As the debate over free speech on university campuses rages on, it appears that even radical feminists aren’t safe from the fray.
Despite a petition with nearly 3,000 signatures from students and others calling for the cancellation of her talk, noted feminist writer Germaine Greer was still slated to speak at the U.K.’s Cardiff University in two weeks.
The university’s vice chancellor, Colin Riordan, said in a statement: “Our events include speakers with a range of views, all of which are rigorously challenged and debated.” Cardiff, then, had no plans to bar Greer from giving a lecture titled “Women & Power: The Lessons of the 20th Century.”
At the same time, she suggested she would be voluntarily ceding the platform.
Calling the petition a “put-up job,” Greer told BBC Newsnight, “I’m getting a bit old for this. I’m 76, I don’t want to go down there and be screamed at and have things thrown at me. Bugger it.”
The backlash against Greer has been brewing for some time in response to her stance on transgender women, which she first expressed in a 2009 column in which she called transgender women products of “a man’s delusion that he is female.” The piece raises the question, “What makes a woman?” and answers it by unequivocally excluding transgender people from the category.
At a talk during January of this year, the University of Cambridge’s student newspaper reports, Greer dismissed transphobia as a side issue and reiterated her belief that the desire of men to become women is a “delusion.”
Try as she might to brush the subject aside, however, Greer’s views on the identities of transgender women have become the focal point of discussions surrounding her today.
“Greer has demonstrated time and time again her misogynistic views toward transwomen,” the petition against her Cardiff appearance reads. “Trans-exclusionary views should have no place in feminism or society.”
Not one to back down from a stated opinion, Greer told BBC Newsnight that “a great many women” believe — but are too afraid to say — that “male to female transgender people” do not “look like, sound like or behave like women.”
But she expressed a sense of exhaustion that has rarely been seen in the relentless provocateur.
“I’m getting fed up with this,” she said. “I’ve had things thrown at me, I’ve been accused of things I’ve never done or said.”
This grumbling sentiment is somewhat unusual coming from the outspoken second-wave feminist, who has essentially made a career out of espousing controversial opinions and fielding the objections surrounding them. Greer, the Melbourne-born daughter of a newspaper advertising rep and a mother who likely suffered from Asperger’s syndrome, set this precedent with her very first book, “The Female Eunuch.”
The revolutionary 1970 text argued that the combined repressive forces of suburbia, consumerism and the nuclear family had divorced women from their sexual desires and vitality, rendering them eunuchs.
A New York Times piece written a year later described the book’s author as “six feet tall, restlessly attractive, with blue-gray eyes and a profile reminiscent of [actress Greta] Garbo.” Though Greer is an Australian by birth, it was Britain’s intellectual universe that she had conquered, shaping the opinions of impressionable students at the University of Warwick and writing a book that women didn’t want their husbands to catch them reading — but read it they did.
Within one year of its publication, “The Female Eunuch” had nearly sold out its second printing, been translated into eight languages and was heralded “the best known manifesto of the women’s liberation movement” in Britain.
At the Cambridge Union in 1973, Greer debated William F. Buckley, Jr. about the women’s liberation movement, and by Buckley’s own admission, “trounced him.”
“Nothing I said, and memory reproaches me for having performed miserably, made any impression or any dent in the argument,” the conservative commentator recounted in his book “On the Firing Line: The Public Life of Our Public Figures.” “She carried the house overwhelmingly. She could have won on ‘Resolved, Man should be abolished.'”
And more often than not, Greer didn’t win such arguments by toeing the party line. She often espoused opinions that were at odds with the mainstream feminist movement, all the while remaining at the center of it.
Of Betty Friedan, who is often credited with launching second-wave feminism, Greer told the New York Times, “She seems to think that a housewife’s role is sexual, whereas it’s everything but.” She also warned that “without a show of strength,” women’s liberation marches could devolve into “a meaningless political gesture.”
Now, Greer suggests that identifying as a transgender woman is “meaningless” and that those who do so have no place in feminist discourse. Her statements and the accompanying objections, particularly from the petition, have elicited a mixture of responses.
Critics have pointed out the irony of the intellectual leader of one marginalized group undermining the efforts of another. Payton Quinn, who identifies as a “Trans Feminist activist,” wrote in The Huffington Post, “If you believe that trans women are women, as you should because they are, then what Germaine Greer is espousing in her campaign against them is misogyny and surely no feminism should include any form of misogyny.”
Citing the European Court of Human Rights on allowable sanctions on certain forms of expression based on intolerance, Quinn continued, “The safety of trans people outweighs the right of cis women to question the validity of their gender expression. Always.”
The artist and radio host Scottee argued in i-D Magazine that Greer is part of a consortium of feminists who espouse transphobic views.
“The self-titled liberals amongst you might be thinking Greer deserves her platform in the name of free speech (another piece of the armor some are using to vent hate speech)…but let’s ask ourselves who are the voices that are really being blocked should Greer not be allowed to talk at Cardiff University — is it Greer or [petition-writer] Rachael Melhuish?” Scottee asked. “The feminists or trans women?”
On the other side of the debate, commentators assailed the attempt to silence Greer as an example of identity politics gone awry.
Columnist Nick Ferrari wrote in the Sunday Express this week, “Let’s hear it for Germaine Greer…now that’s something I thought I’d never say.”
“In the past some of her comments about masculinity, men and the male ego have been outrageously offensive but to my knowledge no male organization has ever lobbied to close down her right to air those opinions,” he said.
Rebecca Reilly-Cooper wrote in Politics UK that Greer’s decision to pull at of the lecture is nothing to celebrate, as “a 76-year-old veteran of the frontlines of feminist activism felt uneasy enough about her safety to pull out of a speaking engagement.”
Greer may still change her mind about giving the lecture scheduled for November 18. In the meantime, she told the BBC that she would still use female pronouns when referring to a transgender woman — “as a courtesy.”