Ambitious Women and Strange Monsters: Simone De Beauvoir and Germaine Greer

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Ambitious Women and Strange Monsters: Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer

In The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir considers the position of women who have in one way or another stood as positive examples to other women:

Most female heroines are oddities: adventuresses and originals notable less for the importance of.their acts than for the singularity of their fates...The great man springs from the masses and he is propelled onward by circumstances; the masses of women are on the margin of history, and circumstances are an obstacle for each individual, not a springboard. In order to change the face of the world, it is first necessary to be firmly anchored in it; but the women who are firmly rooted in society are those who are in subjection to it; unless designated for action by divine authority -- and then they have shown themselves to be as capable as men -- the ambitious woman and the heroine are strange monsters. It is only since women have begun to feel themselves at home on the earth that we have seen a Rosa Luxemburg, a Mme Curie appear. They brilliantly demonstrate that it is not the inferiority of women that has caused their historical insignificance: it is rather their historical insignificance that has doomed then to inferiority. (163)(1)

The notion of being `at home on the earth' is a powerful one. It suggests comfort, ease, understanding, precisely those things which Beauvoir argues have not been the general experience of that half of humanity accorded the status of the second sex. Fifty years after Beauvoir's book, the question of whether women are any more at home on the earth than they were in Beauvoir's time is still a difficult one, as is the issue of feminist heroines. In what follows I want to canvass some ideas relating to women's position in society at the end of the twentieth century and the notion of women as rôle models, through making some connections between two feminist heroines, Simone de Beauvoir and Germaine Greer.

The idea of feminist heroines might well be fresh in mind at the moment because of the treatment of Germaine Greer's The Whole Woman, much of which has focussed more on her personality than on her words, to generally negative ends. `This is strange,' as Decca Aitken writes, `because when male writers behave eccentrically, it is not so much held against them as held up as proof of their genius. To read The Whole Woman through the lens of its autobiography would shed little light on anything except our inability to treat a woman's work as we would a man's' (28).

It is serendipitous that Greer's book should appear fifty years after Simone de Beauvoir's, although in many ways they could hardly be more different books, partly because of real differences between the disciplines of Philosophy and English. The appearance of The Whole Woman in the fiftieth anniversary year of The Second Sex encourages a stock taking of what has happened to feminism, and what kind of feminism we take into the twenty-first century. Obviously, The Whole Woman represents what Greer sees as an attempt to think back through or re-think, not so much Beauvoir's The Second Sex -- indeed it seems odd that neither of Greer's books substantially engage with Beauvoir, given the importance of that book -- as Greer's own earlier work, The Female Eunuch, published nearly thirty years ago in 1971. Greer's rôle as `feminist icon,' as Ros Coward put it, has always been `highly problematic' (23). She does seem in many way to have made herself the willing hostage to the needs of the mass media for sensationalism and headlines, even if along the way she has undoubtedly contributed to the promulgation of issues important to feminism. One of the engaging things about The Whole Woman is the occasional reference to previous Greers whose actions the 1999 Greer perceives to have been less than wise. Such an example concerns the notorious photograph of Greer's genitals (1999 187-88).(2) Interestingly talking about herself in the third person, suggesting the distance between Greer then and Greer now, Greer now realises her failure to understand the different relationships between male and female nudity, and her naive belief that sexuality is necessarily subversive. …