Big Sister: the legacy of Germaine Greer

Editor’s note: What follows is an article written by British journalist and writer Neil Lyndon.

Neil Lyndon was a close witness at the birth and growth of modern or “second wave” British feminism, having been active in the radical student movement at Cambridge in the 1960s and, then, in underground newspapers in London in the early 1970s. As a highly successful columnist for The Times and occasional columnist for The Independent and other national newspapers, Lyndon occasionally wrote about feminism from a skeptical point of view in the 1980s; but it was his 5000-word essay in December 1990 for the Sunday Times Magazine entitled “Badmouthing” which made his name as the world’s first egalitarian and progressive anti-feminist.

That article was probably the first ever published to discuss a mainstream culture in which men were habitually derided; and it was the first to itemise the disadvantages and inequalities to which men and boys are subjected – in a society which ostensibly oppresses women. “Badmouthing” was the first article anywhere to point out that men died in greater numbers from prostate cancer than all the fatalities for women that resulted from all cancers of the genito-urinary system put together; and that nobody seemed to care much about prostate cancer.

The publication of that article brought a torrent of abuse on Lyndon’s head (including the observation “can there be something wrong with the size [of his penis]?” from the feminist publisher Carmen Callil, in response to the point about prostate cancer). But that wave of abuse was dwarfed by the astonishing reaction in 1992 when Neil Lyndon published his book “No More Sex War: The Failures of Feminism” – a comprehensive demolition of the ideology of feminism in its own terms.

In that book, Lyndon advanced the view that feminism was a poisonous ideological parasite on the changes that had occurred between men and women in the 20th century. He argued that change had resulted primarily from the introduction of infallible contraception and easily-accessible abortion and also that, contrary to the feminist notion of a repressive patriarchy, men had willingly consented to change for women and had themselves accommodated change with admirable ease.

No book and no author in the last 50 years has been subjected to such vilification as Neil Lyndon and No More Sex War. No writer in our time has suffered so much personal and professional cost for publishing his opinions. Neil Lyndon was mocked for being obviously impotent and incapable of getting a woman. He was sacked as a columnist for The Times, He was bankrupted. His estranged wife abducted their son to Scotland where she obtained an order of custody without Lyndon even knowing the application was being heard. He was physically attacked and threatened with death and his book was threatened with burning.

For the last 20 years, Neil Lyndon’s public career as a journalist has been confined to writing a column about cars for the Sunday Telegraph. Though he regularly publishes his views on Twitter, he is almost never allowed to write about gender issues in mainstream media.

In October 2010, however, he was invited by The Sunday Times to discuss the impact and legacy left by Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch, a book few people today have ever read, let alone understood, but nevertheless remains one of the defining texts of our age. Alas, The Sunday Times cut the original piece by about 25% and reduced it to what the author himself described as “mutilated form”. Below, however, we present the original unabridged work, which was published first published on, and also published here with Neil Lyndon’s express permission.

Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was the publishing phenomenon of the early 1970s. It sold out its first printing in three months and sold hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide. It elevated its author into a position unrivalled by any contemporary feminist – as one of the leading cultural celebrities of our time, showered with honorary doctorates and deluged in royalties.

Big SisterFar more significant than sales figures, however, was The Female Eunuch’s impact in triggering the worldwide movement of modern feminism. Immediately following publication on 12 October 1970, a conflagration ignited – or, in Greer’s own words, “The slagheap erupted.” Within weeks, Bob Hope would be mortared with flour bombs on the stage of the Albert Hall while presenting Miss World. Not long after, the streets of central London would be jammed with thousands of demonstrators on the first National Women’s Liberation March. Then, Biba – the most fashionable women’s clothes shop in London – would be blown up with the kind of genuine explosive that shatters windows and knocks down walls.

Did these events take place because of The Female Eunuch? Not at all; but Greer’s pages were the blue touch paper for a detonation whose shock waves would fan out all across the Western world with electric speed.

Thus The Female Eunuch became one of those rare books – The Communist Manifesto is another – which had an instantaneous, explosive impact at the time of publication but whose cultural significance endures largely as an event, as a phenomenon, rather than for its intrinsic value as a text.

In celebration of that event, next month’s 40th anniversary will be marked in some quarters of the British politico-media Establishment in something like the way that the October Revolution used to be commemorated in the Soviet Union.

The feminist Old Guard – now in their 60s and 70s, like the author herself – will again totter up the steps of the saluting base whose tiers are composed of Woman’s Hour and The Guardian. Like the Politburo, many members of that Old Guard poisonously detest each other but they will put on a public show of sororal unity to honour the great leader, Big Sister herself. Greer will be memorialised as a hero who inaugurated a liberation movement – the feminism which changed the world and set women free.

Before we all join hands and hymn I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar, however, perhaps we could take a cooler look back at the text which nobody now reads (in 2009 in the United Kingdom, The Female Eunuch sold 298 copies) and examine the notions which Germaine Greer actually advanced.

Anybody who studied The Female Eunuch today might be baffled to say exactly what it was about or what might have gotten its author so worked up. The text’s rampaging, polymathic eloquence leads the reader to no clear understanding, no decisive conclusions. Instead, you find yourself repeatedly floundering in a porridge of fashionable posturing, Eng-Lit essaying, revolutionary gibberish and not very profound Agony Aunt counselling (sample: “The man who comes willingly to your bed is more likely to lie all night with his arms around you than the one who has nowhere else to sleep.”)

Some pages are pure hippy piffle. Little that survives from the jejune utopianism of the 1960s is more embarrassing now than Greer’s fantasy of the communal collective of well-heeled young mothers she dreamed of creating at a farmhouse in Italy “where our children would be born. Their fathers and other people would also visit as often as they could…The house and garden would be worked by a local family…”

A less exacting task is to identify what was clearly not on the young Greer’s post-PhD mind. The book was certainly, avowedly, not concerned with political and social equality for women. Greer majestically swept aside such concerns as far beneath her, belonging in the Suffragette past. “Then genteel middle-class women clamoured for reform, now ungenteel middle-class woman are calling for revolution.”

What did that revolution mean to the author? Nothing less, it transpired, than an insurgency in the manners of coition itself. Greer was to express this conception most concisely in person when she appeared with Norman Mailer in April 1971 in the “Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” in New York’s Town Hall and said: “Sexual politics, by and large, has to do with the act of fucking being to the advantage of the one who fucks and the disadvantage of the one who is fucked.”

How these observations were meant to apply to the wider world of nature – how the mating rigmaroles of elephants, giraffes and hedgehogs were to be reformed to reflect a more equal social balance – was never to be made clear. But, so far as they concerned men and women, Greer had already spelled-out her revolutionary prospectus in the pages of Suck (the underground sex magazine she co-edited at the end of the 1960s). There she enjoined that the woman should habitually be on top. To make sure that the woman got the satisfaction which was her political due, the man was to pay unfailing, selfless attention to her clitoris throughout the act.

In this very particular corner of “sexual politics”, Greer was adding little more than her abrasive and (for the time) shockingly direct manner of speech to an already well-established body of learning and propaganda.

Masters and Johnson’s research had already (1966) demolished Freud’s unscientific theories on the vaginal orgasm, proving that clitoral stimulation was essential to female orgasm. Helen Gurley Brown’s Cosmopolitan had already proclaimed that a woman’s inalienable right to sexual satisfaction was an essential ingredient in her freedom. Meanwhile and separately, American and European women revolutionary leftists were struggling in the late Sixties to force the stew of gender relations through the sieve of Marxist dogma. To them, the subservience of women and the dominance of men was a picture-perfect reflection of Engels’s account of patriarchy – with men as the repressive bourgeoisie and women in the position of the ground-down proletariat, both on the factory-floor and in bed.

Greer’s act of inspired, opportunist genius was to combine these two approaches – to stoke up and set on fire the dreary class analysis of the whiny, moany sisters of the Left by applying the hot poker and bellows of Cosmopolitan’s sexy rhetoric and thus to make out that a girl’s right to a fully satisfactory sex life was nothing less than a political, revolutionary issue.

To that end, Greer consciously and deliberately appropriated the phraseology and the ideology of the US Black Power movement of the late 1960s and smeared it all over the confusing, chaotic state of gender relations in the wake of that decade’s sexual upheavals. As she told Playboy magazine in January 1972, Greer chose the title because “The term eunuchs was used by Eldridge Cleaver to describe blacks. It occurred to me that women were in a somewhat similar position. Blacks had been emancipated from slavery but never given any meaningful freedom, while women were given the vote but denied sexual freedom.”

Greer owed a further, unacknowledged debt to the Black Panthers. Where Eldridge Cleaver, Stokeley Carmichael and Huey Newton had alleged that an ineradicable strain of exploitation and oppression inhered in the very nature of whiteness (itself a hideous line of intolerance and a vile insult to all those millions of white Americans who had so valiantly striven to improve the lives of black Americans), Greer advanced the notion that men, in the ineradicable nature of male sexuality, denied women the free expression of their own sexuality and libido.

She had declared “Men are the enemy. They know it – at least, they know there is a sex war on, an unusually cold one.” She wrote “Men are the enemy in much the same way that some crazed boy in uniform during the war was the enemy of another boy like him in most respects but the uniform.”

Women had to be at war with men, she urged, because a strain of repressive violence ran through the very essence of male sexuality. She wrote “The male perversion of violence is an essential condition of the degradation of women. The penis is conceived as a weapon and its action upon women is understood to be somehow destructive and hurtful.”

Forty years on, it is no easy task to say why this pottage of nutty-slack ingredients and the fizzing rhetoric which whizzed it together should have turned out to convey the recipe for social gelignite.

The explanation lay partly in the person of the author herself. Greer deservedly, irresistibly became the worldwide Number 1 star of the youth counter-culture movement. No grubby, hippy revolutionary of the time could hold a candle to this 31 year-old Aussie Boudicca. Greer’s height, her hair, her flirty yet ball-breaking manner and her quicksilver intellectual brilliance made her a natural-born cynosure and she would certainly have forged a national and international reputation for herself even if she hadn’t fastened onto the nascent women’s movement.

Looking around today, however, it’s not apparent that Germaine Greer’s admonitions about sexual intercourse have made much difference to the conduct of men and women. Hordes of half-naked girls on high heels still wobble around town centres on Friday and Saturday nights looking for boys to allure; and the lads are still propping up the bars, downing their pints and eyeing the flesh they hope soon to get their hands on. When the sexes eventually comingle their bodies, they then seem content to ape the ancient, pre-revolutionary traditions of rumpy-pumpy as they have been enjoyed down all the ages. Ignorant beasts.

The Female Eunuch did have an enduring influence, however. It was to give potent, educated voice to barbaric simplicities about men. After Greer it became permissible to say and write anything condemnatory about men because she had supplied sexist intolerance and prejudice with a scholarly, literary respectability. Greer had written “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them” but the animus she inspired proved that the opposite was closer to the truth: until The Female Eunuch was published, men had no conception of the depths of many women’s hatred for them – both as a gender and as individual representatives of that gender.

Before that event, it would have been frowned upon in polite society for a woman to say that she hated men. After Greer, such declarations of generalised, sexist detestation became largely obligatory for an educated, middle-class metropolitan woman. The disparagement of men became the routine stuff of movies (“Sleeping with the Enemy”), soap operas, television advertising, newspaper columns, magazine covers and playground chatter. Throughout the Seventies, one of the most influential and cultivated literary editors in London regularly affirmed that “All men are Idi Amin” and expected to be taken seriously.

Greer’s ideological disciples and the standard-bearers for her sexist reductionisms about men were writers such as Andrea Dworkin who declared – in all apparent seriousness – that all heterosexual intercourse was a version of rape and that, therefore, all men are rapists; and Catherine McKinnon, who took all erotic representations of women to be a form of violation and assault which proceeded from the inherent evils of male sexuality. You weren’t only committing adultery in your heart if you looked at a photograph of a naked woman: you were raping her.

Future historians may be astounded to find that such irrational, Robespierre-like condemnations of an entire gender were given solemn, even reverential, hearings in Western life – in the media, in the halls of academe, in the institutions of state, in the courts, in the practice of education and the social services; but it’s not going to be easy for those scholars to get their heads round the extent and the violence of the detestation of men which The Female Eunuch licensed.

Every boy whose education was treated as a secondary concern, every young man who had to get to the back of the queue for a job behind more favoured women, every father and every child who were separated from each other by legal process in the divorce courts – all these millions are entitled to view the 40th anniversary of The Female Eunuch as an occasion for something other than celebration.

Why did this intolerance take hold?

It surely was not because the women of that age were socially oppressed. By any measure, the post-war generation of women in the West must have been the most privileged and the freest in the whole history of humanity. The first generation ever to be free to enter higher education and employment on the same terms as men, they were also the first ever to be able to control their fertility infallibly and the first to be legally free to terminate a pregnancy through an easy procedure. The first to be entitled to no-fault divorce (with property distribution and child custody rights freighted to their advantage), they were also the first to be free to adopt any manner of sexual pursuit that appealed to them and the first to be allowed to wear any clothes (or none) that suited them.

Every one of these freedoms had been attained with the active consent of men, frequently at the behest and the instigation of men before modern feminism was conceived. Women flooded into higher education following the Robbins Report of 1963. The numbers of married women in the labour force rose by more than 70% in a single decade. The number of abortions rose sevenfold after the 1968 Abortion Act. The number of divorces more than quadrupled after the 1969 act.

The universally agreed presumption that change for women was granted grudgingly by a resistant male Establishment in the face of the demands of militant feminists is, therefore, contradicted, at root, by the historical record. It is one of the cardinal lies of feminism but it is dwarfed by Germaine Greer’s poisonous, evil, Goebbels-like lie that men shared an ineradicable and repressive nature in their very masculinity. The evidence proves that men were (and remain) up for change. Why, then, did Greer and her disciples insist that men had to be subordinated by an uprising of militant women?

To find answers to that question, you need to look back to the period before modern feminism took shape. A valuable resource is Nell Dunn’s 1965 book Talking to Women, in which she recorded interviews with nine London women between their mid-20s and mid-30s.

With Edna O’Brien, Dunn agreed that women felt insecure, unsure of the difference between right and wrong, because “we have no moral code” and “don’t know what we are meant to be doing”. With Emma Charlton, Dunn concurred that a woman, meeting a man, would try to gain his approval and say things to please him, even if she wasn’t attracted to him “But that’s really a form of looking down on them…It’s really just appeasing them, to keep them in their place or something.”

Time and again in the pages of that book, young women voiced comparable moral uncertainties and fearful perplexities about men. The world of sex, family, employment, political engagement and social responsibility was shifting under their feet so rapidly that they couldn’t, in Dunn’s words, “find a code” to hold onto.

The feminism to which Greer gave popular voice boxed up all those dubieties in an ideological ark of the covenant. Its commandments provided certainty, moral legitimacy and scholarly respectability in place of the chaotic confusions Emma Charlton had expressed. After The Female Eunuch, it became perfectly OK to “look down” on men because the chains and manacles of a secular faith had been locked on “to keep them in their place”. Nobody doubted the identity of that faith’s great high priest.

Thus – like Big Brother’s “War is Peace” slogan in Orwell’s 1984 – Greer promulgated a formula which was the dead opposite of the truth. The forces of liberation she claimed to be unleashing were, in truth, forces of conservatism and reaction. The revolutionary war she declared was to be an exercise in repression – keeping men in their place. To a signal degree, Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was to be the handbook for the totalitarian intolerance of our own age – tamer, more domesticated and less martial as our times have mercifully been than those earlier twentieth century totalitarian ages from which Greer and modern feminism drew their diction.

Such will be the glittering achievement which the feminist Old Guard will be commemorating next month. But comfort can be taken from the certainty that – just as it happened with the Soviet Politburo – the tide of history will break over their addled old heads and their fatuous faith and wash away the whole shebang, Big Sister and all.

That day may not be far off. At a dinner last week, I sat next to a 23 year-old graduate from the University of Colorado’s school of journalism. When I asked what she thought about Germaine Greer and The Female Eunuch, she answered “I have never heard of that book.”

Even among its devotees when it was published, The Female Eunuch now seems to have left a void. Shortly after it first appeared in 1970, a friend wrote to tell me that the book had hit her with such a profound, personal jolt that one particular passage had made her weep with relief. Suspecting that this must be about orgasms or something equally private, I was too timid at the time to ask what she was talking about. Preparing to write this article, however, I recently emailed to ask if she could tell me now why it had so deeply affected her. “I am sorry,” she replied. “I don’t think I can help you. I can’t remember anything that struck such a chord.”

That woman, now a pensioner, is, again, not alone. Her amnesia seems to be widely shared. An internet blogger, pondering the forthcoming 40th anniversary, writes: “I read this book in high school. I remember thinking it was awesome, but I can’t remember what was in it.”

That says it all.

Recommended Content