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22 February 2022

From the NS archive: Woman and superwoman

23 October 1970: In The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer is better at picking holes in the present system than suggesting any practical steps for the future.

By Claire Tomalin

In this review of three books published in 1970, Claire Tomalin surveyed the contemporary feminist landscape. Many of the same problems that appeared within the movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries had reappeared, she observed. In her biography the writer Mary Stocks noted that freedom from domestic chores enabled her to work – but what about women who could not afford to hire a nanny or cleaner? Of course some advancements – such as efficient, accessible contraception – had moved the conversation on. In “The Female Eunuch” Tomalin found Germaine Greer taking up these issues in a lively polemic. But like many revolutionaries, “she is better at picking holes in the present system than suggesting any practical steps for the future”, Tomalin wrote. Greer proposed free-spirited, community living, “where unmarried mothers and fathers come and go as they please and the children romp in freedom and innocence”. But a poorer family, still in a convenient old-fashioned family unit, would tend to the house and garden. This paradise would not emancipate everyone.

“Feminism in its 19th and early 20th century sense of an organised movement by women for women is a spent force,” wrote two sociologists six years ago. Since then, as we all know, the spent force has revived itself miraculously, and its momentum is building up. Some of the problems that beset the suffragettes appear again: is it necessary to foment hatred between the sexes in order to arrive at justice for both?

The true feminist, such as Germaine Greer, might argue that hatred exists already and that it is healthier to bring it into the open than to mask it with ineffectual palliative dressings. Constance Rover provides a good, if brief, discussion of sex war attitudes in her recent Love, Morals and the Feminists, mentioning the common feeling that it is “so much worse for women to dislike men than the converse”. She contrasts the 19th-century male hostility to spinsters, based on their belief that women’s existence is justified only by their sexual usefulness to men, with the commonly held modern idea that women are nature’s solution to the servant problem, and that they should be happy and grateful to remain secretaries, nurses and cleaners. As Margaret Mead says, “The only way a woman can marry now is to agree to become a charwoman, regardless of her education and skills.”

It is fascinating and deeply depressing to note how often Mary Stocks in her biography mentions that freedom from domestic chores enabled her to work, whether at voluntary activities, on committees or at her career; she took for granted that her children would be looked after by nannies, and when she was widowed she was able to take up a very good job instead of slowly, painfully crawling out of the mole-warren of domestic bondage and isolation into the world again.

As a young girl Mary Stocks was a suffragette, not militant but very enthusiastic, and she has interesting personal memories of Mrs Fawcett and the Pankhursts. She also knew the Webbs and studied at LSE in early days; her account of working for family allowances, and later of running the first Manchester birth control clinic (in the face of much opposition) provides a stirring example of what intelligent and privileged women could do to improve social conditions for other women.

It also somewhat belies Constance Rover’s conclusion that our present changed pattern of sexual behaviour is not the result of feminist activity; for although the suffragettes themselves rarely spoke up for birth control (they felt they dare not risk any deviation from strict sexual respectability, and birth control was always under suspicion for its association with pleasure and free love), the spread of contraception has been largely the work of women who would not have been educated and confident without the 19th-century feminists’ activities. And I don’t think anyone doubts that it is efficient contraception that has done most to end the double standard, though not quite in the way Mrs Pankhurst and Mary Stocks hoped. As one despondent elderly feminist says, “It seems that an equal moral standard means equal promiscuity for all.”

If this is so, Germaine Greer welcomes it. Her The Female Eunuch takes up a lively, aggressive polemical position, calling for revolution rather than reform and casting all her women readers as either sisters in revolution or feminine parasites. She is knowledgeable, intelligent and witty, but, like other visionaries with a New Jerusalem in mind, she is better at picking holes in the present system than suggesting any practical steps for the future. The drawbacks of the nuclear family are not necessarily overcome by a mass walkout of mothers. Most of us probably like the idea of sex being “a form of communication between potent, gentle, tender people”: will a general strike of women bring this happy state any nearer? A Nietzschean distaste for women’s altruism or slave morality is a fine thing, but the vision of superwoman intent on joyous self-fulfilment at all costs has its dismaying side.

When she talks about equal pay, better education, the rejection of the pressures of the consumer society (which bear most heavily on women, though they reach men too), she talks very good sense. When she affirms that “security” is something each person, man or woman, must arrive at privately, if it can be arrived at all; that it is not conferred by a man on a woman through marriage, protests of eternal love, or alimony, she is right. When she discusses sex (“real gratification is not enshrined in a tiny cluster of nerves but in the sexual involvement of the whole person”) she is sensible, though not as original as she seems to think. There is nothing new about the idea of women taking active as well as passive sexual roles. And who are these men who value “timidity, plumpness, languor, delicacy and preciosity” in women today?

It is when she produces an evil demon to be blamed for our troubles that Miss Greer loses credibility altogether. This spectre is Mother (more often than not, Miss Greer’s own mother); it is Mother who destroys the remarkable powers of the newborn infant by wrapping it up and turning it into “a cross between a doll and an invalid”. Like Florence Nightingale, Miss Greer would prefer children to be removed from their natural mothers, and she speaks highly of a Dr Kochwho who has trained eight-month babies to climb ladders by bringing them up in the proved free environment. Mother hates energy and curiosity, and likes to incarcerate her female children in the home, where she spends her time curling their hair, teaching them to flirt with Daddy, warning them against sex criminals and forcing them into the “meaningless physical rituals” of housework.

Guilty myself of forcing a few meaningless physical rituals on my children after homework, I turned with interest to Miss Greer’s alternative proposals. They turn out to be our old friend the ideal community of free spirits in a sunny foreign clime (Calabria), where unmarried mothers and fathers come and go as they please and the children romp in freedom and innocence, taking off for education in New York or London if they feel like it. How is this paradise serviced? “The house and garden would be worked by a local family who live in the house” – ie, the Calabrian peasants, still in a convenient old-fashioned family unit, can provide the wet-nurse, nanny, cook, gardener element of life plus the continuity and – presumably – love the children might like. This sounds very like a return to an old system which has usefully emancipated some women in the past, but is not really a blueprint for revolution. One day the Calabrian peasants will want to be emancipated too.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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