The first part of Vanessa Engle's fine three-part documentary series Women (8 March, BBC4, 9pm) was dominated by what must have been one
of the last interviews Marilyn French ever gave (she died, aged 79, last May). It was a piercing performance. Behind her Manhattan desk, the writer looked jaundiced and a little frail but her anger was undimmed; I pictured Engle, off screen, warming her hands on it.
Unlike some of the director's other feminist interviewees (this film, Libbers, was about the 1970s; in the next, Engle will tackle contemporary activists and mothers), French was unwilling to laugh at her former self. For her, liberation is anything but a giggle. "I am sick of it," she said, quietly, of violence against women. "I've always been sick of it."
In 1977, French published her bestselling novel The Women's Room, which posited the idea that many marriages were stultifying and many men rapists. Women readers fell on it in a kind of ecstasy of hunger. Engle asked French if it was pleasing to get letters from those who recognised their own lives in her book. "No," she said. "I felt anguished. I felt their anguish, and it was very painful."
It was worth watching Libbers for the sight of French alone, but the truth is that Engle served up an embarrassment of riches. I watched her film twice without feeling a single moment of boredom. They were all here: Susan Brownmiller, Ann Oakley, Robin Morgan, Sheila Rowbotham and even the reclusive Kate Millett, whose book Sexual Politics celebrates its 40th birthday this year. (Millett, who as a young firebrand told the world that masculine rule was at an end, is now a whiskery old lady with a bent spine and a junk-filled farmhouse; I didn't notice any cats running about, but I felt sure I could smell them.)
I loved the way Engle set all these women in their domestic worlds: behind their desks, or in their kitchens. There was a lot of fun to be had using the pause button on your digital recorder, the better to examine the books on the shelves, the postcards pinned to the wall. According to a new study by Channel 4, men still outnumber women on our screens two to one. Here, we did not catch sight of a single male of the species, unless he was being taunted by a crusading woman on some 1970s talk show. I found this unexpectedly exhilarating.
But then - oh dear - in stomped Germaine Greer. Engle could not ignore her; The Female Eunuch is also 40 this year. But she stuck out like a spiked heel in a sea of ballet pumps. Not for Greer the group hug; the idea of solidarity seems increasingly to appal her. While we saw the British historian Rowbotham sweating mushrooms in an old pan, and Brownmiller, author of the classic text on rape Against Our Will, bouncing cheerily around at her aerobics class, Greer's context was altogether more grand: she was feeding her peacocks. Greer was at pains to distance herself from the other libbers. "I've never been a tremendous fan of marching," she said. "It gives the powers that be a pretty good view of how small the opposition is." Totally crushing. She then explained that she'd always found collective action difficult "just because I can't be bothered". Sisterhood? No, thanks. "It's difficult, sisterhood, anyone will tell you that."
Greer then waffled on a bit about "energy" and "libido". This talk drives me nuts. If liberation and female sexuality were as closely connected as she likes to suggest, teenage girls everywhere would be planning their assault on parliament and the judiciary, and the rest of us would only have to take our HRT to race straight to the top of our professions. "I am woman, hear me roar," goes the old Helen Reddy anthem. Greer has never been one to roar. In the 1970s, she was a flirt whose talk of orgasms - "It's a cinch; I can give an orgasm to the cat!" - seemed designed mostly to bolster her own heavy-lidded sex appeal. These days, she sounds a bit like her precious peacocks, emitting a high-pitched shriek that rarely makes sense to anyone: male, female or otherwise.