Germaine Greer in Conversation with John Murray

What are your first impressions of Ireland?

It’s like another world really if you live in England where people pretend they don’t know other people. English would stand on the tube with an elbow in their face pretending that it’s not there! What I love about Ireland is the steady hum of conversation with people greeting each other everywhere; it’s a very human country, Ireland. I love being in Ireland. The other great thing about Ireland is you’re in Europe. You are aware you’re part of that whole system, and you’re not part of the Anglo Saxon bubble. I’m used to Irish hospitality but Listowel carries it further than most; you get embraced on every street corner.

Germaine Greer
Germaine Greer

And what’s your opinion on the jubilee celebrations?

Did you see the photos? The Jubilee is already awful. They’re racing round the streets finding bemused people and forcing them to be excited. Only tourists will be celebrating it; it’s an excuse for a drink really isn’t it?

You’ve arrived in the middle of our vote on the fiscal treaty…do you have any thoughts on this?

Britain’s done the usual thing of pretending to be neither in it nor out of it and then they go to Europe to tell everyone what to do. I think Britain is surprised by the Irish vote. I’m mildly surprised myself that Ireland voted for the longest route., but perhaps it argues a level of political maturity.

You don’t disagree with the decision then?

It’s the people’s decision. I’m not sure if the motion was presented in the best possible way – it seldom is – but we’ll either get through it together or not at all. I’m disgusted that we have to pay for the extravagance and folly of the `American bankers’.

Some people say that you’ve mellowed with age; do you see this as an insult?

Now, listen here, what do you think happens to old ladies? Most old ladies do the opposite of mellowing; we get louder and sharper. We know times running out and no one’s listening so we make more noise.

What are we not listening to?

Women. I’d like to see women thinking how to make more noise, forming lobby groups and putting more pressure on government – and especially older women. We’re told on a daily basis how older people are suffering, but it just goes on and on. It might not be the case in Ireland but if that’s the case you’re lucky mate! In England the pensioners are terrified. There are no safety barriers. Every now and again pensioners go stand outside the Houses of Parliament. That helps, hey? They just close the windows!

So what are you looking for in women’s equality?

Women have a distinct feeling that they don’t really know what’s going on and that feeling crosses the police force, army and business. Women are beginning to understand that things are worked out in other places; men have a whole other network that they’re not part of… in the case of Mrs Thatcher, she just bypassed the whole thing. Tony Blair came along, learned from her and did the same thing. In England they’ve been talking about family friendly hours in the Houses of Parliament since 1997, but it still hasn’t happened.

And what about Margaret Thatcher as an example? Is she a good role model to women?

I don’t really think it matters what plumbing a person has. You have to remember what type of woman Margaret Thatcher was. Her first move was to marry a millionaire. Then she went to law school, at some time she popped out the twins, then she went into politics. They didn’t mean for her to be there; they tolerated her then they ditched her in the worst way possible. She had to go lecturing around the world to tie the family over while they were waiting for the backhanders, whereas Tony Blair has a huge operation and is rolling in money. The two couldn’t be more different. Yes, she was a woman, but she wasn’t really club like she thought.

Name a few role models.

I don’t think of it in those terms. My respect goes out to those women in unhappy marriages who had lost confidence, were condescended to and treated as menials and thought – I need to be free, I can’t do this, I’m going. When a woman gets a divorce she knows what comes next is going to be loneliness. She gets custody of the children but that means she works 16-hour days for the foreseeable future. She drops down a social class, has no clothes, can’t go anywhere; these are the women building muscle every day, being responsible for everything that happens to them and their little family. The man, if he divorces, will start a new life.

What about gay marriage?

I don’t even approve of marriage. I don’t know why all these gay people want to get married! Marriage is such a weird thing. You sign a contract but where are the terms? It doesn’t say who has to pick up the clothes off the bedroom floor; these things only come up when you get divorced! For women, it ends up in poorly paid work outside the home and unpaid work inside the home. An employer’s contract tells you what is expected. But a marriage contract doesn’t. Then, to get round it, they call it a sacrament!

But aren’t men trying harder?

When men try harder it makes them so cross! I tease men about their poor childminding – for example, a man in an airport is reading a magazine and minding the kids while the wife pops to the loo. He’s so wrapped up in every word, y the time the wife gets back, the kids are on a plane to Bangkok!  These responsibilities just aren’t on their radar. When men cook, they wear their apron, they have all the gadgets…and they expect you to applaud!

Following your argument…are men necessary?

You have to understand that women love men more than men love women. Women think time without men is time wasted but men think time without women is the best thing of all! This extends to the children; women think their sons can’t do anything wrong even if they’re completely useless, but it’s a totally different, more difficult relationship between father and daughter. We probably love men because they’re unnecessary – and they’ve made themselves unnecessary! I mean, 400 million sperm on every ejaculation; we only need one!

Are you saying it hasn’t moved on at all? Is anything changing?

Just because we can’t use sexist language, it hasn’t erased sexism. Likewise, it’s the same with racism. We still have racism; people attacking minority group, etc. We like to tell lies about how we don’t harbour these feelings – it’s hypocrisy. It’s made life quite difficult. For example, bring a sexism case to the courts using the law and see what happens. If you’re successful, you’ll never work again. You have to circumvent it. Women can work in the building industry but they don’t – why? They’re not wanted, it’s so unpleasant. It would help if men could relax with you and treat you as a person, rather than bring up the fact that you’ve got the different plumbing. It’s happening but you can’t say it’s happened.

It’s at a micro level that changes count. I got an email from feminists in Syria asking if we can publish The Eunuch and how much would I charge? It shocked me; with everything going on, they’re actually thinking about this? The feminist momentum is shifting to the Arab world; but for them it is a matter of life or death. These women are struggling for minimum dignity and they have overwhelming courage. But I tremble for them.

Are you saying we weren’t as courageous? That you’re disappointed by Western women?

Not at all.  I certainly hope I didn’t give that impression!

You haven’t actually mellowed at all. Don’t you ever feel like giving up?

Not at all. There’s too much to be angry about. But young women haven’t come forward enough. If we have 450 cookbooks a year; can’t we just have one feminist book a year? Women need to change their thinking; expect their worth instead of doing big jobs for small return.

And what about men?

They can look after themselves for a change. Men say what about me? What about you?

Audience question: Younger men seem to say ‘haven’t we moved beyond the gender debate – aren’t we all just human?’ But then, they do forget that we are women and do have a different experience. Young women are having a problem replying to that concept. Do you have anything to say on that matter?

Gender is different to sex. We don’t have a single sex race. But if we’re ever going to have a single sex race, women will survive. Whenever a society becomes top heavy with men, it’s on the way out. It’ll be interesting to see what will happen to china, with this influx of males. It won’t be the case that women become so precious, that they’ll be valued; that won’t happen.  When it comes to opinion about women, we have to change it; we can’t expect men to change it.  The gender debate is really a sex debate; we need to figure out why we can’t negotiate from an equal setting. One reason is because we love men too much. It’s all right for men to say we’re all equal now; but in reality, it’s not. Enter into the discourse but be aware at the same time that distinctions are being made all the time; even in the way they listen to you. You have to be quite light on your feet to prevail against it. If you’re finding it tough now, you’ll find it worse when you’re fifty!

The conversation with Germaine Greer will be broadcast on Tuesday morning on the RTE John Murray show.