Me and Germaine Greer

Let's begin with the tea towel. I was at primary school, one of three children of a stay-at-home mother. Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch had become a bestseller, and women's liberation was very much in the air. Back then, in our house and in the houses of my friends, one of many instances of domestic tyranny was the ironing pile. These days it seems to me a form of madness. Why iron a handkerchief or a pillow case at all? My own rule is iron nothing unless it's your own shirt. Ironing drove my mother crazy but it hadn't occurred to her to give it up. Dully, she flattened a hanky, a cloth napkin. She picked up a tea towel. And then she snapped. She stamped her foot, mangled the tea towel and shouted, "I hate being a housewife." Soon after she'd embarked on the necessary training and got herself a career. The Female Eunuch had entered the collective consciousness and made the throwing down of the tea towel imperative and right. My mother did it gladly, and not a moment too soon.

The personal is political", began Carol Hanisch's feminist memorandum of 1969. In the early days of the women's movement, Hanisch recalled, men "belittled us no end for trying to bring our so-called personal problems into the public arena – especially all those body issues like sex, appearance and abortion." A year later, Germaine Greer courageously laid bare those body issues in The Female Eunuch, a treatise on the lot of women that was idiosyncratic, hectoring, witty, angry and, for the times, quite inflammatory. Women read it and were exhilarated, threw down their ironing, hurled it across the room at their husbands. It's a book antique enough to contain this startling sentence, "That most virile of creatures, the buck negro, has very little body hair at all", and unscientific enough to give us this gem: "Men's habit of wrapping their nether quarters in long garments has resulted in a wastage of the tissues which can be seen in the chicken legs which they expose on any British resort beach." The book is fascinating now because it fixes, with great clarity, an era and a voice. The fact that it's dated shows how far we've come. It seems an expression of Germaine Greer's deepest self, imaginative and personal as well as passionately political. It is famously the book that "changed lives."

 

In the course of making the personal political, feminism has tended to express itself in terms of memoir as much as polemic. Caitlin Moran, in her 2011 take on feminism, How to Be a Woman, shared details so intimate (on masturbation for example) that Germaine Greer wondered in a review whether Moran might live to regret casting off all vestiges of her privacy. Greer also complained (mildly) that Moran had spent pages talking about subjects Greer had covered herself many times, with no sense they'd been written about before. The elder feminist could take some wry, selfless satisfaction in little sister's complacent ingratitude: big sister is unappreciated, but her work has been done. (And Greer herself has been accused of disregarding her predecessors.) In the Moran review Greer touched on the tension between the personal and political, between memoir and polemic, when she noted that she herself used to be caricatured for "forever prosing about her womb." What she was in fact writing about, she said, was the womb.

 Prosing about the womb: it was never going to be uncomplicated, given that the womb belonged to billions of individuals. In 1970, Germaine Greer looked at women and saw they were hideously hide-bound and oppressed. She sought to liberate them, and has been attempting to do so ever since. The road has been long; there have been many gains, many losses. In 1999, in The Whole Woman, she declared it was "time to get angry again." One guesses she is probably still quite annoyed in 2012. Her temperament could be described as evangelical, and her difficulty has been as much with her flock as with those who have oppressed it. Women keep running off on tangents; she's had no end of trouble trying to herd them back on track. No sooner had Western women achieved work place equality than they started reinventing. Now they wanted to enjoy high heels and make up again, or to watch porn, or to get drunk, have fights, and fuck as many men as they fancied, or to parade through the streets dressed as "sluts". And they still, maddeningly, regressively, wanted to fall in love and marry men, to achieve what boring Bridget Jones yearns for, deep in what Greer scathingly calls "her empty little soul."

The personal is political. When Germaine Greer goes off on one of her sharp, cogent (although somewhat unscientific) riffs about the development of girls, one assumes she is drawing heavily on her own experience. Writing about "the girl" involves writing about the girl one was, and the reader inevitably thinks back too. I remember this personal political moment: when a girl in our street first realised that it was not her I was after when I visited. It was her brother. "You ask for me then you go and play with him," she complained. She was right, although I shiftily denied it. I made a beeline for him because of what he offered: his pets, his BB gun, his eeling expeditions and wild fights with the neighbourhood gang. His sister offered the bland horror of dolls, board games and conversation about clothes. I was about eight years old. Like Germaine Greer, I was beginning to see that traditionally girlish activities were hideously constricting, but did I imagine I could change my friend? No. No evangelical fire lurked in the soul of this evasive tomboy. I didn't want to save a sister from herself. I was a clear-eyed realist, and knew the limits of my powers. And anyway, many of the girls I knew didn't seem so much oppressed as self-censoring and repressive. So I paid lip-service to the girl then sneaked off with the boy. Different temperaments; different ways of dealing with the same problem. Germaine Greer preached change; I grew up and tried to portray these kinds of subtleties in fiction. Both modes of expression involve the hope (more modest on the part of the fiction writer) of increasing understanding.

Germaine Greer, a woman of inordinately high intelligence, was always going to be impatient, driven crazy, indignant, bored out of her mind, dissatisfied, infuriated. She has wanted other women to feel that way too, with good reason, and we should be grateful for her courage, her rigour and her questioning on our behalf. But she has run up against the problem that many women (and obviously men too) are "eunuchs" not only because of social conditioning but because they're not very original or bright, and will always be more content with their lot, and more intellectually lax, and more seduced by simple things, and dazzled by romantic baubles, and generally less high-powered than she would like or expect them to be. There's a kind of comic narrative subtext to her liberation struggles: she leads women over the barricades only to discover that they're lagging behind, and have fallen to bickering, and discussing shoes. The evangelist doesn't stop to consider the possibility that the flock doesn't measure up to the grand ideal. (The artist does. The artist has to have all the sympathy of Christ, but also an unclouded realism.) The evangelist rushes on: she does a lot of haranguing and telling women they shouldn't like things. White weddings! Make up! Fashion! "It's time to get angry again," she said, and a lot of her irritation was directed at women. You give them freedom and half of them behave like airheads. What are you going to do?

Another chapter of the liberation comedy has her fans frowning and puzzling over her latest surprising reversal: "Oh, okay, first she said we should fuck whoever we want but now it's a bad idea." She's a solipsist and she's a compulsive communicator. When Germaine Greer reaches another stage in life she doesn't take it quietly. She constructs a theory, writes a book and tells us all how to deal with it. It's a woman's right to change her mind, and readers must accept her unapologetic revisionism. Having spent years preaching sexual libertarianism, proudly calling herself "whore" and rejecting sexual restraint as a repressive cultural stricture, she began to rethink her ideas when she started yearning for a child. Unable to conceive, she produced a book instead. Sex and Destiny was a reversal of her stance on sexual freedom, in which she abjured Western attitudes to sex, called sex the "new opiate of the people", and extolled the virtues of the traditional extended family. In the course of this weird, romanticised and anti-Western diatribe she even argued in favour of the Islamic veil as an expression of respect for women. Needless to say, she alienated a lot of feminists. In 1992, unforgivably, she expressed sympathy with the persecutors of Salman Rushdie.

She has battled hypocrisy, humbug and conventional wisdom, has been a contrarian, a pioneer, a fighter. She has not been afraid, along the way, to seem eccentric, bonkers, self-indulgent and perverse. You could go mad analysing every statement she makes. She never wanted "equality", she wanted "something better." She didn't want the right to be in the army or on the board of directors, and barely stopped to consider the fact that many women (I, for one) wanted precisely that. For decades the go-to guy for women's issues, she can be relied upon to come out with something striking on any subject. In a 2003 interview with Kim Hill, instead of applauding breast screening campaigns, Greer rolled her eyes. Why can't people shut up about breast cancer, she said. It's just the medical profession making women think their bodies are lethal. Women should be blasé about their health, like men. She shrugged off the possibility of undiagnosed disease, and was untroubled by the fact that her verdict was inconsistent with her earlier writing. She will always come out with the unexpected; sisters, you just have to keep up. "That's bullshit, Germaine," you could say, or "you've changed your tune!" and go at her hammer and tongs, but equally you could save yourself the effort and the boredom. This kind of feminist bickering (are pink ribbon campaigners helping or oppressing us?) can be supremely uninteresting, like gossip or chain smoking; did we really need to spout all that smoke, nothing left afterwards but ash and a headache, and we don't feel better, and nothing has changed.

So the faithful draw near and seek her opinion and she lobs them some firecracker or bomb and rushes on, barely waiting around for the oohs and aahs. She's always been the cleverest woman in the room; that could make you lazy, or merely just overworked. But to challenge Germaine Greer on every observation she has hectically tossed out would be to miss the point of her. Germaine Greer the phenomenon has a broader significance than her myriad idiosyncratic utterances. Her value is not in her judgement on every discrete point, but in her lifetime of persistent, courageous challenging. No conventional wisdom is sacred; every piety and platitude must be subjected to the full force of her intellect, and if necessary, her scorn. Gloria Steinem once said what she valued in Germaine Greer was her daring – "so rare in women because we're so trained to be concerned about approval." At her worst she can swing wildly from rigorous and exact to romanticising and careless. On good form she's brilliantly clever and deadly, and she can make an excellent joke. Her Guardian piece on the death of Steve Irwin, in which she earned opprobrium by saying Nature had finally got its revenge on him, was irreverent, serious and funny. Her take on Norman Mailer in The Female Eunuch still seems fresh and witty four decades on, as do her hilariously scathing observations on popular romance.

Let's begin with the tea towel. This is the opening line of my father C.K. Stead's second novel, All Visitors Ashore, which he wrote in the eighties, shortly before retiring early from the university to write while living off my mother's earnings. It was the time of rigid political correctness, when feminism had hardened up, women were known as wimmin, all men were beasts and even consensual heterosexual sex was being categorised, in some quarters, as a form of rape. My father, having been a left wing radical and champion of the underdog all his life, was suddenly labelled a white male oppressor and member of the patriarchy. His colleague Mervyn Thompson was accused of sexual harassment and tied to a tree, and feminism seemed to have developed into an unholy mix of rigid dogma and round-headed puritanism.

Instinctively avoiding the proselytising, I opted out of the anti-rape self-defence lessons at school. Later, when two muscular wimmin took to lurking outside our house (were they measuring someone up for a tree-shackling?) I regretted missing those lessons on eye-gouging and karate chopping. Feminism had put on Doc Marten boots, shaved off her hair and was coming to kick down our door. My sister and I would have been happy to have a fist fight on behalf of our father, who had always given us broadly feminist advice: stand up for yourselves, buck up intellectually, get a career. But the tough-guy wimmin went away after a while, and no fist fighting was necessary. And then it all changed again.

Aged eight, already a feminist, I had gravitated towards boys who liked girls, and who treated me as an equal. Later I found plenty of interesting girls who weren't versions of the female eunuch. I became even more of a feminist after puberty, when I grew aware of the notion of female "shame." Whenever I've talked to my teenage daughter about women's issues I've had the sense that I'm banishing the mores I struggled with – and deeply hated – when growing up, the social strictures Germaine Greer so rightly identified: prudishness, embarrassment, excruciating chagrin at being a girl. I find myself delivering corrective edicts to my daughter: Remember, don't take any shit from men! Hold your head high! Don't sneak the tampons out of the shopping bag and hide them! Be proud to be a woman!

I remember when I was my daughter's age, seventeen, comparing notes with my sister and finding that we both avoided boys who went to private boys' schools, because we sensed among them a whiff of sexism and misogyny. We grew up in the heyday of Germaine Greer (who is roughly our mother's age) but a lot still needed to change back then. My perception of my childhood is that society was more brutal. Schoolboys were caned, children were routinely smacked, I received the strap at primary school, and all kinds of macho sexism was tolerated. We were in need of a revamp. A kind of society-wide morality play began to take place. At the vanguard, in the eighties, those shaven-headed wimmin in Doc Martens confronted butchness with butchness. Later that extreme position morphed into something more bureaucratic, and we began to hold inquiries and even to lay charges. There was the Cartwright Inquiry into the medical profession, the inquiry into police sex offences, the police rape trials. There were sacrificial lambs, ritual punishments. Macho cowboy cops, patriarchal doctors, all practitioners of sexism were fair game. You could be repelled by the cant, but in the end it proved beneficial for our society. These days, the police have to behave themselves around women, and doctors must seek formal consent from their patients, and sexism is much less tolerated in all spheres. We killed off a few, publicly, to make things better for the many. Society is a blunt instrument, and the convulsion of adjustment can bring harsh consequences. As a feminist, I applaud the changes brought about by the Cartwright and police sex inquiries, and believe they needed to be made. As a lawyer with an interest in criminal law, I can also see that some individuals suffered injustice.

I attended the trial of the police charged with raping Louise Nicholas, and wrote that the acquittal of those she had accused was the only correct verdict. The placard waving, the media sensationalism and populist hysteria surrounding Louise Nicholas prevented a proper examination of the facts according to the law. There was insufficient evidence to convict, and there were numerous questions that needed to be raised about Louise Nicholas's story. The most well-known accused, Clint Rickards, was a rare and valuable commodity in our society: a successful, professional Maori male. He was never convicted of any crime, but our morality play required that he be portrayed as the archetypal dark beast, shunned and cast out forever.

I am not aware of any other writer or journalist who has dared to examine and challenge the popular and feminist perception of the Louise Nicholas case. I wanted to write about it because I've been thinking about feminism all my life, embracing it, challenging it to a fist fight, being aware of its faults, its wilful revisionism, its tendency to be repressive, its groupthink and bitchiness, as well as its essentialness and justness. Early on, especially at school, I realised that I did not earn approval by dissenting, and I quickly decided I did not want approval. I wanted "something better." Germaine Greer, the feminist who encouraged my mother to throw in the tea towel, who helped to change the society I grew up in, has always had the nerve to question. You wouldn't know which way she was going to jump on a subject like Louise Nicholas, but you can be sure she wouldn't hesitate to wade right in. And that is the kind of daring we all should have.

First Published in Metro Magazine NZ