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She's Baaaack!

Photo by Carolyn Djanogly
THERE ARE TWO KINDS OF AMERICAN FEMINISTS: those who thought Germaine Greer was loony in 1970, when she first burst on the scene as a 6-foot, drop-dead-gorgeous young (Australian-born) Brit urging us, in The Female Eunuch, to taste our menstrual blood and get in touch with the aggressively contractile powers of the vagina. Then there are those who decided she was loony a few years later, with her book Sex and Destiny, in which she turned against sex, feminism, contraception and abortion, and held up as a role model the involuntarily multiparous Third World woman with a flock of grandkids in tow. I belong to the latter category -- doting on the firebrand of the '70s and dismayed by the puritanical sourpuss she turned into in the '80s. To me, Greer seemed to be a clear case of what Katha Pollitt recently called "solipsisterhood" -- the tendency of some women writers to generalize from their own small store of personal experience into universal pronouncements on womanhood. The young and beautiful Greer was a pro-sex feminist; the childless, menopausal one was an apparently embittered self-described "crone."

But the point is, everyone, pretty much, agreed she was loony. So when word of her latest book, immodestly entitled The Whole Woman, leaked across the Atlantic, the literate feminist community was gripped with anticipatory shudders of horror. What -- post-feminism, post-sex -- could she possibly do next, announce her membership in the Christian Coalition? And how would we explain her to our daughters?

So what a delight to read The Whole Woman and find that she's back -- the old kick-ass, motor-mouthed radical who some of us, anyway, knew and loved. She's a feminist again, not to mention an out socialist and, at the same time, outrageously, unpredictably un-P.C. -- sort of Camille Paglia with principles. True, she's not exactly a sex fiend anymore, but just when you think she's sounding a little like Andrea Dworkin, she whips around and surprises you with a decisively un-Dworkian insight, such as that feminists have made too much of a deal over the penis: "Of all the parts of a man that can hurt, a penis is the least." There's still the loose-cannon factor to contend with, as when she denounces male transsexuals or argues that female genital mutilation isn't all that bad, at least compared to silicone implants. But overall, The Whole Woman is imbued with a maturity and sweep that supersedes all of Greer's earlier incarnations. It's brave and smart and funny and also deeply hopeful, as when she tells us at the end, "The second wave of feminism, rather than having crashed on to the shore, is still far out to sea, slowly and inexorably gathering momentum."

Greer spoke with the Weekly by phone.

 

L.A. WEEKLY: I have a sort of gossipy question about why you wrote The Whole Woman. You say in the foreword there were women of your own generation who started saying feminism had gone too far. Were you thinking of Betty Friedan with her book The Second Stage?

GERMAINE GREER: No, I didn't mean Betty. I always thought she had a very conservative idea of what liberation would be like and always thought of it as getting power within the existing system . . . No, the person I was referring to was someone more important to me, namely Fay Weldon . . . She has a new husband who's somewhat younger than she is, and now we're suddenly hearing [from her] that men are in trouble and that we should stop trying to work out our own liberation and go back to raise the wounded male and rebuild him.

 

You argue that in some ways women are worse off than they were 30 years ago. I keep wondering if there is anything we -- feminists of our generation, that is -- could have done better.

I don't think so. I think the things working against us were structural in our social system. What actually happened was that capitalism or the bosses or whatever we want to call them just sidestepped organized labor and drew this whole pool of auxiliary labor into the work force, which was women who are working now, in so many cases, under these terrible conditions, without any possibility of amelioration. Most of them would probably rather not be working at all. They're probably trying to take up the slack where the head of the family is unemployed. But now working women get blamed for undermining the working man, trying to bite his balls off.

 

In the U.S., I think everyone pretty much accepts the idea that women are going to be in the workplace, and we're not so likely to be blamed for men's problems as workers. The problem here is, when you try to talk about structural economic change -- when you even use the word capitalism, for example -- you're likely to be cut off pretty fast . . .

But it's a very middle-class movement here.

 

And it isn't in England?

I think you'd find in England that feminism is represented much more strongly in academe than it is in the world of work. And then you've got the lifestyle feminists in journalism who, because they have a situation in which every political party plays lip service to feminism and feminist issues, think that that's it, they've done it. They want to turn feminism into a triumphalist discourse that I just can't bear, because we have the attack on the entitlements of single mothers, for example.

 

Well, I felt frustrated here, too, over the failure of the largely middle-class base of the women's movement to protest against welfare "reform."

I have no objection to a young woman deciding that she's going to make a living on the state as a mother. I'm a rich grandmother manqué, and I'm very happy to support as many children as I possibly can with my tax pound. I'd rather pay for it than pay for the war in Yugoslavia.

 

I completely agree, but one of the painful things to watch in this country was that NOW remained loyal to Clinton throughout his many difficulties in the last year because he's pro-choice, while overlooking his role in enacting the most punitive form of welfare reform we could have imagined.

You know, what NOW really liked was being allowed to get close to Clinton. They really liked the illusion that they were in the smoke-filled room and that they were wielding a little power somewhere. Even though they seemed to think they were exercising this power through Hillary.

 

How do you feel about Hillary?

She shares a bed with the head of state, maybe, sometime. And, so what? She's an attorney. Big deal. There are women attorneys all over this country. She gets a job of huge importance . . .

 

You mean health reform?

Mm-hmm, and screws it up. Surprise, surprise, because that job should not have been given to someone in Hillary's position in the first place. So why is NOW so indulgent to Hillary and Bill? I just don't get it, you know. I really sympathize with Elizabeth Wurtzel [author of Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women] when she said it was a big failure of American feminists that they didn't defend Lewinsky. That they didn't see how vulnerable she was, that they didn't see her pathetic willingness to deceive herself about her relationship with the president as symptomatic of what women do all the time. And then they say, well, he's pro-choice. He's pro-abortion, in the way that every libertine is pro-abortion. And how pro-choice is he when he allows the United States to go on starving the United Nations of funds, because the United Nations is thought to support abortion programs in the Third World? There's nothing to be expected from this man. And that NOW should be pussy for him drives me nuts.

 

What do you think of Hillary's upcoming Senate run in New York?

I was incensed when she was allowed to address a plenary session for the U.N. Women's Year in Beijing. Every time I've been to a Women's Year Conference, we've had the wife of a head of state telling us what was what, reading a prepared speech from nowhere -- and that included, I may say, the great Imelda Marcos. And we had to applaud. And of course Mrs. Clinton. Get out of my face. Now there are women all over the world who've kept their own burrow, who should be there talking to us. Not the widows or the wives of politicians.

 

Well, since we're on the subject of the Clintons, you make the point in your book -- and I sort of winced when I read it -- that feminism is dishonored by its U.S. origins and its identification with the U.S. And I wonder how you think the NATO campaign affected that.

Oh, but it's all shocking and terrible. I argue seriously in my book that the relationship between feminism and pacifism is a real one. And that we shouldn't give it up. Even if we understand the equality argument about women in the military.

 

Yeah, unless -- and I hold this out as a very slim possibility -- there were a "military" that was truly devoted to peacekeeping. I would pick up arms for that.

Yes, except to do that, we have to put as much money into defense studies as we do into counterattack studies. At this moment, we don't have anything that could be seriously be called "defense." The only thing we can do, if someone does something that we don't like, is counterattack. And in this case, we counterattacked on a scale that was entirely immoral. Smashed a country, because it was -- some of the people in it were doing something we didn't like. So I think, like you, that we need a world force that would fight against man-made disaster and natural disaster; that would mobilize, like the fire brigade; that would come in wherever people were suffering. But we're light-years away from that. In fact, they [NATO] really enjoyed this conflict. Madeleine Albright was having a ball.

 

Which brings me to another point -- about aggression. In the book, you kind of blow off all the recent studies suggesting that testosterone is not so tightly linked to aggression after all. I'm more impressed by the fact that laboratory studies show there is not much difference between the sexes in aggressiveness. Remember, it's been very hard for women to express aggression without getting pounded from one direction or another. In fact, The Whole Woman bristles -- or I would say sparkles -- with a certain amount of aggressiveness itself.

But there's a big difference between verbal aggression and physical aggression. You know, in England there is a thing called the provocation defense. What that means is that a man whose wife has been nagging him for years can snap one night and beat her to death, cut her up, put her in separate plastic bags, distribute her around the suburbs, clean up the house, blah blah blah, and he will walk, because the judge will say, "Poor you, you were driven beyond endurance." So I will not accept any parallel or equation of verbal aggression with physical aggression, because too many women have been killed for speaking.

 

Of course, but what I am saying is that women are also capable of physical aggressiveness, which is something our culture plays down. â

Look, I am prepared to lose all of my arguments. I'm 60 years old; the world, in a sense, doesn't belong to me anymore. But I'm not prepared to have these arguments never raised.

 

Do you have any instructions for us American feminist activists? What do we do now to -- to make a really internationalist, and socialist, and body-proud feminist movement?

I'm really bad about that kind of thing, and I never know where we should intervene. I think, for example, that we should protect the women who are being victimized because they're accepters of abortion. But at the same time, I think we should be trying to make common cause with the pro-lifers, because we have a common cause with them. We are concerned about the issue. We don't want the issue trivialized. I really want people to understand that abortion is a difficult area, that it causes pain, and that it is a blasphemy to pretend that it's a privilege.

 

Well, I'm someone who's had two abortions, and there was no pain and grief at all, just relief. I also have children, and I do get upset with the idea that, yes, you ladies can have an abortion, but only if you suffer over it, only if you're miserable, only if you regret it for the rest of your life. Or at least pretend to.

No, but -- if the experience is trivialized, if you're not given a chance to even enter into it, then you carry that burden the rest of your life. What I cannot bear is to have access to an invasive procedure to end a pregnancy that should never have begun in the first place, presented to women as a privilege for which they should be grateful.

 

But it's not a privilege, we fought for it. And getting back to the idea of making common cause with the right-to-lifers: That's been tried in this country, and it's been a waste of time.

Abortion isn't in any danger. It's here to stay. It just wastes an awful lot of our energy, having to fight for a right which is really not in any danger.

 

There's no question it's in danger here. We see the right to abortion eroding all the time. I mean, look at the fact that Medicaid, our pathetic equivalent of a national health service for poor people, doesn't fund abortions for poor women. In that sense, abortion is a privilege in this country. You have to be able to pay for it.

You know, I grew up in a system where we used to always find money for abortions. We used to take the hat around in the pub. And you'd end up with your 120 quid, and off you would go.

 

Okay, although I'm not going to recommend that as a substitute for Medicaid funding. Here's something else I've always wanted to ask you. There's a big change, it seems to me, in your writings, or thoughts, on attitudes toward sex -- from the ebulliently lusty tone of The Female Eunuch to a fairly jaundiced attitude toward sex in The Whole Woman, where you complain about women being pushed too much into being sexually active. But I feel that a real sexual revolution for women hasn't happened yet. That there's no problem of there being too much sex for women, or too much good sex, I should say. Did you change your mind about sex, somehow? And why?

Well, I don't think so. I mean, when I wrote The Female Eunuch, the idea seemed to be that, um, if you were unsuccessful in your pair bonding, if you'd had a number of sexual partners, then you were promiscuous, you were a failure, and what I was anxious to argue was that if you have chosen all your sexual partners, if you weren't just capitulating to their demands, if you honestly desired every partner you'd ever had, you weren't diminished in any way by the fact that you'd had lots of them. The important thing was always that you were expressing your own sexuality, and not capitulating to somebody else's. And now, I find that it's much more that you have a duty to be sexually active. That if you're sexually choosy, there's something wrong with you.

 

But maybe the way to get to that point is an insistence on pleasure. Too many women become sexually active in ways that are not pleasurable. I think we should teach this to girls in sex-ed classes, for example, that sex is supposed to be pleasurable. And if it isn't pleasurable for you, don't do it.

Yeah, well, I've said this a thousand times in different ways. We know that penetration is not the index of female pleasure. That it's not the most efficient way to give a woman an orgasm. If the idea is the exchange of pleasure, then the '50s weren't bad, because we had a lot of foreplay.

 

Well, one of the things that I absolutely love, that you say in the book, is that women should express no more interest in men than they do in women, and just stop this, you know, constant effort to attract male attention when clearly they're not all that interested. I mean, if they were interested, we wouldn't have to be dieting and fussing with our hair all the time.

Stop buying Cosmopolitan.

 

Yeah, but if you go around saying that, you'll be called a "man hater" [laughs].

Well, of course I'm already being called a "man hater" [laughs]. And I wish I was. My life would be a lot easier, believe me, if I was.

 

Changing the subject, I want to push you a little further on one thing you state in your book. I love your critique of the medicalization of women's lives. In fact, you come close to saying something quite radical about breast cancer, which I've been thinking about, because it's such a cause in this country. And what you suggest, very subversively, is that both the prevention and the cures may be worse than the disease itself. Do you think we're going to get to the point where women will start rejecting the usual forms of prevention and treatment?

I think we're already there. Because there are women who are already saying, "I don't want to live my life as a cancer patient. I'd rather live the next five years as a not-cancer-patient, and then die, than put myself through this nightmare."

But whenever I say to an audience that you have to die of something -- and that one of the clever things that you should do as a human being in the 1990s is decide what it is you'd prefer to die of -- people get more and more uneasy. Doctors say to me, for example, that I should take hormone-replacement therapy, because it will protect me against heart disease . . . But I look at all these doctors and say, "What do you want to die of? Don't you want to die of a massive infarct?" Rather than using up all your substance by wasting away in a nursing home. My mother is 80, has significant hypo-density of the brain, is a tremendous problem for her three children and for herself. I would rather drop dead in my tracks. So don't deny me my heart attack.

 

Right, okay -- brave words, I like that.

Well, I may weaken.

 

Not anytime soon, I hope.