Book review: The Female Eunuch

It’s difficult to write an accurate review of The Female Eunuch. It was an enormously influential book, but even immediately after reading it, I remembered the tone and mood Greer created much better than the content. Partly that’s due to her style: her prose is energetic and impassioned, though at times verging on bombastic. Greer's arguments are stories - first a sweeping claim, followed by a more detailed and vitriolic assessment of the psychology of her chosen targets, and swelling to some iconoclastic conclusion, phrased in a deliberately outré manner. Between these she weaves personal anecdotes, quotations, literary references and enough obscure words to have me continually reaching for a dictionary. The book is far from a modern sociological study, teeming with facts and statistics. Rather, it is equal parts continental-style philosophy and call to arms.

To what purpose, exactly? It’s very easy to tell what Greer stands against - most things, it seems - but more difficult to extract a positive message from the book. Indeed, she reserves the most criticism for women themselves. “The cage door had been opened but the canaries had refused to fly out… the suggestion of an alternative to captivity had only confused and saddened them.” Greer presents an alternative to the conventional lifestyle, but without the promise that it will be better. Rather, she concludes, “the surest guide to the correctness of the path that women take is joy in the struggle.” Breaking societal norms will hurt, but it’s worth it to further the cause. That’s heady stuff for women who want to define their lives through feminism, and have the means to do so - feminism for the committed - but lacks a clear idea of whether it could, or even should, be desirable to all women.

What does this alternative lifestyle look like? Firstly, it’s women breaking the shackles of their own minds. Greer explains the different acculturation of boys and girls, starting from immediately after birth, and resulting in women who think of themselves as passive and self-sacrificing, especially when it comes to sexual interactions (there are some pretty good sex tips here as well). She draws a contrast between absolute purity of idealised romance, and the negative ways women are taught to think about their bodies, vaginas in particular. In typical form, she believes that any woman uncomfortable with the idea of tasting her own menstrual blood is still mentally subjugated. She also explores the heavily biased language used to describe women’s sexuality, going back hundreds of years for some examples.  It’s here that the book shines - particularly when considered in a historic context where these discussions were much more taboo than they are today.

Secondly, Greer levels similar arguments against the norms of marriage and the nuclear family, claiming that they stifle women and encourage various negative traits in both people involved, which are then taken out on their spouses and children. These children grow up controlled by adults within that family and terrified of those outside it; they see their mother becoming isolated from the outside world, and their father being “screwed in to the commercial machine” by the responsibility of family; they see each blaming the other. This is supported by an interesting discussion on love and marriage as historical constructs built over the last millennium. I was already fairly opposed to the norm of isolated nuclear families, and so I appreciated the way the book highlights these issues. However, not all of it was convincing - in particular, her description of marriages as intrinsically oppositional is rather pessimistic, and something most of us will try hard to avoid. This is where a lack of rigour hurts the argument - it’s difficult to be sure she’s not simply extrapolating from her own unhappy childhood and failed marriage, dressed up in polemic language. And without some arguments for why relationships can be good, too, The Female Eunuch is in danger of implicitly endorsing the state described by its title.

Overall, there were a couple of things which particularly stood out. The major one was Greer’s willingness to condemn anyone whose choices she sees as insipid or misguided. Parts of the book were the most scathing and vitriolic critiques of women, as a group, that I’ve ever seen. In a way, the honesty is refreshing, and it’s a good counterbalance to the modern strands of feminism which emphasise choice above all. But it also means that, for someone not quite as cynical about human nature as Greer is (and I doubt many are), it’s difficult to swallow her conclusions wholesale. That’s especially true since many of her cynical generalisations about gender relations (for example, that husbands and wives think of each other as status symbols; or various Freud-inspired ideas) are even less convincing now than they would have been half a century ago.

The other interesting thing was simply observing what seemed normal fifty years ago: how she needed to dedicate a chapter to explaining why biological differences in strength were not a good argument against women's empowerment - and also how, in the face of that, she saw a general “revolution” against both patriarchy and capitalism as the best way forward. The reminder of the scale of past bigotry is always sobering. Thankfully, though, calls for revolutions have died down since then, in favour of more incrementalist approaches.

Overall, The Female Eunuch is a strong challenge to gender stereotypes and societal norms, even if it’s too broad-brush to wholly defeat many. It offers little discussion of what the alternatives actually are, or how to get there, but the general sense of passion it inspires somewhat makes up for that. Read if you’re interested in the history of feminism or in challenges to some implicit gender norms which aren't major focuses of modern feminism.

Ways in which reading this book changed my mind:
  • Marriage and child-raising in nuclear families probably has worse psychological effects than I would have thought.
  • The indoctrination of women into passive roles is more comprehensive than I had assumed.
  • The importance of the move from second- to third-wave feminism is greater than I had assumed.

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