Come on girls, let's sort it. What has gone wrong in the women's movement when old- and new-generation feminists condemn one another so viciously? Two new books attempt to offer a way out of the maze

The Whole Woman

Germaine Greer <em>Doubleday, 348pp, £16.99</em>

The title of this book is rather worrying. The Whole Woman sounds like a name my health club would give to one of its "unique, soul-enhancing" spa days. It calls to mind saunas, seaweed wraps and £150 facials. When I first saw the cover - menstrual red overlaid with some new-age symbol - I was even more disappointed. Far from looking like a feminist text for the millennium, The Whole Woman looks like a self-help book of the kind Meg Matthews might take on holiday.

This may not be Greer's fault. For feminists dissatisfied with the terms of the present debate, there's so much riding on this book that anything less than a miracle is bound to leave them feeling short-changed. Certainly, when I heard that Greer was proposing a sequel to The Female Eunuch, I hoped she would redraw the battle lines and give us something new to shout at people when they told us gender politics wasn't "relevant". If feminism's faltering progress was to continue in the manner we were used to - one step forward, two steps back - I figured that it must be time for some movement in the right direction. Any further back and we'd be giving up our votes.

"It's time to get angry again," says Greer at the end of her opening sally. Explaining the genesis of the book she "vowed" she'd never write, she describes feminism's failure to fulfil its early promise. In the 30 years since The Female Eunuch was first published, the movement she defined has been derailed by the wholly misguided assumption that there's nothing left to fight for. As far as Greer is concerned, feminism's putative victory is a cultural effect - a lie put about by the media. In spite of all appearances, there was no great leap forward - just a series of small advances which created a new set of problems while leaving the old ones in place. Surveying the current scene, Greer wonders at the complacency of those people who mistake the "right to have it all", that is, money, sex and fashion, for freedom. Rather than take up the new challenges, these so-called "lifestyle" feminists have redeployed their energies in pursuit of the perfect beige lipstick.

I love all this stuff. For me, Greer is at her best as the withering observer of feminism's fatal delusions. Take the following, for example, as an answer to the flabby thinkers who read increased female employment as a positive development. "Women always did the shit work - now that the only work there is is shit work men are unemployed." Although Greer only makes this point en passant, it strikes me as her most original. Her argument - that women only get things when they are no longer worth having - is as close as we have come to the truth about "feminisation". It means that what we think of as significant gains are really just booby prizes. More than this, it suggests that while we're flouncing around in our power suits, kidding ourselves that we matter, men are still making most of the decisions.

There are those who find Greer strident. Myself, I think it's a blessed relief to have a polemicist of her stature addressing issues that, for too long, have been left to broadsheet intellects. Whatever you think about what she says, there's no doubting Greer's erudition; her ability to turn a phrase can make you want to stand up and clap. Feminism needs good writers for the simple reason that the reader's emotions ought to be engaged. However good you are with statistics, your argument will fall flat if it doesn't also work on that level. The shudder of recognition that so many women felt when they first read The Female Eunuch is the holy grail of feminist writing. Those who have criticised Greer's new book on the basis that it is "pure assertion" should stick to reading Demos pamphlets.

For Greer, feminism is an "idea" that exists "outside the realms of political instrumentality". She is referring to her conviction that equality is neither achievable nor desirable. Rather than campaign for chimerical goals, she urges women to fight for liberation, defined as the pursuit of "self-determination and self-definition". In practice, this means throwing away our push-up bras and lipsticks, thus releasing "the whole woman" - that is, the authentic female - from the prison of femininity.

It is a matter of speculation whether women attend to themselves as much as Greer insists. To read her chapters on beauty, you'd think that the average woman spent the greater part of her day in the bathroom - scrubbing herself with exfoliants and battling superfluous hair. As Julie Burchill pointed out on Woman's Hour last week, it is entirely possible that even people who shave their legs are not enslaved by this routine. Without disagreeing that the beauty myth is the enemy of self-esteem, I can't help but think that the war on depilation has probably already been lost.

So why does Greer go on about the body? Because for her, it is much more than a "soul-case" - a phrase she uses only once. The title of one of her chapters, "Our bodies, our selves", indicates her belief that the body is the locus of identity. And just as violations of the body - from caesareans to chemical contraceptives - are seen as the most offensive form of oppression, the most ennobling feminist task is the search for the "natural" woman. Remember her? Every women's group used to have one. She was the chick in the tie-dyed dress whose speech had been impaired by inhaling too many joss sticks. When she wasn't sticking mirrors in front of her genitals, she was boasting about the wisdom in her womb or making earrings out of used tampons.

By her own admission, Greer is an incorrigible hippy. From the evidence of this book, her affliction is worse than anyone had feared. She is keen for women to return to nature on a range of other fronts, including breaking their unhealthy dependency on processed and prepackaged foods. Sounding like Nigella Lawson, she bemoans the loss of identity of the "food provider" in an age which values convenience above traditional skills. Ready meals are all very well, "but what is to be done for the woman who finds giving food to the ones they love the only potentially satisfying part of her day?" Other feminists might tell her to get a life. Greer sends her back to the kitchen.

If this isn't lifestyle feminism, what is? People have, rightly, taken offence at the parts of The Whole Woman in which Greer's life-choices are presented as some ultimate feminist truth. If she wants to do her washing in a stream, that's fine with everybody, as long as she doesn't think we're going to follow her example.

Looked at in more theoretical terms, Greer has trouble convincing me that "the whole woman" isn't just another oppressive stereotype. Her demands from life are "serenity and security", in pursuit of which she shuns the world of men. Instead, she regards the home as a "creative opportunity". She bakes, she sews, she grows vegetables and never demands stimulation. The earth mother may be the obverse of the bimbo but she is, nonetheless, a construct.

This article first appeared in the 12 March 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Yanks go home . . . but not just yet