The Whole Woman
by Germaine Greer
Knopf. 384 pp. $25.00
Three decades ago, the English writer Germaine Greer erupted into the world with The Female Eunuch, a cleverly titled book whose core argument, as she recently summarized it, was that “every girl child is conceived as a whole woman but from the time of her birth to her death she is progressively disabled.” As summary, that is accurate enough, but it fails to capture the qualities in the book that provoked such a remarkable mixture of admiration and outrage when it was published. The radical, erudite, witty Greer was then, as she is now, a sui-generis feminist—mutatis mutandis, a kind of Camille Paglia of the 70’s.
Greer has been reasonably prolific over the past 30 years, but other authors have come along to shock while she has gradually acquired the patina of an object surviving more or less unaltered from a previous age. This clearly could not be allowed to continue. Although she explicitly forswore any sequel to her first book—on the grounds that, when the time came, a younger woman would have to write it—now, like a congressional supporter of term limits discovering the virtues of experience, she has decided that “it’s time to get angry again.” And so The Whole Woman—a title that invites confusion with Marabel Morgan’s antithetical The Total Woman (Morgan advises doting on one’s husband 24 hours a day)—picks up where The Female Eunuch left off.
The reason for Greer’s current anger is, in a nutshell, that feminism has not worked out the way it was intended. Women have attained legal equality, but they have not attained liberation. Instead, men have been the primary beneficiaries of the sexual revolution. If this suggests a possible change of mind on Greer’s part—perhaps feminism misread what women need, or want?—nothing could be farther from the case: “The old enemies, undefeated, have devised new strategies, new assailants lie in ambush,” she writes, meaning, by enemies, men and the social arrangements they have invented. “We have no choice but to turn and fight.”
There follows a series of tractates organized under the rubrics of Body, Mind, Love, and Power and adding up to a catalogue of how women have either failed to become better off or have actually become worse off since the 1960’s. Wherever Greer looks, she finds evidence—whether it exists or not.
Sometimes the problem as she sees it is simply the continuation of an old evil, like women’s male-imposed obsession with their own bodies, a/k/a “beauty.” But sometimes the problem is the new rights that women have fought for and now think they enjoy, like the right to be soldiers, which turns out to be only the right to one long course of abuse by men (except, Greer is quick to add, in guerrilla armies, which provide women with the requisite political “education” to understand why armed struggle is necessary). And sometimes it is technology—that is, male technology.
In-vitro fertilization, for example, is a process leading to “man-made mothers.” Mammography is particularly perverse, in Britain because it is free only to women over the age of fifty, elsewhere because it is painful, especially for younger women. Abortion, too, exemplifies the exploitation of woman by man; pregnancy, after all, occurs because of inadequate contraception, and what is that but a consequence of the male demand for, as Greer puts it, access to the cervix during intercourse?
The subject of bodily mutilation gets an entire chapter, one that finely illustrates Greer’s attitude toward sex in general and toward her own, female sex in particular. There are, it emerges, two kinds of mutilation. The bad kind comprises caesarean sections, hysterectomies, and episiotomies; the good, believe it or not, includes genital piercing and the clitoridectomies widely performed on infants and young girls in Africa. Both, to Greer, are examples of women asserting control over their own bodies—female technology, in other words—whereas efforts to end clitoridectomy, whether led by men or by their female patsies, are simply one more subcategory of the male will to dominate.
And speaking of the will to dominate, what about shopping? First the male-run corporations show their enmity toward women by making available in supermarkets the raw foodstuffs historically provided by women themselves. Next comes the insult of processed and frozen foods. And now you can buy ready-to-serve meals prepared in in-store kitchens. The final infamy is that women still must do all the shopping themselves—this last being one of the myriad pristine assertions in The Whole Woman that appear never to have been sullied by simple empirical testing.
A fair amount of ink has been spilled by earnest reviewers taking issue with the arguments, so-called, of this book; the New Republic devoted almost 7,000 words to a solemn rebuttal. But what is there, really, to say? The Encyclopaedia Britannica wrote better than it knew in describing Germaine Greer in a recent edition as an “Australian-born English writer and feminist who championed the sexual freedom of women.” Assuming the statement was ever true, the past tense says it all.