Published : 06 Mar 2017, 15:32
Germaine Greer (/ɡrɪər/; born 29 January 1939) is an Australian-born writer, regarded as one of the major voices of the second-wave feminist movement in the latter half of the 20th century. She lives in the United Kingdom, where she has held academic positions, specializing in English literature, at the University of Warwick and Newnham College, Cambridge.
Greer's ideas have created controversy ever since her first book, The Female Eunuch (1970), became an international best-seller and made her a household name. In it Greer offered a systematic deconstruction of ideas such as womanhood and femininity, arguing that women are forced to assume submissive roles in society to fulfill male fantasies of what being a woman entails.
Her work since then has focused on literature, feminism and the environment. Later books include Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility (1984), The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause (1991), The Whole Woman (1999), Shakespeare's Wife (2007) and White Beech: The Rainforest Years (2013). She owns and finances Stump Cross Books, which publishes the work of 17th- and 18th-century women poets.
Greer is a liberation rather than equality feminist. Her goal is not equality with men, which she sees as assimilation and "agreeing to live the lives of unfree men." "Women's liberation," she wrote in The Whole Woman, "did not see the female's potential in terms of the male's actual." She argues instead that liberation is about asserting difference and "insisting on it as a condition of self-definition and self-determination." It is a struggle for the freedom of women to "define their own values, order their own priorities and decide their own fate."
Early life and education
Greer was born in Melbourne, the eldest of three children (two girls and a boy), to South Africa born Eric Reginald (Reg) Greer and Margaret (Peggy) Mary Lafrank. Peggy, a milliner, had married Reg in March 1937. He was a newspaper advertising representative, who served as a wartime RAAF officer. According to Greer, her mother suffered from what was probably Asperger's Syndrome, and as a result they had a difficult relationship. Greer left home because of it when she was 18.
Greer was raised in the suburb of Sandringham, near the beach, attending St Columba's Catholic Primary School in Elwood from February 1943, then Sacred Heart Parish School, Sandringham, and Holy Redeemer School, Ripponlea. In 1952 she won a scholarship to Star of the Sea College in Gardenvale, a convent school run by the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary; a school report called her "a bit of a mad-cap and somewhat erratic in her studies and in her personal responses." She gave up the Catholic faith a year after leaving school, as a result of finding the nuns' arguments for the existence of God unconvincing. From 1956 she attended the University of Melbourne, graduating in 1959 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and French language and literature
Sydney and Cambridge
After graduation Greer moved to Sydney, where she became involved with the Sydney Push and the anarchist Sydney Libertarians. Christine Wallace describes Greer at this time:
[Greer] walked into the Royal George Hotel, into the throng talking themselves hoarse in a room stinking of stale beer and thick with cigarette smoke, and set out to follow the Push way of life – "an intolerably difficult discipline which I forced myself to learn." The Push struck her as completely different from the Melbourne intelligentsia she had engaged with in the Drift, "who always talked about art and truth and beauty and argument ad hominem; instead, these people talked about truth and only truth, insisting that most of what we were exposed to during the day was ideology, which was a synonym for lies – or bullshit, as they called it."
Her first teaching post was at the University of Sydney, where she earned a first-class Master of Arts degree in romantic poetry in 1963, for a thesis entitled The Development of Byron's Satiric Mode. The thesis won her a Commonwealth Scholarship, which she used to fund her doctorate, arriving in 1964 at Newnham College, Cambridge, a women-only college. Lisa Jardine, who was at Newnham at the same time, recalled the first time she met Greer, at a formal dinner in college:
The principal called us to order for the speeches. As a hush descended, one person continued to speak, too engrossed in her conversation to notice, her strong Australian accent reverberating around the room. At the graduates' table, Germaine was explaining that there could be no liberation for women, no matter how highly educated, as long as we were required to cram our breasts into bras constructed like mini-Vesuviuses.The willingly suffered discomfort of the Sixties bra, she opined vigorously, was a hideous symbol of male oppression [We were] astonished at the very idea that a woman could speak so loudly and out of turn and that words such as 'bra' and 'breasts' – or maybe she said 'tits' – could be uttered amid the pseudo-masculine solemnity of a college dinner.
Greer joined the student acting company, the Cambridge Footlights in October 1964, on the same day as Clive James and Russell Davies.She was billed in 1965 as the first woman to be granted full membership. She received her Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in 1969 for a thesis entitled The Ethic of Love and Marriage in Shakespeare's Early Comedies.
Greer worked as an assistant lecturer at the University of Warwick from 1968 to 1972, living at first in a rented bedsit in Leamington Spa. In 1968 she was married for the first and only time. She met Paul du Feu, an English graduate who was working as a builder, outside a pub in Portobello Road, London, and married him at Paddington Register Office after a brief courtship, using a ring from a pawn shop. The marriage lasted only a few weeks; Greer wrote that she spent their wedding night in an armchair, because her husband, drunk, would not allow her in bed. She said she had been unfaithful to him several times. Du Feu later married and divorced Maya Angelou.
She began writing columns for Oz magazine, owned by Australian writer Richard Neville, whom she had met at a party in Sydney. The magazine's July 1970 edition, OZ 29, featured "Germaine Greer knits private parts," an article on the hand-knitted Keep it Warm Cock Sock, "a snug corner for a chilly prick." As Rose Blight she wrote a gardening column for Private Eye. She was also co-founder and editor of the Amsterdam underground magazine Suck, which published a full-page photograph of her "stripped to the buff, looking at the lens through [her] thighs." Her articles for Suck included one entitled "I Am a Whore."
The Female Eunuch was published in October 1970, launched at a party attended by editors from Oz. Arguing that the suburban, consumerist, nuclear family represses and devitalizes women, the book became an international bestseller and a watershed text in the feminist movement.
The following year Greer appeared on the cover of Life magazine, under the title "Saucy Feminist That Even Men Like," and in April famously debated Norman Mailer, who had just published The Prisoner of Sex, in "Dialogue on Women's Liberation," at the Town Hall in New York. Greer shared the stage with Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling and Jacqueline Ceballos, while Susan Sontag and Betty Friedan sat in the audience.
After leaving Warwick in 1972, Greer co-presented Nice Time, a Granada Television comedy show, with Kenny Everett and Jonathan Routh, bought a house in Italy, wrote a column for The Sunday Times, and travelled throughout Africa and Asia. In 1973 she debated William F. Buckley, Jr. at the Cambridge Union on the motion "This House Supports the Women's Liberation Movement." Buckley recalled Greer had "trounced him." "Nothing I said," he wrote in 1989, "and memory reproaches me for having performed miserably, made any impression or any dent in the argument. She carried the house overwhelmingly."
In 1979 Greer was appointed director of the Center of the Study of Women's Literature at the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and in 1981 founded the Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, an academic journal that highlights previously unknown women writers. In 1989 she became a fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge, where she had completed her PhD. That year she founded Stump Cross Books, which publishes the work of 17th- and 18th-century women poets. The imprint is financed by Greer. In 1998 Greer returned to Warwick as Professor of English and Comparative Studies.
She was named on the 2016 Woman's Hour Power List as one of seven women judged to have had the biggest impact on women's lives over the past 70 years, alongside Margaret Thatcher, Barbara Castle, Helen Brook, Jayaben Desai, Bridget Jones and Beyoncé.
The Female Eunuch
Main article: The Female Eunuch
The book was published by HarperCollins in London in October 1970. A Paladin paperback soon followed, with cover art by John Holmes. By March 1971 the book had nearly sold out its second printing and had been translated into eight languages. It has never been out of print.
Greer argued in the book that women do not realise how much men hate them, and how much they are taught to hate themselves. When it was first published, Wallace writes, one woman wrapped it in brown paper and kept it hidden under her shoes because her husband would not let her read it.
"The title is an indication of the problem," Greer told The New York Times in 1971. "Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They've become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master's ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It's a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that's got to be changed."
Two of the book's themes already pointed the way to Sex and Destiny 14 years later, namely that the nuclear family is a bad environment for women and for the raising of children, and that the manufacture of women's sexuality by Western society was demeaning and confining. Girls are feminised from childhood by being taught rules that subjugate them, she argued. Later, when women embrace the stereotypical version of adult femininity, they develop a sense of shame about their own bodies, and lose their natural and political autonomy. The result is powerlessness, isolation, a diminished sexuality, and a lack of joy:
The ignorance and isolation of most women mean that they are incapable of making conversation: most of their communication with their spouses is a continuation of the power struggle. The result is that when wives come along to dinner parties they pervert civilised conversation about real issues into personal quarrels. The number of hostesses who wish they did not have to invite wives is legion.
Greer argued that women should get to know and come to accept their own bodies, give up celibacy and monogamy. But they should not burn their bras. "Bras are a ludicrous invention," she said, "but if you make bralessness a rule, you're just subjecting yourself to yet another repression."
Lysistrata translation, The Obstacle Race
In 1972 Kenneth Tynan, artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, commissioned Greer to work on a translation of Aristophanes's Lysistrata. The project was not completed. The work found belated appreciation in 1999, with the remains of the script re-worked by Phil Willmott and produced by him as Germaine Greer's Lysistrata: The Sex Strike.
Greer's second book, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work (1979), covers its subject until the end of the nineteenth century, and speculates on the existence of women artists whose careers were not recorded.
Sex and Destiny
Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility (1984) continued Greer's critique of Western attitudes toward sexuality, fertility, and family, and the imposition of those attitudes on the rest of the world. Greer's targets again include the nuclear family, government intervention in sexual behaviour, and the commercialisation of sexuality and women's bodies. Greer argued that the Western promotion of birth control in the Third World was in large part driven not by concern for human welfare but by the traditional fear and envy of the rich towards the fertility of the poor. She argued that the birth control movement had been tainted by such attitudes from its beginning, citing Marie Stopes and others. She cautioned against condemning life styles and family values in the developing world.
Daddy, We Hardly Knew You
Greer's Shakespeare and The Madwoman's Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings, a collection of articles written between 1968 and 1985, appeared in 1986. In 1989 came Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, a diary and travelogue about her father, whom she described as distant, weak and unaffectionate, which led to claims which she described as inevitable – that in her writing she was projecting her relationship with him onto all other men.
Natalie Angier, writing in The New York Times, called The Change: Women, Ageing, and the Menopause (1991) a "brilliant, gutsy, exhilarating, exasperating fury of a book." In it, Greer wrote of the myths about menopause, advising against the use of hormone replacement therapy. "Frightening females is fun," she wrote in The Age. "Women were frightened into using hormone replacement therapy by dire predictions of crumbling bones, heart disease, loss of libido, depression, despair, disease and death if they let nature take its course." She argues that scaring women is "big business and hugely profitable." It is fear, she wrote, that "makes women comply with schemes and policies that work against their interest."
Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet (1995) is an account of women who wrote poetry in English before 1900, and an examination of why so few female poets have been admitted to the literary canon. Her conclusion is that women were held to different and lower standards than men (hence the "slip-shod" sibyls of the title, quoting Alexander Pope), and the poetic tradition discouraged good poetry from women. The book includes a critique of the concept of the woman as Muse, associated with Robert Graves and others,a chapter on the reputation of Sappho and her use as a symbol of female poetry, a chapter on the 17th-century poet Katherine Philips, two chapters on Aphra Behn and one on Anne Wharton, both also of the 17th century; the 17th- and 18th-century poet Anne Finch; and the 19th-century poets Letitia Landon and Christina Rossetti. It also includes an epilogue on 20th-century female poets, and their propensity for suicide. Greer writes: "Too many of the most conspicuous figures in women's poetry of the 20th century not only destroyed themselves in a variety of ways but are valued for poetry that documents that process."
The Whole Woman
The Whole Woman, a sequel to The Female Eunuch, was released in 1999. Greer argued that there had been little progress in the feminist movement:
Even if it had been real, equality would have been a poor substitute for liberation; fake equality is leading women into double jeopardy. The rhetoric of equality is being used in the name of political correctness to mask the hammering that women are taking. When The Female Eunuch was written our daughters were not cutting or starving themselves. 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's time to get angry again.
Her comments about female genital mutilation (FGM) proved controversial, particularly that opposition to it is an "attack on cultural identity," just as outlawing male circumcision would be viewed as an attack on Jews and Muslims. Greer wrote that feminists fighting to eliminate FGM in their own countries "must be supported," but she explored the complexities of the issue and the double standards of the West regarding other forms of bodily mutilation, including that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends surgery on baby girls with clitorises regarded as too long. She questioned the view that FGM is imposed by men on women, rather than by women on women, or even freely chosen.
Other controversial points in the book include Greer's opposition, in a chapter entitled "Pantomime Dames," to accepting transgender women as women: "Governments that consist of very few women have hurried to recognise as women, men who believe that they are women and have had themselves castrated to prove it, because they see women not as another sex but as a non-sex. No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight. The insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males."
The Beautiful Boy
Main article: The Beautiful Boy
A book of art history, The Beautiful Boy (2003) was illustrated with 200 photographs of what The Observer called "succulent teenage male beauty." Greer described the book as an attempt to address modern women's apparent indifference to the teenage boy as a sexual object and to "advance women's reclamation of their capacity for, and right to, visual pleasure." The cover photograph, by David Bailey, was of 15-year-old Björn Andrésen in his character of Tadzio in the film Death in Venice (1971). The actor complained about Greer's use of the photograph.
Greer has published three essays on Aboriginal issues, including "Whitefella Jump Up: The Shortest Way to Nationhood" (2003). According to her own account, she understood little about Aboriginal issues during her early years in Australia, but in England she saw from the perspective of distance that "what was operating in Australia was apartheid: the separation and alienation South Africa tried desperately and savagely to impose on their black majority, we had achieved, apparently effortlessly, with our black minority." On returning to Australia in late 1971 she made a concerted effort "to see as much as I could of what had been hidden from me" travelling for that purpose through the Northern Territory with activist Bobbi Sykes.
In Whitefella Jump Up (2003), Greer argued that Australians should re-imagine Australia as an Aboriginal nation. "Jump up" in Australian creole can, she wrote, mean "to be resurrected or reborn"; the title refers to occasions when Aborigines apparently accepted whites as reincarnated relatives. Greer suggested that whites were mistaken in understanding this literally, and that the Aborigines were in fact offering whites terms on which they could be accepted into the Aboriginal kinship system. The essay argues that it may not be too late for Australia as a nation to root itself in Aboriginal history and culture. She wrote:
Though I can claim no drop of Aboriginal blood, twenty years ago Kulin women from Fitzroy adopted me. There are whitefellas who insist that blackfellas don't practise adoption; all I can say is that when I asked about the possibility of assuming Aboriginality, the Kulin women said at once 'We'll adopt you.' 'How do you do that?' I asked, hoping I wouldn't be required to camp in some bleak spot for a month or two, and be painted or smoked and cut about. 'That's it,' they said. 'It's done. We've adopted you.' Since then I have sat on the ground with black women and been assigned a skin and been taught how to hunt and how to cook shellfish and witchetty grubs, with no worse punishment for getting it wrong than being laughed at.
Greer's essay "On Rage" (2008) dealt with the widespread rage of indigenous men. Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton argued that Greer was making excuses for bad behaviour.
In 2013 Greer published White Beech: The Rainforest Years about her work rehabilitating Australian rainforest at a former dairy farm near the Springbrook National Park in southern Queensland. There she discovered an uncommon White Beech (Gmelina leichhardtii) tree, and that Agent Orange (2,4,5-T), contaminated with the dioxin 2,3,7,8-TCDD, had been sprayed for years.
Other writing, broadcasting
Greer makes regular celebrity appearances on television, particularly in the UK. She appeared on the BBC's Have I Got News for You several times from 1990. In 1998 she wrote an episode, "Make Love not War," for the television documentary series Cold War, and sat for a nude photograph by the Australian photographer Polly Borland. In 2006 her Guardian column on the death of Australian Steve Irwin was criticized as insensitive for concluding that the animal world had "finally taken its revenge on Irwin," and that she hoped "exploitative nature documentaries" would now end. The following month she presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary on American composer and rock guitarist Frank Zappa, a friend of hers since the early 1970s. She said that his orchestral work "G-Spot Tornado" would be played at her funeral.
Other political views
From the 1970s Greer has described herself as an anarchist or anarchist communist, though in 2012 she said she had become a member of the British Liberal Democrats. Greer argued in 2008 that "reality comes first and ideology comes second," and elaborated on whether feminism was the only successful revolution of the 20th century:
The difficulty for me is that I believe in permanent revolution. I believe that once you change the power structure and you get an oligarchy that is trying to keep itself in power, you have all the illiberal features of the previous regime. What has to keep on happening is a constant process of criticism, renewal, protest and so forth.
Accusations of transphobia
Greer's position on transgender women has attracted controversy since 1997, when she unsuccessfully opposed the offer of a Newnham College fellowship to physicist Rachael Padman, arguing that Padman had been born male and should therefore not be admitted to a women-only college. In 2015 students at Cardiff University in Wales petitioned to stop Greer from speaking to the university on "Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century". The students argued that her views about transgender women were transphobic and misogynist. Greer responded by reaffirming, during an interview with the BBC's Newsnight, that she does not regard transgender women as women. In the same interview, Greer accused Caitlyn Jenner, who had been nominated for Glamour Woman of the Year, of misogyny and of successfully taking the limelight away from the other female members of the Kardashian-Jenner family. Greer's comments were condemned, with transgender comedienne Rebecca Root describing them as 'outmoded' and 'outrageous' while boxing promoter Kellie Maloney called for Greer to be prosecuted. The lecture went ahead as planned. In April, 2016 on an episode of Australia's Q&A, Greer once again reiterated her views, stating that it "wasn’t fair" for a man to decide his gender.
The University of Melbourne announced in 2013 that it would house the archive of Greer's work, which includes letters from family, friends, colleagues and critics, filling over 150 filing cabinet drawers. The transfer of the archive from Greer's home in England began in July 2014; the university said it would raise A$3 million to fund the process. Greer said that her fee would be donated to her charity, The Friends of Gondwana Rainforest.
(1970). The Female Eunuch, London: MacGibbon & Kee.
(1979). The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, London: Martin Secker and Warburg.
(1984). Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility, London: Harpercollins.
(1986). Shakespeare, Oxford: Oxford University Press (Past Masters series).
(1986). The Madwoman's Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings, London: Picador.
(1989). Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, New York: Fawcett Columbine.
(1989). with Susan Hastings, Jeslyn Medoff, Melinda Sansone (eds.), Kissing the Rod: An Anthology of Seventeenth Century Women's Verse, London: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
(1991). The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause.
(ed.), The Uncollected Verse of Aphra Behn.
(1995). Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet.
with Ruth Little (eds.), The Collected Works of Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda, Volume III, The Translations.
(1999). The Whole Woman, London: Doubleday.
with Susan Hastings (ed.), The Surviving Works of Anne Wharton.
(2000). John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester. London: Northcote House Publishers.
(2003). Poems for Gardeners, London: Virago.
(2003). The Beautiful Boy, New York: Rizzoli.
(ed.), 101 Poems by 101 Women.
(2004). Whitefella Jump Up: The Shortest Way to Nationhood, London: Profile Books (first published 2003 in Quarterly Essay).
(2007). Shakespeare's Wife, London: Bloomsbury.
(2013). White Beech: The Rainforest Years, London: Bloomsbury.
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