When a woman surrenders her need for social approbation, she is apt to utter remarkable things. I remember how my face burned as a teenager, watching my mother -- long past the decorative roles of woman -- boldly quiz a shoe salesman on his personal justification for capitalism. Candor is sweet revenge for older women whose ripened souls can -- at last! -- slough off the dull cloak of "niceness" like an irritating snakeskin.
Never averse to expressing outrage at any age, feminist matriarch Germaine Greer (The Female Eunuch) will not disappoint readers with coy observations in her new book, The Whole Woman.
While some knee-jerk critics equate feminism with stridency, Greer's seasoned prose soars more often than it stabs. The toothsome experience of reading this substantial book is like sitting down with your favorite Aunt Lucy at the kitchen table and listening to her spill the entire mess of beans. Even as you laugh and look away, a secret place inside is relieved to hear someone say out loud the truths you're afraid to admit to yourself.
Speaking from a depth of experience as a woman over 60, Greer's tone is never dismissive, hysterical or predictable. Isn't breast-cancer screening sacrosanct to all feminists? Sure to stoke controversy, she contends that "early detection (of breast cancer) means more treatment, and more pain and anxiety, although the afflicted woman lives no longer than she would have without it."
Doesn't every seamy sitcom in the Western world preach the gospel of women's need -- if not duty -- to enjoy multiple orgasms? Although a lover of men, Greer says dryly, "The mythology of the female orgasm could be considered the last ideological push of the heterosexual establishment," a ruse to convince women of their abnormality if they do not share or support the male's drive for objectified genital sex. It is the unique talent of women, Greer believes, to love without sex, beyond sex and in sexual ways that involve the entire body and self, rather than only the clitoris. Modern heresy to what Maureen Dowd calls the "bimbo feminist," who uses the idea of women's rights to advance the cause of the "inner slut."
"The strength of our feelings is one of the things about women that unnerve men. Less than a hundred years ago, when a woman wept, other women would weep with her. Nowadays, to be seen weeping is more embarrassing than being seen naked. Women seek relief in tears where men seek relief in masturbation, which may be a distinction to be valued." Ah, but there is a price to be paid for this female "otherness." While men create the statistic of an $8 billion pornography industry (1996), women top other charts. Like the incidence of depression
Refusing the stereotype of unstable, hormonal women, Greer points instead to the "total responsibility and total lack of control" of women, wives and mothers. In the animal world, pleasure-producing serotonin decreases in monkeys who have lost social status: "Disturbed animals in the zoo are given Prozac, too, which rather suggests that misery is a response to unbearable circumstances"
And women share the blame for misery with men. "Thirty years ago we heard nothing about panic attacks, anorexia or self-mutilation. Now, the image of the battered woman is high fashion. The models reeling down the catwalks are stick thin, their faces cavernous and bruised. ... Lacking others prepared to injure them, it seems, they will hurt themselves."
Like the Egyptian goddess, Isis, who healed her beloved Osiris by collecting his separated body parts to "re-member" them into life, Greer bravely attempts in this book to re-stitch all of the neglected, broken and misunderstood aspects of female experience into one organic whole. She chastises the complacent ("Big sisters have been known to wallop pestilential little sisters from time to time," she writes of the New Feminist). She comforts those abandoned to family-value policies ("The greatest irony about husband-as-protector is he is too often the most dangerous person his wife or children will ever have to face").
But best of all, The Whole Woman tells you what every grandma learns if she is wise. The gifts of women are wondrous and an antidote for the poisons of a harsh world, if we nurture them. "Womens changeability is a value in itself," Germaine winks at us from across the kitchen table, forgiving us the restless pursuit of our wayward hearts, "a necessary corrective to masculine rigidity."