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. 

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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