Features, Politics

When Safe Spaces Collide with Germaine Greer

Twitter has spoken. Germaine Greer is both hateful and an irrelevance, a washed up old has-been with nothing more to offer us but some poisonous views on her narrowing world.

Strident, inflammatory, provocative, opinionated – in numerous ways, Greer is difficult to like. She annihilates men and belittles other women, shooting down feminist allies from Friedan to Weldon. She wrote off Susanne Moore as nothing more than “fuck-me shoes and three fat inches of cleavage.” In short, she is terrifying – to all of us, not just to trans women, about whom she can be so breathtakingly offensive. But when people are putting their names to an online petition accusing her of “misogynistic views” it’s hard not to feel that the world has gone mad.

This is not the first time that Greer’s unpleasant stance on trans women has led to controversy. Recent events at Cardiff University reflect a similar row some months ago when the Cambridge Union was petitioned to withdraw Greer’s invitation to speak. Greer has long refused to acknowledge the identity of trans women, although she said in a recent interview on Newsnight that she would use “female speech forms” in their presence “as a courtesy.” Her views are puzzlingly ignorant – a strange anomaly for such a fine thinker – and there is understandable outrage whenever she voices them. Trans people experience more prejudice and hatred than many of us can even begin to imagine. If you’re not convinced of this, consider the fact that a recent survey showed almost half of young trans people have attempted suicide here in the UK; similar studies indicate that the same is true in the US. People who are transgender are undeniably vulnerable and it is everyone’s responsibility to consider their safety as well as to challenge prejudice and misrepresentation whenever it occurs. Yet I am still appalled by the attempt to no-platform Greer at Cardiff, and deeply perturbed by the inevitable social media storm that has followed.

Greer often speaks on the invisibility of older women to the emancipated young, those of us who sit pretty upon the emergent and ever-increasing freedoms that our battle-fatigued antecedents have gifted to us. Yet to understand her as someone who has degenerated into an embittered and reactionary misfit is to underestimate this fearsome and tireless radical. Greer has always held disturbing and divisive views, as anyone who has studied her work should know. To read or to listen to her is to spend much of one’s time with a furrowed brow and a vigorously shaking head. It’s part of what makes her so alluring – and so infuriating. Greer is both a revolutionary and an academic; she’s not in the business of providing comfort or even inspiration – she’s in the business of making us think. She has shared famously unexpected views on a range of feminist issues from genital cutting to the anonymity of rape victims, and she even turns the stomach at times: “If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your own menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you’ve got a long way to go, baby.” Really? I have to like the idea of tasting my own menstrual blood to make me a liberated woman? Count me out. But I can tell you this – were I to square up to Greer in an argument, she would crush me like an ant.

Greer is booked at Cardiff to talk on women and power, the lessons of the 20th century. The fact is – and I’m sorry if this upsets anyone’s carefully-constructed world view – there are few speakers so academically robust, so piquant and so engaging, who are better qualified to lecture to students on this particular subject. She is not booked to give a diatribe on transgenderism, indeed she states that she had no plans to even mention it, and the attempt to no-platform her as a “dangerous” speaker is preposterous. Universities should be a public platform for intellectual combat, and if the well-intentioned notion of “safe spaces” has reached the point where an Emeritus Professor’s very presence on a university campus is somehow deemed a threat to the emotional safety of the students, then Houston, we have a problem.

It’s true that Greer provokes a powerful emotional response in many people, but my belief that she remains a speaker worth listening to is not incompatible with this. Supporters of the petition to no-platform her have taken the inevitable furore as evidence of Greer’s “privilege”, an insulting dismissal of her own struggle and her extraordinary achievements as a feminist, an author and a scholar. They also remain convinced that the petition symbolises a robust refusal to fuel transphobia. Yet thanks to their actions, trans women have been exposed to an amplified version of Greer’s controversial views on a viral loop; she only keeps repeating her ill-informed views because people keep asking her about them, and as a result of the petition we’re all getting to hear them again, in gruesome and horrifying detail – Greer is spectacular in her venom when cornered.

Beyond this emotive debate, we will find ourselves faced with a fundamental question: must there be a moment when heroism is obliterated by the flaws of the heroic? Do Greer’s questionable views on trans women rob us all of her achievements and preclude her from maintaining a voice in feminism, the field in which she is both a pioneer and a stalwart?

Personally, I would hate to think so.

Emma C Williams is a teacher, a freelance writer and author. You can follow her on Twitter @emma_c_williams and visit her website www.emmacwilliams.com to see more of her work.

Filed under: Features, Politics


Emma Williams is a private Latin tutor and a teacher in a large comprehensive school in Woking, Surrey. She is also a freelance writer and author. You can find her on twitter @emma_c_williams.


  1. Steersman says

    Interesting article – irresistable forces and immovable objects? But certainly a fairly comprehensive overview of the issues involved, and I too would hate to think that Greer should be precluded from contributing anything further to feminism. At the very least, I kind of expect that she may serve as a welcome lightning rod, a focus for some necessary discussion on a number of issues which have been fragmenting the movement, such as it is.

    However, while I’m more than a little sympathetic to Greer’s views on transwomen, I also share your apprehension about some of her other views which might well be construed as “disturbing and divisive”, if not an actual betrayal of some of the founding principles of feminism. For instance, she was reported to have said, in a BBC news item last month, that transwomen do not “look like, sound like or behave like women”. Which raises the rather problematic question, “just what do REAL women look, sound or behave like?” Considering that rather large swathes of mainstream feminism have been arguing rather strenuously and vociferously for some time that women should not be judged by, or restricted to, a rather narrow if not sexist set of stereotypes, it is hard not to conclude that Greer’s view there, apparently predicated on some rather narrow and restrictive stereotypes as well, is not a repudiation of those efforts and philosophies.

    And if that is really the case – that “woman” can be defined simply by how they look, sound, or behave – then is it not reasonable to think that transwomen – if they can emulate or replicate those same looks, sounds, and behaviours – should have the right to claim title to that term, to whatever cachet that the term is frequently loaded with? Something which even Greer, along with Richard Dawkins, are apparently prepared to acknowledge, at least to the extent of using “female pronouns” – “as a courtesy”. However, for many transwomen that is clearly not enough, maybe not surprisingly, and some have clearly crossed the Rubicon in demanding that society accede to their claim that “trans women are female”. Which does some serious damage to the definition for and concept of “female” – and which raises the question that Alice asked of Humpty Dumpty: “whether you can make words mean so many different things”.

    So, a bit of a “horns of a dilemma” situation: mainstream feminism more or less rejects stereotypical definitions, yet both Greer and many trans activists seem rather fixated on ones based on other, if different, stereotypes. And it seems to me that the best way off the horns of that particular dilemma is to fall back on and emphasize the fundamental biological definition for both “woman” – i.e., “a female human” – and “female” – i.e., “the sex that produces ova or bears young”. While that, of course, doesn’t find much favour with many trans activists, it is kind of surprising, if a little disconcerting, to find that many women, feminists and otherwise, are equally unhappy with that definition as they apparently find it too restrictive, too lacking in a recognition of all of the “looks, sounds, and behaviours” that are frequently – though certainly not uniquely – correlated with the biological attributes.

    Which brings me to what I think is the crux of the matter, i.e., the identity politics that I think undergirds much of “gender politics” that has been discussed in depth of late, and which impacts many different issues. For instance, you may wish to take a close look at the article Comment: The attack on Germaine Greer shows identity politics has become a cult by Rebecca Reilly-Cooper.

    But while I’m certainly no pro-from-Dover when it comes to the psychology that undergirds identity politics, although I think it would be a great help if someone with the requisite chops provided an analysis from that perspective, I think far too many women have invested far too much emotional capital in their identities as women – “I am woman! Hear me roar!” – to the extent of losing sight of the fact that “woman” is merely an attribute, a somewhat ephemeral one at that, and not the sum total, not the alpha and omega of their selves, their persons. Which I think tends to engender the rather problematic manifestations of simple tribalism, typified, in far too many cases, by a tendency to a “my tribe, right or wrong”, to wrap ourselves in flags of one stripe or another. Hardly the basis for much in the way of progress, or even a rational, functioning, and multicultural civilization.

  2. Her claim that trans people don’t get any more discrimination than women does seem very unlikely to be true.
    Although I don’t really see what’s controversial about her saying she doesn’t consider trans women to be women. That’s not some concrete factual claim. It’s purely semantic. All she’s doing is saying that’s the way she sees it.
    Getting annoyed about a semantic preference really seems quite creepy and authoritarian to me.

  3. Steersman says

    Just out of curiosity, I posted a comment to this article yesterday and it has yet to make it out of moderation. Is there some problem with the content?


  4. Meghan says

    Trans women aren’t female and the two groups have interests that are opposed to each other. Trans activism is inherently anti feminist as it depends on sexist ideology like (ie ‘brain sex’ and strict adherence to gender roles). Each group faces violence and has a right to their own safe spaces. Forcing trans women into female safe spaces is all about control and validation for transwomen at the expense of females. End of.

  5. Russell Seitz says

    Those who would abolish freedom of academic speech suffer less from the tunnel vision of ideoogy than an imploded sense of historical time: they need ‘safe spaces ‘ beacuse they cannot bear to think that there was ever a time when people did not think as they do, and so seek to erase the past from the future of discourse.

    Since not all of our contemporaries live in the same time– witness how he urban cultures of Dallas and New York, or Kano and Lagos are respectively decades and centuries apart, those on campus who fear and loath anything antedating PC Year Zero face a rude awakening should they ever venture abroad.

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