Accidental Heroes of the 20th Century: No 5. Germaine Greer, Feminist

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE TROUBLE with most intellectuals is that they tend to be a little light on half-decent gags. Not Germaine Greer. From posing naked, legs akimbo, in a radical Dutch magazine in the Seventies, to her memorable description of a fellow columnist's footwear as "fuck-me shoes", her heroic career has been full of rib-ticklers; and all without sacrificing one ounce of credibility as a feminist thinker.

While the ideas of most of Miss Greer's (never Ms) contemporaries were consigned long ago to their rightful place as hippy museum exhibits alongside Afghan coats, Zabriskie Point and King Crimson concept albums, Miss Greer's insights resolutely refuse to be preserved in aspic.

She is currently updating them, reportedly for a publisher's advance of $800,000. That is how great public demand is deemed to be for The Whole Woman, Greer's take on the current state of play between men and women, due to be published in time for the Millennium.

Despite the time lapse, it is Greer's follow up to her 1970 feminist blockbuster, The Female Eunuch, not just a major contribution to 20th century political thought, but a rattling good read. And if you leaf through the volumes in the Women's Studies section of your local library, you will soon realise that it is not a description you can attach to every feminist political tract.

The ideas in the book - about marriage being a form of legalised slavery, about women's passivity as a sort of castration, and how political factors govern personal relations - are now so much part of the mainstream that it is difficult to imagine the impact the book had, and how incendiary it all seemed back then.

The Female Eunuch sold a million copies worldwide, has been translated into 13 languages, and has never been out of print. These are remarkable figures for what is essentially a work of philosophy, and must partly be accounted for by people's desire to buy a piece of Miss Greer's unquenchable spirit, as seen on TV.

So assiduously and entertainingly did Miss Greer talk about her book on television, so clever and lustrously beautiful did she appear alongside the grey-suited TV types produced as combatants, that the book would probably have sold even if it were not so fiery and passionate.

A Canadian TV interviewer called Larry Zolf tells on his Internet page of his experiences as a moderator on an early Seventies TV debate about rape between Greer and some neanderthal Canadian politician. He describes how Greer took the pair of them to the cleaners. "If there is anything worse off than a female eunuch," writes Zolf, "it's a male eunuch at the mercy of one."

Greer delighted in subverting all that the world held dear. On love, eulogised by songwriters through the ages, she said: "Love, love, love - all the wretched cant of it, masking egotism, lust, masochism, fantasy under a mythology of sentimental postures ... the kissing and the dating and the desire, the compliments and the quarrels which vivify its barrenness." It's not music, but you know what she means.

These days, her public pronouncements tend to be less abrasive. On the TV programme, The Late Review, she is an amusing and likeable commentator on the arts, and never guilty of that irritating old hippy mantra: "oh, we did all that in the Sixties." In the magazine, The Big Issue, Miss Greer invited down-and-outs to spend a week in her country cottage and found herself entertaining a Mail On Sunday reporter posing as a tramp.

But, as Germaine approaches 60, do not be fooled into thinking the years have mellowed her into a sweet little old Greer. The new book, she says, will be "white-hot, tense, and quivering". We never doubted it.