The ultimate girls' night out
Monday 30 March 1998
Erica Jong, brimming with chutzpah and trouser-suited, pearly-throated New York elegance, flew fearlessly across the Atlantic especially for the occasion; Fay Weldon, unapologetically English in her hesitations, her theoretical hedgings, her slight bumblingness, Tubed it from Hampstead; and Germaine Greer, that loud, brawling, portly Australian-Amazonian, popped along from wherever it is that she lives these days - Erica thought it was still Australia, but Germaine told her she was wrong about that. Didn't she watch any decent British television, for God's sake?
Like all good parties, this one started later than advertised, but no one seemed to mind about that - in fact, there was a mood of real excitement in the air at the mention of the late sound check. Only the slow gum-chewer sitting next to me, who had a movie magazine open at a spread headlined "The 10 least favourite people in LA", looked mildly unengaged. But then, he was a man - though of the masochistic sort that cheered whenever Greer verbally abused his sex.
First on to her feet - and how could it have been otherwise? - was Ms Greer, reading from that clarion call to the unliberated, apron-string- throttled ladies of the late Sixties, The Female Eunuch. Greer is the Tyson of feminism: mean, tough, never lost for an outrageous put-down of those puling menfolk. If Greer were to glimpse an unattached penis on the pavement, she would use it to throttle the next man she saw.
Dressed in tweed jacket and severe, schoolmarmish grey, she reads from the book's last chapter, "Revolution", which contains, somewhat bizarrely, a fierce attack upon the "singed face" of ... Barbara Castle, of all people. Surely some mistake here, Germaine? Though a senior member of the Labour government, Barbara's gender was never in doubt. Or was it? Greer had to stop to explain this curiosity: Castle, at the instigation of a shortish, wily, pipe-smoke-engulfed genie called Harold Wilson, had tried to take the sting out of a strike by female workers at Dagenham by going along to share a mumsy cup of tea with them in the works canteen - a naked act of gender betrayal. Greer tells us that she's changed her opinion of Barbara since then.
The chapter is tough, strident, full of bold assertions: women, she bawls, must take the steel out of the penis, and make it flesh again. In fact, man must be relieved altogether of the responsibility for sex. Women must glory in the power of the body and its loveliness. They must desire opportunity. Their very souls must change. Hand on hip, and with a martial vehemence, she announces the strict new bed code: "The cunt must come into its own."
Fay Weldon, half-turned towards her, looking up, smiles rather inscrutably, screwing up her eyes. She clearly thinks the same, though she might have expressed it slightly differently.
In fact, when she steps up to the lectern, she looks a little fazed by Greer's big, bold, purposeful words - each one a call to action and renewal. She even repeats a few of them, mantra-like: "Joy, purpose, integrity, magnanimity," she half-whispers, marvelling. "What wonderful words ... yes, we did a lot."
Weldon, a dumpy woman with quite extraordinary blond hair for her age - almost as extraordinary as Jong's - doesn't speak full face to an audience. She stands slightly side-on and confides - as if, amidst all the clamour of this big, girlie night out, she's taken you aside for a rather private chat.
To me, she says, tentatively, feminism was never a movement at all. It was the gradual awareness of a growing consensus, a dawning belief that things couldn't remain as they were; that, frankly, the house-bound lives of "houseproud" women were intolerable. Running a house was not a sensible occupation for a grown woman. In short, the situation was this: men made the decisions - women tried on the hats. And these emerging beliefs are explored through the characters in her novels. All this is much more tentative and exploratory - and much funnier - than Greer's approach, which consists of marshalling facts and opinions like so many handfuls of mud and flinging them into our faces.
Jong, when she steps up to the mike, is full of cajoling, stiff-smiling New York talk. And, unlike her sober- suited sisters, she's really dressed up for the big night - in a gorgeously loud purple trouser suit, and with big, lipsticky lips and dewdrop earrings. She wings us back to those innocent years of the early Seventies, and to the inner yearnings of that young and naive heroine of hers, Isadora Wing, who longed above all things else, for the quick, anonymous, consumingly erotic, zipless fuck ...
Reading Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint had been a decisive act for Jong; what would happen, she'd asked herself, if a woman were to write her own version of that book, exposing her own sexual feelings to the world, those longings to be fucked in every hole, all those soupy feelings that no female writer had ever dared to put down on paper because they'd all been in hock to big Hubby or even bigger Daddy? She knew before she even began that she was doing something that everyone would think was very, very bad. And so it turned out. The reaction had been extreme. And 15 million copies had got sold.
Then she turned to Greer, who was sitting behind her. "But she was the one who had dazzled us, by admitting that she'd tasted her own menstrual blood. It seemed so admirable, so daring ..."
Greer's mouth fell open. Her hands flew up to clutch at her cheeks. Everyone shrieked with laughter - what a great party this was proving to be!
Then she denied that she'd said it. That didn't seem to matter too much, though. The fact was that Jong had thought she'd read that she'd said it - or perhaps she'd just thought that she'd read it ... Anyway, it had opened the floodgates to that glorious menstrual stream of consciousness that's been gushing away happily ever since.
After that, the mood of the party got a little blacker - was it the lateness of the hour or the gravity of the themes? For whatever reason, Jong thought that, in spite of all their efforts, not too much had changed for the better; and Greer got into lots of lurid details of men torturing girls and women. Why do those disgusting, hateful men come to hate us so much? she asked, warming her hands at the brazier of her own obsessions.
It was much worse than that, though. "We don't know which men hate us and when, and whether they hate us all of the time or some of the time ..." (Didn't Abraham Lincoln say something like that?) "You can't spend too long studying it, though, or you'd cut your throat ..." Everyone looked thoroughly miserable at the thought of that happening amidst all this. Being women though, none of them were carrying knives.
By the time the bouncers and their male mastiffs walked on to tell the girls that it was all over, and would they please gather their brave and well-thumbed books and other personal effects together and get the hell out of the building, some kind of an uneasy compromise had been reached. By some of the people anyway. "I personally would like to declare a truce between the sexes," said Fay, sounding shockingly prim. "I too," said Erica, narrowing her eyes, "but I don't want to look a fool."
Greer just sniffed. She wasn't having any of that two-bit, easy-street, compromise tomfoolery, not she of all people, with that big reputation of hers as a sexual roustabout to think about. After all, wasn't she the one who'd committed adultery seven times before she'd even walked out on her husband of three weeks' standing? So she begged to differ by tossing in an irrelevance for the sheer bravado of it.
"If anyone tells you that women have it all, slug 'em."
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