Dear Ms Greer
First published by the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 March 2014
Dear Ms Greer (may I call you Germaine?),
I’ve just finished The Female Eunuch. I know it came out in 1970 – as a little girl I was fascinated by my mother’s copy, the naked woman’s torso on the cover suggesting contents adult and inscrutable.
Firstly, can I say: “Wow, how things have changed.” But also: “Wow, how things have stayed the same.” You were barely thirty when you wrote it, but many of your insights seem to come from someone decades older. Let’s agree upfront though to skip over some bits. Remember suggesting you and your mates might leave your babies to be brought up by a Calabrian peasant family, where you’d occasionally drop in to say hi? That was, er, interesting.
My girlfriends and I grew up in a world that told us we could do anything. Now we’ve had careers, relationships and a few children of our own, I thought you might be interested to know how feminism has worked out for us.
We took your message about education to heart. Home economics was still taught in my girls high school, but we studied physics and history too. In 1970 three in every 10 university students were women. Nearly two decades later, female students started outnumbering males. Now six in every 10 university graduates are women.
We didn’t experience the extreme sexism you say characterised the sixties student movements. When the token male dropped off a ticket I was running on in a student election we were told no-one would vote for three women and we’d need to find another bloke. We didn’t, and we still won.
In hindsight, our education years seem relatively charmed ones compared with some of the sexism that was to come. You wrote that the gender pay gap was as high as 50 per cent in some industries. Today, female university graduates earn $5000 less than their male counterparts. Full-time female workers still earn 17 per cent less than men, a gap that’s persisted for years.
Sexual harassment at work is still an issue: a quarter of women have experienced it in the last five years, according to an Australian Human Rights Commission survey. In one early job I remember a colleague (a man old enough to be my grandfather) loudly and ostentatiously telling co-workers he and I needed privacy before closing my office door for (often unnecessary) meetings. Hilarious. Sometimes other women are the problem. One successful friend was told by a woman she was promoted ahead of: “I know you’re fucking to get ahead”. (She wasn’t).
Australia finally has a system of (modestly) paid maternity leave. Smart bosses retain experienced staff with even more generous leave and by keeping women informed about major developments while off work. But too often women come back to find responsibilities and opportunities to advance have vanished. Sometimes their jobs have too. And while some parents are negotiating to leave early for weekly netball lessons, many are so grateful they overcompensate by working more hours on unpaid days “off”.
You write as if mum is always the stay-at-home parent, but I increasingly see dads working part-time, or not at all, while their female partner (who might earn more or have a too-good-to-refuse career offer) works full-time. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures suggest one in 20 families with dependant children has a mum who works while dad stays home, a phenomenon now with its own TV show, House Husbands.
Parenting is arguably a harder gig now though. You write: “Bringing up children is not a real occupation, because children come up just the same, brought or not.” But reams of research about the crucial early years has made the parenting business more fraught than ever. Whole industries target anxious parents with products and services to give children an edge in a competitive world. Recently a “Getting to know your child” workshop was advertised (did the organiser think parents might leave the park with the wrong child?). And with some notable exceptions (see house husbands, above) in this world of intensified parenting it’s still mother’s brains bursting with a million important details like which doctor bulk bills and which babysitter will work Fridays.
Let’s talk hair. I’m pretty sure Brazilian was a nationality and not a grooming choice in 1970, but you wrote that women were starting to shave their pubic hair to appear more infantile. For my generation gender was something to play with: Kurt Cobain wore dresses and Annie Lennox wore suits. So the hyper-feminine look of some young women, all sky-high heels, enhanced breasts and micro skirts, confuses us too. The gym-toned young men in body-hugging shirts can look, at first glance, equally hyper-masculine. But with their waxed chests and eyebrows and (I’ve heard) manscaping below, they seem like victims of the body-shaping tyranny you rail against too. And now (as any Girls fan knows) the bush is apparently back. Let’s just say it’s complicated.
One of your most disturbing chapters starts: “Women have very little idea of how much men hate them.” I like to think you were generalising, but the gang rape of a young girl in western Sydney reminds us many men still hate women. When Jill Meagher was murdered in Melbourne in 2012, I eerily recalled being grabbed 20 years earlier in a suburb not far from where she was abducted (I escaped with bruises and a shaken confidence). Fortunately a new man is emerging too, one who might even have read your book – the copy I’ve been reading belongs to a bloke.
In it you pay tribute to the suffragettes who inspired you: “It is remarkable how many of today’s militant women can remember some extraordinary old lady who sought (in vain) to plant the seeds of rebellion in their mind.” This International Women’s Day we’ll remember you, Ms Greer. And your words: “Liberty is terrifying but it is also exhilarating”.