With typical bawdy irreverence, Germaine Greer once said of her influence on the press that “if I peed on the paper, they’d print the stain”. And since that 1971 comment, following publication of The Female Eunuch, she has never retired from the public gaze, retaining for more than 40 years her position as the world’s most recognisable feminist – even if some of those she once inspired now hold her in disdain.
She craves attention. The writer Stephanie Merritt observed in 2003 that “her ability to remain so prominently in the public consciousness comes from an astute understanding and well-established symbiotic relationship with a media as eager to be shocked as she is to shock”.
And, at 76, Greer is still in the news. A 30,000-word love letter, written to Martin Amis when they were having an affair in 1976, has been unearthed in an archive of diaries, manuscripts and letters, which the author has given to the University of Melbourne for posterity. For once, Greer seems reluctant for her words to be known. The university is trying to persuade her to allow publication of the missive, written while travelling in America and titled “The Long Letter to a Short Love”.
Excerpts range from her branding of the Grand Canyon as “the biggest arsehole in the world” to her poetic description of Amis’s features. “It astonishes me with that tobacco hair and those tangled black eyelashes that you do not have brown eyes. Your eyes ... are cool coloured, sort of air force blue-grey, and strangely unreflecting. You slide them away from most things and look at people through your thick eyelids, under your hair, your eyebrows and your lashes.” One of the 20th century’s greatest feminists wrote her master’s thesis on Byron.
Her other foray into the recent headlines was more typical. She defied a cluster of protesters to go ahead with a lecture at Cardiff University, amid high security after attempts to ban her appearance on the grounds of her outspoken refusal to accept post-operative transsexuals as women. “I don’t believe a woman is a man without a cock,” she told her audience, unrepentant. “You can beat me over the head with a baseball bat. It still won’t make me change my mind.”
Greer does not back down from a fight. Quite the opposite. The Encyclopaedia of Women & Leadership in Twentieth-Century Australia describes her as “a ‘ball-breaker’ who could reduce male interviewers to jelly and enjoy it”. She is also engaging; the room at Cardiff was packed. When she was a fellow at her old all-women’s college, Newnham, Cambridge, students flocked to lectures that were more humorous, theatrical and energetic than those of other academics. Greer has always embodied those qualities and was held in awe by those around her.
When she arrived at Newnham to do her doctorate, a fellow student, the late Lisa Jardine, was stunned by Greer’s “strong Australian voice reverberating round the room” in defiance of a call to order by the college principal. Worse, she was holding forth with “words such as ‘bra’ and ‘breasts’ (or maybe she said ‘tits’)”, apparently unconcerned by “the pseudo-masculine solemnity of a college dinner”.
Greer came to England in 1964 as a former convent school girl, but one who went straight from university in Melbourne to join the Sydney Push, a counter-culture group dedicated to anarchist politics and libertarian sex. Even among these radicals she liked to shock. One Push colleague recalled that Greer “never menstruates. She haemorrhages once a month and gives you a drip-by-drip description”.
Her looks rarely escaped notice. “Striking” was the word most commonly used to describe a young woman who stood 6ft tall, had high cheekbones, poise and panache. Among young male intellectuals she was sexually confident. The journalist Richard Neville recalled how she tweaked his nipples and told him: “You should learn to masturbate all your male parts.” She bet friends in the Push that she could seduce Clive James and, when she strode towards him “like a Homeric goddess”, he ran off and hid behind a gum tree.
In England, Neville (who founded the radical magazine Oz and made her a columnist) and James (with whom she joined the Cambridge Footlights, becoming its first full female member) were allies. James remembered her in her college room, decorated like “a dream from the Arabian nights”, hammering away at her typewriter “10 hours a day”.
The Female Eunuch instantly made her famous. It was translated into eight languages, and The New York Times columnist Judith Weinraub remarked that Greer was “the person most likely to be seen on television screens here”. Describing the book’s purpose to Weinraub, Greer said: “Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They’ve become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master’s ulterior motives – to be fattened or made docile – women have been cut off from their capacity for action.”
She became the voice of second-wave feminism. For a time, she travelled the world investigating the plight of women. Her 1984 book, Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility, argued against attempts by developed countries to impose birth control on poorer nations.
Five years later she wrote Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, in which she denounced her father as “weak, craven, feeble” and accused him of having “terrorised” her mother, who in turn took it out on her elder daughter. Greer’s own marriage, in 1968 to a construction worker with a degree, lasted three weeks. “He was shaping me to his needs and trying to conquer me,” she later explained. Greer told The New York Times in 1992: “I have always wished I would fall in love with a woman.”
In her book of that year, The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause, Greer complained of “the unfairness of a system that lionises the silver-haired male while scorning his female counterpart as beyond use, pathetic, desiccated, desexualised, a crone”. She returned to this unfairness in recent comments on transgender women. Greer is consistent in her position: she resigned from Newnham in 1997 when the college made a fellow of physicist Rachael Padman, who was born male.
Outside her work, Greer has found joy in nature, growing a wood at her country home in Essex and buying a piece of rainforest in Queensland. But even here she has sought out controversy. When macho Australian naturalist Steve Irwin was killed by a stingray in 2006, Greer wrote callously that “the animal world has finally taken its revenge”.
In 1999’s The Whole Woman, Greer compared female genital mutilation to body piercing (“If an Ohio punk has the right to have her genitalia operated on, why has not the Somali woman the same right?”), and dismissed the “girl power” movement, led by the Spice Girls. She’s attracted to popular culture. She was “tempted” to take part in I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! but declined, feeling angry that it was filmed on the “doorstep” of her own patch of forest. She did go on Celebrity Big Brother in 2005 but stormed out, complaining of “bullying”.
Wherever Greer goes, a storm is sure to follow. And, after a lifetime of being “an anarchist, basically”, she still holds the world transfixed.
A life in brief
Born: 29 January 1939, Melbourne, Australia.
Family: Eldest child of Eric Greer, a press advertising executive, and Margaret Lafrank.
Education: Attended a convent school; BA in English and French from the University of Melbourne and a PhD in English literature from the University of Cambridge.
Career: After several academic posts, her first book, The Female Eunuch, was published in 1970. Prolific writer, including The Whole Woman (1999), and commentator.