What is sad about Greer's trajectory is her morphing into an objectionable human being. It's frustrating as well. Her work has charted the positioning of, for want of a better phrase, 'hegemonic femininity' for almost 50 years. Her analysis has proved cutting, witty, and hugely influential. From the passive, reserved womanhood of 50s/60s to the girl-powered independent woman, as femininity has changed she uncovered the oppressions, unfreedoms, hypocrisies, and damages that have remained the constant lot for women generally. This isn't to say she denies things haven't changed and for the better, but all the same women continue to face uphill battles in all walks of life. Greer shows a sensitivity to the nuance of how women are positioned and policed and argues that shifting gender relations requires relentless struggle, of feminism permanently revolting against received practice and power. Apart from Aboriginal issues in her native Australia, that is pretty much the limit of her analytical acuity. It's as if her feminist work is boxed away in her mind. When that box is open she understands the full complexity of the gendered domination of women. When closed, she articulates all the sensitivity of a brick. And this is typically the case when she's not looking at issues in which gender does not predominate. For example, commenting on the closure of SSI in Redcar and the government's indifference to the collapsing steel industry on 22nd October's edition of Question Time, she noted "we" had benefited from globalisation, so we "shouldn't moan" when we get caught by an ill wind. Exactly the sort of thing you'd expect a Tory MP to say in a rare honest moment.
And then there are those comments about transwomen. Her recent "clarifications" are a mite less stridently worded than previous comments, but the thrust is the same. Transwomen are "parodies" that aren't even genuine about transitioning: "No so-called sex-change has ever begged for a uterus-and-ovaries transplant; if uterus-and-ovaries transplants were made mandatory for wannabe women they would disappear overnight." Transwomen cannot ever be women because they've never lived with "a big, hairy, smelly vagina" either. And lastly, transphobia doesn't really exist. Ah, for want of a mirror. If she was so moved, it only takes an internet connection and 30 seconds to find evidence of appalling crimes inflicted against transwomen, how they too find themselves injured and murdered by, overwhelmingly, men. I suspect, however, Greer knows all this. She just doesn't care. Women are xx and men are forever xy.
This is the root of some of the animus Greer has inspired. It's not just the crass terms in which she vents her transphobia, but rather the philosophical assumptions behind it. During the 80s and 90s, feminism in the academy was very interested in subject and agency. What is 'woman'? What should woman do to overcome her oppression? For the activists of feminism's second wave in the 60s and 70s, the question was unproblematic. There was no question. The revolutionary subject was women-in-general. The enemy was not men-in-general, but patriarchy, that set of diffuse but pernicious social relations that cast the genders in an asymmetrical relationship. It was the feminism of black women that started upsetting this picture. While gender was a key axis of oppression and power, black women's experience of being-female was also conditioned by their race. Mainstream feminism won important victories, but it did not speak to the complex oppression endured by women feeling the sharp end of racism too. The second wave with its valorisation of universal sisterhood unconsciously spoke to women who were mostly white, and mostly middle class. Soon similar criticisms followed in black feminism's wake, drawing attention to class, sexuality, disability, nationality. Some tried articulating essentialist redoubts that attempted to hold onto woman as a collective subject, but it proved untenable, philosophically speaking.
Feminism tried thinking through the impasse. On the one hand, there was postfeminism and its claims that women's struggles were largely obsolete. All that was needed was a mopping up operation of episodic alliances around occasional hot button issues. The bulk of postmodern feminism tried reconciling itself to many different feminisms for many different (female) subject positions through a radicalised pragmatism, of seeking out momentary alliances between groups of women around common objectives - an orientation not a million miles away from those for whom feminism was obsolete. Meanwhile, interesting things were happening in the academy. Judith Butler's work revolutionised the understanding of gender by emphasising the performative - not just the individual acts of men and women, but the repetition of meanings by institutions and juridico-medical discourses over time to the point where these categories appear natural. This was also true of the gender and sex distinction. This is routine to the point of banality - sex is the anatomical difference between female and male bodies, gender the cultural constructions cohering about this basic difference. This binarism, however, is entirely cultural or, as she puts it, discursive. Biologically, while most infant bodies present as if they fall into one of two sexes, there is actually a continuum. As far as Butler was concerned, sexing the body was a discursive, not a pre-discursive (or, if you prefer, a social as opposed to pre-social) accomplishment. Biological sex is retrospective, not a natural given. Politically, it meant any attempt to hang essential female qualities on the female body reproduces the binarism at the root of patriarchal power relations. In other words, biological essentialism ("smelly vaginas") of the Greer sort naturalises gender and sex, and despite itself provides patriarchy ideological cover.
The problem with this position, however, is it can neglect the materiality of women's bodies. As gender is performed by institutions and discourses, and through the presentation of the self in the everyday, the classifying of bodies has material consequences. Or, rather, because bodies are gendered from the moment a child's sex is known in utero, it's born into the world with the full weight of of that legacy, that history. Bodies are disciplined, inscribed, conditioned. Each individual is thrust into a perilous social world of gendered negotiation. Accepting prescribed performances is a case of constant project management that for many, both women and men, can be fraught and anxious. And for those who deviate, either because their body types are a distance from the norm, or because they reject their received gender script (trans people, non-binary, genderqueers), they are - depending on the culture - at the mercy of social sanction. Women therefore are positioned, performed, and policed not because nature ordains it, but because deeply embedded social practices code certain bodies as female, and that coding comes with baggage.
Doesn't this just reproduce a specificity of women's experience common to all women? Isn't this just a roundabout way of bringing essentialism back in and therefore providing grounds for rejecting transwomen as women? Not necessarily. What's also missing from Butler's performative account and its supplementing by the materialisation of this on physical bodies is a notion of interest. Or, rather, who benefits? Society is neither racket nor machine, a front for conspiratorial elites or automaton that blindly and autonomously reproduces sex/gender and gendered inequality. It's a fusion of both. What, historically has benefited from the subordination of women? Men-in-general have, but so has capital accumulation. So it has also benefited from the reconfiguration of femininity since the 1960s, empowering women as consumers and active participants in labour markets. Lesbian, gay, and bi people are enjoying the freedom growing acceptance is bringing, and so is capital. Lastly, as the movement for trans freedom gathers speed, so too will new opportunities open for capital. To abstract the changing performativity and materialisation of gendered practices from the prevailing socio-economic system is a glaring oversight. However, that does not mean the struggle for equality or, if you prefer, liberation along these lines is hopeless because they do not directly confront capital. Through difference, identity can be established. As the oppression of older modes of performativity are washed away, as the oppressed become more variegated, so the oppressor is homogenised and the possibility of a united project of liberation becomes greater.
This is where the new third/fourth wave of feminism is currently at. It's getting on with the business of causing trouble while marrying the activism of the second wave to the sophisticated anti-essentialism of 1990s theorising. Hence why, in general, it is open and, for the most part, absolutely welcoming of transwomen. It recognises that the diversity of women, whether cis or trans, is a strength. And ultimately why it's so impatient with the likes of Germaine Greer. If a commitment to inclusivity is the watchword of contemporary feminism, small wonder it has no time for those who actively work against it - even if that involves women who played a key role in getting the feminist movement off the ground in the first place.