By Susan Law
Being a woman who “was there” in the 60s and early 70s, it goes without saying that I can’t remember exactly what went on. I do know that around that time, my lover’s wife decreed that The Female Eunuch was required reading. I did my best and pretended to understand it but the main vision I have now, as I think back, is the iconic book cover depicting a hollow female form with handles attached. The liberation movement seemed important because other women told me so. I listened and I read and became quickly bored with the shrill rhetoric, ‘Stop all the talk and just get on with it’ I thought.
Even so, I felt shallow and when it was suggested that I run away from home and join a commune in Wales with nobler activationist sisters and some of their men, my rationale for refusing was not cowardice but the sure knowledge that it would be me doing the washing up and childcare while others made their mark on society to be remembered forever as leaders of a noble cause. I was not committed enough to be a drone in order that others might shine.
A while back I attended an evening audience with Germaine Greer, a lifelong heroine, a wild promiscuous feminist icon and guru of yesteryear, academic and Big Brother Housemate. Aged 72 and a half I watched with concern as the 73-year-old, slightly stooped Ms Greer made her way across the stage to the uncomfortable looking bar-stool with a back support. I felt I needed to get her a cushion.
I don’t know what I was expecting but for me it became an evening of deep reflection. Where were all the noisy militants? Had any of them actually made a mark? Maybe I had been completely out of touch and missed landmark successes. No cap was tipped towards those of us who, over several decades, had tried to make liberation a reality in our own lives. I hoped I might find out more but the evening was disappointingly empty of any substance. No reference was made to what, if anything had been achieved and by whom. We learned that no one ever actually burned their bras. During a rally in the US excited women threatened to do so but then discovered they did not have a fire license and so thought better of it. I had never got to the bottom of this myth before and was somewhat relieved to hear the truth as before cancer struck I was a cumbersome 44HH and bras were, at that time, only to be acquired with significant funds from Marshall and Snelgrove of London. I would not to have been able to afford such pyromania and in my case going bra-less would have been hugely irresponsible, causing the world to tilt on its axis and global warming be brought forward 40 years.
There was speculation about whether or not women could tell jokes and a halfhearted monologue about women comedians; none of whose names Ms Greer could remember. We were invited to look after some of the more ethnic women comedians who defied their cultural background to take to the stage. I have toughened in my liberated life over the years and my take is that if they choose that profession, then it is up to them to accept the consequences of their choices. We women tend to use self deprecating humour; a satirical take on our condition and relationships. When we have done that, there is not much left to say. If we are liberated do we really need looking after? We move on, we take responsibility.
The liveliest part of the evening was given over to observations on the various jackets worn by Julia Gillard, the then Prime Minister of Australia. Apparently Ms Greer had got on the wrong side of her fellow Australians by criticising the lack of good tailoring in her jackets, as witnessed by the creases across the back. She gained some praise for her political achievements and favourable comparison was made between her and some of her male counterparts but we quickly morphed to Angela Merkel’s jackets. Ms Greer posed the thought that she had only two, one dark and one light in colour, however, there was a German in the audience who assured us that she had many jackets and yes, they did mostly cover her bum. The depth of triviality was disappointing. No mention was made that it had been reported on the news that day that Angela Merkel was proving herself to be the most successful leader in Europe at the time, managing to balance austerity measures with those aiming at growth and doing more to bring Germany out of recession than any others had yet managed. Questions from the audience were mostly from women in unsatisfactory relationships with men; women who had obviously not read the more recent Mars and Venus tome.
The purpose of a good teacher is to make the student think and the evening made me think about not only what I had done over the last 40 to 50 years but what changes had occurred. The following day I read a serious article stating that freely available contraception to all young women was putting them under pressure to be more sexual than they actually wished. I got married in 1960. Young women could not attend the family planning clinic unless a date had been set for the wedding and proof obtained. I remember being deeply embarrassed as I waited in a clinic in Epsom hospital, with a copy of War and Peace to cover my awkwardness, being hailed by a previous school prefect who thought it jolly that we were both soon going to be officially allowed to have sex. Our recent head mistress gave a leavers talk and one of her Catholic convert phrases, was that ‘gels never went to chemists’ and ‘wives were never too tired’. A number of us farmer’s daughters, well versed in farmyard stuff, thought this hilarious. ‘Do you mean too tired for dusting?’ We asked. The achievement of contraception for all now seems starkly hollow if girls are feeling pressurized because of it.
I believe that one major beneficial change since previous generations is that there has been a significant improvement in family parenting. In some sections of society young men and women seem to share the care of little people with great joy and delight. Men are proud to be part of bringing up the children and being seen out with them. It appears they do not fear ridicule from their colleagues and mates. Whether or not this has anything to do with the liberation movement I am not sure but more women actually having careers has necessitated a sharing of the domestic duties. Maybe this is a process of evolution, probably not brought about directly by militant women’s demands but by growing equality in educational achievements as well as financial necessity. I see far more opportunities for women to have satisfying careers nowadays than in the past, which surely is progress. Equal pay has yet to be achieved. Some men of my own now elderly generation found the changes in women’s attitudes somewhat ridiculous and at the same time threatening. My then husband complained that 1970s/80s TV entertainment often showed men being ineffectual against their strong women counterparts. For a while men did have a bad time, all now part of the evolution of things.
Having left the evening uninformed, I involved myself in some research. Apparently there have been two or three further waves of feminism since the ‘60s upsurge, each wave less effective than the last. The magazine Spare Rib died a death some years ago. The Socialist Worker online has tried to keep it going but really trills about nothing new and theorises rather a lot. The most energetic and effective women’s writings appear to have been penned in the late 1800s prior to the suffragette movement. Other names of the ’60s seem to have disappeared. Germaine entered the Big Brother House and Rosie Boycott has recorded her concerns about losing a woman employee because she is pretty and likely to become pregnant. More recent research has stated that there are now six UK publications claiming feminist ideals. Perhaps this is a new wave starting.
When I mentioned to my daughter I had been to see Germaine Greer, her comment was ‘Is she still around?’ My grand daughter, aged 17 said she once had a module of study involving reading some of the Female Eunuch. An intelligent young woman, she saw it as a rather insignificant historical social document. If she thought about Ms Greer at all, she saw her as one of those previously in the limelight who could not resist the continual lure of publicity. My friend Mike once swaggered over to Germaine in a bar and invited her to have a drink with a real man. She called him a loud mouthed boy. She was right about that!
A few weeks before the Audience with Germaine Greer, I had been with a young friend and her man to see a Women of the World Day celebration show with Sandi Toksvig and Jo Brand. Entertaining and funny with unavoidable lesbian leanings we were, during the performance, asked to give a cheer for the woman Prime Minister of Iceland who was in the audience. The man in our party spoke the words we only thought. ‘I wonder if she was the Prime Minister when Iceland went bankrupt?’
My initial feeling is that feminism and the quest for equality has moved on significantly, not necessarily following a predictable and even path, but then was it meant to? Like all change it is in process and as with all process there is need for inventory and review. What seems important is that women appear to be freer to choose their path in life and those of us that already have done this need to be honest and say that for every choice we made there have been, and continue to be, consequences because the law of cause and effect will always apply. We needed the mouthy firebrands to start things off. Now it is up to us oldies to tell the truth, to share our experience; that is of course, if anyone is interested.