It is almost 50 years since Germaine Greer wrote her first and probably best-known book, The Female Eunuch. A powerful and unprecedented analysis of the oppression and discrimination faced by women in the latter half of the 20th century, it soon became a hugely important and much-discussed work. Her hope that it would “Quickly date and disappear” was unfulfilled and it remains a vital and influential text of the feminist movement.

Greer is a writer, academic and social commentator. She was born in Melbourne in 1939, studied English and French at the University of Melbourne and then gained an MA from the University of Sydney. She left Australia for the UK in 1964 to study for a PhD in English Literature at Newham College, Cambridge. Having gained her doctorate, she began her academic career as a lecturer at the University of Warwick and wrote for various publications including Oz, The Sunday Times, Private Eye and underground Dutch magazine, Suck. Her first book, The Female Eunuch, was published in 1970.

To fully understand the impact of the book, the context of its publication is crucial. At the time of its release, women could legally be refused employment or education purely because of their sex or sacked from their job if they were pregnant. They were not able to apply for a loan, credit card or a mortgage or buy a car without a male guarantor. There was no provision or support for victims of domestic violence and a man was legally able to rape his wife. A life of domesticity as a housewife and mother was still very much the expectation for women, and employment opportunities, outside of secretarial work and nursing, were scant. Sexism, misogyny and objectification were rife in the media and popular culture and women had virtually no social or political power. 

It was against this background that The Female Eunuch sprang into life, making Greer a huge cultural celebrity almost instantly. The book, like its author, attracted both acclaim and controversy. Its pages were a blend of subjective opinion, academic research and polemic, written in a wholly unapologetic and extremely witty style. It was funny, angry, frequently shocking and, perhaps most importantly, it was accessible. This was no dry intellectual tract; it was entertaining, outrageous and immensely readable.

The book’s premise, to which the title refers, is that women have been robbed of their essential productive energy by a male supremacist society. Greer argues that, in conforming to the sterile and subservient femininity demanded of them, women have to accept sexually passive roles. In adopting this false image of womanhood women must repress their natural sexuality and that extends into every aspect of their lives, erasing their own energy, impulses and power; women castrate themselves in the performance of femininity.

It is the element of quest in her sexuality which the female is taught to deny. She is not only taught to deny it in her sexual contacts but (for in some subliminal way the connection is understood) in all her contacts, from infancy onwards.

Greer also asserts that women have no idea of the extent to which men hate them and that they have been taught to hate themselves. She describes how women have been taught to despise their own bodies and bodily functions and have internalised feelings of inferiority and taint.

Of marriage, Greer is hugely critical and describes the nuclear family as nothing more than a “Living death” for women in which they are merely unpaid domestic servants: “The housewife is an unpaid worker in her husband’s house in return for the security of being a permanent employee… But the lowest paid employees can be and are laid off, and so are wives. They have no savings, no skills which they can bargain with elsewhere, and they must bear the stigma of having been sacked.”

Despite its scathing indictment of the female condition, the book is also hopeful and optimistic. It outlines how the situation might be different and describes how women can change the status quo, and become architects of their own lives. Greer wants women to think beyond their social conditioning and the expectations placed upon them. She calls upon women to eschew traditional marriage and the obligation to produce children, to rebel against enforced sterile and suffocating gender roles, to refuse stereotypical femininity and adornment and to take responsibility for their own liberation.  In short, she urged women to revolt.

Less than a year after its publication, The Female Eunuch had sold out its second printing and had been translated into eleven languages. It was not only discussed and analysed in the media, but it was also talked about in staff rooms, kitchens and student unions. It facilitated a debate about women’s liberation at an international level and brought feminism into public consciousness like no previous work had done.

The timing of its publication could not have been bettered; there was increasing discontent and anger about the role of women in society to which the book gave a vital verbal form. It remains a powerful and important text of the feminist movement and has influenced generations of women. It has never been out of print and has sold well over one million copies in the UK alone. Speaking on a BBC programme in June 2018, Bea Campbell described The Female Eunuch as “One of the iconic books of the female liberation movement.”


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Josephine Liptrott

Written by Josephine Liptrott

Josephine worked in marketing and customer relations prior to taking up a place at drama school. She now works as an actor and also writes for several different publications both online and in print. A northerner by birth, she currently lives in London and has been an ardent feminist since her teens.

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First edition of 'The Female Eunuch' from Sydney Rare Book Auctions