Books: Be brave, be different, be a woman

The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer Doubleday pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
Women's liberation is dead; long live women's liberation. Feminism is obsolete in a post- feminist culture braced by anti- discrimination laws. On the other hand, feminism remains all too live and kicking, the Medusa-monster responsible for most of the ills on our bit of planet, from female multi-job exhaustion to the death of the family, masculine anxiety and depression, and the academic under-achievement and role confusion of boys and young men. Germaine Greer's passionate, polemical intervention into this muddle reads well in conjunction with other recently published feminist works such as Natasha Walter's The New Feminism, which puts the case for equality, and Sheila Rowbotham's A Century of Women, a fascinating map of progress and pitfalls over the past 100 years.

Sheila Rowbotham comes from that 1970s generation of socialist feminists who looked at how class cut across gender and created complex loyalties for women. Other kinds of feminism criss-crossed and overlapped: bourgeois individualist feminism, radical feminism, lesbian feminism, libertarian feminism, separatist feminism.

The late 1960s and the 1970s wave of women's liberation has ebbed. Defeated, some would say, by the power of international capitalism, the global free market. If there is no such thing as society, if only money defines values, then sisterhood means nothing and women's loving unpaid work as mothers and carers remains as underrated as ever. The UN might have conceded that housework and looking after children constituted part of the Gross National Product but it did not shout it from the rooftops. In the 1980s liberation was reduced to the right to wear shoulderpads, have a job in the City and a nanny and wear yourself out competing in the job market on masculinist terms. No wonder so many women said they hated feminism and felt let down by it. Community-based feminism, the less trendy sort, continued underground, and is admirably documented in Sheila Rowbotham's other recent book, Threads in Time.

Germaine Greer's epigram- studded new work has been sparked off by feminists of her own generation saying that feminism has gone too far, by what she sees as some younger feminists' political timidity, and by her perception that women's position seems to have got worse rather than better. She knows she can only talk on behalf of women of her own age, class, background, and education. On the other hand she insists on making links with women in other parts of the world: "If equality means entitlement to an equal share of the profits of economic tyranny, it is irreconcilable with liberation. Freedom in an unfree world is merely licence to exploit. Lip- service to feminism in the developed nations is a handy disguise for the masculinisation of power amid the feminisation of poverty in the emerging nations. If you believe, as I do, that to be feminist is to understand that before you are of any race, nationality, religion, party or family, you are a woman, then the collapse of the prestige and economic power of the majority of women in the world as a direct result of western hegemony must concern you."

The problem is that, while we might all mourn that loss of prestige and power, we might not all identify ourselves primarily as women. We do not live outside or above culture; for many women their racial or national or religious identity is equally crucial. Greer invokes for our admiration, in the passage I have just quoted, the women "who donned the chador and howled the Americans out of Iran", but this female rebellion crucially had a particular cultural inflection, employing the symbolism of Islam. Many Iranian women deplore the chador if they are forced to put their femininity at the service of fundamentalism, regardless of how much they might loathe America. While for the rhetorical purpose of persuasion it is easier to say Women, implying the identical nature of our struggle, surely one important lesson we learned from the Seventies is that both difference and similarity are simultaneously at play. The politics of feminism have become more complex as they have become more subtle, making connections between groups while trying to respect difference at the same time. This contradictoriness has characterised our progress, in Rowbotham's words, as one step forwards two steps back, and also our view of ourselves. Are we really like men, or are we different? Some of us would say: both. Greer argues that we are fundamentally different, and that this precious femaleness is being crushed and exploited by vested interests, mainly those of profit-greedy international corporations, leaving us with only an ersatz or debased femininity that any man can buy or imitate.

The book offers a series of interlinked essays gathered under the headings of body, mind, love and power. Some of these, for example her tender meditation on love, stand alone. Smaller sections are devoted to beauty, plastic surgery, eating, the health risks of hormone-crazy medicine, housework, shopping, paid work, war, violence, rape, relationships, motherhood, childcare, girlpower, and finally, liberation. The problems that beset women in each of these areas are unflinchingly and compellingly laid out, backed up with statistics and quotations. I enjoyed the book's angry energy and jokes, and agreed with many of its criticisms. I deplored its lack of an index. I was surprised that Greer endorses female circumcision, an assault carried out on a young woman without her consent, on the grounds that some western girls choose to cut and maim themselves; surely both are equally cruel and perverse puberty rites, even as they may carry different meanings in different cultures. I think Greer idealises Otherness; borrowing from ideas of the harem, she proposes sexual segregation as a way forward. This demonises men too much and makes them too important. The unpatriarchal ones we love as dear friends are surely like us, femmes moyennes sensuelles, caught between heaven and earth, imperfect and flawed.