Feminist Artifacts: The Archive of Germaine Greer
By Nathan SmithMarch 21, 2015
THE WORD “eunuch” first appears in antiquity and was applied to a man unable for whatever reason to have sexual intercourse. Soon enough it came to denote a man or boy who had been castrated to serve another’s utility — often the guarding of a harem but also for other reasons, such as preserving a boy’s singing voice (by preventing his larynx from maturing) so that it would always remain in that haunting soprano-contralto range so popular in 18th-century Italy.
In modern discourse, however, the word is irrevocably tied to Australian feminist scholar Germaine Greer’s groundbreaking 1970 book The Female Eunuch. The great pleasure of hearing those two words juxtaposed only adds to the potency of the title and of Greer’s thesis: that, as with a man who is unable to achieve orgasm, the contemporary woman’s emotional, social, and erotic existence is being diluted by a suburban culture that is both consumer-oriented and heteronormative.
According to Greer, the woman of today is actually the eunuch herself — dehumanized and desexualized by an oppressive patriarchy that engulfs her autonomy and, thereby, her personhood, as well as her womanhood. Greer’s book eventually became one of the cardinal texts that spearheaded the second-wave feminism of the 1970s, acting as a manifesto, guide, and “bible” for many disenfranchised and displaced women who felt stranded by the gilded cage of marriage.
While The Female Eunuch has been reprinted multiples times over the past four decades, its status has diminished (as with Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique  and Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics ); where once it was an essential text, it has become largely regarded as a “fitful, passionate, scattered text, not cohesive enough to qualify as a manifesto,” as Laura Miller wrote in Salon.
Nevertheless, Greer’s musings on the nature of female exploitation, oppression, and displacement in a society ruled by strict codes of behaviors and life choices were a shining light for many on what had become quotidian and systematically ingrained into the political sphere. Despite Greer’s checkered academic career and her later alienation from being the “high priestess” of the women’s liberation movement, she has still acted as an important antagonist in the continued and naturalized misogyny of women decades later.
In 2013, Australia’s University of Melbourne was successful in sourcing Germaine Greer’s entire personal archive, and I was recently given a sneak peek into the mammoth files and papers of one of the world’s most important feminist icons, ranging from adolescent journal doodlings to the time of her greatest success, and, later, to a period in which she maintained scathing correspondence with several Hollywood stars.
Greer’s iconicity in Australia has often been contentious. After finishing her graduate studies at the University of Sydney in the mid-1960s, Greer left Australia to earn a PhD at Cambridge University. Since her launch into the world spotlight and her successful academic postings, she has been seen to disavow much of her Australian origins and is often reported in the Australian tabloids as being a supercilious academic figure whose commentary on Australian culture is seen as patronizing and out of touch.
In recent memory, there are multiple instances when Greer directly criticized figures from popular Australian culture. Indeed she came under fire by penning a piece on the death of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin in 2006. (It was in an op-ed for The Guardian that Greer wrote, “The animal world has finally taken its revenge on Irwin.”) Since then Greer has mostly stayed out of the Australian media spotlight and instead focused on environmental causes including conservation work on an area of rainforest in Australia’s far north state of Queensland, which has been significantly damaged by extensive farming. In 2013, she released her book White Beech: The Rainforest Years about her efforts to restore the natural ecosystem and prevent further farming and human destruction from permanently destroying the rainforest.
Keenly aware for decades how her name, her image, and her debut work have been often the touchstones for the women’s liberation movement, Greer was careful to say, in a public presentation at Melbourne University last year (available for viewing here), “The archive is not about me. The archive is not meant to serve any kind of personality cult […]. The archive is not about me but about the moment.” Now the rich archive of personal papers, drafts, and unpublished material will be an important source for scholars and students alike who wish to study the “moments” — the ones that preceded and followed Greer’s iconic work.
Greer was born in a Melbourne suburb in 1939, to homemaker Peggy and advertising executive Reginald. She attended a private convent school before winning a teaching scholarship to the University of Melbourne. Although Greer has not commented much on her own upbringing, it is plain to see that her early understanding of women in the broader body politic, of how culture maintains and exploits the gender narratives for women, would have been filtered both through her nonworking mother and her father’s profession.
Greer started classes at Melbourne University in her early 20s, majoring in French and English before pursuing an MA at the University of Sydney, teaching and lecturing at the college to support herself. It is ironic that the University of Melbourne has become the gatekeeper of Greer’s personal papers and documents since her tenure at the college was largely unremarkable. At the time, Melbourne’s art scene was mostly a bohemian one, characterized more by pacifism than political engagement. The Melbourne “intelligentsia” did not inspire Greer in the same way Sydney would in years to come, as Christine Wallace notes in her biography of Greer, Untamed Shrew (1999).
Sydney was the center of radical student politics in Australia, and the back rooms of the city’s pubs were stomping grounds for left-wing intellectuals. Greer joined up with the so-called “Sydney Push,” a collective of journalists, academics, musicians, and other counterculture types. The group’s debates about Marxism proved a training ground for Greer, showing her the way societies normalize and naturalize culturally constructed behaviors, especially concerning women.
When her senior thesis in romantic poetry won her a Commonwealth Scholarship, Greer used the funds to pursue a PhD at the University of Cambridge. Pursuing an academic life in the more intellectually and culturally rigorous United Kingdom matured her writings on the oppression and dehumanization of women, which would later find voice in The Female Eunuch.
Since the publication of her seminal work, Greer has emerged as one of the cardinal feminist figures and commentators of the 20th-century. Her oeuvre has extended well beyond the early graduate days of writing The Female Eunuch, which was penned between classes at Cambridge. Greer has contributed a catalog of critical feminist dissertations to the discourse, ranging from “the politics of fertility” to literary analyses of the work of William Shakespeare. (In 2009, she published Shakespeare’s Wife, a recuperative reading of the unknown history of Ann Hathaway.)
Greer was thrust back into controversy in 1999 when she published The Whole Woman. Some critics saw the work’s claims as misguided, essentialist, and transphobic, as Greer voiced opposition to the inclusion of male-to-female transgender individuals into the feminist movement. In Greer’s view, the “insistence that man-made women be accepted as women is the institutional expression of the mistaken conviction that women are defective males.” In the book, Greer also argues that the women’s movement has been hampered in the last 30 years by destructive forces, including the culture of cosmetic surgery, self-mutilation, and a regressive obsession with women’s feminine image (cf. Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth).
Greer famously said she would never write a sequel to The Female Eunuch, claiming she no longer wanted to “define the goals” for feminism or continue the “personality cult” behind her academic and popular identity as the singular mouthpiece for the movement. Today Greer has moved away from commentating exclusively on feminist causes. She has become a vocal supporter of Australian Aboriginal rights, penning a 2008 essay, “On Rage,” which explores the oppression and exploitation of indigenous men. The essay was widely condemned in Australia, seen as a racist and misguided treatise that propagated existing discourses of white Australians revising the history of Aboriginal identity. Naturally, what compounded this was Greer’s own permanent move to the United Kingdom some three decades earlier.
The university previewed some of the archive’s artifacts in December 2014 at the central humanities library. The exhibition indicates how rich her correspondence and studies were during her younger life. While the thrust of this material is tied to her university days, there are items from even earlier: her elementary school report cards, notebooks from her adolescent years, and even her honors thesis from her undergraduate days. The exhibition seems interested in reconfiguring and humanizing the image of Greer, who has struggled with her public image as the “high priestess” of the women’s liberation movement.
Some of the most electrifying parts of the collection are early typed pages and notes for the Eunuch manuscript. In her notebooks, Greer’s tight purposeful black script underscores the thoughtfulness and intensity with which she treated this project. One can imagine the quiet and resolute determination with which she recorded her disillusionment from the narratives of the nuclear family, motherhood, and a desexualized suburban experience. The typed manuscript is noticeably without discoloration or fading in the black ink, making it easy to imagine Greer vigorously typing on her keyboard, each sentence as important as the one preceding it.
Like many young and ambitious writers, Greer was unapologetic in her pitches to publishers and heavy on the hyperbole. In one letter to a publisher on The Female Eunuch, Greer proudly wrote, “This book will be a sensation.” The planning and content of the book apparently came easily to Greer, but the book’s famous title remained elusive. The need to encapsulate the crux of the book’s intention in a title obviously preoccupied her; a series of faded yellow note cards captures her obsession — they are filled with lists and lists not only of prospective titles but also for chapters and subheadings. Color-coding was also important. Annotations from her notebooks fluctuate between dulled sunshine yellow ink to a sour green.
In another item from the archive, we see Greer’s datebook filled with appointments and commitments during her academic days. With a cursive and bold handwriting flair, Greer records a dinner with a friend — while an indiscernible phrase, perhaps written in French — accompanies the notation. In another datebook, this one a few years on, we see a week open with an empty series of dates. At this time in 1964 Greer had finished her studies at the University of Sydney but was still obviously actively engaged in the Push scene.
The archive is punctuated with Greer’s personal correspondence, with friends ranging from countercultural figures to movie stars. There is a letter from Warren Beatty, the star of films like Reds and Bonnie and Clyde, who writes, “Must we go on like this? W.B.” What provoked this response from Beatty is unclear. Greer received a flood of letters from fans and foes alike on the publication of The Female Eunuch, and many intellectuals and artists contacted her to offer both their praise and contempt for her feminist politics.
Diane Arbus is another figure who features in the archive. Greer first encountered Arbus in April 1971 while on a US book tour for Eunuch. The photographer asked Greer for a private sitting at the infamous Chelsea hotel, where she captured the feminist writer disheveled and apparently in distress. The archives offer a copy of a letter Greer sent to Arbus’s daughter Doon, on the occasion of her mother’s suicide. The letter is a solicitous remembrance of the afternoon at the Chelsea, when Arbus, “dressed … in the same little safari suit,” straddled the mouthpiece of women’s liberation in order to get that memorable shot.
The archive itself will act as an important and indispensible resource for feminist and literary students and academics who wish to relish and reckon with the titanic collection of public and private papers. And as for coming full circle, the return of a prodigal daughter’s papers to the country where she was raised is a nice touch, a symbolic attempt at repatriation.
Nathan Smith is an arts and culture writer based in Australia. His writing has appeared in The Economist, The Atlantic, and the Washington Post. Nathan tweets @nathansmithr and maintains a website at nathanrsmith.co.
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