Germaine Greer at the "Humber Mouth" Hull literature festival 2006
|Born||January 29 1939
|Subjects||English literature, feminism, art history|
|Notable work(s)||The Female Eunuch|
|Influences||Mary Wollstonecraft, Simone de Beauvoir|
Germaine Greer (January 29, 1939 - ) is an Australian-born writer, academic, journalist, and scholar of early modern English literature, widely regarded as one of the most significant feminist voices of the later twentieth century.
Greer's ideas have created controversy ever since her ground-breaking The Female Eunuch became an international best-seller in 1970, turning her overnight into a household name and bringing her both adulation and opposition. She is also the author of many other books including, Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility (1984), The Change: Women, Ageing and the Menopause (1991), The Beautiful Boy (2003), and most recently Shakespeare's Wife (2008).
An audacious and iconoclastic social critic who offends many with her biting commentaries, she has nonetheless proved to be one of feminism's most effective voices for change and the creation of social awareness.
Greer was born in Melbourne in 1939, growing up in the bayside suburb of Mentone. Her father was an insurance executive, who served as a Wing Commander in the wartime RAAF. After attending a private convent school, Star of the Sea College, in Gardenvale, she won a scholarship in 1956 and enrolled at the University of Melbourne. After graduating with a degree in English and French language and literature, she moved to Sydney, where she became involved with the Sydney Push, a group of intellectual anarchists. "I was already an anarchist," she later said. "I just didn't know why I was an anarchist. They put me in touch with the basic texts and I found out what the internal logic was about how I felt and thought" (Wallace 1999).
In her first teaching post, Greer lectured at the University of Sydney, where she also earned an M.A. in romantic poetry in 1963, with a thesis titled, The Development of Byron's Satiric Mode. A year later, the thesis won her a Commonwealth Scholarship, which she used to fund her doctorate at the University of Cambridge in England, where she became a member of the all-women's Newnham College.
Greer joined the student amateur acting company, the Cambridge Footlights, which launched her into the London arts and media scene. Using the nom de plume "Rose Blight," she also wrote a gardening column for the satirical magazine Private Eye. As "Dr. G," she became a regular contributor to the underground London magazine Oz, owned by the Australian writer Richard Neville. The July 29, 1970 edition was guest-edited by Greer, and featured an article of hers on the hand-knitted "cock sock," which she described as "a snug corner for a chilly prick." She also posed nude for Oz on the understanding that the male editors would do likewise; they did not. Greer was also editor of the Amsterdam underground magazine, Suck, which published a full–page photograph of Greer: "Stripped to the buff, looking at the lens through my thighs."
In 1968, Greer received her Ph.D. on the topic of Elizabethan drama with a thesis titled The Ethic of Love and Marriage in Shakespeare's Early Comedies. She then accepted a lectureship in English at the University of Warwick in Coventry. The same year, in London, she married Australian journalist Paul du Feu, but the marriage lasted only three weeks, during which, as she later admitted, Greer was unfaithful several times. The marriage finally ended officially in divorce in 1973.
Following her great success with the publication in 1970 of The Female Eunuch, Greer resigned her post at Warwick University in 1972 after traveling the world to promote her book. During this time co-presented a Granada Television comedy show called Nice Time with Kenny Everett and Jonathan Routh, bought a house in Italy, and wrote a column for The Sunday Times. She then traveled through Africa and Asia, which included a visit to Bangladesh to investigate the situation of women who had been raped during the conflict with Pakistan. On the New Zealand leg of her tour in 1972, Greer was arrested for using the words "bullshit" and "fuck" during her speech, which attracted major rallies in her support. By this time Greer identified herself as an anarchist communist, close to Marxism.
During the mid 1970s, Greer also devoted herself to the study of art history and undertook research for The Obstacle Race, the Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work . In 1979, she was appointed to a post in the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, as the director for the Center of the Study of Women's Literature. She was also the founding editor of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature, an academic journal, during 1981–82.
In 1989, Greer was appointed as a special lecturer and fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge, but resigned after attracting negative publicity in 1996, for her actions regarding Dr. Rachael Padman, a transsexual colleague. Greer unsuccessfully opposed Padman's election to a fellowship on the grounds that Padman had been born male, and Newnham was a women's college. She has also been criticized by trans-gendered writer Julia Serano for disparagement of transsexuals (Serano, 2007). Over the years Greer has continued to self-identify as an anarchist or a Marxist.
Greer is now retired but retains her position as professor emeritus in the Department of English Literature and Comparative Studies at the University of Warwick, Coventry. She continues to make headlines, however, through her columns and interviews, in which she often criticizes well known public figures with biting and satirical wit designed to drive home her philosophical and political points.
Greer argued in The Female Eunuch that women do not realize how much men hate them and how much they are taught to hate themselves. Christine Wallace writes that, when The Female Eunuch was first published, one woman had to keep it wrapped in brown paper because her husband would not let her read it; arguments and fights broke out over dinner tables and copies of it were thrown across rooms at unsuspecting husbands. The book arrived in the stores in London in October 1970. By March 1971, it had nearly sold out its second printing and had been translated into eight languages.
"The title is an indication of the problem," Greer told the New York Times in 1971, "Women have somehow been separated from their libido, from their faculty of desire, from their sexuality. They've become suspicious about it. Like beasts, for example, who are castrated in farming in order to serve their master's ulterior motives—to be fattened or made docile—women have been cut off from their capacity for action. It's a process that sacrifices vigor for delicacy and succulence, and one that's got to be changed."
Two of the book's themes already pointed the way to Sex and Destiny 14 years later, namely that the nuclear family is a bad environment for women and for the raising of children; and that the manufacture of women's sexuality by Western society was demeaning and confining. Girls are feminized from childhood by being taught rules that subjugate them. Later, when women embrace the stereotypical version of adult femininity, they develop a sense of shame about their own bodies, and lose their natural and political autonomy. The result is powerlessness, isolation, a diminished sexuality, and a lack of joy:
The ignorance and isolation of most women mean that they are incapable of making conversation: most of their communication with their spouses is a continuation of the power struggle. The result is that when wives come along to dinner parties they pervert civilized conversation about real issues into personal quarrels. The number of hostesses who wish they did not have to invite wives is legion.
Greer argued that women should get to know and come to accept their own bodies, taste their own menstrual blood, and give up celibacy and monogamy. But they should not burn their bras. "Bras are a ludicrous invention," she wrote, "but if you make bralessness a rule, you're just subjecting yourself to yet another repression."
Greer's second book, The Obstacle Race: The Fortunes of Women Painters and Their Work, was published in 1979. This work details the life and experiences of female painters until the end of the nineteenth century. It also speculates on the existence of women artists whose careers are not recorded by posterity.
Sex and Destiny: The Politics of Human Fertility, published in 1984, continued Greer's critique of Western attitudes toward sexuality, fertility, family, and the imposition of those attitudes on the rest of the world. Greer's target again is the nuclear family, government intervention in sexual behavior, and the commercialization of sexuality and women's bodies. Greer's apparent approval of lifestyles and values in the developing world and her preference of poverty over consumerism led her to endorse practices frequently at odds with the beliefs of most Western feminists. For example, female genital mutilation had to be considered in context, she wrote, and might be compared with breast augmentation in the West.
In 1986, Greer published Shakespeare, a work of literary criticism. She also released The Madwoman's Underclothes: Essays and Occasional Writings, a collection of newspaper and magazine articles written between 1968 and 1985. In 1989 came Daddy, We Hardly Knew You, a diary and travelogue about her father, whom she described as distant, weak, and unaffectionate, which led to claims—which she characterized as "inevitable"—that in her writing she was projecting her relationship with him onto all other men.
In 1991, Greer released The Change: Women, Ageing, and the Menopause, which became another influential book in the women's movement. The New York Times called it a "brilliant, gutsy, exhilarating, exasperating fury of a book." Greer advised against the use of hormone replacement therapy, saying: "Women were frightened into using hormone replacement therapy by dire predictions of crumbling bones, heart disease, loss of libido, depression, despair, disease, and death if they let nature take its course." She argues that scaring women is "big business and hugely profitable." It is fear, she wrote, that "makes women comply with schemes and policies that work against their interest."
Slip-Shod Sibyls: Recognition, Rejection and the Woman Poet followed in 1995 and, in 1999, The Whole Woman, intended as a sequel to The Female Eunuch and because she felt a "fire in her belly" again, in which she attacked both men and women for what she saw as the lack of progress in the feminist movement. Greer wrote in the introduction: "The contradictions women face have never been more bruising than they are now. The career woman does not know if she is to do her job like a man or like herself… Is motherhood a privilege or a punishment?… [F]ake equality is leading women into double jeopardy… It's time to get angry again." Greer claims that women are cruelly manipulated by the media and society's constructs to become "disabled" beings. So "a woman's first duty to herself is to survive this process, then to recognize it, then to take measures to defend herself against it."
In 2000, Greer took a story from Aristophanes to write her own feminist Lysistratain. In 2002, she wrote Shakespeare: A Very Short Introduction, an introduction to Shakespeare's plays in which she shows that Shakespeare dramatized moral and intellectual issues that made the audience aware of a creative dimension to daily life.
In 2003, Greer published The Beautiful Boy, an art history book about the beauty of teenage boys, which is illustrated with 200 photographs of what The Guardian called "succulent teenage male beauty," alleging that Greer had appeared to reinvent herself as a "middle-aged pederast." Greer herself described the book as an attempt to address women's apparent indifference to the teenage boy as a sexual object and to "advance women's reclamation of their capacity for, and right to, visual pleasure."
In 2008, she wrote her most recent work Shakespeare's Wife, which tries to discover the real character of Anne Hathaway Shakespeare, whom Greer says has been much maligned by history and has received "centuries of slurs." Greer emphasizes Anne's strength of character that allowed her to survive her famous husbands' abandonment, portraying a lusty, independent, resourceful, and intelligent woman, not unlike herself.
In 1999, Greer sat for a nude photograph by the Australian photographer Polly Borland. The photo was part of a National Portrait Gallery exhibition in 2000 and later appeared in a book titled Polly Borland: Australians.
Belinda Luscombe in Time Magazine called Greer "the ultimate Trojan Horse, gorgeous and witty, built to penetrate the seemingly unassailable fortress of patriarchy and let the rest of us foot soldiers in." Angela Carter described her as "a clever fool," while former British Conservative MP Edwina Currie called her "a great big hard-boiled prat".
On April, 23, 2003, Greer was assaulted in her home by a 19-year-old female student from the University of Bath who had been writing to her. The student broke into her home in Essex, tied Greer up in the kitchen, and caused damage to her home. Dinner guests eventually found Greer lying in a distressed state on the floor, with the student hanging onto her legs. BBC News reported that the student was originally charged with assault and false imprisonment, but those charges were dropped and replaced with a harassment charge. She was sentenced to two years' probation and ordered to undergo psychiatric treatment. Greer was not hurt and told reporters: "I am not angry, I am not upset, I am not hurt. I am fine. I haven't lost my sense of humor. I am not the victim here." This incident is the initial plot premise for Joanna Murray-Smith's play The Female of the Species (2006); the main character's name in that play is Margot Mason.
Since 1990, Greer has made numerous appearances on the British television panel show Have I Got News For You, a record she holds jointly with Will Self. Greer was one of nine contestants in the 2005 series of Celebrity Big Brother UK. She had previously said that the show was "as civilized as looking through the keyhole in your teenager's bedroom door." She walked out of the show after five days inside the Big Brother house, citing the psychological cruelty and bullying of the show's producers, the dirt of the house, and the publicity-seeking behavior of her fellow contestants. However, since then she has appeared on spin-off shows Big Brother's Little Brother and Big Brother's Big Mouth.
In September 2006, Greer's column in The Guardian about the death of Australian Steve Irwin attracted criticism for what was reported as a "distasteful tirade." Greer said that "The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin."
In the same month she presented a BBC Radio 4 documentary on the life of American composer and rock guitarist Frank Zappa. She confirmed that she had been a friend of Zappa's since the early 1970s and that his orchestral work "G-Spot Tornado" would be played at her funeral.
In a recent column, Greer attacked U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for wearing pearls. "Angela Merkel, the most powerful woman in Europe, wouldn't be seen dead in the full-on row of pearls," she wrote. "Diana Spencer wore her jeweled ligatures as signifiers of subjection. Condie Rice is George Bush's creature, and when he steps down he will take her with him. The consensus is that she will not find another job in politics."
Germaine Greer caused an earthquake in the attitudes of women and men about the role of women in society and sex. She is acidly critical of all established thinking and writes on topics from rock to Ethiopian resettlement, and from advertising to abortion. Although many find her writings crude and offensive, she unquestionably moved the status quo of women's rights forward. Her writings have made an important contribution in the fields literary criticism, art history, and women's studies, as well as to the women's rights movement directly. As she is still writing at this time, she may yet reinvent herself once again, and thus yet another "Germaine Greer" may emerge as society develops further.
The Wallace biography on Greer, Germaine Greer: The Untamed Shrew, was published in 1997. Greer responded that biographies of living persons are morbid and worthless, because they can only be incomplete.
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