Still Germaine After All These Years

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Still Germaine after All These Years by Jennifer Baumgardner  

The Whole Woman  
by Germaine Greer   
(Alfred A. Knopf, 1999, hardcover, 384 pages)  

There are big books and little books, books that comfort, books that challenge and books that merely provoke. Feminist books that fall into the challenging category haven’t been very popular lately. Recent titles like Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body

(a salient provocation to the reproductive rights debate), Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch (a handbook for purging yourself of internalized misogyny) and Gloria Steinem’s Moving Beyond

Words (which includes a shocking analysis of women’s unpaid labor) received a fraction of the attention given to thin books about feminism’s shortcomings (such as Christina Hoff Sommers’ Who Stole Feminism or Katie Roiphe’s The Morning After) or to manifestos of the new prudery (like Wendy Shalit’s A Return to Modesty) .


I’ve only been half surprised, then, by the reactions to Germaine Greer’s new book The Whole Woman, her thirty-years-later follow-up to The Female Eunuch. The Whole Woman is thoroughly disliked by everyone from the staid stylists at the New York Times to the chatty philosophers at Salon. The consensus is that the book is shrill and disorganized, the work of a past-her-prime second-waver — bitter, batty and male-bashing.


The fact that her critics, many of whom were former fans, find her to be so sour and incompetent points to a central difference between her audience then and now. The Female Eunuch spoke to

women on the brink of a tumultuous shift in status and consciousness. The Whole Woman is

written for feminists in the not-so-sweet thereafter. Instead of being happy with whatever progress has been made, Greer wants women to be insulted and angered by the scraps now offered us as “feminist emancipation,” be it the “privilege” of abortion or “flex” time for overworked mothers. “Revolution,” the final chapter of The Female Eunuch, concludes with the challenge, “What will you do?”; in The Whole Woman, Greer renews her question, asking not only what we will do, but what, during a three decade interim, we actually have done.


In Eunuch, Greer said that women were castrated, cut off from their sexuality, and she encouraged women to assert cunt power when most feminists were focusing on political power. Now that the pro-sex, get-on-top, use-toys, he-better-make-you-come angle of feminism is ascendant (see Bust,

Minx, Susie Bright, etc.), Greer is again fighting for the neglected cause, turning her attention to politics and other serious questions.


Though her scope is panoramic, analyzing everything from deadbeat dads to transsexualism to girlie culture to female mutilation, some of Greer’s strongest inquiries concern women’s health. For one

example among many, Greer scorches Western feminists for declaiming the surgical crimes of brown and

black women in Africa against their daughters without criticizing our sexual surgeries, whether they be breast implants or labial trimming, piercings, the unnecessary slicing of the perineum during labor or the removal of uteri and ovaries. Reading The Whole Woman forces you to consider that the conscience exerted on African women may have as much to do with perpetuating racism or classism as concern for women’s well-being.


And even if it is a bit of a stretch to compare a woman holding a little girl down and removing her clitoris with a coke bottle shard to an operation an adult women has undertaken electively (however culturally or medically coerced), it’s not necessary to agree with everything Greer writes to recognize the provocativeness of her theories. In almost every instance, reading her work is good exercise for a mind that wants to take feminism seriously.


So, why all the grousing? In all fairness, Greer’s sequel isn’t as linguistically provocative as The Female Eunuch; I didn’t gleefully scribble down words like “gynolatry,” “wantonesse,” or “pretty horsebreakers,” solemnly vowing to use them every day, as I did reading the first book. Nor, to echo Laura Miller’s critique in Salon, does the book formulate a coherent argument, a well-placed left hook to the cheek of patriarchy. Instead she swipes at everyone — men, the government, doctors, women who act like sheep. This caustic negativity characterized her first book as well, inspiring Miller, on second glance, to change her opinion of that Greer too. Writing why The Female Eunuch is, on second thought, not an important book, Miller confesses, “I could never quite recall what, beyond heterosexual intercourse, Greer actually advocated. What I did take from the book was an ethic of adventure and courage, of a zest for taking on the world.”


That’s not enough? What Greer advocates, then and now, is the personal moxie that could free a woman from the need to follow orders, be they from men or other women. And what The Whole

Woman lacks in focus, it makes up in brashness. Time and again, Greer asks the feminist questions that no one’s really asking. Instead of being concerned that Roe v. Wade will be overturned, for example, Greer argues that drug companies and their lobbyists will make sure it’s upheld in order to keep from having to come up with more effective forms of birth control than the mediocre pills and plugs we have now.


This kind of critique of the male-dominated medical establishment (along with her scathing indictments of fathers and abusers) has long earned Greer the appellation “man-hater.” But she doesn’t end there — a recent biography reveals that she actually doesn’t like women very much, either. While this may seem ironic, if not hypocritical, I don’t think it is. Greer isn’t of the gynophilic school, but, in some ways, that is her strength. She says that women are oppressed not because men are intrinsically powerful but because we have been conned into seeing them as powerful. And thirty years have done little to eliminate that.


Many women long for feminism to feel vital and alive, to shake them up. But this kind of thinking needs training and practice, and books should provide it. Greer’s does. If The Whole Woman is dismissed out of hand, it means she doesn’t have anyone to spar with, but worse, if we don’t read her, we don’t have Greer to spar with. Better to get in the ring.


Reading The Whole Woman, I did a lot of shadow boxing. Aside from the health and reproductive rights critiques, I was most provoked by Greer on the subject of women becoming gay. There she writes, “How women move from heterosexuality to homosexuality has been little studied. The possibility that such women might be rejecting heterosexuality as unsatisfying and have consciously

or unconsciously gone in search of a different kind of love has been little explored, in contrast with the never-ending attempts to find some biological component in sexual preference.” Feminists have long made the distinction between the gay man’s experience of knowing from a very young age his sexual preference and that of lesbians, who often discover women much later in life. The Whole Woman isolates and explores the question of whether some women are actually choosing to be gay

instead of simply having been “born that way.” Thinking about it myself, I know that I am different with women than I am with men: I’m more confident, less passive-aggressive, less of a doormat, less of a heartbreaker. In other words, I like who I am with girlfriends better. Which makes me ask, If a woman’s attraction to women is a reaction to sexism, as opposed to an essential pull of desire, can a bisexual woman learn to employ with men the self-respect she feels with female lovers? If she can, that strikes me as the most revolutionary description of feminist bisexuality I could imagine.


Greer’s contribution doesn’t stop here — which is why I hope that, despite the reviews, people will still read The Whole Woman. Much about what makes an ambitious book become big is timing. Yet the fact that Greer’s thirty-four heavy-hitting essayettes have been dismissed so summarily is evidence that, despite the fragments of feminist rhetoric in every atom of our culture, the whole of women’s liberation that Greer envisions is still as hard for us to picture as the round earth was for Columbus’s shipmates. Yes, her scope has expanded and is now more global than ever, but to think that Greer is recanting on her free-your-ass credo from 1970 is to see just half the picture. Greer didn’t think women could fuck themselves into liberty, but that we needed to be free to fuck as well as to do anything else. Her definition of whole insists that women be sexual and confident at the same time as they are political and conscious — and that’s my definition, too.

Jennifer Baumgardner is the co-author of Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism and the Future and Grassroots: A Field Guide to Feminist Activism, as well as the forthcoming Look Both Ways: Sex, Power and Feminism. She writes frequently for The Nation, Glamour, and many other magazines, is a columnist for Alternet, and is the producer of the documentary Speak Out: I Had an Abortion. She is at work on a photo book about women who have had abortions.

©1999 Jennifer Baumgardner and Nerve.com