The Female Eunuch was published in 1970 when Germaine Greer was thirty or thirty one. I forget whether I read it at the time, though I was reading other Second Wave feminist work, and I decided to (re-?) read it now partly because she is someone who quite a lot of people now hate and want to No Platform.
The book starts a bit uncertainly as Greer tries to behave like a proper scientist, adducing and evaluating evidence. Some of this discussion seems a bit quaint because science has moved on – for example, DNA testing did not exist in 1970. But it also feels quaint when it engages the literature which the Discovery of Sex in the 1960s spawned, a literature in which it is very easy to get lost as it searches, sometimes blindly, for the location of the female orgasm. Greer has a Queen Victoria moment when she writes of female ejaculation that it is “utterly fanciful” (page 44). Then the book moves into sections where I felt that the text was probably being eked out with material from Greer’s Cambridge doctoral researches. Finally, Greer finds her own voice in the last hundred pages and lets rip.
A few things struck me. This is a book about relations between men and women. Lesbians get a few mentions and gay men barely any (and the ones I noticed were not sympathetic). It’s not Greer’s scene and she isn’t really very interested. You could say that the whole book is about Greer’s own dilemmas. She is a heterosexual woman who wants to relate to men (and probably in the plural rather than the singular) but where the ways available for doing so are profoundly unattractive, unlike individual men. She is beautiful, clever, loud and likes relationships and sex - none of which taken singly may sound particularly off-putting but which offered as a package seem to have nowhere to go. Beautiful on its own allows you to be some man’s trophy. Clever on its own allows you to be a blue stocking but after the experience of Cambridge, No Thank You. Loud is more difficult thanks to polite society and likewise sex, which doesn’t seem to go with being someone’s wife and having children. In the last hundred pages, Greer decides that marriage is the main enemy and comprehensively trashes it. On all fronts, she does not want to be a eunuch and, to a greater or lesser extent, that is the deal she feels she is being offered. Why would anyone want to be a eunuch?
You can see where this might later lead her and I was looking out for signs of attitudes which have made her the focus of so much anger and it was there in the odd cutting remark.
In 1968-70 I was a graduate student in London and hung out with second wave feminists who gravitated into things like the London Women’s Liberation Workshops. They appear at page 349:
When these worthy ladies appeared at the Miss World Contest with their banners saying “We are not sexual objects” (a proposition that no one seemed inclined to deny) they were horrified to find that girls from the Warwick University movement were chanting and dancing around the police…
The parenthesis did make me smile, for a moment, but immediately it's obvious that it manages to be both a masculine unchivalrous remark and an unsisterly aside, the offence compounded by the acid contrast of “worthy ladies” and “girls”. But behind the cutting remark there is a coherent and worthy intellectual position: Greer is quite clear that for her feminism is not an Anti-Sex League and that sexual desire when not corrupted by patriarchy and capitalist advertising is indeed prompted and sustained by individuals in all their individuality and not by persons as objects – something she acknowledges in a very nice, single sentence about a truck driver and his wife:
I remember a truck driver telling me once about his wife, how sexy and clever and loving she was, and how beautiful. He showed me a photograph of her and I blushed for guilt because I had expected something plastic and I saw a woman by trendy standards plain, fat and ill-clad. (page 162)
So you might say she lands herself in hot water unnecessarily, carried away by irritation and frustration. But if we made that a No Platform offence, we would not need any platforms at all.