Germaine Greer. This photo (and below): Getty
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Melody Saracoglu on Germaine Greer: One Woman Against the World

Many criticisms of feminist analysis involve the complaint that questions were asked that never got answered - or a damning indictment was exposed, with little in the way of remedial action suggested. The Female Eunuch cannot be accused of this.

This piece is part of the New Statesman's "Rereading the Second Wave" series. Read the other essays here.

 

The Female Eunuch is brilliantly unapologetic. Published during the second wave of feminism in 1970, it remains one of the most controversial and compelling pieces of feminist literature there is, and it is still relevant today.

True to her radical credentials, Germaine Greer's style of analysis takes the form of questioning the very foundations upon which female oppression is built.  Unlike some of her contemporaries, who focused their ideas on a particular aspect of women’s liberation (Betty Friedan on the lives of housewives and Andrea Dworkin on pornography, for example), Greer takes on the monolithic institutions as a whole. What results is a painstaking deconstruction of such concepts as "femininity" and "womanhood". 

For Greer, the most obvious place to start is with this question: what exactly marks the differences between the sexes in the first place? She asks what effect differing chromosomes have on making us "men" or "women" - a question that is still pertinent today, and is echoed in the work of Cordelia Fine, a cognitive neuroscientist who does not believe there is such a thing as a "female brain". 

This theme runs through the book. Greer's systematic method of analysis mirrors the systematic way in which she considers women are oppressed and this is what makes her arguments throughout the book as a whole so convincing.  In each chapter, the reader is presented with a concept (sometimes a seemingly trivial or irrelevant one, such as ‘Hair’, ‘Bones’, ‘Romance’ or ‘Security’) and then provided with an often quite devastating account of how that particular concept is used as a tool of subjugation.  “Security?!” you think, “. . . how does security oppress me as a woman?!” before reading exactly how women have been duped into trading in their relative freedoms for a safety and protection that, in reality, doesn’t actually exist.

Germaine Greer's writing is fierce yet witty, and although filled with angry energy, the book is ultimately one of hope. Many of her arguments are still being debated, albeit in new terms.  She has an admirable tendency not to shy away from displaying her own intelligence, however much criticism that may attract.  Greer is quite the cynic, unafraid to epitomise the stereotypical ‘killjoy feminist’ – that exhausting friend who sees sexism in everything, everywhere. But once you see sexism, you can't unsee it.

This book opens eyes and enlightens minds, even more than 40 years after it was first published (it was written before the Sex Discrimination Act was introduced in 1975 and in the same year as the Equal Pay Act in 1970), although modern readers may balk at the lack of statistics marshalled to support the sweeping arguments.

In The Female Eunuch, Greer has little faith in equality being brought about by changes in law, calling instead for "self-determination".  In an interview on the BBC in 1975, she said: "You can legislate women into equality 'til the cows come home, but unless they actually put pressure of demand on the economic and social system, nothing will change."  This is a truth that fourth wave feminism is now coming to realise. There is a tendency to believe, however naively, that once the lawmakers have been convinced, the fight is over - equality will surely follow. This has obviously not been the case, as illustrated in books such as The Equality Illusion by Kat Banyard, where the author is at great pains to show the shocking disparities between the sexes in many social contexts today, despite there being legislation existing that should protect against this.   

So what to do about it?  Many criticisms of feminist analysis involve the complaint that questions were asked that never got answered - or a damning indictment was exposed, with little in the way of remedial action suggested. The Female Eunuch cannot be accused of this.  This book is full of imperatives, directed at each individual woman reading it.  There is an appeal to organise collectively and reject the prescribed paths set out for us.  The reluctance to consider marriage and raising a family as a woman’s only marker of success is an idea that is slowly becoming more accepted now, and Greer and her second wave contemporaries can be considered at least partially responsible for that.  

There is also something to be said for her appeal for all women to recognise that much of the oppression they share comes from the same direction. There is a tendency today for feminism to feel as if it is working at cross-purposes, having been divided into smaller and smaller groups, each having identified a different liberty-withholding "enemy". Greer’s One Woman Against The World approach is daunting, to say the least, but it is consistent with her demand for self-determination. In theory, it works perfectly; all that needs to happen is for all women to put her advice into practice.  Her lack of acknowledgement, however, that there may be additional difficulties brought about by issues of class, race or disability, for example, ignores the complexity of reality faced by most women.

Acknowledging those who fought before, Greer describes some of the methodology of the suffragettes and picks up on where she considers them to have gone wrong.  They held too much faith in existing political structures and spent too much energy on "allay[ing] the fears of the conservatives […] and betrayed their own cause and prepared the way for the failure of emancipation". According to Greer, women cannot now expect to bring about change by working within the permitted boundaries set by society. Let’s learn from their mistakes; she demands a revolution as the only way in which true liberation can be achieved. Seeing as we are still not free, on that note at least, I am inclined to agree. 

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.