A woman behaving badly

When she was a lecturer, her dress style made Denise Van Outen look like a Puritan maid
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The Independent Culture
IT'S BEEN a rare treat all this week to witness The Daily Telegraph indulging itself in an excess of heroine addiction. Germaine Greer, "the high priestess of feminism", has been spread liberally across its pages in daily extracts of her book, The Whole Woman, to appear next month. These were preceded by a treacly interview that was desperate to remind us how awfully nice and normal - if contradictory - post-menopausal Ms Greer really is.

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has been serialising her life story, written by Christine Wallace, generously described by Ms Greer as a "flesh-eating bacterium". (Not least because Wallace repeatedly peddles the traditional line that if only Greer had found a man who could teach her who's boss, a Petruchio to her Kate, then today we might have been bored to death reading "The Contentedly Married Woman".)

Thirty years ago when The Female Eunuch, the book that dared to buck the blokes, was first published, Ms Greer, now 60, couldn't have got herself into either paper except in an expose revealing that she was a man-eating lesbian with psychopathic tendencies and an unnatural sex drive. So, what's up, chuck?

Or, more precisely, has the right become mad about the woman because it believes that Ms Greer has finally swung to its side? Or have they misunderstood her power to restoke the fires that so powerfully fuelled a female uprising all those years ago?

The extracts of the tectonically titled The Whole Woman have so far covered, amongst other issues, cosmetic surgery, Barbie, abortion and marriage. It blasts a picture of today's British woman which, in parts, is so unremittingly depressing that the subliminal message, at least to the Telegraph reader, may be: see how miserable your lives have become; see how little feminism has achieved.

Feminism viewed as the problem rather than part of the solution is not, of course, an unknown twist. "Women Face the Nineties," trumpeted Time magazine in 1989. "In the Eighties they tried to have it all. Now, they've just plain had it. Is there a future for feminism?" The irony is that in The Whole Woman, Greer's intention is to remind younger women why, no matter how powerful the post-feminist propaganda, the battles have certainly not been won.

Women have been sold "fake equality", she rightly claims, when they should have opted for a liberation that "celebrates their differences". The goal, she points out, was never to join the male system, but to change it. Instead, we have unequal pay and armies of women in the workplace burnt out by their efforts to out-men males, while even more are struggling in poverty at the bottom of the pile, "criminalised" as single mothers.

All Greer's books have, of course, been fashioned by her own experiences. The childless sexual libertarian (The Female Eunuch) became the baby- besotted woman (Sex and Destiny) who has since had neither family nor long-term partner. Then came the dotty menopausal spinster with no interest in sex (The Change). And now comes the Chastiser, who has time on her hands to tell us how it ought to have been done.

On each occasion, whether you agreed or disagreed with her arguments, she has acted as a superb catalyst: a shocking-pink neon light illuminating the arena in which the rest of us struggle to survive with a modicum of dignity. The Whole Woman will have the same effect. What it may not do is act as a catalyst for a younger generation, as she hopes.

The Female Eunuch had a worldwide female audience united because it held an empty glass and sexism was big, bad and brutish. Thirty years on, surveys show that today's teenagers and young women see the glass not as half-empty (as do my generation) but half-full. Many have lost what the writer Linda Grant calls "a sense of vigilance". An awareness that they may be playing in the big boys' world - but only as long as they conform to the rules and standards and attributes that are highly rated by men. It's a male view of life.

The younger women may reject Greer's wake-up call partly because she's made it too easy for them to say, "That's not me." Whole it isn't - yet. They're still too Proud of their Prada.

The point of recognition may come later, when they are made to realise how closely their own sense of self-worth is wedded to the desperately low value placed upon all forms of caring - a value that is decided by males. Greer perhaps underestimates the importance of caring as a radicalising force, because while she has many friends, life has given her little experience of family in the way that the average woman knows it.

Greer is the past mistress of hell-raising, and a joy to read because of that. She's been criticised for being contradictory (who, in a lifetime, isn't?). And she's angry (again) that the system hasn't changed rapidly enough. But she appears far crosser with women themselves for not shaping up at a faster pace.

As all good polemicists do, she cuts the cloth of her argument to the pattern of this thesis, hence the undue grinding pessimism. I would argue that we truly have come a long way, babe. And it's dangerous to overlook, as Greer does, the differences that now exist between women. Too many teenage girls in the bottom third of society are virtually illiterate, living on benefits, without qualifications. Simultaneously, for the first time in history, the childless professional woman in her twenties is earning more than her male colleague. What will feminism make of these divisions?

I was a student at Warwick University at the same time as Greer was a lecturer, with a dress style that made Denise Van Outen look like a Puritan maid. She gave many of us the ladette guts to believe that you had a right to look sexy without also being assumed to be a bimbo or an easy lay. So why does she despise the "ostentatious sluggishness and disorderly behaviour" of some young women today?

Greer's Whole Woman exists, too, in an odd vacuum. What has happened to women has also been drastically affected by what has happened to men. Men, mentioned only fleetingly by Greer, are now experiencing a massive devaluation of their role and identity on a scale that has been familiar to women for centuries. What men make of it partly depends on how much pressure women bring on them to change. Greer may demand that women wean themselves off their taste for the opposite sex (she's had a lifetime of satiation, after all, but what about the beginners?) but a Whole Woman prefers a Whole Man. How is feminism to contribute to that?

Greer argues that there is no such thing as sisterhood, since women across the generations lack "a community of experience". She's wrong. One universal experience for women is the element of caring for others - they do it in the workplace (methods of management which research indicates are more profitable); they do it at home. Even a child-free woman experiences it. It somehow conditions women to interpret a successful life as meaning more than triumph in work at the expense of a fulfilling private life. It's not about mimicking men, it's about fighting for a balance. And it means redesigning the system.

As Sheila Rowbotham writes in her excellent A Century of Women, "Balance, after all, is a word which contains a sense of justice, self-possession and equilibrium; it is also decisively affected by surrounding circumstance." Greer may know nothing about balance - but we need blasters too. And she's simply the best we have.