When heroine worship turns sour

As Germaine Greer has found, success provokes as much hostility as admiration - especially from other women
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Two or three years ago, I was asked to speak at the Oxford Union along with Jenni Murray, presenter of Woman's Hour, and the Australian novelist Kathy Lette. There was an uncomfortable atmosphere and Kathy's joke about male chauvinism in Australia - "Our boyfriends expected us to sunbathe with their names cut out in paper on our stomachs. Twenty years later you get a melanoma called Bruce" - fell completely flat. The reason became clear when we agreed to answer questions. A sizeable minority of the audience was furious and they got up, one by one, and savaged us. They accused us of wearing designer clothes (true), demanded to know why I had written an article attacking women who shave their legs (not me, guv), then delivered the knockout blow: "You call yourself feminists but you haven't stopped rape in Bosnia."

I remembered this event when I read that Germaine Greer had been tied up at her home in Essex in an incident involving a student from Bath University. The precise details are not clear - the young woman is due to appear in court this week - but Ms Greer said she had always been aware of the danger of an assault. "Ever since I published The Female Eunuch there's been an off-chance that some nutter is going to pick me off, judging by the hostility in the letters," she admitted last week. In a world in which people are always lamenting the absence of female role models, it is an unpleasant fact that women like Ms Greer seem to trigger as much antipathy as admiration.

Ironically, this seems to be especially true of feminists. Kathy, Jenni and I were bemused by the onslaught against us in Oxford: two of us are novelists, Jenni is a broadcaster, we are all feminists, but who ever imagined that we could prevent rape in Bosnia?

It is only reasonable to feel let down, as our accusers appeared to be, if your expectations are realistic in the first place. I once received a fan letter from a woman who had just read my book Misogynies, which went something like this: "You seem to have a stronger sense of identity than most women. Can you advise me how to get one?"

Third aisle on the left, next to Feminine Hygiene, in Sainsbury's? The request is absurd, but it also sends shivers down the spine. Perhaps it is a measure of how powerless some women feel, that they heap expectations on strangers in this way. It represents an almost comical misunderstanding of what writers can achieve. Peace in the Balkans? That's next week. But it isn't difficult to imagine a cycle which begins with admiration and identification, then turns to acute disappointment. In a crazy inversion of the old feminist slogan, the political suddenly becomes very personal - and a hapless author finds herself living out the plot of Misery, the horror movie in which a writer falls into the clutches of a deranged fan.

What I have also noticed about powerful women of a certain type is that they stir up envy and jealous rage. When Harriet Harman was a Cabinet minister, her appearances on television frequently produced hate mail so virulent that it shocked the programme producers, especially as it came from women. Envy is a nasty emotion and not much talked about, especially by feminists. We do not like to think about strangers loathing us because we happen to have written widely read books, run a publishing house or reached the top in politics.

But they do, and an oblique sort of confirmation is provided by the murder of Jill Dando, which took place a year ago last week. Immediately after the murder, she was elevated to the role of secular saint, praised in terms which bore little relation either to the real woman, whom most of us did not know, or her achievements.

With intense public interest in the case, the police were under enormous pressure to solve it, even though it was always a fair bet that it would turn into one of those perennially intriguing mysteries, a domestic version of the death of Marilyn Monroe or Who Killed JFK?

Yet the hyperbolic reaction at the time demonstrates that the impulse to create heroines is complicated by unconscious feelings of envy. When Ms Dando was alive, she was the girl who had everything: blond hair, good looks, glamorous job, huge salary, personable boyfriend.

People recognised her face and read about her in magazines but it was only in death, when it had all been snatched away, that she acquired superstar status. In that sense, overvaluing someone like Ms Dando is the other side of a coin which is inscribed with hostile, envious feelings towards living women.

Hers is not the only example. The sickly cults of dead women which have been such a feature of post-war Western culture - Marilyn, Evita, Diana and so on - are almost certainly the products of guilt, inspired by the envy their fans felt when they were alive, and relief.

After all, no one envies the dead. They are not going to disappoint their admirers by leaving letters unanswered, changing their minds about some major issue or failing to achieve world peace. Maybe when we get equality with men - in about 332 years, at the present rate of progress - famous women like Ms Greer will no longer stand out or attract hate mail. But I won't hold my breath. It is not only gentlemen who prefer dead blondes.

Fortunately, most of the people who turn up unannounced on my doorstep are merely trying to sell me something. In recent weeks I have been asked to change my gas and electricity suppliers, to buy insipid watercolours, overpriced dusters, a card entitling me to cut-price meals at a local restaurant, and fish. Fending off importunate vendors has become one of the drawbacks of working at home; I don't know if it is lingering sexism, but they all assume I have nothing better to do than discuss the price of haddock. But I am writing a book, with a looming deadline, and every unwanted visitor is an infuriating interruption.

I was so preoccupied when the fish man turned up that I bought heaps of fish, forgetting a crucial fact. I don't have a freezer. But now a friend has warned me about a new hazard. Last week, the doorbell rang and she was confronted with a door-to-door poet. He waved a dog-eared collection of verse, and asked for £3.50. She knocked him down to three quid, all the change she had, and he went away. This is terrible news: the prospect of discussing iambic pentameters on the doorstep is more than I can bear. How would these people like it if I turned up at their homes, trying to flog a few old columns? Perhaps I should put up a sign: "No circulars, no painters, no fishermen, and absolutely no poets".