Witty, Raunchy and Nobody's Eunuch, Germaine Greer Is Teaching Tulsa a Thing or Two
Greer herself hightailed it down to teach poetry at the University of Tulsa for a salary of $15,000 per year. ("They asked me and I went," she explains. "It's a small private school, and we're trying to turn it into the Amherst of the Southwest.") After only two months as a visiting professor she was appointed to the permanent faculty, and will establish and direct the Tulsa Center for the Study of Women's Literature. Meanwhile, the number of her own literary contributions to that field has just doubled. Nine years after the publication of her best-selling polemic The Female Eunuch, which argued that women had been made sexless by a male-dominated society, Greer is out with a second feminist book, The Obstacle Race (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25). The subject is women artists from the Middle Ages through the early 20th century. "I wanted to illuminate the reasons why there have been so few great women artists by examining the art establishment," says Greer. "I wrote the book because I wanted to know what was in it. I write to discover."
In this case, discovery took eight years. A meticulous researcher, Greer visited art galleries and museums all over Europe in her search for works by female artists. "I flogged my old Ford Escort to death," sighs Greer, who also traveled on trains—second-class—and reduced her overhead by sleeping on friends' floors. "That," she admits, "is no fun when you're nearly 40." In general, reviewers believe her sacrifices were not in vain: The Obstacle Race has been widely praised for its ambitious scope and lucid prose style. Greer herself remains skeptical, however. "I think I bit off more than I can chew," she frets. "I have a feeling of vertigo about this book. I can hardly read it without my heart pounding. I wish I'd done it better. I wish I were doing it over. I don't know what I feel."
Greer has made uncertainty a way of life. "When I was a girl, my mother took me to a film of II Trovatore," she recalls. "I decided that this was the scale of passion on which people should live their lives." But beneath the bravura is the worm of self-doubt. "I never presume I still have a boyfriend I can't actually see," she has said, "and if I feel jealous or like I'm going to be left, I'll tear my throat out before I let it show. I hate it whenever I feel my control is slipping. When I do, I just get in the car and drive. I spend all my time leaving people."
Currently, Greer spends some of her time careening around Tulsa in a rented Mustang with a pint of Jack Daniel's under the front seat. "I think I am a potential alcoholic," she says, "and I can't afford the only drug I like, which is coke." Otherwise dope depresses her ("I hate being zonked," she once confessed). To persuade herself she still has her drinking under control, she swears off liquor every year from New Year's until Easter—"to see if I can do it." So far, she has.
With somewhat less regularity, Greer practices sexual abstinence as well. "When I do," she says, "it takes a fair amount of persuasion to get me back on men." Once persuaded, however, she hastens to make up for lost time. "Of course I'm promiscuous," Greer says. "But the word has no meaning." Doing her best to provide one, she enjoys a succession of lovers—all of them male. "I wish I were a lesbian," she says, "but it's no go." Still, she does not wish her heterosexuality to be taken as an unqualified endorsement of the opposite sex. "If I get a bad review or I wake up throwing up and I need someone to say, 'Hush, baby, it's okay,' I call a girlfriend," she once explained. "For support, it's women. I sleep with men. I don't expect anything else from them."
Entering into the spirit of the sexual marketplace, Greer admits that rock stars are her personal preference. "I just love the way musicians display themselves for our delectation," she sighs. "But I make a point of not being part of the slag heap. I insist on meeting musicians from the audience side of the footlights. They have to come to me."
Peccadilloes aside, Greer strives on campus to be the very model of professorial probity. Up most of one recent night carousing, she was at her desk promptly by nine the next morning. In the classroom, peering intently over the tops of her granny glasses, she exhorted her students: "You should know the authentic ring of good poetry." Moments later, Greer was flapping her arms and shouting: "Gawwwd damnnnn. I'm sweating like a hog under this dress!" But such lapses are infrequent. "It's a serious literature course she's teaching," insists one appreciative graduate student. Observes another, a woman: "I expected more polemics from her than we're getting. She's very sensitive to criticism of being a feminist."
Outside the classroom, Greer is an unapologetic defender of the creed. William F. Buckley Jr., who once debated her on women's liberation, found her a worthy and stimulating opponent. "She's not a feminist like Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, in that they are nothing else," he says. "She'd be interesting on any subject. And as a stylist, she's leagues ahead of the others. She's lively, witty and very sexy." Buckley admits, however, that he is sometimes put off by her candor. "I find it unfortunate," he says, "that she devotes so much time to her sex life. It's a talismanic opening to any conversation, a rite of passage."
To feminists, Greer's pluses outweigh her nettlesome minuses, though Friedan for one doubts that Greer—whom she calls "brilliant"—is "in tune with the mundane realities and economic necessities of American women." Such criticism does not offend Germaine. "My interest is in the philosophy of liberation," she says. "I'm an elitist and at least I admit it." That, perhaps, may explain her objections to the Equal Rights Amendment. "Here in Oklahoma," says baseball aficionada Greer, "they think ERA means earned run average." She regards the amendment as a piece of legislative deception. "It's a cheap way of whitewashing an anti-feminist government," she argues. "People will think they have won something and they haven't. The onus on pushing ahead will still be with the average woman."
Greer's personal determination to win something began in the dreary, middle-class section of Melbourne where she grew up. The daughter of a newspaper business manager and his wife, she became disenchanted early with her arid upbringing. "Our house had no books, no paintings, no culture," she recalls. "From the time I was 12, I knew I would leave home and Australia." At convent school she became a troublemaker ("The girls were asked to pray for me"); at home, she once cut her fingers with a razor blade to get attention—and was frequently beaten by her mother. Academics provided a means of escape. Germaine won a scholarship to the University of Melbourne, earned her master's in English literature from the University of Sydney and obtained her Ph.D. at Cambridge while specializing in Renaissance studies.
In 1967 Greer began teaching at the University of Warwick in Coventry. About that time she met construction worker Paul du Feu outside a pub on London's Portobello Road. Three weeks later they were married. "We had only weekends together because she was away lecturing during the week," recalls du Feu. "She used to arrive on Friday with a doctor's bag containing a contraceptive and not much else. Certainly not a nightgown or a toothbrush..." This casual arrangement faltered in a matter of weeks, when a fed-up Greer stormed out on the marriage. "I was trotted in front of his friends like a filly," she complains. "I felt my free life was over." Du Feu went on to become the first male centerfold in the British edition of Cosmopolitan, and later married poet Maya Angelou.
After that first and only go-round with marriage, Greer became increasingly involved with feminist issues. In 1971 she took on Norman Mailer in a celebrated (and fairly vicious) debate about the women's movement at the Town Hall in Manhattan. "He kept writing me notes," she recalls. "He said we should have a drink. I thought: 'Of what? Hemlock?' He's such a tragic little figure." Eight years later Germaine has softened. "Feminism seems less like a religion now, and more like a way of life," she says. "Women are equipped for survival; men have come to accept it." Her own primary need, she says, is maternal: She desperately wants to bear a child. To that end, she underwent a complicated operation in 1977 to correct a gynecological problem that prevented conception. Does she have anyone in mind to join her in parenthood? "Whoever rings the bell gets the prize." (Later this month, while on vacation, she intends to consult her doctor in London about using a sperm bank.)
In the meantime Greer plans to forge ahead on a book about world population problems and to pursue her career as a teacher. She will spend four months a year in what she describes as a "cheap, tumbledown house" in Tulsa, and as much time as she can manage in her bramble-covered cottage in Tuscany. Greer hopes to retire to Italy in 10 years. "I'm happiest farming my land with my bottom in the air and my hands in the mud," she says. "I'll be stark naked and brown as a nut. At the end of the day, I'll come home and take the cat out of the best chair and I'll read and write fiction. I need to sit and think and cherish the things that need cherishing. I hope, of course, that the men will come and go."
That bucolic vision is only enhanced, presumably, by Italian director Federico Fellini's contribution of an electrical generator to light the darkness of her Tuscan retreat. "He's doing a feminist film, City of Women, and I think he wants my support," says Greer, adding with a twinkle: "My mother said don't accept no jewels, but she never said anything about generators." Does Fellini's gift imply the potential for another kind of electricity? "I would have an affair with him any time at all," Greer says flatly—and typically. "I would be insulted if he loved me platonically."