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8 May 2000

Why we love those wise Big Women

Maddening and magnificent, a handful of female icons will always fascinate us. Geraldine Bedellpays

By Geraldine Bedell

She is inconsistent and infuriating, sexy and flirtatious. She habitually overstates her case, maddening her natural allies. She is irascible (often deliberately, one suspects) and solipsistic. Yet, despite these irritating, daftly feminine qualities, she is magnificent, and we love her.

She might be Germaine Greer, Fay Weldon, Betty Friedan, perhaps, or Anita Roddick – a female guru, anyway: at once theorist and role model. Her ideas and her life perplex and provoke us, and have done for a while: she is a person who refuses to mellow with age, preferring, on the whole, to ripen.

And she fascinates us. This is why, when an academic in her sixties who spends much of her time gardening and feeding her geese was allegedly assaulted in her home by a 19-year-old student recently, the news made the front pages of most of the tabloids. But then, the academic was Germaine Greer and, as the coverage revealed, she is a figure who inspires admiration, exasperation and affection in almost equal parts, tinged in some quarters (no doubt to her delight) by fear.

To qualify as a female guru, it is necessary to be a sage, even if not an absolutely consistent one. These Big Women, to borrow a book title of Weldon’s, are nobody’s fools: they have real intellectual force and, despite a certain changeability, a powerful sense of moral purpose. And they keep on surprising us, which is why it is hard to think of any politicians who would qualify to join their band (although Helena Kennedy might, possibly, in time, if she fights hard to retain her independence).

The female guru is emphatically not a party animal. Indeed, one of the things we love most about her is the sense that she is larger than any neat body of theory; that she is, in a sense, bigger than, and uncontained by, politics. Weldon, a feminist writer if ever there was one, writes about the gender war in a tone of detached irony, delighting in its follies, blowing raspberries at political correctness.

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These women frighten people sometimes (it’s part of the point of them) and there was, unquestionably, an element of Schadenfreude in the Greer coverage in male-dominated newspapers. Here, after all, was Greer who can take on any bloke on his home territory – big, confident ideas, loudly and rudely expressed, dismissive wit – allegedly tied up and passive, a victim. And these indignities were visited upon her, allegedly, by a poker-wielding girl. The whole thing could be portrayed as a cat fight between two women, at once ridiculous and vaguely titillating.

But if female admiration and veiled male hostility were the whole story, the female guru wouldn’t have the potency she does. The female gurus have crossover appeal. Crucially, men like them, too.

For one thing, they are good-looking, and unafraid to exploit it. Weldon has had a facelift, and written about it. Greer was recently photographed by Polly Borland for an exhibition commissioned by the Australian National Portrait Gallery, for which she posed in bed, under the sheet, in the nude. She is 61. But then, Greer, one suspects, has always known the value of being handsome but of seeming not to have noticed. In the 1970s, when she published The Female Eunuch, other feminists saw her as a Trojan Horse – her wit, cleverness and beauty opening doors through which they might, less noisily, follow.

The female guru also knows how to charm. Jeremy Clarkson, a man who’d have us believe that he is all anti-feminism and motor oil, was entranced by Greer when she appeared on his chat show. And recently she was reported to have stunned a group of men into silence at a party at 3am by delivering an expert and raucous analysis of Shane Warne’s leg breaks.

These Big Women also seem rather keen on sex. Weldon’s writing anatomises the pleasures, vicissitudes and messiness of sexual relations. Roddick’s entire career has been built around sex – around the promise of making women smoother, creamier and so sexier – even if she has told us that it’s been about helping the Yanonami. Greer has been known to enter a room and announce that she is not wearing knickers; indeed, to advocate the not wearing of knickers as a general principle.

The female guru’s ability to get down and dirty matters to us because her life is so much on display. If some male guru – if Anthony Giddens, say – had been held hostage, it is hard to imagine the tabloids getting very excited about it. Men tend to pontificate from on high regarding other people’s lives, keeping themselves in reserve.

But, the personal being political and all that, women gurus have to practise what they preach and preach what they practise. They appeal to us partly because their wisdom is a distillation of their experience. Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, which effectively launched the women’s movement in 1963, analysed the frightening emptiness of many women’s lives from the perspective of a graduate of Smith and Berkeley-turned-suburban housewife.

Weldon’s insights are original, sharp and shrewd, and may have been even if she had lived in a convent; but it seems unlikely. They are inextricable from her own history: from having been a single parent, and married three times, from having the second marriage founder after 30 years when her husband met a hypnotherapist who informed him that he and Fay were incompatible. She now has a relationship with a younger man, and she’s had four children while managing to produce more than 20 novels, plus a clutch of children’s books, short-story collections and works of non-fiction.

Greer’s polemics similarly counterpoint her own, very public history – the wild youth, rape, the three-week marriage (during which she claims to have been unfaithful seven times), the abortions and the subsequent years and small fortune she spent trying to get pregnant and failing.

You can dismiss this as exemplifying what has been called the “solipsisterhood”: she was all for orgasms in her youth, and for third-world-style grannies with infants at their heels once it was clear she would never become one. But through all her theorising runs an absolutely consistent attempt to re- imagine the world as a place in which women are the first sex.

When we know as much about our philosophers as we do about Posh Spice or Zoe Ball, we should probably not be surprised that they occasionally acquire stalkers. And because we know so much, they sometimes strike us as every bit as self-regarding and capricious as flimsier celebs. What right, we ask infuriatedly, have they got to keep changing their minds?

Yet the po-faced objections to their inconsistency rather miss the point. The great thing about them is that they are still fizzing with ideas, still overstepping the mark, still brawling. Like people who are afraid of being bored, they are always cruising for a fight, in the hope of jolting others out of their complacency. And we know that there’s a bedrock of conviction – or at least, of morality – in there somewhere, even if it’s sometimes difficult to identify exactly what it is.

A few years ago, when the Guardian was starting a series of profiles, the then editor of the women’s pages wanted to call it “Women We Like”. It wouldn’t quite have worked as a title, but everyone would have known what it meant. And in the roster of women we like, these female gurus come right at the top. We like them because they suggest to us that it is not necessary to dress like Andrea Dworkin, or be deadly earnest, in order to assert ourselves. It is possible to be girlish, troublesome, to change our minds as quickly as we change our hairstyles, and still be passionate and radical and wise. It is, in other words, rather a useful thing to be a woman.

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