This issue, Cabinet looks back at Germaine Greer, who despite her popularity amid second wave feminism in the 60s and 70s, has become all but forgotten. In fact, most discussions of late about Greer have centered on her transphobic views, and college campuses have even attempted to ban her public speaking appearances. Below, Carmen Winant of Cabinet looks back at Greer’s star, from peak shine to fade. Full piece here.
One great thing about the feminist revolution of the 1960s and 1970s was its ability to make a scene. Take the unforgettable “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” a panel that took place in New York City in 1971 in which four female delegates were tapped to speak in a discussion moderated by Norman Mailer, who had just published the decidedly un-feminist The Prisoner of Sex. Billed as a dialogue, the result—documented in filmmaker D. A. Pennebaker’s Town Bloody Hall—more closely resembled a riot. The teeming crowd became unruly even before the event had started, with one heckler yelling out above the din, “Women’s lib betrays the poor! Norman Mailer betrays the poor!” The audience, which included Betty Friedan and a soft-spoken Susan Sontag, came to hear about the burgeoning revolution. They came to see Mailer publicly attack, and be attacked by, the women’s libbers about the politics of sex. But most of all, they came to see Germaine Greer.
She was something to be seen: clad in a black fur jacket and a glamorous floor-length sleeveless dress, the thirty-two-year-old Greer was six feet tall, angular verging on bony, and in possession of a thick crown of frizzed-out black hair. Her style on stage was less performance than poised seduction. Despite her languid manner, which noticeably awed the other panelists, Greer’s responses to both Mailer and the audience were so razor sharp it’s hard to believe they were delivered extempore. At one point, Greer chastens a man who inquires what he might expect of sex in the feminist age, what women are “asking for,” by responding without hesitation (and more than a little unkindly), “You might as well relax. Whatever it is they’re asking for, honey, it’s not for you.” Unabashed and wildly charismatic, Greer was the most important feminist in the world. Today, few remember her name.
Greer was born in January 1939 in Melbourne, during a record heat wave (it averaged 110 degrees Fahrenheit the week she was delivered) and in the wake of the Black Friday Fires, which burned nearly five million acres of Australian bush. She grew up in the suburbs, went to private Roman Catholic schools, and, by all accounts, was exceptionally smart. According to her rambling but occasionally moving 1990 book Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, Greer’s World War II veteran father was an anxiety-riddled wreck who was abusive toward her mother and distant around his children. The book also alludes to abuse suffered at the hands of her mother, later described as a “terrorizing force” by Greer biographer Christine Wallace. By 1954, Greer was sixteen, five feet eleven, and having a love affair with a female classmate. By age seventeen, she was enrolled in the University of Melbourne, possessing—again, according to Wallace—an “intellectual arrogance” and a tendency to be bullying in arguments. She starting wearing long gowns, took up acting, dated a philosophy professor whom she would later describe as her most important romantic partner, and studied Lord Byron. By age twenty, she was a self-made, self-described anarchist communist.
It wasn’t until moving to Cambridge, England, in 1964 to pursue her PhD in Elizabethan drama that Greer uncovered her real revolutionary ambitions and began to court public notice. Greer’s various pursuits included acting on stage, where she went by the name Rose Blight; cohosting, along with the DJ Kenny Everett, the comedy television series Nice Time; penning satirical garden columns under the pseudonym Dr. G.; playing the sex-kittenish lead in a short film called Darling, Do You Love Me?, and cofounding the radical pro-pornography magazine Suck. (Greer herself appeared nude in its pages, as well as in Oz, another underground periodical based in London; a few photos, more slapstick than smutty, still live on online.) She married a construction worker and divorced three weeks later. Presumably influenced by the New York Radical Women’s protest at the Miss America Pageant around the same time, she called bras “a ludicrous invention” and spoke openly against monogamy; to the then thirty-year-old Greer, both were conditions of a deeply socialized patriarchy that desperately needed upending. Everyone who knew her reported that she was funny, exceedingly quick, and vulgar, using phrases like “cunt-lapping,” “motherfucking,” and “cocksucking” while making discursive arguments about sexual power. (She would be arrested in 1972 for using similar language during a talk in New Zealand.) Greer was wildly unapologetic about her opinions, her manner of speaking, and her commanding body. She had, to paraphrase Mailer, the gift of impossible presence.
The Female Eunuch, Greer’s first book and the central node of her career, came out in 1970. It was a sensation, selling out its print run in a matter of months and establishing Greer as a leading mind in women’s liberation and an international intellectual celebrity. More than other books that came out around its time, including Kate Millet’s 1969 text Sexual Politics and Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, also published in 1970, Eunuch was written to be read by women who were not intellectuals, and existed outside of the movement. According to Greer, feminism was, and had to be, for everyone. This was a book written to women and not just for women. Divided into cogent sections called “Gender,” “Curves,” “Hair,” “Sex,” and “The Wicked Womb,” it described the ways in which sexism was institutionalized in every woman’s life, from hair products to housewifery. Even when Greer’s ideas themselves were risky or rarefied, her colloquial, often-vulgar style of writing helped her to connect with common women. The book’s most often quoted line gives a good sense: “If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood—if it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go.”
The strategy worked. Eunuch had tremendous reach, selling out its first two runs and eventually being translated into eleven languages. The book was discussed on late-night talk shows and in middle-class living rooms. It has never gone out of print. Gloria Steinem and Letty Pogrebin founded Ms. magazine the year after its release; following Greer’s lead, feminist activists were finding a way to popularize and disseminate their message into the mainstream.
While it touched on issues from consumerism to menstruation, Eunuch had a single argument at its core: gendered oppression is all-pervasive. It argued that women were systematically subjugated to the power and will of men and too fearful, polite, or unaware to retaliate and claim authority over their own lives. “What many women mistake for happiness is in fact resignation,” Greer told an Australian reporter the year Eunuch was published. More importantly, she made the case that this deeply inculcated sexism was the product not of fear but hostility. It was a loaded idea that would inform feminist, and eventually queer, theoretical discourse to come. In a now famous, blunt line from the book, she wrote, “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.” This societal structure, according to Greer‘s text, repressed women sexually and severed them from their libidos—hence the title of the book, a premise initially derived from a chapter of Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice entitled “Allegory of the Black Eunuch.” Divorced from their sexuality, women were not self- empowered, but rather submissive, demeaned, and, in some cases, enslaved. Lacking agency of their own, they had come not only to be hated by men but by themselves. “Out of her own and her man’s imagination,” Greer wrote, “she will continue to apologize and disguise her … crippled and fearful self.” This idea, that power was tethered not only to making money and asserting physical dominance but ownership over one’s sexual desires, was novel. Just seven years prior in her book The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan had written of the malaise of the American housewife as “the problem that has no name.” The Female Eunuch, as a title and an idea, claimed just the opposite. Greer’s words cut like a precise blade; reading them one recalls just why the sexual revolution was called a war.
It was a daring thesis for a daring time, and Greer met praise and backlash in equal measure. Both responses prompted her to become the public face of women’s liberation, a position she took on with gusto. Greer travelled around the world being photographed, giving lectures, granting interviews, and engaging in debates. Unlike other feminist radicals such as Andrea Dworkin, Robin Morgan, Susan Brownmiller, Sheila Jeffreys, or Mary Daly, she was fast becoming a household name, intent on delivering her message through literary and pop channels alike. Greer’s contemporary Gloria Steinem was perhaps the only other figure in the movement to become a public personality, appearing on the covers of Newsweek in 1971, McCall’s in 1972, and People in 1974. Greer undoubtedly courted media attention; to what extent she did so because she felt it necessary to act as the ambassador of her cause, as opposed to simply desiring personal fame in its own right, remains unclear.
Several months after her book was published, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation created a short documentary about Greer on her return trip to Melbourne, which was nationally televised. In a particularly powerful scene, a group of local teenage schoolgirls describe how the book helped refashion their sense of self-worth. One pig-tailed girl states, “They are conditioning us to take the place of an average housewife.” It is Greer’s text, she reports, that has opened her eyes to society’s attempts to “brainwash” her into submission. Greer herself is interviewed for the film while leaning against a brick wall and smoking a cigarette. Coolly self-assured, she appears custom-built to lead a modern women’s revolution.
The following year, in 1971, Greer was featured on the cover of Life magazine reclining on a park bench under the imprudent title, “Saucy Feminist That Even Men Like.” (One reader smartly wrote in to the editor, “Now that you are taking oppressed people so seriously, I am looking forward to the companion article: ‘Saucy Black Militants That Even Whites Like.’”) The magazine—which pictured Greer yelling at a protest; laughing at a party as she sits on the floor with a long-haired young man, their limbs entwined; carrying a bundle of branches in the countryside—attempted to create a holistic, if whitewashed, portrait of the young, pioneering feminist. With the exception of Greer’s statement that “women should never marry,” the article was tame; consider by comparison the titles of her pieces “I Am a Whore” and “Welcome to the Shit-Storm,” contributed to Suck and Oz magazines, respectively, the same year. Within a few months’ time, Greer was interviewed by Playboy and wrote a story for Harper’s about George McGovern, the Democratic presidential nominee. Her name appeared much larger than her subject’s on the cover.
In a 1973 debate on the resolution “This House supports the Women’s Liberation Movement” at her alma mater, Cambridge University, Greer took on the American conservative William F. Buckley. In contrast to the language in her book, the debate was highly intellectual in tone—“I am not talking to this audience as I would talk to those of my sisters who are working in factories,” Greer acknowledged—reminding her contemporaries that she was not just a radical, but a radical with a PhD. She triumphed so decisively that Buckley wrote in his 1989 memoir Firing Line: “[Greer] trounced [me]. … Nothing I said, and memory reproaches me for having performed miserably, made any impression or any dent in the argument. She carried the house overwhelmingly.” From a man who made a career of debating, facing off against public intellectuals with progressive values such as Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, and James Baldwin at the same Cambridge dais, among others, the defeat is telling.
During this time, Greer is said to have had trysts with Warren Beatty, Federico Fellini, Martin Amis, and, of all people, her regular sparring partner Norman Mailer. She was popular in every sense of the word. Described by her biographer as having “the youth, the charisma, the chutzpah and the media savvy” to lead the movement, Greer had managed to both radicalize and glamorize women’s liberation. In her wake, more and more women were self-identifying as feminists and organizing consciousness-raising groups within their local communities. The revolution was finally being substantiated through the kind of collective ownership she had so vehemently fought for. And then, just as suddenly, Greer wasn’t relevant.
Some probably saw it coming. For one thing, Eunuch had its problems. It did not propose concrete solutions to the questions it raised, prompting frustration within the ranks. Greer never mentioned abortion or reproductive rights in the text, failing to anticipate what many would claim as the critical feminist issue of the next four decades: Roe v. Wade would be written into law just four years after Eunuch was published. As with most second-wave leaders, Greer spoke to gender alone as a source of oppression for women, failing to acknowledge how poor or non-white women might be oppressed by other forms of socialized patriarchy. And, despite her early and progressive views on gay rights, Greer was, and continues to be, largely transphobic. In Eunuch, for instance, she alludes to the story of a man who wants to become a woman, understanding the impulse as identification with, and craving for, feminine subjugation. This attitude persisted most notably in Greer’s 1999 book The Whole Woman, in which, in a chapter entitled “Pantomime Dames,” she chastised society’s acceptance of male-to-female transsexuals, writing, “The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.”