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27 September 2011

Germaine Greer: Motherhood Missed

THE SCREAMING HEADLINE was tabloid size: "I WAS DESPERATE FOR A BABY AND I HAVE THE MEDICAL BILLS TO PROVE IT." Some love-struck movie star? A lesbian celebrity? No. Germaine Greer, icon of 20th-century feminism. "I still have pregnancy dreams," she confessed movingly in the premier issue of the British magazine Aura, "waiting with vast joy and confidence for something that will never happen.

The longing for children is hardly novel. What, then, makes this story so sensational, earning a 45-point type, "exclusive" treatment? What gives the story its man-bites-dog quality is that Greer is the great exemplar of the fiercely independent, aggressively sexual new woman. Iconoclastic to the point of fierceness, she reveled in her lovers, and in telling about them.

The one adjective rarely attached to Greer was domestic. And now she reveals the hollowness that haunts her, the terrible sorrow she feels at what she lost: her chance for motherhood.

Many years ago, she now writes, she cared for the infant girl of a friend. "Ruby lit up my life in a way that nobody, certainly no lover, has ever done. I was not prepared for the incandescent sensuousness of this small child, the generosity of her innocent love."

Not prepared? Why? Because to the uncompromising feminism of those early days, she writes, childbearing was constricting, suffocating, an enemy of a liberated woman's larger hopes. "Getting pregnant meant the end of all good times . . . the mother-generation warned us darkly not to rush into childbearing, to have a 'good time' while we could." And now, like Hannah, she weeps.

Greer is not the only such victim of ideology (and, it must be added, biology: When she finally decided to try to say yes to having a child, her body said no). At the 1998 Barnard commencement, Joyce Purnick of the New York Times spoke of her deep regret at not having had a child. She felt that she had to choose between family and career. Her choice: the long days, the undivided attention, the single-minded ambition to succeed. "I am absolutely convinced I would not be the metro editor of the Times if I had had a family."

The poignancy of her dilemma lies in the lingering question: If she had it to do over again, would she still rather have the metro desk, or the soft comforts and inexpressible joys of motherhood?

In modern times we suffer not for our sins (sin having been abolished) but for ideology. The traditional victim of ideology is the communist betrayed by the "G-d that failed." As socialism recedes into history, there will be fewer such confessions. Feminism, a far nobler creed, commands the day. But like all gods, this one too exacts its tribute.

The early days of feminism did present stark choices. It was held, as Purnick put it, that "you cannot have it all." Unfair it was. Unfair it remains.

"Should men and women who have taken the detour of the Mommy/Daddy track be as far along as those who haven't?" asked Purnick. "I reluctantly have to say that it would not be fair." And, is it fair that men and women with children lose out to "others who have been working the 12-hour days?" She believes it is.

Oh, my. This brought a storm of protest from younger feminists, women who, under the new dispensation, get the four-day weeks and the extended family leave--and expect nonetheless to remain on the same professional footing as their childless colleagues.

This is eminently fair, eminently nondiscriminatory. Indeed, earlier this month, President Clinton issued a federal ban on the "glass ceiling for parents." But imagine how it feels to those like Purnick. They are asked to stretch themselves and cover for a younger colleague so that she can go home and give her child a bath--a joy they will never know. A joy they deliberately gave up, under the terms of the original feminist contract, in the name of autonomy and advancement.

That contract has now been largely rewritten. But for them, alas, too late.

The good that feminism has wrought is quite incalculable. It gave half of humanity the chance to develop--something that had been denied it in practically every culture in every era. But like all great revolutions, feminism has its price and its victims.


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