Stabs in the back for an old feminist

SO WHAT do you think about Germaine Greer's new book? It's no good protesting that you haven't read it. Neither have I, and it hasn't stopped journalists ringing to ask what I make of it. Other people have been getting calls about it too, including my friend Maureen Freely, who is a feminist author as well as a colleague of Ms Greer's at Warwick University. The conversation moves swiftly from the book itself - not a very fruitful topic since it isn't due to be published until March next year - to questions about whether Ms Greer has anything to say to younger women.

At this point, I start asking questions of my own. Are these journalists (usually younger women themselves) phoning round critics to ask whether they take Eric Hobsbawm seriously, given how old he is? Are they writing articles suggesting that no one over 30 wants to read Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, who no longer count as younger men? Of course they aren't. Indeed, they barely seem to understand what I'm getting at, which is the peculiarly nasty bias against older women that informs their inquiries. I'd call it gerontophobia if the root, from the Greek word "geron", didn't apply specifically to old men - and we feel very differently about them, as a generation of Hollywood stars, including Jack Nicholson and Clint Eastwood, have discovered to their advantage.

Not that Ms Greer is ancient. She will be 60 next year, an age at which men are often considered to be in their prime. But the fetishistic worship of young female bodies and minds in our culture has a dark side which expresses itself in fear and loathing of post-menopausal women. In the course of these phone calls, which effectively invite me to dismiss Ms Greer in advance of knowing what she has to say, no one has yet gone so far as to employ words such as hag, bag or crone. What is being suggested is that the author of The Female Eunuch is irrelevant to women under a certain age because she is not in the first flush of youth, as well as being unmarried and childless. (Just like Jane Austen, you might say, who labours under the additional handicap of being dead.)

As it happens, Ms Greer was briefly married, a subject on which I have heard her speak very amusingly. But "young women don't see why they should be preached at by Germaine Greer", a reporter from another newspaper recently informed me, as she prepared a story suggesting that the new book is already dividing feminists into warring camps.

At one level, this is merely a symptom of the weary reality that editors love fights within radical groups, especially feminists, whose ideas make them uncomfortable. But the willingness of journalists to go along with it - I first received one of these calls back in February - is shocking.

It's true that neither Ms Greer nor any other adult knows precisely what it is like to be a 15-year-old girl in the Nineties. But the implications behind the campaign against her are astonishing. A lifetime's experience of analysing cultural attitudes has suddenly become, for women writers, a handicap. Authors are no longer expected to come up with their own theories but to gather those of other people and write them down, like a New Labour spin-doctor creating policy from focus groups. If my experience isn't reflected in someone's work, the logic runs, how can I possibly be expected to read it?

What this represents is an alarming retreat from ideological debate, the practice of testing your ideas against other minds whose theories you don't necessarily accept. Men do it all the time, invoking oldsters such as Marx and Keynes and Hegel in their analysis of contemporary politics and economics. But what is happening to Ms Greer shows that double standards are still being employed against women - and by other women, which makes the offence all the greater.

The most obvious explanation, that some form of mother-daughter rebellion is being acted out in the realm of culture, seems not to have occurred to them. But we can hardly expect that degree of self-awareness from people who are so terrified of unfamiliar ideas that they feel compelled to trash them before they've appeared in print.

I TURNED up at the Woman's Hour studio one morning last week, expecting to take part in a discussion with a former bunny girl, and was promptly invited to stay on for an item on ancient Greek gynaecology. (We old feminists are so versatile.) This gave me the pleasure of meeting Helen King, a lecturer in classics at Reading University, whose new book, Hippocrates' Woman, charts the way in which ancient medical theories have influenced modern beliefs about hysteria and female circumcision. It is worth buying Ms King's book for the index alone, which features entries on beetle pessaries, sneezing, Gulf War Syndrome, and "nosebleeds: as diverted menstruation". I'm only sorry Ms King's publisher talked her out of sticking with her original title, The Ancient Greek Period.

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