due to, not despite, its spiky icon
JOIN THE DEBATE
For a minute I thought the feminism wars were back – you know, where gender gets fiercely debated by serious (by which it seems we still mean male) intellectuals. Then I saw that wasn’t it at all. The Louis Nowra/Charles Waterstreet spat over Germaine Greer was really just that. An old-fashioned duel, where one impugns the lady’s honour and the other leaps to her defence.
Much of Nowra’s essay was reasoned and intelligent. Surely we are all struck – we who rode liberation’s wave, as powered by Greer, Friedan, Steinem, Millett et al – both by how much has changed for women since Greer wrote The Female Eunuch and how much has not.
As Nowra points out, feminism has its disappointments, not least in women’s evident aptitude for consumerism, their clear preference for shoes without high ideals. But being wildly optimistic about human nature doesn’t make Greer wrong or stupid; certainly not unique. It simply makes the book a product of its time. And to berate her for using her life and body as her work’s source, banner and neon exemplar is ridiculous, both because that’s who she is and because had she done otherwise none of us would know even her name, much less her opus – which probably says more about us than her.
Yet how quickly our intellectual debates turn ad hominem. Nowra attacks Greer for seeming “a befuddled and exhausted old woman … [like] my demented grandmother”. Waterstreet attacks Nowra for being born Doyle of Brisbane (not Nowra of Toorak) and gad, sire, how dare ye be so bold? Then Anne Summers attacks Ben Naparstek, who edits The Monthly that published the offending Nowra, for “smirking from … his extreme youth”.
What I wish Nowra’s opening paragraph had said – instead of ridiculing Greer’s 71 larrikin years – is this. Isn’t it wonderful even in the nethers of life she remains as feisty and unafraid as ever? Isn’t it fabulous to have a loud, brainy, articulate, unbashful, f-you old female in the world?
Isn’t it thrilling her intellect is still distinguished by its belligerence as much as its acuity, and her face by its outright refusal to paint, tighten and smooth as the television gods require? Shouldn’t we be proud that although she finds Australia too small to inhabit, we can nevertheless claim her as ours? Isn’t she someone to be both grateful to and grateful for?
I was recently shocked when a cocktail conversation, dominated by women who were young in the ’50s, turned to abortion. “I had three,” remarked one in a tone of utmost casualness. “I had four,” replied her friend, “or maybe five.”
No one wanted abortions but to be in the conversation, young women had to be both sexually available and unencumbered. Being with
child was a worse infraction than being married.
It wasn’t quite Martin Luther’s “let them die in childbirth – that is why they are here”, but almost. And although Greer didn’t invent the pill, she made women see how thoroughly they were being screwed.
Greer argued that women were structurally disempowered. That – thanks in no small part to her – is no longer true.
Broadly speaking, women can now own, say, bed, wed, do and wear what and who they like. What disempowerment remains is contingent and even voluntary. Imposed restrictions have been ousted by self-imposed.
A 1960s sex-ed textbook for schoolgirls reads “should your husband suggest any … unusual practices be obedient and uncomplaining … [he] will then fall promptly asleep so adjust your clothing, freshen up and apply your night-time face and
haircare products. You may then set the alarm so that … you [can] have his morning cup of tea ready when he awakes.”
Now the exhortation is simpler. “Do it because you deserve it.” Because you know you want to. And, god help us, we do. This, in part, was Nowra’s point.
Harm to women is too often now self-harm: witness the resurgence of young female smoking (thinness despite cancer) and of stilettos (elegance despite musculoskeletal ravages). Witness, also, nanotech cosmetics, smoothing as flattery, and as sinister.
I didn’t read Eunuch at the time, mainly because I regarded its premise – women should be treated equally – as too obvious to need analysis and too, well, women’s-studies to reward it. That everyone else devoured it was another reason not to (except in the case of my father, whose scathing response to both book and author naturally worked in its favour).
So I was pleasantly surprised, on buying Eunuch recently, by its easy prose, trenchant critique (much of it still apposite) and, above all, courage.
“Maybe I couldn’t make it,” she reflects at one point. “Maybe I don’t have a pretty smile, good teeth, nice tits, long legs, a cheeky arse, a sexy voice. Maybe I don’t know how to handle men and increase my market value … Then again, maybe I am sick of the masquerade. I’m sick of pretending eternal youth.”
Easy enough to say when you patently have those things and more. But I love that Greer is still saying it. Still refusing to modify or mollify; still spurning the masquerade.