Book Review: Germaine Greer. The Whole Woman

1999 Doubleday, London.

Germaine Greer’s newest book appeared earlier this year to dismal reviews. She 
was accused of gross generalisation, of being out of touch with the reality of
 women’s lives in the late 1990s, and of including masses of data to support her 
theses without adequate referencing. Yet interestingly, when she came to Dublin 
to speak in UCD, a huge lecture theatre was filled to capacity on a rainy Saturday 
afternoon, and this ticket-only event had been sold out three weeks previously.
 Interestingly too, The Whole Woman was at the top of the bestseller lists for weeks,
 ironically vying for first place with Monica Lewinsky’s autobiography.

My first exposure to Germaine Greer was reading The Female Eunuch as a student
 in the 1970s. I still recall the impact this book made on my whole way of thinking.
 Her notion that women were born whole but were gradually deformed through a
 process of socialisation into the patriarchal society was a revelation to me. She, 
along with Betty Friedan, Simone de Beauvoir and other feminist writers exerted a 
profound influence on my world view. For old time’s sake I went along to UCD, 
expecting to encounter an embittered, scary woman. Instead, Germaine Greer was 
witty, articulate and very, very persuasive in her contention that things have not
 changed all that much for women except in superficial ways since The Female 
Eunuch was written in the 1960s.

The Whole Woman is a compelling book. I found it hard to put down once I started,
 and have emerged dazed each time I had to leave it. The book is organised into
 collections of short essays around four themes: Body, Mind, Love, Power. Chapter
 upon chapter of anecdote, research and comment tears down the complacent notion 
that women have won their battle for liberation, yet still holds on to the possibility
 for radical change. “The second wave of feminism, rather than having crashed on
to the shore, is still far out to sea, slowly and inexorably gathering momentum”.

The Whole Woman is a depressing book. It is impossible to deny the veracity of 
many of her claims: I only have to look to my own life and those of my female 
friends. The section on Body, for example, is a brilliant exposition of the ways and 
means by which the present generation of women, just at the point in time were 
they were poised to take their place in the world, have been manipulated by
 powerful marketing strategies into an obsessive dissatisfied relationship with their 
body and body shape which undermines and disempowers them in the world.
 “Every woman knows that, regardless of all her other achievements, she is a failure 
if she is not beautiful…preoccupation with her appearance goes some way towards
 ruining some part of every woman’s day.” The chapters on work and housework
 drearily reiterate what we all know: despite “equality”, women still get paid less,
 get promoted less and do far more than their fair share of housework.

The Whole Woman says very little that is new. Rather it is a restatement of many of
 the ideas and positions of thirty years ago. What is interesting is that a lot of new data and experiences are intertwined with the original ideas to create an argument
 and viewpoint that is totally relevant today. The book has many weaknesses. The 
tendency to generalise and overstate can at times be tedious, and her glorification
 of the integrity of the lives of women in developing countries astonished me. It is 
a failing that the book is not properly referenced: I would have liked to pursue
 some of her statistics further. But this is not an academic text. Rather it is a well
 written persuasive collection of fiery rhetoric which moved this reader to anger,
 sadness and amusement.

As a therapist, I think this is an important book. In our work with female clients,
 we all meet the impotent anger many women experience towards the social 
constraints which restrict their ability to live fully in the world. The Whole Woman 
helps create a context in which to situate this anger, to validate it and ultimately to 
facilitate clients to harness its power. Buy it.

Maeve Lewis