Germaine Greer at the ‘Humber Mouth’ Hull literature festival in 2006. (Photo Lic. CC 2.0)

Writer Watch

Germaine Greer

‘A Man ought no more to value himself for being wiser than a Woman, if he owes his Advantage to a better Education, than he ought to boast of his Courage for beating a Man when his hands were bound.’ 

– Mary Astell, in ‘An Essay in Defence of the Female Sex’, 1721


Germaine Greer, feminist, academic, broadcaster, teacher, self-proclaimed anarchist and irritation to many, appeared in three sessions during the Brisbane Writers Festival, and was nothing if not her usual controversial self.:

Ms Greer has confused a great many people over the past few decades by seemingly acting against her espoused beliefs on a regular basis.

If Greer has been consistent in anything over her long career it is the refusal to be anyone but herself. Indeed, she has, over and over again, demanded that right for herself – and then, just as consistently, denied the same right to others. This got her glitter-bombed in New Zealand in March this year.

In 1996 Germaine Greer was working at Newnham, one of Cambridge University’s three all-women colleges, when a transsexual colleague, physicist Rachael Padman (who had undergone gender reassignment in 1982), was invited to take up a fellowship at Newnham. Greer argued that since Padman had been born a male her appointment contravened college statutes.

A furore erupted after her actions became public and attracted a great deal of negative publicity, so much so that Greer resigned. Although the appointment went ahead, the damage had been done, with Rachael Padman becoming increasingly concerned that she was not passing as sufficiently female.

A rather scathing article on the subject written by Clare Longrigg of The Guardian entitled ‘A Sister with No Fellow Feeling’ was pulled from the website after print publication, apparently on the instruction of the newspaper’s lawyers.

People have long memories, however, and now and then irritation at Greer’s continual sniping boils over. Greer’s regular attacks on the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersexed (LGBTI) community filled Stacey of The Queer Avengers with wrathful indignation. On the group’s website she stated:

‘Transphobic feminism is so 20th Century... It wasn’t OK then and it’s not OK now. Women’s liberation must mean the right to refuse imposed gender roles, to fight for diverse gender expression...Greer has a history of denouncing transwomen; outing prominent transwomen and describing them as ghastly parodies of womanhood.’

Excoriating denouncements of those who are different don’t really go with the statement Germaine Greer made in her landmark publication The Female Eunuch in which she said: ‘It takes a great deal of courage and independence to decide to design your own image instead of the one that society rewards, but it gets easier as you go along.’

Not for trannies, apparently. After The Whole Woman, a sequel to The Female Eunuch, was released in 1999, Greer described transgenders as ‘Pantomime Dames’, following which leading sexologist, anatomist and psychologist, Professor Milton Diamond, attempted to explain to Ms Greer that research on genetics and hormonal activity had come quite a long way since the books were published and that she, quite simply, hadn’t kept up.

Diamond argued that, given that the influence of genetics and hormonal activity produces intersexuality to some degree in approximately one in every hundred persons (slightly less than twinning at one in eighty births), it is reasonable to suppose that differences in sexuality, sexual orientation and gender identity are to be expected birth variations, in the same way as most individuals differ from each other in appearance. Didn’t make a dent.

When the 73-year-old Greer toured New Zealand as a guest of Writers and Readers Week for the New Zealand International Arts Festival, The Queer Avengers launched the glitter attack (an increasingly popular way to highlight transphobia and gay prejudice). This resulted in a rather satisfying picture of Germaine Greer seated in a pile of glitter at a table in the Wellington’s Embassy Theatre.

Nothing daunted, this year continued to be one in which Ms Greer alarmed those who have hitherto looked to her for enlightenment and direction. In March 2012 she appeared on the panel of the ABC’s Q & A and promptly informed the nation in general, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard in particular, that she should ‘get rid of those bloody jackets’ because they didn’t fit her.

Not content with that Greer added: ‘Every time she turns around, you’ve got that strange horizontal crease which means they’re cut too narrow in the hips. You’ve got a big arse, Julia, just get on with it.’

Should Julia Gillard not be criticised because she is a woman? Of course not – but on the basis of the size of her backside? What was it that Greer used to say about respect and dignity for women? It just didn’t gel, did it? A lot of people felt let down and said so. Rebecca Sparrow spoke for many when she wrote:

‘That one comment, that one cheap shot, that one moment when Greer decided that it was OK to criticise a woman based on her size, saw everything Greer has fought for over the past 30 years unravel like the yarn of an ill-fated scarf.’

Well, not quite – but it didn’t help. These days it’s difficult to reconcile the woman in grey with the courageous, insightful and outspoken 30-year-old who gave the frustrations and inequalities of women a strident and articulate voice. The Female Eunuch is still worth reading for its historical content (although one would recommend that the reader go elsewhere for updated information on the functioning of the human body and brain).

The Female Eunuch was a fearless and funny examination of the status of women who were, Greer claimed, divorced from their own reality and sexuality. Within a year of its publication the book was translated into eight languages and hit society like a bomb. It was all anybody was talking about – at least in the West.

Christine Wallace, the author of an unauthorised biography of Germaine Greer, unkindly but accurately entitled Untamed Shrew, stated that many women resorted to the subterfuge of covering their bought or borrowed book with brown paper to ensure that their husbands didn’t stop them from reading it. It is reasonable to ask why the women of that time felt that they had to do that.

I certainly wouldn’t argue that one should no longer listen to Germaine Greer: she’s a clever woman and her polemical dissertations never fail to be interesting and often witty. I would say rather that one should never listen uncritically. Indeed, it is wise not to listen to anyone without engaging the brain.

If people have been disappointed in Germaine Greer’s performances over the past few years, it may well be because they have expected, and still expect, far too much of her. Germaine Greer is one of six billion people on the planet. Certainly she must take responsibility for what she says, but give her a break.

Perhaps Greer’s inconsistency reveals that she is not, and never has been, the fount of all wisdom, but that she is still looking for answers – just like the rest of us.

Germaine Greer’s other publications include: The Obstacle Race, Sex and Destiny, The Madwoman’s Underclothes, Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, The Change, Slipshod Sibyls, The Whole Woman, The Boy.

Germaine Greer - the woman the Book of Revelations didn't see coming! - took part in 'The Great Debate' at the Concert Hall during Brisbane Writers Week in September 2012, which addressed the topic 'Reading the Bible is Good for You'. An avowed Marxist, Greer nevertheless argued for the affirmative. Go figure...

Right girls! Drag out the sequins! Fluff up the Ostrich Feathers! Pull out the powder puffs! Get out the glitter! Germaine Greer is in town and she needs dusting off!

Website Watch

Germaine Greer 

Germaine Greer was born in Melbourne, educated in Australia and at Cambridge University, and her first book, The Female Eunuch, upset society greatly circa 1970 but was embraced with enthusiasm by the feminist movement. She remains an academic but also wears other hats such as broadcaster, journalist, columnist and reviewer. Germaine is increasingly becoming known for her passionate defence of the environment. If you want to book Ms Greer, her representatives currently are: Literary representation: Gillon Aitken and Media representation: Leah Middleton, who may be contacted via London - New York - India. As for other websites – just enter Germaine Greer in Google search and spend many happy years following her progress past and present. 

Suggested gift for Ms Greer: A toolkit for the modern woman. Thank you Anon.