Photograph by Deepak Tolange
Last week I was in the basement of my mother’s house going through my belongings when I noticed my copy of The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer in a crate. This book played an instrumental role in my understanding of gender in society. This was the book which taught me that the teenage magazines were wrong. If a boy was mean to me, it did not mean that he actually secretly liked me.
I devoured this book aged 16 and felt empowered after reading it. It was like having an older sister demystify the adult world and then gave me the confidence to boldly and unapologetically march into it.
Germaine Greer wrote this book in 1970 and it was so progressive that it resonated with the sixteen-year-old me in 2001, thirty-one years later. It was perhaps naivety on my part to assume that the author would continue to be progressive in her thought.
But now when I look at the book, I feel sad and disappointed because the woman who wrote it is now most famous for her transphobic views. This woman who I had held in such high esteem was the same woman who in 2015 argued that:
“Just because you lop off your dick and then wear a dress, doesn’t make you a fucking woman”.
This week Germaine Greer has once again been in the news for her controversial and transphobic comments on Q&A, an Australian TV show. This time she said that it isn’t fair
“that a man who has lived for 40 years as a man and had children with a woman and enjoyed the services – the unpaid services of a wife, which most women will never know ... then decides that the whole time he’s been a woman”.
She did not touch on what her views are of trans men, nor did she qualify what she thought of women who are married to women. Do both partners benefit from the unpaid services of their wives, or are they, as women, exempt? This view to me also seemed slightly archaic, it is now much more common for labour both in and outside the house to be divided between genders if there are mixed genders in that household.
Germaine Greer’s attacks on the transgender seem particularly aimed at trans women which, for a feminist, seem particularly shocking. Her barbed comments appear to be ill-thought out. The use of phrases like ‘man in a dress’ seem spiteful and lazy.
I thought about this for a long time and something Marlon James, Booker Prize winner 2015, had posted on his Facebook page came to mind. It is what he describes as “The Liberal Limit”. This in essence is when people are liberal ‘to a point’, to the point where it is easy and convenient for them to adapt and evolve their liberal beliefs to stay inclusive. The liberal limit is not progressive, it is static. He goes on to address specific issues of racism and sexism as examples of when people can’t be bothered to update their beliefs and ideas in a constantly evolving world. When discussing trans people he says:
“You’re a progressive. You’re supposed to progress. You’re supposed to be more liberal today than you were yesterday…...My views on trans people are different in 2014 that they were in 2004. And you can bet your ass it will be even better in 2024 than it is now, because that's what makes me not conservative. The point to being a progressive is to fucking progress.”
This progress and evolution in thought is what I had expected from Germaine Greer. But instead she continues to stick to her beliefs in binary gender, with the occasional intersex exception. She believes men ‘decide’ to become women without considering that it is possible that the person making this decision was never a ‘man’ in the first place. Instead of updating her beliefs that these women are themselves victims of sexism and misogyny, she accuses them of being the perpetrators.
Marlon James’ comments seem to ring true for me in this instance. I believe that these transphobic comments stem from a place of insecurity. I am certainly not an apologist for Germaine Greer’s remarks, I wholeheartedly disagree with them but I believe that these spiteful comments are rooted in fear, which is the case with most bullies.
In 2015 she cancelled a talk she was due to give at Cardiff University after the initial backlash to her comments. She told Newsnight:
“I’m getting a bit old for all this. I’m 76, I don’t want to go down there and be screamed at and have things thrown at me. Bugger it.”
Her reference to her age, acknowledgement that she had angered people and her flippant use of ‘bugger it’, makes me think that her heart is no longer in it. She has realised that her feminism is now out of date and rather than trying to keep up with the times she has succumbed to a fear of change and progress. In short, she had reached her liberal limit.
It seems to me that she has decided that rather than progressing and evolving her brand of feminism, it is easier for her to say controversial things to gain publicity at the expense of transgender individuals. Whether this prejudice comes from a place of fear or not, it does not excuse what she is saying and my views on gender in 2016 don’t match Germaine Greer’s views on gender in 2016. It is a shame because she had such an influence on so many young feminists over the years, but the biggest shame is that she didn’t grow with us.
The book remains in a crate in the basement of my mother’s house and I wonder if I ever have a daughter will I pass it on to her? Or, is it best kept in the crate, obsolete and gathering dust?
Women in Zika affected countries have been advised by their health officials to ‘avoid pregnancy’ in order to minimise their risk of having a baby with birth defects associated with the disease. In El Salvador women are being asked to refrain from getting pregnant until 2018.
Zika is a virus spread through mosquito bites, which in adults causes symptoms such as fever, a rash, joint pain and bloodshot eyes. Most adults recover within 7 days and are free of the virus within around 20. Only 20% of adults who have the virus experience symptoms. Zika is not a new virus and has been prevalent in Africa and Asia in the past.
In late 2015 a Brazilian doctor noted the huge increase in the number of microcephaly cases in his region and linked this with the Zika virus. He believes that there is a link between being infected with the Zika virus during pregnancy, microcephaly and other birth defects.
At this time, the link between Zika and microcephaly has not been proven, but the evidence that there is a link is growing stronger. There is also evidence to suggest that the Zika virus can be transmitted sexually as well as through mosquito bites.
The Zika virus has been spreading rapidly through large parts of Latin America, the location of this outbreak has significance. The majority of countries infected by this most recent outbreak are predominately Roman Catholic countries where abortion is illegal and the population have poor access to family planning education.
The governments' responses to the outbreak have generally been to advise women not to get pregnant. This is little comfort to the thousands of women who are currently pregnant and have been exposed to the Zika virus. In nearly all countries which have been impacted by the recent Zika outbreak, abortion is completely illegal. In Brazil, abortion is only permitted in the case of rape or if the mother’s life is at risk. In El Salvador, where women have been asked not to get pregnant until 2018, it is not permitted under any circumstances and women face up to 40 years in prison if they seek an illegal termination. At present there is no indication that these governments are willing to change their policy in light of the growing epidemic. As a result, anxious mothers await to see whether their babies will have escaped harm or whether they will be born with long term, debilitating health complications which include visual and hearing problems, seizures, developmental delay, intellectual disability and mobility problems. These conditions are often lifelong.
To combat Zika, governments in Latin America are putting money into accelerating research and creating a vaccine. However, it is unclear how long it will take to create a vaccine and how long the threat of this epidemic will last. It is perhaps a consequence of the laws surrounding abortion that health officials have asked women to avoid pregnancy in the first place. In any country this advice is at best naïve, but in predominantly Roman Catholic Latin America, this advice may be completly unrealistic. The Catholic church’s recommendations for family planning are either to practice complete abstinence or by calculating when a woman is at her least fertile in her cycle.
Evidence shows that in the US nearly half of pregnancies are unplanned, this figure could rise to up to 56% in the Latin America where Catholicism is more widely practiced. The dominance of Catholicism means that access to family planning and sex education is not as widely available as it is in for example, the rest of the Americas.
In response to questions surrounding the Zika virus, Pope Francis has said that “avoiding pregnancy is not an absolute evil”. He believes this advice to be preferable than the risk of babies being born with microcephaly. Some have read between the lines and believe that Pope Francis is hinting that in light of the outbreak, if devoutly Catholic couples in the region needed to use contraception while at risk of Zika, then that would be ok. But he did not say this explicitly, and the official position of the Church towards contraception and abortion remains unchanged.
With such minimal and impractical advice from the state what hope is there for millions of women who have been given such an impossible task? It seems as though while health officials and scientists hastily conduct research and try to make a vaccine, the responsibility for quelling this epidemic has been given to women of child-bearing age. It is unfair and unfeasible to ask women who have no access to abortion and limited access to contraception and family planning education to ‘avoid pregnancy’. While these governments are doing the best they can to find a vaccine and discover more about the link between the Zika virus and microcephaly a stronger temporary solution is urgently needed. Men and women in the area must be equipped adequately to keep themselves and their families safe, access to education and contraception is needed. Family planning is not only the responsibility of women.
How can we, in non-Zika affected areas help people access the resources that they need?
As a result of this lack of state involvement, more and more people in this region are turning to charities for advice and support. This is where the public can make a difference. If you would like to support people in countries affected by the Zika virus, you can do this by:
More detailed information on how you can make a difference can be found here.
Carly Dee and Q Lei, Editors of BLYNKT magazine and hosts of BLYNKT podcast