Germaine Greer
Great curtain raiser: Germaine Greer

Review: Germaine Greer – The Disappearing Woman
Venue: Royal York Hotel, March 20, 2014

It would be easy to think that the work of feminism was done decades ago. But more than 40 years on from The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer was here to remind us that the battle continues.

Women disappearing? Yes. Under-represented in public life, in commerce, business and, crucially, in the sheer numbers of the population statistics.

The populations of most nations should tend to produce slightly more men than women (the numbers gradually levelling up as more males fall victim to disease and other life-limiting factors).

But that is all assuming no human intervention in the form of gender-selective abortion. There was no getting away from the tough language: Greer was talking about the elimination of female foetuses.

The most extreme examples being in places where the ratio is as low as 973 women to every 1,000 men.

Wielding a sheaf of papers laden with statistics – and apologising for having to refer to them, “but the figures are so amazing” – Greer backed up her thesis with truly shocking data about millions of “disappearing women” producing a surplus of males in countries from the Far East.

But the “disappearing woman” was not merely an observation about population stats; it was a much wider issue.

The disappearing older woman; the disappearing poor woman; the irony of the woman who “disappears” in society in direct proportion to her increase in dress size.

There were moments of humour too, talking about Kate Moss ceasing to look like a juvenile (with a tiny hint of triumph glinting in Greer’s eye), the Pussy Riot protest and their poor singing – and touching on recent bare-breasted feminist protests.

Greer wondered if she might have been even more impressed if the protesting “jugs” (yes, she used that word) on display had been more voluminous and unmanageable than the virginal tits that were shown to the world.

It is hard to imagine a better curtain-raiser to the York Literature Festival.

A sold-out 420-seat room witnessed a spellbinding performance: one of the nation’s great thinkers (and she’s as much ours as Australia’s now) arguing a case with impeccable clarity, dexterity and good humour, never lapsing into cliche or tired argument – and underpinning it all with a sense of fairness the anti-feminists could learn from.

A lively Q&A session followed with a male questioner raising the recently widely-aired issue: “Is it sexist to refer to a woman as ‘bossy’?”

Without raising the spectre of political correctness, Greer deftly steered the question away from one of mere terminology. “It’s not really the word that matters, is it? It’s the thought behind it.”

She did not want to go around suppressing certain words: ban one word, then another will become problematic. It’s all about the way a word is used, not the word itself.

She admitted: “I’m bossy! I want to get to the point. I want us to think and discuss.”

For many of the audience, the memory of the evening that may linger longest is the question from a 15-year-old girl who asked for advice in defeating anti-feminist abuse and jibes from boys at her school.

Greer’s kindly guidance was to play them at their own game: “Get witty back at them. Boys place big value on sharp-talking and witty banter, much more so than girls who often lack the skill needed to deliver a really good put-down.”

She encouraged her to work on those skills, but, above all, not to take it too seriously.

And that was the nub of it, really. Feminism isn’t about women getting their own way; it’s about fairness all round, allowing everyone equal access, equal say.

It’s a deeply humanist debate, and Greer’s disarming honesty and willingness to talk on any topic is still refreshing after all these years. Thankfully, the fire still burns bright, Germaine’s not disappearing any time soon.

Additional reporting by Madeleine Kay