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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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue