I have mixed feelings about contemporary discussions of feminism. On one hand, it’s great that people are discovering that other contentious ‘f’ word. Gender equality and sisterhood shouldn’t be words confined to sociology syllabuses: the issues debated by Betty Friedan and her generation remain as relevant today as during the 1970s. And that’s not taking into account 21st century hot topics like Islam and women, and how to juggle meaningful careers with motherhood.
But where did 2015’s torrent of female empowerment come from? After years of denials, last year Beyonce performed with the word ‘FEMINIST’ emblazoned on the stage behind her like one of those Katharine Hamnett shirts. The label has even been applied to female YouTubers, who apparently elevate women with their makeup tutorials. I’m pretty sure Betty is rolling in her grave.
A more promising symptom of the renewed interest in this area pops up each month in Vintage Life magazine. The mag profiles an inspiring woman from history – diverse women like Freya Stark, an explorer and travel writer who died in 1993 at 100 years old. I’m ashamed to admit I’d never heard of her before.
Taking a leaf from the same book, I’m naming Germaine Greer as my first #WCW candidate. Because we all need a little affirmation mid-week that awesome and courageous ladies exist out there while we stare at our computer monitors.
So why Germaine, you ask. She’s an old grump who likes to stick her oar into issues beyond her ken (like arguing that transphobia doesn’t exist at a Cambridge University lecture this past January and oddly, referencing ex-Aussie PM Julia Gillard’s “fat arse” in 2012). Aside from these slip-ups and appearing on Celebrity Big Brother in 2005 (there are no words), she’s surprisingly cool.
Greer was born in another world: January 1939, months before the Second World War cast everything into turmoil. Her father was away for the first few years of her life serving in the wartime RAAF and she later recalled how he returned a stranger to her hometown of Melbourne, Australia at the close of the war. According to her 1980s memoir, he remained distant for the rest of his life. However, Germaine sustained herself with an appetite for knowledge, poetry and music, impressing the nuns at her Catholic convent with her intellectual prowess and eventually escaping the restrictive confines of her family life to attend university.
At Melbourne University and subsequently in Sydney, where she majored in English Literature, she discovered sex and the counterculture in the form of intellectual anarchist group The Push. This proved an apt grounding for her move to the UK in 1964, ostensibly to complete a PhD at Cambridge in Shakespeare but also to shake up our grey little island with some of that astonishing confidence and challenging wit.
Of course, she soon made her way down the rail line to London, where the swinging 60s were in full flow. She hung out with musicians, espousing the joys of groupiedom, and contributed to infamous magazine Oz as a kind of sex therapist/agony aunt for its readers. The image below, taken in 1969 by Keith Morris, is one of the publication’s less controversial covers, but certainly not something that gels with many people’s perception of her these days.
It was around this time that she met her first and only husband in the shape of construction worker/writer (such things were possible in the 60s) Paul de Feu. He recalled being introduced by a mutual friend outside a pub in Portobello Road, “intrigued by this tall stranger with ‘frizzed-out soul-sister hair’ who strode down the middle of the road like a gunslinger”*. A few too many whiskey and Guinesses later, they hooked up and were married weeks later. Needless to say, it didn’t work out. Incompatible personalities sounded the death knell for their booze-soaked union less than four weeks later.
Greer’s greatest career achievement arrived in 1970 with The Female Eunuch, a messy but powerfully argued manifesto for women oppressed by traditional family structures, marriage and consumerism. It became one of the first widely-read feminist texts, almost selling out its second print run. I precociously read The Female Eunuch when I was 14, intrigued by this book that seemed so explosive and rebellious compared to the usual feminine discourse. I didn’t understand many of its concepts, which rely on the adult experience of heterosexual relationships and the sometimes transactional nature of sex, but I recognised its power.
Among other points, Greer argued that “Status ought not to be measured by a woman’s ability to attract and snare a man.” Shamefully, 40 years later, we still haven’t done away with this outdated notion.
Germaine Greer is 76 now, the author of many more books, and her philosophies, though not always consistent, have been shaped by subsequent decades. Today, she’s more likely to be found in the Australian rainforest than striding down the Kings Road, but she still likes to stir things up at debates and in the media.
Lets raise a glass to a woman who’s still unafraid to challenge the norm.
*Christine Wallace’s description. Having written the biography Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew, its subject called Wallace a “dung beetle”, “intestinal flora” and “a wretched bloody woman”.