A friend of mine has a clever T-shirt which reads “I’ll be a post-feminist in post-patriarchy.” Germaine Greer’s new book, The Whole Woman, is a book version of the T-shirt.
Greer wrote the book she said she’d never write. The Whole Woman is a sequel to The Female Eunuch, one of several books which inspired a generation of women in the ‘70s. Greer’s new offering is powerful. It demolishes narcissistic claims by an elite group of lifestyle feminist that women now have it all – money, sex and fashion.
Greer is similarly scornful of one-time feminists caught up in the backlash. She reveals the source of her passion and takes aim at the likes of Betty Friedan, author of The Feminine Mystique: “It was not until feminists of my own generation began to assert with apparent seriousness that feminism had gone too far that the fire flared up in my belly.”
The 35 chapters, each with an enticing one-word title, present abundant and meticulous research about women’s oppression in the ‘90s. But the book is not a compendium of faceless statistics. Greer’s writing style is “In Ya Face.” It is full of real women, real stories, real lives. For the one in 25 teenage girls in Britain who are already anorexic, the one in four British women who experience domestic violence or the half million outworkers in the UK who earn less than £56 a week, feminism has definitely not gone too far – it hasn’t gone far enough! In her introduction, Greer states that “in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners, it’s time to get angry again.” Getting angry isn’t difficult. Every time I turn on the TV, pick up a newspaper, go to work, go shopping, get on a tram, talk to a friend, I find plenty to get angry about! The question is what to do about it.
Anger can be a powerful impetus for action. But without a clear idea about the source of these injustices or a program for fighting back, anger can make women into victims or turn us against vital allies. Or it can be just plain exhausting.
Greer does not identify the cause, and she’s irritatingly fuzzy about the way forward. But she is definite about pitfalls to avoid. Greer critiques the inadequacies of liberal feminism, which limits itself to the achievement of formal equality. She avowedly favours women’s liberation and stands with visionary feminists who know that “women can never find freedom by agreeing to live the lives of unfree men.”
I appreciate Greer’s dialectical approach to the question of equality. She is uncompromising in her demands that women have a right to participate everywhere – even in institutions she personally abhors. In the chapter titled “Soldiers,” she argues that “if we are to have armies, women should have a right to be in them,” and women who join the military must “be allowed to bear arms and fight.” The British Equal Opportunity Commission was delighted when women got to command two navy vessels in the Gulf during the 1997 standoff with Iraq. However, Greer finds it repugnant that women from the rich countries are for hire to kill poor women and that anyone – woman or man – is deployed to participate in “Madeline Albright’s war on Iraqi civilians.” Appreciating the significant advances made by women within the U.S. or British war machine, or opposing the blatant sexual harassment which is an everyday feature of military life, does not equal support for the institution itself or for imperialist wars.
And, of course, some wars are wars of liberation. Women have regularly engaged in armed resistance. Kurdish women are leaders in the PKK guerrilla units. Addressing this issue, Greer quotes a Tamil Tiger: “instead of dying screaming, being raped by an aggressor army, it is a relief to face the army with your own weapon.”
Tearing down all formal barriers to women’s full participation in society is crucial. But giving women an equal opportunity to participate cannot produced equal outcomes. The chapter titled “Equality” takes on the pernicious notion, often argued in Australia by Bronwyn Bishop and other women in the Liberal Party, that any kind of special programs for women are discriminatory! Greer is scathing of those “feminists” who work for an equality they define only as equal access without “special favours” or “privileges.”
The British experience of a Sex Discrimination Act which enshrines this formal equality, rather than redressing historical discrimination against oppressed groups, has resulted in a situation remarkably like Australia’s. When plans were announced to introducing a women-only session at the Brunswick swimming pool in Melbourne, an aggrieved man howled “sexism” before the Equal Opportunity Commission. The British law has similarly served as a weapon against Affirmative Action. Thanks to the Sex Discrimination Act, women-only swimming sessions have been banned in all Leisure Centres across Britain. The Act was used to sink a scheme by Britain’s Labour Party which would have remedied the under-representation of women in Parliament by allowing women-only selection lists. It prevented the Royal Automobile Club from prioritising calls from lone female drivers, and stopping a group of women from setting up a taxi company employing only female cabbies.
Greer’s disdain for all who hijack feminism to push the right of only some women to be equal with some men in an unjust and unequal world is a key theme of The Whole Woman. Her contempt is cutting: “A new feminism that celebrates the right to be pretty in an array of floaty dresses and little suits put together for starvation wages by adolescent girls in Asian sweatshops is no feminism at all.” Right on Germaine!
Greer certainly knows bogus feminism, and she is acutely aware of the paths which do not lead to women’s liberation. But her vision is a mishmash of competing ideas drawn from a range of ideological traditions. The promo for the book states: “Germaine Greer once again sets the agenda for the future of feminism as the millennium draws to a close.” Despite this grandiose promise, Greer offers no clear direction, nor does she expect major change in a hurry. On the contrary, she concludes: “The second wave of feminism, rather than having crashed onto the shore, is still far out to sea, slowly and inexorably gathering momentum. None of us who are alive today will witness more than the first rumbles of the coming social upheaval.”
Greer is definitely not a Marxist feminist. If she were, she’d understand that change can erupt very quickly, and she’d notice how fragile capitalism is as the millennium draws to a close. Greer’s publicists describe her as eccentric, provocative and controversial. I prefer “ambiguous.” She can’t quite decide if she is really a socialist feminist or a radical feminist. The strategies she espouses are a curious mix of both.
On the radical feminist side, Greer advocates a form of segregation between the sexes. Although she is clear that there is no one female experience – race, class, wealth, disability, sexuality, geography, age are all recurring themes – she fails to even consider building alliances with oppressed men. Greer believes that men are unredeemable when she asserts: “As women cannot change male behaviour, the dignified alternative is for women to segregate themselves as men do.” She argues for women “to make a conscious decision not to want men’s company…if that means segregation, so be it. If the alternative is humiliation, there is no alternative.”
On the socialist feminist side, Greer is keen to change socialist priorities and take collective responsibility for human needs. She wants social, as opposed to individual, responsibility for children and argues that everyone should contribute to children’s maintenance through income tax. She advocates a society which “injects more money into childcare…We will be told on all sides that we can’t afford it. If we aren’t paying to send aircraft carriers to the Gulf and any other place Bill Clinton thinks his sabre should be rattled, we could afford it. It is a question of priorities.” She questions social priorities again in her conclusion: “With modern technology, nobody needs to die of diseases of malnutrition anymore; every year, untold people do just that. We could distribute food rationally from places of plenty to places of scarcity; we don’t. We could provide everyone on earth with clean water; we don’t. We could use our standing armies…to protect people against the consequences of natural disasters; we don’t.” She’s right. We don’t. The question she fails to answer is why not?
Greer refers to “the system” but does not name it. She does not mention the words “patriarchal capitalism.” But what else could she mean? By being unclear about where to direct our justifiable rage, Greer’s book is ambiguous. Like my friend’s T-shirt, Greer offers a thought-provoking response to the absurd idea that feminism is no longer required. But as a guide to action, it’s about as useful as the shirt.