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March 02nd 2010 print

Philippa Martyr

Offending Nowra, defending Greer

It only took Greer twenty years to work out what it’s taken Louis Nowra forty years, which proves conclusively that women are at least twice as smart as men.

To the Ladies, God Bless ‘Em 

Gosh! Groovy chai latte mag The Monthly puts wind up feminist icon! But what’s this – starchy middle-aged ferocious-eyebrow mag Quadrant defends feminist icon? What sort of crime against nature is this? 

I am no lifelong chum of the Professor Emerita of English Literature and Comparative Studies at Warwick University, but I suspect Louis Nowra may have missed the mark in his piece in the March issue of The Monthly. Entitled ‘The Better Self’, Nowra rep-presents Greer’s The Female Eunuch on its 40th anniversary, and compares how Greer’s vision lines up with the world of today. 

Now, I haven’t read the entire essay, because it won’t appear in print until Friday 5 March. I have only read the summary in The Australian, which makes no mention of the fact that Germaine Greer herself has already written Nowra’s article for him. She did so ten years ago in The Whole Woman, a reflective book in which she freely admitted that she was wrong about a whole raft of issues raised in The Female Eunuch. So it only took Greer twenty years to work out what it’s taken Nowra forty years, which proves conclusively that women are at least twice as smart as men. 

According to 24-year-old Ben Naparstek, editor of The Monthly, Nowra is one of Australia’s leading intellectuals. Nowra is certainly a good playwright, but I found myself doubting his credentials for this retrospective. 

He says that he’s surprised at how much the Western world has changed for women, but not in the way Greer thought it would. If this really forms the substance of his argument, then Nowra’s basic premise is flawed. Greer’s book was a tract for its times, and he says that opening it is like opening a time capsule. Of course it is. It was written 40 years ago. Nowra should try opening any sociology textbook written 40 years ago; it’s hilarious. 

Premise-error 2: perhaps Greer’s book is not so much a time capsule as Schrodinger’s famous experiment with the cat. Greer’s book helped to shape the modern Western world for women, so it’s hardly surprising that upon opening it now, you find that the cat is already dead, or at the very least, out of the (old) bag. 

The rest of the extracts presented in The Australian summary are just plain silly. Apparently, Greer was wrong because women love shopping. Well, well, well. Aren’t we the dear things? That’s self-fulfilment for women, according to Nowra (who is married to Australian novelist Mandy Sayer). Men, of course, hate consumerism and fripperies, which is why the car, electronics, computer, plasma TV and Playstation industries have been in such massive decline lately. 

Greer, according to Nowra, is a “befuddled and exhausted old woman” who will do anything for publicity, including appearing on reality TV shows. I roared with laughter at this, wondering what planet Nowra’s been on for most of Greer’s life. She’s been a media junkie since the first day she drew breath: that’s her in those early grainy black and white Kenny Everett videos; that’s her in that singularly unflattering gynaecological pose in the pages of Suck in the 1970s. 

As for having a coarse mind (not to mention a foul mouth), that’s scarcely new for Greer either: for example, she was fined $40 in New Zealand in 1972 for using offensive language in public during a speech on abortion. Professor Lisa Jardine also remembers Greer’s very loud conversation at a high table dinner at Newnham College, Cambridge, in the 1960s, letting rip about the monstrosity of conical bra design. (Amen to that; have you seen those things? Ouch.) It would take years to catalogue every instance of Greer’s public misadventures captured in the media. 

Greer has lived in the UK for years, a country with Europe’s highest rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. Certainly an awareness of this – and of the prevalence in the West of eating disorders, binge drinking, violence, rampant consumerism, and diagnosed depression – comes through in her sobering and uneasy writings in The Whole Woman

Grim stuff. But there’s an upside. OK, so we’re not all raising our children in hippie communes and daubing ourselves with menstrual blood. But just personally, my elder sisters grew up in a world where there was no equal pay, very few career opportunities and no paid maternity leave; pregnant single women were forced into shotgun marriage, abortion or adoption, and they certainly couldn’t get a mortgage. I, growing up some very few years later, was entitled to equal pay, burgeoning career opportunities, and could buy my own home with not even a de facto in sight. And I got in on the tail end of Mr Whitlam’s free tertiary education, and milked it for all it was worth. 

Mr Naparstek says, in Nowra’s defence, that political correctness is the enemy of intelligent debate. The operative word here is ‘intelligent’. Such a shame, but I’m sure this cage-rattling bit of fluff will sell lots of issues of the magazine. Not to me, though. After all, I never read The Monthly because I don’t like it. Now doesn’t that sound like the kind of thing you could put on a T-shirt?