The Whole Woman

Germaine Greer, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1999. $25.00

Reviewed by Rebekah Shardy

When a woman surrenders her need for social approbation, she is apt to utter remarkable things. I remember how my face burned as a teen-ager watching my mother - long past the decorative roles of woman - boldly quiz a shoe salesman on his personal justification for capitalism. Candor is sweet revenge for older women whose ripened souls can - at last! - slough off the dull cloak of "niceness" like an irritating snakeskin.

Never averse to expressing outrage at any age, feminist matriarch Germaine Greer ("The Female Eunuch") will not disappoint readers with coy observations in her new book, "The Whole Woman." While some knee-jerk critics equate feminism with stridency, Greer's seasoned prose soars more often than it stabs. The toothsome experience of reading this substantial book is like sitting down with your favorite Aunt Lucy at the kitchen table and listening to her spill the entire mess of beans. Even as you laugh and look away, a secret place inside is relieved to hear someone say out loud the truths you're afraid to admit to yourself.

Speaking from a depth of experience as a woman over sixty, Greer's tone is never dismissive, hysterical or . . . predictable. Isn't breast-cancer screening sacrosanct to all feminists? Sure to stoke controversy, she contends that "early detection (of breast cancer) . . .means more treatment, and more pain and anxiety, although the afflicted woman lives no longer than she would have without it." Doesn't every seamy sitcom in the western world preach the gospel of women's need - if not duty - to enjoy multiple orgasms? Although a lover of men, Greer says dryly, "The mythology of the female orgasm could be considered the last ideological push of the heterosexual establishment," a ruse to convince women of their abnormality if they do not share or support the male's drive for objectified genital sex. It is the unique talent of women, Greer believes, to love without sex, beyond sex, and in sexual ways that involve the entire body and self, rather than only the vagina.

Like the Egyptian goddess, Isis, who healed her beloved Osiris by collecting his separated body parts to "re-member" them into life, Greer bravely attempts in this book to re-stitch all of the neglected, broken, and misunderstood aspects of female experience into one organic whole. She chastises the complacent. ("Big sisters have been known to wallop pestilential little sisters from time to time," she writes of the New Feminist). She comforts those abandoned to popular family value policies ("The greatest irony about husband-as-protector is he is too often the most dangerous person his wife or children will ever have to face.") She exposes the new depiction of female beauty as self-mutilation. "Thirty years ago we heard nothing about panic attacks, anorexia or self-mutilation. Now . . . the image of the battered woman is high fashion. The models reeling down the catwalks are stick thin, their faces cavernous and bruised . . . Lacking others prepared to injure them, it seems, they will hurt themselves."

Best of all, "The Whole Woman" tells you what every wise grandma knows and teaches: the unique gifts of women are wondrous antidotes to the poisons of a harsh world, if we nurture them. "Women's changeability is a value in itself," Germaine winks at us from across the table, forgiving us the restless pursuit of our wayward hearts. "A necessary corrective to masculine rigidity."

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