Visiting the Female Eunuch 47 years on

Germaine Greer’s Female Eunuch is a second wave feminist classic.  A Post Freudian account which argues that the development of a ‘female libido’ is the key to social liberation.

What insights does this iconoclastic work have to shine on the present?

As the prologue lays it out, the earlier – suffragette – wave of feminists had fought hard for civil rights of participation equal to those of men, and, according to Germaine, had largely won them, opening to women a world of possibility (equal access to the ‘ulcer and coronary’).  And yet, this is still a ‘man’s world’ of hierarchical order and success or failure through competition and strain. She argues, therefore that fewer women than expected have chosen to enjoy such a ‘privilege’.

This is very different starting point to the contemporary focus on “patriarchy”, which it is said, either excludes or exploits women’s participation in society; but for Germaine, the reluctance of women to participate suggests a glimmer of hope for an alternative form of existence.  It was the ‘chief function’ of this book to suggest a way to the alternative.

The situation of women (1970)

 

The account in the prologue represents one of two strands of critique – the critique of society. The second, and more prominent in the book is a critique of “femininity” and the passive role played by women.

As an example Germaine’s refers to the university sector:

“Women who are offered education are offered a genuine alternative, insofar as they are offered genuine education, a rare commodity in these days of universal induction.  And yet, when they were offered an education at first the result was not the creation of an instant race of superwomen…” (65). “The girls were a diligent, even too diligent, but their efforts were expended on mistaken goals.  They were anxious to please, to pick up everything they were told …  Their energy is all expended on conforming with disciplinary and other requirements, not in gratifying their own curiosity…” (66)

What we have here, aside from the Germain’s incisive criticism of the direction of the education industry, is her characterisation of the majority of women as obedient and servile, without independent energy, without ‘drive’. This is the real starting point for the book.

Against passivity

 

This lack of energy is, via a reading of Freud, found to be caused by a repressed to libido:

“What happens to the female is that her energy is deflected by the denial of her sexuality into a continuous and eventually irreversible system of repression” (68).

What follows is a somewhat cloudy, but important, distinction between female (regarded as an undefined potential) and feminine (regarded as a defined limit):

“We must reject femininity [of Freud] as meaning without libido, and therefore incomplete, subhuman, a cultural reduction of human possibilities, and rely of upon the indefinite term female, which retains the possibility of female libido” (69).

What Germaine means by defined and undefined, is that while masculinity is defined, its definition typically emphasises active characteristics (doing and becoming), “femininity” by contrast emphasises passive characteristics, in particular, being pretty, being agreeable.  We can take from this, that by “feminine” she means a certain stereotype.

Where has this stereotype come from?  The culprits, turn out to be, predominantly the “heaviness of maternal pressure” (and other ‘feminizers’), and a “pattern of reward” of lollies, dolls, clothes, beauty routines, which, according to her theory, young girls at first resist as they might rather be climbing trees with boys.

But in puberty. “the growing girl is encouraged to use her feminine charm, to be coy and alluring… [and so] her strong desires become dissipated in passive fantasies, while the connection with sexuality is effectively the underplayed or obscure” (86).

Transgender controversy

 

The most recent bout of fame Germaine has enjoyed has been due her remarks about transgender people whom she has been critical in some statements specifically directed, but also in generalisations.  The Female Eunuch shows this to be a position reached much earlier:

April was a man. But he longed to be a woman. He longed for the stereotype, not to embrace, but to be.  He wanted soft fabrics, jewels, furs, make-up, the love and protection of men …  He became a model, and began to illustrate the feminine stereotype as he was perfectly qualified to do, for he was elegant, voluptuous, beautifully groomed, and in love with his own image.” (62, 63)

It is because April, who underwent gender reassignment surgery in 1960, wants what Germaine considers most contemptuous about females – the performance of stereotypical femininity – that she is dismissive.  And in this way, it appears to be a close mirror of the Germaine/Jenner controversy, for Caitlyn Jenner’s 2015 remark, “The hardest part about being a woman is figuring out what to wear” is an embodiment of this attitude.

But that’s not all Germaine says about April, for she refers to her as ‘incompetent’ as a woman, seemingly because her lack of sexual organs limits her biological and sexual behaviour, and she is unable to consummate the marriage. In this way April, callously, is made to be the punchline for the book: she is definitionally a female eunuch for she has been castrated physically, while females who represent the feminine stereotype are castrated psychologically and behaviourally.

“April Ashley is our sister and our symbol” (63)

There is something a little distasteful about using the example of a particular person to establish the truth of a theoretical construct.

Woman power – female vs feminine

 

The chapter woman power is the first part of the book, which as the prologue foretold, refers to the potential for an alternative structure of society.

Characteristically, nonetheless, Germaine begins with an excoriation of “feminine” characteristics, quoting approvingly from a German (Jewish) philosopher named Otto Weininger, “men either despise women or have never thought seriously about them”. Statements such as these are excused by Germaine because he was “simply describing what he saw in female behaviour around him” (106).

The only significant criticism she lays against Weininger is that he assumes that the condition of women arises from their character rather than the reverse.  And it is here that Germaine see the light in Weininger’s – genuine – misogyny, and ultimately misanthropy – Wittgenstein is supposed also to have found Weininger a genius by inverse.  For some of what he had observed, and described as a defect, perhaps should be seen by modern woman as unique virtues:

“With women thinking and feeling are identical, for men they are in opposition.  The woman has many of her mental experiences as henid, (undifferentiated perceptions) whilst in the man these have passed through a process of clarification.” – Weininger (106)

Or, quoting from Freud:

“For women, the level of what is perfectly normal is different from what it is in men.  Their super ego is never so inexorable, so impersonal, so independent of its emotional origins as we require it to be in men.” (109)

Again, what Freud sees as a fault, Germaine sees as the potential for virtue; she ponders the difference in outcome were Nazi officers not so divided, their feeling from their thinking.

All this “differential” thinking of the cognition of men vs. women fits comfortably with Germaine’s liberatory feminist stance – and is prescient of the insights of other pretty influential thinkers such as Carol Gilligan, who have noted and regarded positively differences between men and women’s ethical -or other- development.  In a way, it is because women are not “equal” (or rather, not identical) to men that provides us -all of us- with a potential escape from the paternalistic structure of society.

Germaine concludes the chapter thus, “Women must have room and scope to devise a morality which does not disqualify her from excellence, and a psychology which does not condemn her to the status of a spiritual cripple.”

 

Violence and Domestic Violence

 

Germaine is critical of violence in general.

“War is the admission of defeat in the face of conflicting interests …  Women who adopt the attitudes of war in their search for liberation condemn themselves to acting out the last perversion of dehumanised manhood, which has only one foreseeable outcome, the specifically masculine end of suicide.” (316)

For this reason she criticises even karate as an activity which the feminist groups may use as a defensive last resort.

Finally, in a wondrous example of the famed myopic lens of academic ivory tower, she comments on violence within relationships. “It is true,” she says “that men use the threat of physical force, usually histrionically, to silence nagging wives: but it is almost always a sham.  It is actually a game of nerves, and can be turned aside fairly easily.” She continues, “I have lived with men of known violence…  And in no case was I ever offered any physical aggression, because it was abundantly clear from my attitude that I was not impressed by it” (316).

Scrawled, in pencil at bottom of the page, the first etching of marginalia which ventured beyond underline and ‘Yes!’ endorsements, is faintly written “What about if violent to her?” This reader was clearly not convinced. Germaine really ought to have extended the account beyond her own (dare I say, privileged) experience.

Furthermore, women are apportioned some of the blame for the competitive-violent rituals of men because “much goading of men is actually the female need for the thrill of violence”. So that “It would be genuine revolution if woman would suddenly stop loving the victors in violent encounters.” And withdraw their spectatorship from fighting matches, and from giving favours to soldiers.

Finally, the theme of violence resolves itself into the central thesis:

“Woman must humanise the penis, [utilised, metaphorically, as gun or knife] take the steel out of it and make it flesh again.” (318)

 

In Conclusion

So where is the Female Eunuch today?

It is certainly not an ‘easy’ book, and the inflammatory statements (“women have no idea how much men hate them“) are all there – and because of this and the tone of contempt which is directed towards “the feminine” it is hard to imagine the book could be popular if it were first published today.  But to focus solely on these aspects is to miss its value, which for me is not the central thesis – not convincing – but the insights along the way. Because Germaine is seldom dogmatic, and is a very rigorous scholar who commits to a path of logic embracing ‘if this is true, then this and that must be true also even though it may be unpleasant say so’, her insights can appreciated irrespective of one’s political disposition.

Some of the most impressive parts of the book are of historical scholarship – tracking the courting rituals of the medieval period, for example (not noted in the above)– while the least impressive, also not noted, are contemporary cultural criticism (Ian Fleming, Norman Mailer).

The ‘chief function’ of the book is distinctly a failure – it is far more critical than it is visionary. And while the absence of details as to how the indefinite liberatory feminism can achieve its unstated goals as opposed to the definite goals set by ‘equality feminism’, is both frustrating in its laxity and naivety, and in part shows Germaine to have been a woman of her time (circa revolutionary 1968), there is some currency in this given that the fact of feminism being diffuse throughout society, being bolstered, most definitely, but not directed, by activist organisations is one reason that it has proved so effective and impervious to attack over the long term.

As for whether Germaine’s ideas about sexuality have had the impact she predicted, I leave that for others to judge for sexual norms have changed drastically over time.

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