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The Cultural Contradictions of Feminism

12:00 AM, Jul 19, 1999 • By DANIELLE CRITTENDEN
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With the 1970s back in fashion -- bellbottoms, platform shoes, even Donny and Marie! -- it's not surprising that Germaine Greer and her in-your-face, death-to-the-male-power-structure feminism is back, too. And in a big way, with the first print run for her new book, The Whole Woman, a hundred thousand copies.

"It's time for women to get angry again," Greer declares, and so she does, scoffing at the young naysayers who insist feminism's work has been done and believe it's time for the women's movement to, in her words, "eff off."

Greer's not ready to eff off, and her book amounts to a 384-page rant against almost everybody and everything: men, large corporations, new girl-power feminists, old flower-power feminists, doctors, lipstick, supermarkets, washing machines, transsexuals, the missionary position, and tongue piercing. Opening the book is like opening a blast furnace. Greer doesn't want to engage her readers; she wants to sear them.

Right at the start, Greer announces that she was forced to write her new book because she couldn't stand hearing that women today could "have it all" and that the feminism of her generation had "gone too far" when it hadn't gone far enough:

It would have been inexcusable to remain silent. On every side speechless women endure endless hardship, grief, and pain, in a world system that creates billions of losers for every handful of winners. . . . It is a chokingly bitter irony that feminism accomplishes most within the confines of the superpower that grinds the life out of the world's women, makes war on them, and starves their children. The identification of feminism with the United States has dishonored it around the world.

Dishonored feminism, she means, not the United States. Reading The Whole Woman, I had a sudden, dreadful premonition that we are going to see much more of this literary cane-shaking over the next few years, as unrepentant 1960s radicals pen their "I'm not dead yet!" screeds.

But give Greer this credit: For all her raving, she recognizes something that her mainstream feminist sisters do not. For thirty years, the women's movement has pursued a definition of equality that allows no differences between men and women and urges women to take the same roles as men, in and out of the home. And Greer sees that this has had disastrous consequences. The "gender-blind" approach to equality has only intensified male pressure on women to perform more like men, both sexually and in the workplace, while it's devalued feminine pursuits like motherhood and making a home. "The price of the small advances we have made towards sexual equality has been the denial of femaleness as any kind of a distinguishing character," she writes. "If the future is men and women dwelling as images of each other in a world unchanged, it is a night-mare."

Greer has similarly little patience for the sexual revolution, observing as bitterly as any conservative that "the sexuality that has been freed is male sexuality" and now "any kind of bizarre behavior is [considered] legitimate if the aim is orgasm." Liberated sexuality also implies widespread abortion, a phenomenon that Greer, almost alone among feminists, does not celebrate as a sign of great independence but deplores as the tragedy it is.

Greer is no Phyllis Schlafly, however, and having made these points, she reverts back to her 1970s default setting. Women should embrace pacifism and socialism. They must eschew any serious entanglements with men. Indeed, they should reject marriage as slavery, and if they want to be mothers they should do it by themselves. They should follow Greer's own example, eventually turning into angry, unencumbered, sixty-year-old women like herself. Indeed, in her final chapter, Greer insists that a truly humane government would support little separatist, female villages of single mothers living communally. Call it "A Hut of One's Own."

That this vision might not appeal to large numbers of women does not trouble Greer. Women's desire for men, their desire for comfort, indeed their desire for flush toilets and convenience stores can be chalked up to the evil influence of Western civilization. Greer is to feminism what the Unabomber is to environmentalism: You get the impression her manuscript was bashed out on a manual typewriter, sent out in a bulky old recycled envelope, and dunked in a bucket of water when it arrived at the publisher's for fear of explosives.