Oh dear, Germaine

Natasha Walter, who has angered Dr Greer, responds to the veteran feminist's sad new book

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One of the greatest lessons that feminism has taught us is how varied women are. In releasing women in the West from the gilded cage of Victorian femininity, feminism revealed a range of behaviours that can be dazzling in their scope. We can see that scope for individuality in public life when we look at women as different in their goals and behaviour as Mo Mowlam and Doreen Lawrence and Tracey Emin and Antonia Byatt. We can see the individual woman as a leader, a mother, a rebel, an artist, and we know that any of the roles a woman takes on will change and overlap as she moves through her life. In this era the only feminism that makes sense to me is one that acknowledges the differences between women, and yet still encourages women to work together to forge a more equal society.

Germaine Greer, who I believe helped to spring open that cage of femininity in her first book, The Female Eunuch, is now refusing to acknowledge the differences among women. In her new book, The Whole Woman, she tries to blend all women's lives into one shared experience of sorrow and unrequited love. This is a woman's life today, according to Greer: "Her duty is ... to be found attractive by others whose responses she cannot dictate.... The woman who is never mated must grieve. If she is mated and left, she remains forlorn. If she bears no child, she is disappointed; if she bears a child ... she is not entitled to remain in close contact with it and must mourn its loss.... Poverty, drudgery and loneliness are valid reasons for sadness; beyond and beneath, far outreaching them all, is unrequited love. Love of the father, love of the partner, love of the child, all remain for the vast majority of women unrequited. A woman's beloveds are the centre of her life, she must agree to remain far from the centre of theirs. So desolate does she feel sometimes, that her own act of disinterested kindness to a stranger can move her to tears."

I don't believe that this dolorous face is the only expression that women wear today. Yes, injustice and discrimination still run throughout our society. All women suffer injustice some of the time, and some women suffer it all of the time. Some younger women are beginning to feel that they own their own bodies and can enjoy the strength that comes from working with other powerful women. Other women are cutting and starving themselves or standing alone on street corners to feed a drug habit. Unless we acknowledge the differences among women, and seek concrete goals that women can work towards together, how can feminism move forwards?

I have always been wary of feminists who seek to tell me that I must share a common personal experience with them that, more often than not, seems utterly alien to me. In Greer's eyes, if I am a woman I must not only be very sad, I must be obsessed with my body, and I must have really bad sex. "The sexuality that has been freed is male sexuality which is fixated on penetration," she tells us. Except among those women and men who are not so fixated. "Women ... do not come to love the objects of their love by fucking them." Except when they do. "Penetration has but little to do with love and even less with esteem." Except when it has everything to do with love. Of course sexual violence and coercion are still prevalent, and one of the greatest goals for feminism is to free women from the fear and reality of violence. But why can't Greer acknowledge the confidence and freedom that many women now bring to their sexual lives? The liberation that Greer herself helped us to achieve she now denies.

Greer claims that this book was one she was reluctant to write. She has said that my book, The New Feminism, spurred her to such fury that she felt she had to respond. At the end of The Whole Woman she takes up an argument with "new feminism", which she equates with "lifestyle feminism". But that equation makes me wonder if she ever read my book. She repeats the nonsense that has been put forward by a few sloppy journalists, that "new feminism" argues for the "right to be pretty in an array of floaty dresses and little suits". This idea bears little relation to the argument that I actually put forward in The New Feminism. Sure, I want to chuck the puritanism that is embedded in Greer's judgements on women's clothes and make-up and sexual habits. But above all I want to get away from the idea that feminism should be obsessed with women's personal lives, on what they wear and how they make love. More important by far is the pursuit of real, concrete equality and power, and the struggle to release women from the poverty and violence and injustice that they still suffer. I want to get away from a feminism that is fixated on women's personal lives. If anyone is a lifestyle feminist, it is surely Germaine Greer, with her desire to scrutinise and judge women for their shopping habits and what they do in bed.

It's a pity that Greer feels the need to set up this fake new feminism to knock down, since feminists have more important enemies to fight than one another. The injustices that women still face are only too real. Greer does explore here, as she has before, how women are still locked out of power, and where her passion is based on concrete injustice it is stirring and sympathetic.

Greer also attempts to set up a picture of international feminist potential. That is a great aim. Many of the most important challenges facing women today are not taking place in the West, especially the clash between some Islamic regimes and women's rights, and the feminisation of poverty in the South. But some of Greer's pronouncements on women's struggles outside the West are bizarre. What are we to make of her claim that female genital mutilation "could be as gratifying to the Somali woman" as body-piercing is to Western women - no matter that clitoridectomy is performed not on individual women who choose it in adulthood but on little girls who are not even told what is happening to them? What are we to make of her instruction in her first chapter that we should have supported the Iranian women who "donned the chador and howled the Americans out of Iran", when some of us are more eager to support the women who didn't don the chador and were beaten for that refusal?

And will Greer's vision of the future inspire younger women? She sees men and women drifting so far apart now that "The only way to correct such asymmetry is for women to make a conscious decision not to want men's company more than men want women's. If that means segregation, so be it. If the alternative is humiliation, there is no alternative." Luckily, there is an alternative. It is visible all around us, in our homes and workplaces, wherever men and women are tentatively trying to discover more equal ways of living and working. Of course the journey to this equality is only just beginning; there are many blind alleys and false starts. But that is no reason to give up and retreat into segregation. Pragmatic initiatives to try to find ways in which women and men can move forward together - such as parental leave or the minimum wage - are hardly as attention-grabbing as a call for segregation, but they will probably turn out more useful to more women.

Greer's fundamental conclusion is that the pursuit of equality is now doomed. Instead, women must pursue liberation. "Equality must be seen to be a poor substitute for liberation," she says. Is this a valid distinction? I believe that the pursuit of liberation - the peculiar, individual, often contradictory journey to find freedom from the lies and conventions around us - is something that each individual woman can take on for herself. And yet I believe that it is only possible to pursue that liberation if you are not ground down by an economic and political system that systematically discriminates against you.

Inequality in Britain is not a side issue. Inequality locks women out of power, and condemns women to poverty. Inequality prevents women from being fairly rewarded for their work, from being able to speak out and be heard, from being able to bring up their children in dignity, from bringing those who rape and beat them to justice. The struggle for equality is not the struggle to reshape women in the pattern of men, since men's lives too must be revolutionised if equality is to be grasped. Feminism must transform society so that women feel that they can have an equal stake in it, at work and at home. Then indeed we will see the rise of the liberated woman.

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