Picks and Pans Review: The Change: Women, Aging and the Menopause
Picks & Pans invited feminist firebrand CAMILLE PAGLIA, professor of humanities at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia and author of Sexual Personae and a new volume of essays, Sex, Art and American Culture, to review Greer's sweeping new study.
Germaine Greer is back. Unfortunately, she's in a very bad mood. Publication of The Change offers young American women an opportunity to gel to know one of the great lost figures of feminism. When her wonderful first book, The Female Eunuch, was released in 1970, Greer cut a brilliant track across the cultural sky. She was witty, learned, sexy and stylish. In her uproarious debate with Norman Mailer at New York's Town Hall, she tartly put men in their place and created a sophisticatcd sexual persona for female intelligence that has never been surpassed.
But Greer and feminism took a wrong turn. Within three years, the thrilling vivacity and humor had turned into dreary ranting. As feminist ideology hardened into political correctness in the '70s, the dazzlingly gifted Greer tragically cheered it on instead of protesting. Her subsequent books, unevenly researched and shot through with dogma, never won Greer the academic respect that once seemed hers for the asking.
The Change, along with Gail Sheehy's recent best-seller about menopause, The Silent Passage, heralds a major shift in thinking about gender. After more than 20 years of "social constructionism" (which attributes all sexual differences to social conditioning), women are ready to think about nature again. Hormones are back in fashion.
In The Change, Greer searches the lives of prominent women of the past for references to menopause—and finds frustratingly few. She surveys the history of menopause as a medical category and deftly outlines woman's fantastically complex endocrine system. To relieve menopausal distress, Greer endorses traditional herbal remedies and aromatherapy. She is skeptical about estrogen replacement, which she feels simply postpones the inevitable aging process. She argues that spiritual renewal, not plastic surgery, is menopausal women's best hope for happiness.
In her most fascinating chapter, Greer transforms the stereotype of the cursing, half-cracked crone or witch into a symbol of elderly women's solitude, freedom and vision. This will surely prove inspirational to lonely widows or dutiful wives callously abandoned for younger women. But Greer backs away from her aggressive, malicious crone. Her last chapter—glorifying the noble, plucky female spirit bravely carrying on against all odds—is cloyingly sentimental, the kind of airy, uplifting effusion that was a staple of genteel ladies' magazines in pre-feminist days. She strains for a glowing finale to what is a very dark book.
The robins and crocuses that suddenly pop up cannot conceal the fact that The Change seethes with vindictive bitterness toward men, who appear only as smelly, grotesque caricatures. Science and medicine are too often maligned here as a greedy, brutal, monolithic "male-supremacist" establishment. There are scattered slaps at "consumer culture," but no sustained political analysis. And let's face it: For all her professed socialism, Greer lives like a duchess.
Greer's glum sense of isolation may owe less to menopause than to her own misjudgments, as well as to a failure to rethink her rigid antimale feminist ideology. When she left the University of Warwick after the heady success of The Female Eunuch, Greer and academe both lost. Outside the discipline of the academic world, Greer's scholarly skills never developed. Her thinking is always stimulating but tends to dissipate itself in flashy spurts. She recently returned to teaching as an unofficial fellow of Cambridge University, but too much time was wasted.
Whatever the defects of her work, Greer is one of the women of the century. Her sharp tongue, vibrant personality and spiritual odyssey will be just as vivid a hundred years from now as they are today. Indeed, Greer may be an even more powerful figure, freed from the burden of our expectations as her contemporaries and disappointed fans. (Knopf, $24)