Oh dear, Germaine

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

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Java developer - (Intershop Enfinity)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Java Developer...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Oscar Pistorius at the High Court in Pretoria  

Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years in prison - but what then?

Rosie Millard
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album