The author Germaine Greer (born 1939) was born in Australia and lived in England. The publication of her book The Female Eunuchin 1970 established her as a writer and as an authoritative commentator on women's liberation and sexuality.
Germaine Greer was born on January 29, 1939, in Melbourne, Victoria, and was educated at the Star of the Sea Convent, Gardenvale. Her father was a newspaper executive and she came from a middle class background. She completed an honors arts degree at Melbourne University in 1959 and a Masters degree with first class honors at Sydney University in 1962 before going as a Commonwealth Scholar to Newnham College, Cambridge, where in 1967 she wrote her doctorate on Shakespeare's early comedies.
In 1970 the publication of The Female Eunuch made her a public figure in the United States, Australia, Britain, and Europe (where it was widely translated) and identified her with the new women's liberation movement which was then emerging in the West. While the media saw Germaine Greer as the high priestess of "women's lib" and her book as its bible, Greer herself was quick to repudiate these descriptions, although it was apparent that The Female Eunuch was a significant catalyst in the popularization of ideas about women's liberation. Greer saw her book as part of a second wave of feminism.
The Female Eunuch
The Female Eunuch is witty, polemical, and erudite, especially in Greer's excursions into the literature of romance and the language of abuse. In it she attacked the social conditioning of women in which the roles and rules taught from childhood to "feminize" girls also deform and subjugate them.
While feminists since Mary Wollstonecraft have explored the limitations placed by society on women's knowledge, behavior, and education, Greer looked at the mystery and shame surrounding knowledge of women's bodies and the constrictions placed on their sexuality. Women, she argued, are conditioned under pressure from the "feminizers" to abandon their autonomy and embrace a stereotyped version of femininity. The result is helplessness, resentment, a lack of sexual pleasure, an absence of joy.
The Female Eunuch also examines the women's movement in the United States and in Britain. Greer was critical both of the idea that emancipation can be achieved by women adopting male roles or merely by economic change. Nor did she believe in the possibility of women's self-determination within the nuclear family. Two themes here point toward Greer's later book Sex and Destiny: her belief that the suburban, isolated, and consumer-oriented nuclear family is both constraining for women and an undesirable environment in which to bring up children, and her dislike of the way Western industrialized society "manufactured" and therefore confined sexuality.
A Controversial Life Style
In developing these ideas and in writing about sexuality in a way that was both intellectual and explicit Greer took advantage of and helped to create a new permissiveness in publishing and in public discussion about sex. While increasingly involved in mainstream journalism as a freelance writer and in television, Greer also had a background in underground magazines and in struggles against censorship. She was an original contributor to the Australian magazine OZ (and later as "Rose Blight" wrote a regular gardening column for Private Eye). While promoting The Female Eunuch in Australia and New Zealand in 1972 she was a witness for the defense in two obscenity trials in which the offending publications included counter-culture magazines and the novel Portnoy's Complaint. In New Zealand she was charged with using indecent language at a public meeting in the Auckland Town Hall. Censorship was one of the reasons she gave at that time for her decision not to live and work in Australia.
Greer's intellectual background was molded by the libertarian and anarchist ideas of the group in Sydney known as The Push, who drank, at that time, at the Royal George Hotel and who were influenced by the ideas of Sydney University professor of philosophy John Anderson. Greer described it this way: "When I first came to Sydney what I fell in love with was not the harbour or the gardens or anything else but a pub called The Royal George, or, more particularly with a group of people who used to go there every night … and sit there and talk…." Richard Neville, editor of OZ, saw her not as part of an Oxbridge liberal-intellectual tradition but as "a militant anti-authoritarian, trained in Australia…. The regular diet of reasoned anarchy, sexual precosity and Toohey's Bitter helped mould her unique shock style."
Germaine Greer's three-month visit to Australia in 1971-1972 was the first since her departure to study at Cambridge. She continued to live for the most part in Britain, becoming a well-known Australian expatriate, whose comments on her place of birth (its men, its "stupifying dullness") were anxiously awaited by the local press on each of her intermittent visits. In 1968 in London she married Australian journalist Paul du Feu, a union which ended in divorce in 1973.
Between 1967 and 1972 she lectured in English literature at the University of Warwick. After the publication of The Female Eunuch she lectured on the American circuit, wrote a column in the London Sunday Times, and between 1972 and 1979 worked as a free-lance journalist, reviewer, and broadcaster. Part of her time she spent at her house in Italy. In 1979 Greer became a professor in the Graduate Faculty of Modern Letters at the University of Tulsa in Oklahoma, and she later became director of that university's Center for the Study of Women's Literature, positions she relinquished to return to full-time writing and broadcasting. In 1984 she described herself as having given up teaching except for lecture tours and visiting fellowships.
The Obstacle Race
Germaine Greer's second major book was a work of feminist scholarship which attracted less public attention than her earlier work but which explored a kindred theme. In The Obstacle Race (1979) she looked at the work and fortunes of women painters. She did not begin with what she called the false question based on the prejudices of the layman: "Why were there no great women painters?" Instead, she asked, "What has women's contribution been to the visual arts; why if there were some women artists were there not more; how good were those women who did succeed in earning a living by painting?" Greer's intention was to discuss women painters not as individuals but as a group sharing common difficulties.
In an encyclopedic study of European and American artists she allowed only one woman the status equivalent to that of "Old Master," the 17th-century Italian painter Artemisia Gentileschi, whose achievements and struggles she described in a chapter entitled "The Magnificent Exception."
Women artists, she found, were not always ignored, but excessive praise could be even more damaging if it served to confine women to a separate sphere of womanly art in which qualities despised in the work of men were encouraged. Rosa Bonheur was described as "the best female painter who ever lived," but her reputation failed to survive changes in taste. The Obstacle Race reasserts the argument of Greer's earlier book: to express themselves fully, to be "truly excellent," women had to struggle against the confines of the conventional female role.
Sex and Destiny
Germaine Greer's next book, Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility (1984), is a detailed and polemical assault on Western attitudes toward sexuality, fertility, family, and children. Her antagonism to the nuclear family, to government intervention in sexual behavior and fertility, and to the commercialization of sexuality and her endorsement of traditional communities were all apparent in The Female Eunuch. In 1972 Greer went to Bangladesh to investigate the situation of women raped during the conflict with Pakistan. In 1972 the Australian government gave— and subsequently withdrew—a grant to enable her to make a series of films on human reproduction. After that she spent considerable time in India.
Greer's approval of Third World life styles, of traditional values and customs in preference to those of the West, and of poverty in preference to materialism led her, in Sex and Destiny, to endorse practices which are frequently in conflict with the beliefs of Western feminists. As its author stated, Sex and Destiny does not attempt to resolve all the problems it raises, but it does seek "to gore the reader slightly with its horns."
More Recent Publications
In 1989 Greer authored Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, a combination biography, diary and travelogue that traced her efforts to discover her father's true identity. Two years later came the release of The Change: Women, Ageing, and the Menopause (1991), in which she explored medical theories and treatments that she contended were often contradictory, excessive and potentially dangerous.
Greer also assembled a collection of her essays and wrote two books providing literary criticism. The Madwoman's Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings (1986) was a compilation of newspaper and magazine essays authored between 1968 and 1985, some of which were originally rejected by publishers. In Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet (1995) she advanced the theory that not only have women poets been exploited by men, but they have been a party to their own downfall. She also authored Shakespeare (1986), another work of literary criticism.
In 1989 Greer became a special lecturer and unofficial fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge. Though her idiosyncratic lifestyle remained unchanged, she acknowledged one adjustment in a 1995 interview published in Elle magazine: "The great liberation of my past ten years is that I've stopped thinking about men."
Further Reading on Germaine Greer
Most of the biographical information about Germaine Greer, as well as critical discussions of her work, can be found in newspaper and magazine articles and interviews; David Plante, Difficult Women (1983) contains a memoir; Feminist Writers (1996) provides a capsule summary of her life and work; Who's Who of Australian Women (1982) contains biographical information and details of Germaine Greer's minor publications; Julie Rigg and Julie Copland (editors), Coming out! Women's Voices, Women's Lives (1985) includes an interview recorded in Australia in January 1979; a brief interview appears in Elle magazine (November 1995).