Germaine Greer in the 1970s. Credit: The Sydney Morning Herald/Fairfax Media via Getty Images

October 16, 2020   4 mins

Oh no, it’s Germaine Greer. Or: oh yes, it’s Germaine Greer. I always feel a bit of both when she makes one of her re-eruptions into public consciousness — this time, on account of a reissue of her 1970 polemic The Female Eunuch, with an excellent new introduction by Hadley Freeman. The “oh yes” is for the obvious reason, which is that Greer is ferociously interesting. She might be appalling (how people love to be appalled by the things she’s said), but she is not dull, and cleverly outrageous beats bland rectitude any day for me.

The “oh no”, though: that’s because, while Greer herself is interesting, the people talking about her very rarely are. Most discussions of Greer turn rapidly into a trial of her as a woman, then veer into trashing, and finally reach their ecstatic consummation in a ritual expulsion of her from the entire history of feminism. According to her critics, she’s old, outdated, unrepresentative, a betrayal of the movement she helped to inaugurate — in short, flawed. And women are not supposed to be flawed. Feminists, especially, are not supposed to be flawed. There’s no room in the sisterhood for damaged goods.

Feminist histories tend to devolve into what Helen Lewis calls (in her book Difficult Women) “a shallow hunt for heroines”. First there’s the role-model business, where women are plucked out of their context and shined up into secular saints; then come the debunkers to point out all the ways in which this or that woman was problematic and therefore not worthy of remembrance, never mind celebration. It is, on both sides, a tedious and exhausting process, and one that serves to knock all the politics out of the story of women’s liberation.

Turning feminism into a hunt for good women is not exactly new. Actually, it would be fair to say that the hunt for good women is a kind of proto-feminism. When the fifteenth century writer Christine de Pizan took issue with men’s characterisation of women, she did it by writing The Book of the City of Ladies — essentially, an epic work of revisionism. Where men had portrayed women as dim, scheming and slutty, she would refute the slander by filling her allegory with angels. “Only ladies who are of good reputation and worthy of praise will be admitted into this city. To those lacking in virtue, its gates will remain forever closed.”

It’s a brilliant, witty and defiant piece of writing. It’s also perverse. When she writes about the mythological witch Medea, de Pizan lavishes praise on her subject’s learning and power. What she doesn’t mention is that in all tellings, Medea is a murderer, and in most tellings she murders her own sons in revenge against their father for deserting her. In miniature, this preempts all the problems with heroine-hunting: de Pizan purifies Medea into being actually a bit boring, and all anyone has to do if they want to debunk her argument about feminine virtue is copy out the relevant section of Ovid.

Nearly 400 years later, Mary Wollstonecraft was wise to all this. She recognised that purity was a trap. When you are praised for being something beyond human excellence, you are simply being put on notice of your inevitable failure. “Why are girls to be told that they resemble angels; but to sink them below women?” she asked in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. Not, of course, that this observation stopped future generations from putting her through exactly the same mill — and if it’s misguided when applied to a mythical witch, it’s flat-out inane done to a real-life, flesh-and-blood woman.

Here’s how the feminist writer Sady Doyle, in her 2016 book Trainwreck, summarises Wollstonecraft’s great work: “Her points have been so widely accepted that they neither shock nor enlighten: education for women? Sure! Women voting? Why the heck not? Letting ladies be doctors? Yes, yes, very good. Let’s move on to the hard stuff.” In other words, Wollstonecraft is to be valued inasmuch as Vindation anticipates a Sady Doyle version of contemporary feminism; and inasmuch as Vindication anticipates a Sady Doyle version of contemporary feminism, it can only be a feeble prelude to the real thing.

Actually there’s lots that’s still provocative about Vindication, if you actually read it. It’s a claim for women’s rights, but large parts of it read as an attack on Wollstonecraft’s female contemporaries who, deprived of education, accept their lives of infantilised triviality. Her opinions on abortion, too, are a rough ride for the twenty-first century feminist: the enervated state of women, writes Wollstonecraft, means that they “have not sufficient strength to discharge the first duty of a mother; and sacrificing to lasciviousness the parental affection, that ennobles instinct, either destroy the embryo in the womb, or cast it off when born.”

I don’t raise all this because I want to chuck Mary Wollstonecraft out of the canon for wrongthink. I bring it up because I think the woman you will meet in Vindication — the woman who was angrily alive to the politics and philosophy of her time — is vastly more exciting than the vague prophetess invoked by Doyle. It is good to take my belief that abortion is a general benefit and sharpen it against someone braver and smarter than me who held a very different view; better, certainly, than mulching my brain in slogans that only echo what I already think.

Perfection is a kind of death, and a version of feminism that can only make room for the perfect — either by casting out the sinful or by trimming the almost-saved into saintliness — is a dead one. Politics, like human life, is messy, raw and ragged. Greer has offended by saying that rape (her own rape, in fact) doesn’t lead to monolithic trauma, by pointing out that women are primary consumers of much material that turns our own destruction into titillation (relentless reader of serial killer wikis reporting for duty here), by saying men can’t become women. I agree with some bits, am aghast at others, and almost all of it forces me to think harder about what I think. Oh yes, it’s Germaine Greer.

Sarah Ditum is a columnist, critic and feature writer.