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the (non)sense of anti-feminists: germaine greer at the 2012 melbourne writers festival

The Melbourne Writers Festival has come and gone for another year. For three wonderful days I listened to ideas, discussion and debates about all manner of things. But the favourite was seeing and hearing Germaine Greer. I didn’t go to the keynote she presented but thought an individual session would be more about her own life. Sitting three rows from the front, there were people more enthusiastic than me taking photos before the session actually started and I tried not to stare at the woman who doesn’t like to be described as an icon because ‘icons are holy and I am unholy’.

Standing in line before the session, I started talking to a group of young women holding copies of The Female Eunuch and The Whole Woman. They seemed even more excited than me, so much so they described themselves as groupies. I couldn’t help but ask what people, particularly other students at their school, thought about them identifying as feminist. Straight away, almost without taking a breath, they said ‘they all think we are lesbians, that we don’t shave our legs and hate makeup,’ which they almost laughed at when they finished the all too familiar sentiment. I almost laughed as well but at the same time I was saddened that nothing much seems to have changed. Before I could continue the conversation, I was ushered into another line but I wanted to say to them to stay strong, be strong in what you believe, because feminism will always be a part of your life.

Thinking about the comments directed at these young women, I once again realised how successful anti-feminism has been, not just today but across generations. Exactly the same insults, assumptions and ideas always seem to be directed at feminists, no matter how old or young. And these insults have worked because increasing numbers of women, especially young women, are reluctant to identify as feminist. But what should be taken more notice of is how prevalent anti-feminism is among young people when a common assumption is they are increasingly open-minded.

The Female Eunuch was a book that acted as a personal connection for one of the young women to her mother. When this girl’s mother was 14, she read the book, and here was her daughter, little more than 14, holding the same book, excited, almost dancing on her toes to get the line moving into a space where the woman who wrote it was about to speak, and no doubt touch on a universal issue that has been and continues to be relevant to women.

While not giving an opinion on abortion or birth control, Germaine did point out some very interesting facts. In the 1960s, abortion was not accessible and women needed to rely on other forms of birth control; in other words, the pill. However, in the 60s the pill had huge side effects, including occasional death and blindness. Germaine spoke about one of the main issues of taking the pill, and one that still exists, is the unknown long-term consequences.

Not only are the long-term consequences unknown, as Germaine highlighted, but most women do not remember their contraceptive history and are reluctant to ask doctors questions related to their own health. Yet, on the other hand, women will ask questions and be assertive when it comes to asking doctors questions about the health of their children. While Germaine never said this, conclusions can be drawn between how women are perceived when they do ask questions, are assertive and do request information about their own bodies and themselves. Perhaps it is generally more accepted for women to ask questions and be assertive about their child because this is considered normal and natural for a mother, whereas for an individual woman to ask questions of a doctor may be seen as questioning the opinion of a professional; a professional who works within a well established medical hierarchy that, I suggest, remains male dominated.

Feminism encourages us to take care of ourselves, to have self-determination and identify that our bodies, ourselves, are just as important as everyone else. When Germaine wrote The Female Eunuch in 1970, feminism recognised how medicalised women’s bodies had become and seriously questioned the medical establishment about its common prescription of the pill. As the group of young girls I spoke to become adults, they too will eventually have to think about contraception, and more than likely, the pill will be prescribed. The fact that the majority of heterosexual women remain responsible for contraception proves that feminism will always be needed.

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