Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch is considered a seminal text of the women's liberation movement. But according to a fellow Australian writer, Louis Nowra, Greer fundamentally misunderstood how women tick, and modern realities have debunked her vision of how they would live after casting off traditional shackles.
In an essay to mark The Female Eunuch's 40th anniversary, Nowra lambasts the book as "hopelessly middle class" and Greer's depiction of women as misogynistic. The playwright and novelist writes: "She wanted women to undergo a profound change in the way they viewed themselves and their relationships with men. If you look at how Greer thought this could happen and what actually did, then our contemporary world must come as a disappointment to her."
In the essay, published in The Monthly, a current affairs magazine, Nowra not only attacks Greer's work, but criticises her appearance, her character and even her sanity. "She will do anything to get noticed," he says, adding that when Greer appeared on the reality TV show Celebrity Big Brother, she looked like "a befuddled and exhausted old woman" who reminded him of "my demented grandmother".
His comments are likely to raise the hackles of a generation of women who still regard the book – published in Australia in May 1970 and in Britain five months later – as life-changing.
Nowra does acknowledge its influence, writing: "A journalist friend gave it to her mother, who after reading it left her husband. There were countless similar stories." However, he accuses Greer of failing to understand the lives of working-class women, few of whom read The Female Eunuch, he believes, "with its many quotes from Nietzsche, Blake and Shakespeare".
He also ridicules her for exhorting women to give up clothes and make-up. Far from "opting out of their roles as principal consumers in the capital system," he writes, "young women today love shopping more than ever".
Greer's book was published when she was just 31 and it brought her instant fame. Since then, she has rarely been far from controversy. Nowra, too, enjoys stirring up a storm. His 2007 non-fiction work Bad Dreaming, about abuse in Aboriginal communities, drew bitter criticism.
Nowra, who lives a studiedly bohemian life with his writer wife, Mandy Sayer, in Sydney's red-light area, Kings Cross, pokes fun at Greer for urging women to shun marriage and cosmetic surgery. Women are still getting married, he observes, and Botox injections have become virtually a "rite of passage".
He also claims that Greer was "hopelessly idealistic" in her expectation that women would use power differently from men. "Once in possession of it [power], women are just as likely as men to enforce hierarchies and use power for corrupt or ignoble ends," he writes.
Nowra attacks not only The Female Eunuch, which was translated into 11 languages and has sold millions of copies. He pours scorn on Greer's follow-up, The Whole Woman, published in 1999, as well as a recent biography of Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway. He concludes: "As she's grown older, her writings have become increasingly daft; there's now a sense that she is impersonating – even parodying – herself. She has become a grotesque character called Germaine Greer."
Extract: The Female Eunuch
"Maybe I don't have a pretty smile, good teeth, nice tits, long legs, a cheeky arse, a sexy voice. Maybe I don't know how to handle men and increase my market value, so that the rewards due to the feminine will accrue to me. Then again, maybe I'm sick of the masquerade. I'm sick of pretending eternal youth. I'm sick of belying my own intelligence, my own will, my own sex. I'm sick of peering at the world through false eyelashes, so everything I see is mixed with a shadow of bought hairs; I'm sick of weighting my head with a dead mane, unable to move my neck freely, terrified of rain, of wind, of dancing too vigorously in case I sweat into my lacquered curls. I'm sick of the Powder Room. I'm sick of pretending that some fatuous male's self-important pronouncements are the objects of my undivided attention, I'm sick of going to films and plays when someone else wants to, and sick of having no opinions of my own about either. I'm sick of being a transvestite. I refuse to be a female impersonator. I am a woman, not a castrate."