Defying Definition: A Portrait of Germaine Greer

Profile of a Feminist
This issue of Samyukta gives a profile of Germaine Greer in its regular series on major feminists.

Abstract: This is a study of Germaine Greer who is one of the most important voices of feminism and the quintessential figure of the 1970s. Her book The Female Eunuch, a celebration of female sexuality was first published in 1970.It challenged male supremacist ideas, denounced female castration and captured the public imagination. The wide media attention it attracted gave a big impetus to feminist theory. It became a feminist classic and it catapulted its hitherto unknown author to the forefront of feminist action.

Take possession of your body and glory in its power.
(Quoted in Schneir, 344)

The Female Eunuch, a celebration of female sexuality was first published in 1970.It challenged male supremacist ideas, denounced female castration and captured the public imagination. The book provoked fights over dinner tables: copies were flung at unsuspecting husbands: one woman even hid it, wrapped amidst her shoes because her husband had forbidden her to read it. The wide media attention it attracted gave a big impetus to feminist theory. It became a feminist classic and it catapulted its hitherto unknown author to the forefront of feminist action. Overnight Germaine Greer became one of the most important voices of feminism and the quintessential figure of the 1970s.

Born into an ordinary orthodox family in Melbourne, Australia, in 1939, Germaine Greer was the daughter of Peggy Greer, a housewife and Eric Reginald Greer, a dapper advertising executive. He had earlier worked in the Royal Australian Airforce. As a child she had a revolutionary streak in her character. Greer’s biographer records how she ran away from home twice, how she was once dismissed from class for disagreeing with a nun who insisted that communism was the work of the devil and how later in college she made a suicide attempt trying to jump off a cliff. Excessively intelligent and bold, she won a scholarship to an elite strict catholic girl’s school where she honed her aggressive debating skills. In 1956 she won a scholarship and joined the University of Melbourne for her graduate studies. In 1959 she joined the University of Sydney for her postgraduate honours after which she moved on to London, a typical step for ambitious intellectuals of her time. She joined the University of Cambridge in 1964 and obtained her Ph.D. on Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, after which she taught English as Professor of Comparative Literature Studies in the University of Warwick. And then came The Female Eunuch and the rise to celebrity.

There was however another unconventional and provocative side to this aggressive intellectual. At Melbourne, while doing her graduate studies, she had abandoned Catholicism and had joined the avant-garde camp. Her shocking language, odd dress and her espousal of sexual liberation drew so much public attention that a student newspaper ridiculed her as ‘Germaniac Queer’. At Sidney she hung out with an elite intellectual group called ‘Sidney Push’. The group consisted of artists, slackers and anarchists who believed in an ideology of libertarianism and preached the ethic of free love. Here Greer got into several scrapes (the groups euphemism for unwanted pregnancies) which resulted in abortions and complicated gynaecological problems that made her incapable of conceiving in her late thirties when she desperately wanted a child. At Cambridge the upper class Bohemian circles of British society welcomed her. She was a rock ‘n roll groupie. She toured with the Cambridge Footlights Club, starred in musical revues and was active in the British Rock scene. She became a prominent activist of the bourgeois hippy counterculture movement and wrote in the alternative press, which espoused sexual libertarianism. The philosophy was practically applied and Greer posed nude for an underground magazine. Her marriage to a well-educated construction worker, Paul de Feu lasted only three weeks. Both were happy to part: he, due to her sexual promiscuity while she commented: “ I was just a mess. He was shaping me to his needs and trying to conquer me. Everything looked like the crudest form of colonisation”(Judith Wenraub, Shock the Faithful, Online, 5 Dec., 2001). She was also a regular columnist for the Oz magazine and for Suck an underground sex paper which she co-founded. Her articles on sexual rights and behaviour played with the agitationist ideology of feminism. This caught the attention of Sonny Mehta, a young publisher and he talked her into writing her epoch-making book. Leftistinfluenced feminism was at the time gaining ground and perhaps Greer was also conscious of the potent force of feminist writing and she was intelligent enough to seize the opportunity to make her mark.

The politics of sexual liberation was on the radical agenda of the late 1960s and the early 1970s during the second wave of the women’s movement. First wave feminism was a political activism that began in the mid-nineteenth century, which resulted in the enfranchisement of women in the 1920s. The second wave was the direct product of the women’s movement of the 1960s. It focused on the specifications of women’s differences from men and from each other. The idea of biological essentialism had been used throughout history and across societies to justify women’s subordination. In the mid decades of the twentieth century several voices were heard on the forms of denigration and oppression of women. There were a proliferation of feminisms but they shared a common commitment – to analyze and interrogate the social structures that undermined women. In fact feminism’s heterogeneity became its greatest strength as it incorporated a collective voice. Into this rich plurality of voices, that included Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millet, Eva Figes and Betty Friedan came the strident polemic tones of a fighting feminist whom the Life magazine described as “a saucy feminist that even men liked” (Laura Miller, Germaine Greer,, Online, 27 Oct. 2001).

What Greer was arguing in The Female Eunuch was that the feminine characteristics valued by men are evidence of the “castration of our true female personality”. She located the cultural status of the woman as equivalent to the eunuch. She was interrogating the Freudian ideas that typify women as essentially the representation of lack. Simone de Beauvoir had earlier observed that it was civilisation that produced this creature intermediate between male and eunuch that is described as feminine. Like her, Greer argues that the woman is a social construct and that women distort their essential nature to fit male fantasy stereotypes. Women thus have no libido. Sexual repression of women devitalises them and cuts them off from the dynamic creative energy, necessary to have the will to achieve independence and full selfhood. Sexual liberation was thus the path to fulfillment and Greer explicitly condoned sexual emancipation. Her sexuality, however, was rigidly located within heterosexuality unlike that of her contemporary Kate Millet whose writings revealed a lesbian consciousness. Both writers tried to validate their own sexual practices.

The public impact of The Female Eunuch does not hide the fact that the book has no sustained idea or vision. It is an impulsive, passionate, scattered text, an assortment of her ideas on sexual relations punctuated by literary references. Greer’s triumphant tone carries it through. Disparaging other feminist activists like Betty Friedan and Juliet Mitchell, Greer posits the idea that she is the only feminist with a feasible programme of change. Christine Wallace aptly critiques the book:

The Female Eunuch is both exhilarating and exasperating to read.
Greer’s rhetoric soars, inspires; many insights are sharp, potent
and motivating. Yet the book is so studded with political naiveties
and passing shots at other women that it is difficult to reconcile
as a whole. Its grand sweep, racy prose and telling revelations
encourage the reader to skate over the jagged edges and ride
forward on Germaine’s romantically anarchistic vision of an
assertive woman in hot pursuit of pleasure, independence and
spontaneity. (Christine Wallace, Online, 27 Oct. 2001)

The book was translated into thirteen languages. Its reception in America was galvanic. Women who heard her speak said that it was a transformative experience. Greer’s bold challenge of conventions led to a swashbuckling tour of the new world. A historical debate with Norman Mailer in the Town Hall at New York drew media attention. Six feet tall, attractive, vivacious and raunchy, she had the world at her feet. Her talent for outrage, verbal brilliance, and untrammeled tongue, attacking the fortress of patriarchy and doing battle with men were just the stuff that T.V. celebrities were made of. Feminism’s iconoclast and first superstar had arrived.

Close on the heels of the record breaking sales and fabulous success of The Female Eunuch, Greer compiled an anthology of her essays from 1968 to 1985. It was published under the title The Mad Woman’s Underclothes. The title was symbolic. A dirty room, which was a mess, was often likened, in Australian parlance, to a mad woman’s underclothes and Greer tried to foreground the fact that the journey of a woman’s life also defies order and good taste. The collection is an assortment of private jokes, shared memories, confidences and contradictions.

The 1970’s saw a spurt of avid interest in the lost histories of women artists. Feminists tried to reconstruct suppressed records of female experiences. The volatile subject of women painters, a rarefied sphere of feminism, was of special interest to Greer as she had dabbled in the art from a very young age. While at Melbourne University she had often frequented the Victoria National Gallery. She “used to walk and walk in the gallery. So it just sank into my eyeballs. I got really hot for the painterly painters” (Grace Glueck, Women Painters and Germaine Greer, Online, 5 Dec. 2001). She spent eight years searching art galleries of Europe for the great, undiscovered female artist. She could not find her and Greer tries to answer the question – “Why there have been no great women artists” – in her well-researched book. The Obstacle Race (1979). The book analyses the psychodynamics of female creativity. It brings to light the lost histories of female artists, their styles, themes, genre, artistic structures, the trajectory of their individual careers and their psychological realities. Several examples are cited: Sona Terk Delauney, Rosa Bonheur, Vanessa Bell, Susanne Valedar etc. Greer also takes up the question of dimension. Women tried to work in smaller scale. Analyzing the structural constraints of women artists, she concludes that women’s creativity has been blighted by the demands made on them by a beloved male, often an artist himself. Women could not achieve self-fulfillment, as they could not reconcile life and career, unlike their male counterparts. Sheer volume of examples and excellent illustrations add lustre to the work. What’s more interesting and relevant is the fact that Greer does not overstate her case and unduly shower praise on any mediocre work of art by women. She does not hesitate to say when a woman painter is not all that marvellous. The same critical sharpness and intellectual honesty is evident in her later works on women poets, Kissing the Rod (1989) and Slipshod Sibyls (1995). In this analysis of seventeenth century women’s verse, Greer maintains that several poets are not worthy of inclusion and that poets ultimately will get the interest they deserve.

The passionate and intentionally provocative style that challenged women to change their ways of thinking was also the hallmark of Greer’s analysis of the politics of human fertility in Sex and Destiny (1984). Greer extolled the virtues of abstinence and stated emphatically that the sexual revolution, far from emancipating women, had actually worsened the situation. Permissiveness, she declared was a mistake for both men and women. The book elicited so much controversy that she was charged with revisionism. Critics denounced her so acidly that she had to file a libel suit. “They are turning on me like wild cats” (Justine De Lacy, Germaine Greer’s New Book Stirs a Debate, Online, 5 Dec. 2001). But she stood her ground. “My main point is that the sexual revolution never happened. Permissiveness happened and that’s no better than repressiveness, because women are still being manipulated by men” (Justine De Lacy). Moreover she argued that women were forced to endanger their bodies with contraceptives. She also analyzed motherhood and found that western industrialised society was unique in that it was profoundly hostile to children and that motherhood was a degrading lonely occupation. She searched peasant communities and turned back to earlier social forms for models of women and child-friendly forms of life. The book also deals with intellectual, cultural and social concerns. She fulminates against the imposition of Western values on other cultures. She comments that the West depletes resources and endangers the world with nuclear arsenal and yet dares to act as surrogate keeper of the world’s poor. She denounces western attempts to influence and dominate the third world population development. “Given the sexual and moral mess we are in, what right have we to dictate to other countries?” (Justine De Lacy). She was able to counter any argument flung at her with anger, intelligence and showmanship.

When her father died in 1983, the high priestess of feminism discovered that she knew very little about him. No one seemed to know anything about him except that he was affable, genteel and well dressed. He had also for a time worked in the Royal Australian Airforce. Greer spent eight months in Malta under gruelling conditions, where her father had worked, to ferret out some information. She traversed the length and breadth of the Australian continent to locate his people and at the end of it she discovered that her father had been an imposter. She found out that her father had been raised along with twenty-five other children in a foster home. She, who had thought her father had been a prince in disguise, now knew that her father had lied to her to hide his lowly origins. Publisher Hamish Hamilton urged her to record her quest. Daddy, I Hardly Knew You (1990) is an allegorical search for her father’s identity. The book reproduces graphically the frustrations she endured in her search. In this journey for the truth she describes the harsh life at Malta, the scenic beauty of the Australian landscape, its vegetation etc. Though initially dejected, Greer emerged from the experience, undaunted. She even managed to forgive her father. “It was a liberation to be free from a lie” (Jill Johnston, Liar, Liar, Online, 5 Dec. 2001).

Middle age altered the dynamics of Greer’s sex life though her professional life was as upbeat as ever. Her later career included four years at the University of Oklahoma, lectures at Tulsa where she founded the Tulsa Center for the Study of Women’s Literature and resident for several years in Italy actively campaigning third world causes. She wrote a book on gardening, her hobby, under the pseudonym Rosa Blight. She established Stump Cross Books to make available work by women writers. She was also as provocative as ever. When the U.N. declared 1975 as the International Women’s Year she wrote an article on the U.N. Women’s Year of Disgrace as all nations represented at the U.N. oppressed women in all degrees. But despite her eventful political and social life, she found herself increasingly alone as her youth faded. By the time she had reached her late forties, she had embraced celibacy and claimed to have realised that sex wasn’t that important after all. As she had always done, Greer once again spoke directly from her own personal experience, extrapolating from her own condition to the rest of womankind. The Change (1991) has a tone of mature contemplation. It is a meditation on menopause, which she prefers to call “climacteric”. The ‘change’ is a huge and complicated event and she faces it head on. She dwells on the unfairness of the invisibility of the middle aged woman in a culture that lionises the silver haired male while scorning his female counterpart. The medical profession gives scant help to the aging woman. Yet Greer strikes an optimistic note. Women can step outside their ego and its illusions of power to make their life more meaningful. She feels that this autumn in the life of a woman can be made the most productive season.

Greer came centre stage again with the publication of her latest magnum opus The Whole Woman (1999). “The Whole Woman is the book I said I would never write” (qtd. in Angie Jabine, The Free-love Feminist, Online, 27 Oct. 2001). She had handed the feminist baton to a younger generation of women and yet she felt compelled to enter the fray again as a breed of new generation of females needed to be reminded how oppressed they really were and that all men were bastards. Structured in four parts Body, Mind, Love and Power, it recalls The Female Eunuch’s, Body, Soul, Home and Hate. The call here is for liberation, not equality. The book is a new assessment of the global status of women. She claims that despite twenty years of feminist influence on society, women are worse off than ever. The book also deals with a whole range of topics. She asserts that sex change surgery is a repudiation of true womanhood. She critiques wide scale screening for both breast cancer and ovarian cancer as being ineffectual and cruel. The screening, she says, would be a lot less painful if women had developed it. This is an example of misogyny masquerading as care. However she does not propose any good alternative. She continues to be a trenchant critique of male influence. The closing chapter of The Female Eunuch was titled “Revolution”. The Whole Woman concludes with “Liberation”.

Greer continues to be in the news. She refused to co-operate on her story with Christine Wallace, an Australian biographer saying that all such things should be left till after the subject’s death. Christine Wallace went on ahead and her biography Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew raised several controversies. Wallace impugns Greer as a faux feminist who latched on to the women’s movement for publicity. She also wrote a detailed account on the life and loves of Greer. Infuriated, Greer called her a “dung beetle”. Others criticised her for having turned her back on feminism. Susan Faludi branded her as recanter and revisionist. Still others accused her of locating her concerns in the lives of western, white middle class women and of condemning victimised women after never having been victimised herself. “Greer’s writing is only ostensibly about women; at its palpitating heart is really about her” (Laura Miller). In1994 she offered the homeless an opportunity to stay with her via an open invite in The Big Issue. A journalist, posing as a poor man, discovered that she was an eccentric. In April 2000, newspapers flashed the news that a teenage female student held Greer hostage in her home. Her reaction to the incident was typical of her independent aggressive nature. She described herself as territorial as a robin, ready to drill his beak into the skull of any interloper robin that wanders onto his patch. At present she is engaged in compiling an edition of the seventeenth century poet Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsee.

Greer continues to amaze. The sheer range of her activities is remarkable. A groupie, a visionary, a rebel, a writer, an editor, a journalist, a pop expert, a media celebrity, a T.V and movie personality, a champion of the underprivileged – the list goes on. Praised by feminists, rejected by them, maligned by many and admired by men, she continues to provoke and is ready to battle with men at any time on any issue. She has been labeled as a maverick, an avatar, a feminist icon, a female misogynist, a superstar and a free love feminist. Ultimately she cannot be categorised. She defies definition.

De Lacy, Justine. Germaine Greer’s New Book Stirs A Debate. Online, 5 Dec. 2001.

Glueck, Grace. Women Painters and Germaine Greer: An Interview. Online, 5 Dec. 2001.

Greer, Germaine. The Change. 1991.

————. Daddy, I Hardly Knew You. 1989.

————. The Female Eunuch. 1970; London: Flamingo, 1999.

————. The Mad Woman’s Underclothes. 1987.

————. The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and their Works. 1979.

————. Sex and Destiny. 1984.

————. The Whole Woman. 2000.

Jabine, Angie. The Free-love Feminist. Online, 27 Oct. 2001.

Johnston, Jill. Liar, Liar. Online, 5 Dec. 2001.

Miller, Laura. Germaine Greer. Online, 27 Oct. 2001.

Schneir, Miriam, ed. The Vintage Book of Feminism. New York: Vintage, 1995.

Wallace, Christine. Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew. Online, 27 Oct. 2001.

Wenraub, Judith. Shock The Faithful. Online, 5 Dec. 2001.

Lecturer in All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on ‘Irving Layton’s Poetic Vision’. She has presented papers in many conferences, national and international.

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Lecturer in All Saints’ College, Thiruvananthapuram. Her doctoral work was on ‘Irving Layton’s Poetic Vision’. She has presented papers in many conferences, national and international.

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