"Women study art. It's men who are the painters. That has always bugged me," said art historian Germaine Greer. "Women are the audience, males the performers."

Who would want to disagree?

Greer has had verbal brawls with Norman Mailer, and once beat William Buckley in an audience-judged debate. There is reason to falter at the porspect of confronting her.

After assaulting the national psyche with "The Female Eunuch" in 1971, she became known for apoclayptic pronouncements: In their struggle against men, she said in 1971, women might have to "put their bodies on the line."

Eight years later, is she still a feminist? Yes, indeed . Is she still pugnacious? Yes, that too. But whether it's she who has changed, or the times, Greer no longer frightens.

She seems to invite friendship. Her manner, at first meeting, is part formal, part flirtatious. Her dress is soft gray wool, her leather boots calf-high. She seems to warm the room. At the television station, she is warned that only three minutes are left before she goes on air to speak of her new book. As she rises, she pauses to hand her little purse to a man she has just met -- as if asking with that gesture for trust and good luck.

It has now been eight years since Greer told her readers that a sexy woman should strike men as scary "and the more animosity she harbors the better."

In the restaurant she shares her luncheon pertner's menu, though two lie on the table. She is immensely likeable, and it is clear she knows it. Though her golden wedding band still gleams on her finger, Greer has not been married for more than a decade.

"I was married," she explains, "in a moment of inattention. I still wear it for penance."

Her manner seems as gracious and as versatile as any British matron's. Relaxing, she speaks nimbly of the cooking of Vietnam, of her college days with Julia Husson (the wife of the French cultural attache here), of Kissinger and Naples and the taste of German game.

Germaine Greer today lives in Tulsa, Okla., where she daily dines on oysters imported from the Gulf, and keeps a "Tulsa boyfriend" ("One in every town," she says), and teaches Shakespeare. She also makes drawings which art historians, alas, will never see. "I tack them to the wall," she says, "until I see what I've done wrong. Then I tear them up. To hell with the historians."

She is kidding. Art history is something she takes seriously. In the years during which she has been absent from the talk shows, she has been searching through the storerooms of Europe's small museums and reading ancient tomes, trying to bring back to light paintings made by women, paintings that have been misattributed, destroyed, neglected or forgotten.

Women artists by the hundreds, mostly unfamiliar, are discussed in her new book. "The Obstacle Race" is rather ponderous: Its notes alone fill 24 pages of dense and tiny type, and the many illustrations do not evoke much awe.

"Not many of these painters qualify as stars. They're not the sort of artists the public sees as 'great.' They don't run the four-minute mile. Instead, they plod through swamps, they crawl through hollows logs. That's the reason the book is called 'The Obstacle Race.'"

The book, says Greer, "is hopelessly uneven." So are the painters in it. It ends with an admission: "There is no female Leonardo, no female Titian, no female Poussin, but the reason does not lie in the fact that women have wombs, that they can have babies, that their brains are smaller, that they lack vigour, that they are not sensual.

"The reason is simply that you cannot make great artists out of egos that have been damaged, with wills that are defective, with libidos that have been driven out of reach and energy diverted into neurotic channels.'

Art history might boast many female masters if the women painters of the past had had the egos, wills, energy and passions of, say Germaine Greer.

Within her voice one still can hear the harsh accent of Australia, but despite the jokes and dirty words with which she salts her talk, that harshness has been softened by high European polish. She has a doctorate from Cambridge; her thesis was on Shakespeare's comedies. She can discuss, at length, the subtle differences between the best sparkling Italian wines and the dry French champagnes.

And when conversation lags, she is ready with the outrageous: "The shah," she says, should "take himself to Tehran and face the music like a king. If history is any guide, his martydom would give his son, Reza, the Peacock Throne.

"You want the hostages returned? I'll tell you how to get them back. Send them back his money. He brought $50 billion with him. Offer the Iranians a billion or each hostage."

Seriousness and play, hard work and high luxury are mixed in her life. When she is not teaching at the Tulsa Center for the Study of Women's Literature (she is the director) she lives a gracious Italian country life "gardening and cooking" in her "Chesnut driver's cottage in the hills of Tuscany." She does not stroll, she strides. Six bottles of champagne sit beside the chauffeur on the front seat of her limousine.

Many of the now-forgotten painters in her book did not struggle in obscurity; many were, in fact, enormously successful by the standards of their time. In the 18th century, Isbella Maria del Pozzo worked for 20 years at the Court at Munich; Rosalba Carriera (1675-1757) "had many royal patrons": tthe Tudor king of England paid Lievina Teerlinck more for painting pictures than he gave to Holbein. Not all the obstacles they faced, the social ones at least, were wholly insurmountable. Yet still they were not masters.

Greer does not claim otherwise. She knows that despite all the gold and silver medals and the rich commissions that those painters won, their lives were somehow stunted and their accomplishemnts uneven. She knows that certain women -- Mary Cassatt, Angelica Kauffman, Artemisia Gentileschi, Elizabeth Thompson, Cecilia Beaux, and particularly Gwen John -- often made superior, still-amazing pictures, but that most of their sisters floundered nonetheless.

Their accomplishments in retrospect seem eerily inconsistent. Greer no longer blames that all on the destructive forces of masculine supression. "In the last analysis," she writes, "the external obstacles were less insidious and destructive than the internal ones."

She seems to glow with confidence, and smiles easily and often. Oxford has just asked her to write a book on Shakespeare, her Tulsa Center is successful, her fame is still impressive. And though she's almost 40 her beauty has not dimmed. She is riding in her limousine; there do not seem to be any obstacles before her.

Are the internal ones still there? "I don't know," says Germaine Greer.