Fearless Feminist Leaders, Flawed and Always Fighting

Betty Friedan: Her Life , by Judith Hennessee. Random House, 330 pages, $27.95.

Germaine Greer: Untamed Shrew , by Christine Wallace. Faber and Faber, 333 pages, $27.50.

It’s hard to recall or even imagine the relief that my friends and I felt when Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch was published in 1970. Finally, a “liberated” woman who seemed to have a halfway viable sense of humor and some semblance of personal style!

Though we considered ourselves feminists, the awful, nearly inadmissible truth was that, until then, we’d found our most vocal and visible leaders to be less than shatteringly charismatic. Kate Millett was too introverted, weird and academic. For all her tough-minded activism, Gloria Steinem seemed precisely the sort of well-groomed, well-mannered control freak our parents wished we were. And Betty Friedan?

Pugnacious, homely, abrasive, she was, to put it bluntly, our worst nightmare. Burn our bras and be like them? Really, we thought not. We’d much sooner have grown full beards and morphed into Che Guevara. How refreshing it seemed, then, to have the vibrant, larger-than life (6 feet tall!) Germaine Greer reassuring us that liberation was not incompatible with looking good, and sleeping with good-looking men.

Two new books–Judith Hennessee’s deliriously hostile life of Betty Friedan and Christine Wallace’s more measured but skeptical study of Germaine Greer–suggest that my friends and I were probably right about Ms. Friedan, and probably wrong about Ms. Greer. In Ms. Hennessee’s introduction to her unauthorized biography, she characterizes her subject as “rude and nasty, self-serving and imperious,” thus giving us fair warning that, to quote Bette Davis, we’re in for a bumpy ride. Ms. Hennessee’s description of Ms. Friedan’s detractors as “more than delighted to talk,” turns out to be an understatement. Betty’s enemies and “friends” were apparently overjoyed to tell stories that show the celebrated author and political figure in an unflattering light. A typically sympathetic and tactful informant, Ms. Friedan’s own brother, sums up her privileged but problematic adolescence in Peoria, Ill.: “When Betty was in high school she was ugly and had no boyfriends.”

Her active early career as a radical journalist became, in the Cold War era, a guilty secret that Ms. Friedan, according to Ms. Hennessee, took pains to hide–partly in order to advance the misleading image of herself as an oppressed housewife, mother and frustrated dilettante who eventually came to her senses and wrote a best-selling book, The Feminine Mystique . Not that Betty didn’t suffer. Her 22-year marriage to advertising man Carl Friedan was a Grand Guignol horror show involving infidelity, psychodrama, heavy drinking, amphetamine abuse and public violence. Carl was given to introducing himself as “the bitch’s husband” and to saying graciously of his wife, “She’s kind of doggy, but she’s very bright.” At one dinner party that Betty gave in Grandview-on-Hudson, N.Y., “The women decided to dress for dinner. It was very pleasant, and Betty brought out the main course, a beautiful fish on a platter. Carl said, ‘Jesus, Betty, fish, you know I don’t like fish.’ He took the platter and threw it at her. Betty picked it up, peeling pieces of fish off the walls. Carl walked out and disappeared upstairs … Betty just served dinner, as if nothing had happened.”

Although (as far as we know) no dead fish were flung about during her frequent contretemps with feminist sisters, Ms. Friedan’s relationships with other women were anything but amicable. A casual meeting with Andy Warhol superstar Ultra Violet turned into a yelling and shoving match that sent an antique clock flying out their hostess’ window, nearly hitting two men dining in the garden below. At the 1972 G.O.P. convention in Miami, Ms. Friedan restricted her pugilistics to wrestling for the microphone with National Women’s Political Caucus spokesman Jill Ruckelshaus. She feuded with Bella Abzug and Gloria Steinem, and took an instant (and mutual) dislike to Simone de Beauvoir, whom she labeled “self-consciously Bohemian.” Indeed, it seems remarkable that Ms. Friedan found time, amid these flying fists and warring egos, to accomplish the considerable feats for which Ms. Hennessee gives her perfunctory credit: “Betty’s achievement had been enormous. In those first few years she led NOW from victory to victory.”

As Christine Wallace portrays her, Germaine Greer seems to be yet another woman with (to say the least) ambivalent feelings about her own gender, though her attitude toward her fellow feminists was considerably less mixed than Betty Friedan’s. “‘They want me to wear pants and be unavailable, and carry a jimmy to bash people over the head with if they feel my ass in the street,” Ms. Greer complained of her sisters. Like most of us, however, Ms. Greer reserved the lion’s share of her animosity for her immediate family; she was particularly bitter toward her harsh, punitive mother. Convent-educated, smart and willful, Germaine evaded her mother’s attempts to stunt her prodigious self-esteem, and attended the University of Melbourne. Later, in Sydney, she fell in with a heady crowd of intellectuals who advocated anarchism and free love, especially for men. After leaving Australia, she studied literature at Cambridge University, and found Britain to be a nation of lousy lovers. The Englishman, she wrote, “is always very nice . He has an ideal of nice, gentle, restful, uncomplicated sex .”

Happily for Ms. Greer, she chanced to meet the one virile man on that verdant isle, a hunky carpenter named Paul du Feu, “the heterosexual equivalent of a rough trade fantasy come true,” who was “also an occasional columnist and comic-strip writer with a good degree in English literature himself.” Their stormy, passionate marriage lasted all of three weeks. Mr. du Feu went on to pose nude for the centerfold in British Cosmopolitan and (displaying an unerringly masochistic taste in women) to marry Maya Angelou.

Ms. Wallace charts the vagaries, switchbacks, contradictions and reverses of Ms. Greer’s positions on such topics as her father, menopause, sex and family, and the fate of women artists. She writes: “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”–a theory that makes it difficult to see how Vincent van Gogh could ever have picked up a paintbrush.

In her most recent work, she has criticized the whole notion of sexual freedom, advocated a shift to the extended family arrangements most often found in the Third World, and suggested that rapists be “outed” on the Internet rather than prosecuted through the criminal justice system. In Ms. Wallace’s view, Ms. Greer has often seemed less interested in veracity or consistency than in being entertaining, and in fulfilling a lifelong desire to be a major diva. Nonetheless, claims Ms. Wallace, her theatrical personality has served as an inspiration: “She is the maverick of mavericks, flawed, sometimes flailing, but always fighting.”

What both books seem to demonstrate–though neither author appears to know it–is the powerful, almost metaphysical allure of overcompensation. For if, as many of us have observed, our most neurotic friends grow up to be psychiatrists; the shy are attracted to acting or exhibitionism; the sexually confused are most likely to torment homosexuals–then, as the complex careers of Betty Friedan and Germaine Greer would suggest, women who are most uncertain about sisterhood, gender identity, personal ambition, female competition, sex, the body, the meaning and limits of liberation may be naturally drawn, even compelled, to become feminist leaders.