Germaine's desperate bid for attention

One leading feminist's attack on another has more to do with generation al conflict than ideology

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This week the tabloid press have had a field day with the latest spat between feminist gurus. The headlines say it all: "Sisters At War", "The Battle of the Generations: Suzanne Moore versus Germaine Greer". And all because Germaine Greer wrote a column for the Guardian attacking the paper's other feminist columnist.

The attack was shot through with generational tensions, with Greer criticising Moore as "a feminist of the younger school", going on to critique not Moore's feminism, but, instead, her hair, make-up, figure,way of speaking and for smoking. It was spiked, but the Spectator is running it.

Many people will dismiss this as another example of backlash times. After all, there is a long tradition in the British media (still predominantly male led) of using women to do their dirty work for them in this so-called Battle of the Sexes. Barbara Follett, founder of Emily's List UK (the movement to get more Labour women into Parliament), recently bore the brunt of it - with her feminism and the practical work of Emily's list trivialised by writers because of her lifestyle, wealth and her rather unfortunate comment "Lipstick is power". More often than not, the criticisms tend to focus on the woman's appearance - how pretty she is, how fat or thin, and whether too much or too little make up is worn.

This tradition is old and tired. Which is why for all the furore over Germaine Greer's comments, it's important not to get over excited. Greer is following in a long tradition of she-bitches who have always done this kind of thing: women all too willing to collude in the rubbishing of their own sex for personal career advancement.

That said, it does seem to be a spectacular own goal for feminism that such a well known guru has launched such an attack. And it's ironic that someone who clearly sees herself as carrying the feminist torch has so overtly reneged on the principle of solidarity amongst the sisterhood, and in such a personal and vindictive way.That's why, whether we like it or notthe old cry of backlash simply won't wash. So what is the meaning of it all?

Generational tension is clearly part of the answer. And it's not only Suzanne Moore who has been the butt of this. Only last week, Rene Denfield, a 27-year-old feminist and amateur boxer from the States came to Britain last week to promote her book The New Victorians (Simon & Schuster), dubbed by her publishers as "a young woman's challenge to the feminist order" for her argument that feminism's leaders have failed the younger generation.

She might have expected a bumpy ride in America - certainly from the gurus she was attacking - but here in Britain she was dismissed as "yet another big haired American" from a feminist forty-something, Linda Grant. Everywoman, the feminist magazine, dismissed her on ideological counts: headlined "Twisted Sister" its article went on to criticise her as "yet another American twenty-something not-feminist" bound to be covered in the mainstream press by "dozens of slobbering `gosh, a pretty feminist' articles".

Denfield was fighting fit when I met her at the weekend, angry at the ease with which feminists resort to statements about physical appearance as the first line of attack: as if to be pretty or sexy somehow diminishes the intellectual rigour of an argument, an approach used to create a climate in which certain sacred truths of feminist orthodoxy can simply not be questioned, let alone argued against. The result, she argues, is a conspiracy of silence operating in American and British feminism and an unwillingness to engage with new ideas.

Today's young American women are more feminist in their values than any previous generation, but they are deeply reluctant to identify with the leaders or the movement itself, partly because of its perceived failure to address the issues facing many ordinary women: the problems of child care, coping as a single parent, balancing work and home.

The same trends are visible in the UK. Feminism seems in a tired state, unable to rejuvenate itself from within, nor to connect easily with younger women. Research by Gerda Siann at Glasgow Caledonian University among Scottish students found that whilst 63 per cent of female students were very or quite sympathetic to feminism, just over half made negative remarks about feminists. Thus while many young women are feminist in all but name they remain disconnected from the movement or its leaders. Greer herself is hardly a popular role model for many young women. One poll of women aged between 18-34 found that Anita Roddick was cited as a role model by 36 per cent of women; Margaret Thatcher by 33 per cent and Germaine Greer a mere 7 per cent. In the Nineties, generational tensions - differences of perspective borne of growing up in a different environment - are cutting through many of the certainties of gender politics.

Moreover, even committed feminists who have followed the writings of Germaine Greer must be somewhat confused. The ideological twists and turns throughout her writing career make the mind boggle. It began in 1970 with The Female Eunuch, a smash-hit celebration of female independence and sexuality. Fourteen years later she performed an about-turn with Sex and Destiny which attacked the ideology of sexual freedom, praised marriage, chastity and the Islamic veil, and opposed birth control, sex for fun and clitoral masturbation. Then in 1991 we had a return to a feminist matriarchal vision with ageing and the menopause celebrated in The Change.

Her writings are almost autobiographical as she moves from one life-stage to the next. None of this is to say that the issues she writes about do not have any appeal or validity. Clearly they do. But when you read a book by Germaine Greer you feel that you are essentially reading a book about her. Thus it should come as no surprise that the woman who was herself part of a generational revolt in the Sixties - in which the virtues of youth were extolled - is now, 30 years on, taking to the soapbox to criticise the cult of youth that pervades our society today.

And that is why, increasingly, Greer's outburst seems less concerned with feminism and more about a reassertion of me-ism: the idea that whatever has happened and is happening to Germaine Greer at any given moment is somehow all important, more important than what is happening in women's lives more generally. Maybe this week's outburst was quite simply inspired by the fact that Greer cannot stand anyone else treading on turf she sees as her own.

After all, she has been an excellent self-publicist, perfecting the cult of the controversial female personality. And if it is me-ism, rather than a critique of a certain style of feminism which is the root cause of this week's events, then Greer may well be calculating that her fame and notoriety lies in setting herself up as Britain's answer toCamille Paglia. Judging by the headlines and column inches generated this week already, this is certainly one way to sate a hungry ego. But in the meantime let's hope that the mother of feminism will have time to reflect and by this weekend will decide that it has all been a terrible mistake and that a period of silence on her part is now in order.

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