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Germaine Greer is an Australian-born and UK-based academic, writer, and journalist, and is widely regarded as one of the most significant feminist voices of the twentieth century. Greer's ground-breaking book The Female Eunuch, published in 1970, became an international bestseller. The resulting publicity turned Greer into the key figure in the emerging women's movement, bringing her both acclaim and criticism.

Born in 1939, Greer was educated at the Universities of Melbourne and Sydney, where she associated with the anarchist poets and philosophers who frequented the inner city in this period. In 1964 she travelled to England where she studied at Cambridge University, gaining her PhD in 1967. Greer wrote The Female Eunuch while working as a lecturer in English at Warwick University. The publication of the book coincided with the emergence of a second-wave of the women's movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. See image 1

The 'first-wave' of the women's movement or feminism, as it is more generally known, came in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This movement was mainly concerned with gaining suffrage (the right to vote) for women. It was an international movement, and its leaders included well-known historical figures such as Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) in Britain and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) in the US, who campaigned for the abolition of slavery prior to championing women's right to vote. Australia was in fact a leader in the women's suffrage movement. Women gained the right to vote in 1893 in New Zealand, in 1894 in South Australia, and in the 1920s in Britain and the US. The term 'first-wave' was not used during this time but emerged in the 1960s so as to distinguish this earlier period from the newer feminist movement. See animation

'Second-wave' feminism refers to a period of writing, protest and other activities which began in the early 1960s and lasted until the late 1970s.

The first wave of the women's movement focused largely on formal inequalities such as the right to vote. The second wave of feminism took the view that inequalities stemmed from deeper issues of alienation and prejudice.

Significant thinkers in the second wave of the women's movement encouraged women to look at aspects of their own personal lives as having political value, and being reflective of a sexist and patriarchal structure of power in society. Feminist thinkers in this era were concerned with issues of equality ranging from the economic status of women to the prejudices and in-built repressions involved with sexuality and reproduction. In the early 1970s, Germaine Greer was at the forefront of this school of thought.

The Female Eunuch was Greer's first book. In it she declares that sexual liberation is the key to women's liberation. She examines in a new way the in-built and unchangeable biological differences between men and women and looks at them in the light of the psychological and social differences that result from the way society runs. The book's main idea, which is reflected in the title, is that the traditional, suburban, consumerist, nuclear family represses women sexually, and that this devitalizes them, rendering them 'eunuchs'. A eunuch traditionally refers to a man who has been castrated for the sake of disempowerment. Eunuchs often served in royal courts in ancient times. See image 2

Greer believed that women had somehow been separated from their 'libido'. Alienated from their own sexuality, women are cut off from their capacity for action and self-empowerment. Greer applied many of the ideas of the political philosophy of anarchy (in which she was involved in her Sydney University days) to her analysis of women's repression in society.

Some of the book's main ideas surrounding the theme of the 'Female Eunuch' are:

  • that the nuclear family is not a good environment for women and for the raising of children;
  • that the way Western society manufactures and restricts women's sexuality is demeaning and repressive; and
  • that girls are taught to be submissive females from childhood through rules which make them consider themselves inferior to men.

As women grow up, Greer argues, they embrace the stereotypical version of adult femininity produced by men, and they develop a sense of shame about their own bodies. They also lose any natural and political autonomy. The result is that women are left powerless, isolated, and suffering a diminished sexuality and general unhappiness. In particular, the book paints a bleak portrait of marriage in the 1960s.

Women, Greer argues, do not realise how much men 'hate' them and how much they are taught to 'hate' themselves. In political terms, the repression of women in society comes through cutting them off from the dynamic and creative 'energy' they need in order to achieve independence and self-fulfilment. She states that women's liberation can only come through a revolutionary rethinking of their own bodies and sexuality. Although it is a very political book, The Female Eunuch does not offer any concrete political solutions. Instead, Greer deals with abstract ideas of 'freedom' and 'redemption' in women's individual lives.

The book went on sale in London in October 1970 and by March 1971 it had nearly sold out and had been translated into eight languages. It has been written that when The Female Eunuch was first published, women had to keep it wrapped in brown paper because their husbands would not let them read it.  Fights broke out between married couples and copies of the book were thrown across rooms at husbands.

Naturally, Greer received as much criticism as praise, from men and feminists alike, although she was happy for this criticism to stir up debate. She stated that she was prepared to lose all her arguments but not prepared to have the arguments never raised. Having produced a milestone book and opened up a whole discourse on women's emancipation from sexual stereotypes and repression, Greer continued to write on the topic.

In 1984, she published Sex and Destiny, an attack on western attitudes to sexuality, fertility and family. She wrote The Change in 1992 as she was going through menopause, and then in 1999 at age 60 Greer wrote The Whole Woman, a book which examined the state of women's lives in the late twentieth century and the problems yet to be overcome.

The legacy of Greer and the second wave of the women's movement is hard to overstate. One major change in society is that issues affecting women, which were previously considered private matters, were brought out into the public sphere. Subjects like domestic violence and the right to a no-fault divorce were now considered areas for public debate and for legislation by the government.

The Female Eunuch was a cornerstone of the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s, which produced many progressive achievements for women in society. Second-wave feminism encouraged a common female identity in which all women could find political solidarity, and this led to criticisms from the following generation of 'third-wave' feminists, who found this line of thinking too restrictive and all-encompassing. Nonetheless, in Greer's writings the women's movement of the 1960s and 1970s found a common set of ideas and goals which were central to many of their aims and achievements in this period.

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1. The period of feminist thinking and writing in the 1960s and 1970s is known as the:

Third-wave of feminism.

Suffragette movement.

First-wave of feminism.

Second-wave of feminism.


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