The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer

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The Whole Woman by Germaine Greer

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: This feminist manifesto for the new millennium is exhilarating if infuriating and anybody who likes journalistic passion and doesn't mind a bit of sloppy argument would enjoy it either energetically agreeing or furiously disagreeing with it.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 452 Date: March 2000
Publisher: Anchor Books
ISBN: 1862300577

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...women always did shit work; now that the only work there is is shit work, men are unemployed.

Surely, this is the reason to fight against shit work, not the men?

It's also annoying, sloppily argued, and, ultimately, because of its fundamental assumption, very unsatisfactory. On the surface it seems to make many of general 'people issues' more real, more compelling via the method of rephrasing them as 'women's issues' but in doing that it makes them less persuasive and powerful.

"Whole Woman" is a series of short essays on anything and everything from housework to breasts to motherhood to domestic violence to transsexuals; it should be read and discussed, perhaps mostly by young people, daughters and sons of the mothers who dwelled on and were moved and shocked by "Female Eunuch" over 30 years ago. It asks a lot of questions and tries to provide at least some answers.

Greer claims that to be a feminist is to understand that before you are of any race, religion, nationality, party or family you are a woman. That happens early in the book and it's a very helpful statement as it allowed me to identify myself - at least for the time of the reading - as a non-feminist and made it easier to disagree when I felt compelled to do it.

Regardless of all the obviously-valid; more-or-less-valid; valid-from-some points of view and completely-loony points Greer makes it has to be remembered that "Whole Woman" is very consciously a feminist book. Thus Greer can say something like issues have been [misre]presented as people issues with the implicit assumption that a 'women issue' is more crucial than a 'people issue'. Which, of course, it most definitely is if you are a feminist. Which, of course, is a frightening assumption to make for anybody with a mistrust of group identity based politics.

What she has to say varies from blindingly obvious (domestic violence, work in male occupations and professions) to interesting (it's men who are killed by strangers but it's women who are afraid - in fact made to be afraid - to go out) to controversial (discussion of MTF transsexuals and female circumcision).

The feminism of "Whole Woman" is a rather Mother-earthish one, inspired by and based on the body difference between male and female. It doesn't fight for equality but liberation on the grounds of these irrevocable differences. It doesn't advocate liberation 'from' the body, but removal of hatred. It is against 'feminine' and for 'female'.

This is both the strength of the book and its greatest weakness. This is, seems to me, both the strength and the greatest weakness of this type of feminism.

The way Greer skidded about the issue of biological/social determinism of sexual identity was one of the weakest points of the book. She seemed to waver between the old anti-deterministic idea of gender attitudes defined by the culture we live in (boys are masculinised, girls are feminised) and a strong belief that men and women are innately, substantially different not only in their physical construction but psychological makeup. She happily chose one of these ideas whenever convenient with only a nod to the other option. In fact, I had a strong feeling that she firmly believes that women ARE substantially different, so different in fact that it makes sense to identify oneself first as a woman and presumably secondarily only as a human being. For example she never makes it explicitly, but an assumption of women being innately and by default less aggressive is one of the recurring motifs of the book.

But there are excellent things that are, nevertheless, being said. She attacks the multinationals that are so powerful nowadays and starts to address the issues of global poverty, slavery and cultural imperialism. Yes, she does it from strictly feminist perspective, but so what? It might be more persuasive to some.

The most powerful entities on earth are not governments but the multinational corporations that see women as their territory, indoctrinating them with their versions of beauty, health and hygiene, medicating them and cultivating dependency in order to medicate some more.

Where Greer's voice is the loudest and the most persuasive is in the field where the justification for analysing specific 'women issues' is most obvious: in the field of what is sometimes referred to as body politics.

The chapter on 'girls' which deals with the pre-teen magazines peddling a mixture of sex, relationships and diets to barely-adolescent girls is gruesomely chilling in its scary truthfulness to anybody who ever picked up a copy of "Bliss" or "Sugar". Indeed, the case against the media indoctrinating these vulnerable girls in order to develop life-long dissatisfaction with their bodies and dependency on the beauty industry make-up and fashion is very strong and would be probably supported by many a conservative.

I loved the way she dealt with increasing medicalisation of sadness and sorrow and although I feel it's a very much thing that's happening to people in general not just women, there is a justification for pointing it out as women's issue as it's women that - at least until recently - have been a majority of people diagnosed and treated for depressive conditions.

The biggest turn-around from the original feminist creed happened perhaps on the issue of sex: and not surprising as being free to express your sexuality turned somehow to being forced to live a sexual life (it is now considered essential to any healthy human being). The book was written when Viagra was just starting its triumphal march and before Female Sexual Dysfunction (which manifests itself in this terrible symptoms of low libido, and - horror of horrors - lack of interest in sex) was invented. It's hard to see FSD as anything else than another of conditions invented to sell drugs that can be marketed and sold to treat it.

Pharma companies and medical establishment are one of the biggest baddies in the Greer book. I rather liked the idea of cervical screening, mammography for women over certain age, HRT and the pill presented as attempts at control as well as (or even instead of!) empowerment. I certainly felt more controlled than empowered when the 5th letter from local NHS trust inviting me for cervical smear landed on my doorstep; and going off the Pill made me feel better not just in a physical sense. Strangely enough, this attitude links the feminist Greer to libertarian critics of the state using health issues to control the population such as Frank Furedi or Michael Fitzpatrick.

There is one area (also body related) in which women are the absolute majority of the conned and that is of course the beauty and diet industry, where the massive expense and the hard work women are supposed to be enduring to keep themselves feminine, beautiful and attractive is sold as 'doing something for yourself' and a 'pampering treat'. As a persistent non-shaver I particularly loved the venom with which Greer regarded the requirement for being hairless. I did wonder though what she would make of the increasingly fashionable practice of male waxing and massively growing male grooming and plastic surgery industry.

Her argument definitely weakens outside the body politics area. In most cases where people of both sexes (genders?) could be seen as negatively affected, Greer somehow assumes that everything that men do and have done to them happens because they - surely - must like it, while things that happen to women are imposed on them from outside.

Men like the masculine world that they have built for themselves. In constructing its male elite, masculinist society continues to be cruel to most men, all women and all children. If women can see no future beyond joining (...) our civilisation will become more destructive then ever. There has to be a better way.

This is repeated a lot and seems just plainly wrong. I don't think women are manipulated into cleaning, disinfecting and spraying any more than men are into painting, improving and DIY'ing in general. This - rather paranoid - angle meant that an opportunity was wasted to show how similar mechanisms operate and techniques are used to indoctrinate men (or, people in general) to spend money and conform.

Greer's hope lies in belief that women - because of the bodies they have and because of history of oppression - are capable of reconstructing the whole world in a better way or at least constructing a sub-civilisation of women. To me, it's a foolish and dangerous position to take. In seeing the men and the women as being in irrevocable conflict at all levels of the society she - perhaps deliberately - misses the obvious fault lines and divisions across the layers; the divisions between the poor and the rich, the powerful and the disempowered.

Striving to empower the female amongst us she disempowers the human.

All above said, Germaine Greer still makes a provocative statement, and she makes it with passion and eloquence, an opinionated, loud-mouthed and subjective zeal. It's easy to see why I enjoyed this book despite its all faults, isn't it?

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