When Greer came home: January – March 1972 ‘Save us from shaggy Germ, O Man.’

Vanessa O’Neill is the recipient of the Joyce Thorpe Nicholson Fellowship. Her research has explored the impact of Greer’s provocations at key points in time over the past 50 years, primarily through the General Correspondence Series (2004.0042) and the Early Years Academic, Performance, Writing and Personal Papers (2014.0044) of the Greer Archive.

The 25 year-old Germaine Greer who left Australia for Cambridge in 1964 did so anonymously, but the Greer who returned in 1972 was internationally renowned and her visit provoked a storm that touched on many of the most profound issues of the day. That reaction prompted Claudia Wright of The Herald to declare:

‘I am in the mood to vent the sadness and shame I feel for this country’s treatment of Germaine Greer. This woman, who is the best-known Australian in the western world, came like a beautiful Amazon with a bomb hidden under her skirts. She exploded across the country as no other visitor has of late…Her bomb detonated too soon. Germaine Greer is ahead of her time.’[1]

Image 1 Germaine Greer at Sydney press conference, 15 January 1972.

On Saturday 15 January 1972, Greer’s first press conference in Australia took place at a motel in King’s Cross in Sydney. For two hours, she took part in radio, television and press interviews. She spoke on a range of topics including her opinion of the First Lady Sonia McMahon, the inequity of women’s pay in Australia, and the limited availability of birth control. Much of the attention in the press was focused upon Germaine Greer’s appearance, which The Sunday Telegraph described in great detail: ‘She was dressed simply in a wool midi suit, mustard coloured singlet and purple suede boots over navy blue above-the-knee socks. Needless to say she was bra-less. At 6 foot 2 inches and 32 years of age, the long, languid Miss Greer looks dishy.’[2] In case imagination alone was not enough, readers were also provided with a photograph of Greer (Image 1).

On that same day, a review of The Female Eunuch appeared in The Age. It is interesting to note that of the wide range of reviews from across the world, in the Greer Archive Press Files, there is not one that is as dismissive nor as damning as that written by Thelma Forshaw in Greer’s hometown of Melbourne:

‘King Kong is back. The exploits of the outsized gorilla may have been banned as too scary for kids, but who’s to shield us cowering adults? To increase the terror, the creature now rampaging is a kind of female – a female eunuch. It’s Germ Greer, with a tiny male in her hairy paw (no depilatories) who has been storming round the world knocking over the Empire State Building, scrunching up Big Ben and is now bent on ripping the Sydney Harbour Bridge from its pylons and drinking up the Yarra.’[3] The lengthy piece concluded with: ‘Save us from shaggy Germ, O Man.’ 

Image 2 Thelma Forshaw’s review of ‘The Female Eunuch’.

This review was reproduced in a number of papers nationally. What is notable when looking through the press coverage is how carefully images of Greer were selected to reflect particular journalists attitudes towards her. Forshaw’s review was frequently accompanied by images of Greer that portrayed her as wild or uncouth (Image 2). Other more sympathetic articles, such as that in The Sunday Telegraph,  were accompanied by images that portrayed Greer as confident, poised, commanding and attractive.

Thelma Forshaw’s provoked such a strong outcry from readers, that the Letters to the Editor sections in The Age for the following week were dominated by letters written in response to this review. Most of them strongly defended the book and protested that Forshaw had completely misrepresented both Greer and her ideas. J. Morton of South Yarra wrote, ‘It was with disgust that I read in your normally responsible newspaper a scurrilous personal attack masquerading as a book review.’ V. Barnett of Beaumaris wrote: ‘I hope the negative review will not deter anybody from reading this most interesting and thought-provoking book.’[4]


The review did not deter readers. Within six weeks of Greer’s arrival in Australia, all 120,000 copies of The Female Eunuch had sold out. Mike Willesee devoted an entire Current Affair episode to an interview with her. Greer’s appearance on the ABC’s Monday Conference, debating Reverend Alan Walker (on issues including abortion law reform, the institution of marriage and sexual freedom) achieved a rating of 16, compared to the usual 4 or 5. Greer took part in a debate at Sydney Town Hall, organised by the Abortion Law Reform Association. The ABC Four Corners program covering this debate was cancelled at the last minute, by the ABC’s General Manager, claiming that Germaine Greer had already received ‘exhaustive exposure’.

Image 3 Flyer for Sydney Town Hall debate

Greer’s letters provide testimony to her high demand at this time. Harry M. Miller wrote offering to represent her, but a hand-written ‘no answer’ appears on his letter. A request for an interview from Ernie Sigley’s producer in Adelaide (claiming that the presenter’s views are ‘diametrically opposed to your own…which could prove highly entertaining.’)[5] has ‘no’ hand-written on it. Greer responded to a letter from Lady Fairfax saying she was unable to attend a function as her guest speaker. In another letter, Greer refers to the fact that Winsome McCaughey has hosted a private meeting between Greer and local members of the Women’s Movement at her home in Parkville. Greer refused an invitation to address the Sydney Journalists Club, on the grounds that women did not have the right to be full members.

Germaine Greer did address the Canberra Press Club and at a lunch with 62 female journalists in Sydney proposed the formation of the Media Women’s Action Group. The Group subsequently won the right to full membership of the Australian Journalists Association and the Sydney Press Club. During Greer’s time in Australia, she took part in a Women’s March in Sydney campaigning for the right to equal pay, free contraception and safe legal abortions. Greer’s visit also coincided with the establishment of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia.

The Press Files contained within the Greer Archive, in the Australia 1972 folders, offer evidence of the high level of interest that Germaine Greer’s two-month visit provoked. Letters to the Editor continued to be dominated by varying opinions of Greer. Mrs M.J. Barrier of Hawthorn wrote, ‘If over-education produces people like her, thank heavens for little brains.’[6]

On the eve of Greer’s departure on 23 March 1972, The Sydney Morning Herald interviewed a range of people about the impact of Greer’s visit. Bob Hawke, then president of the ACTU said, ‘I think Germaine has been a refreshing experience; she has jolted many people into the unusual experience of thinking instead of jumping to conclusions.’ [7]

The Greer Archive contains the typewritten notes that Greer made for her final press conference before departing Australia in March 1972:

‘You could say I’m leaving for my health. One more day of Australian newspapers and I’ll have a plastic bag instead of a colon. I don’t know how the rest of you stand it. You must have bowels of iron and hearts of oak.’

Despite what Greer perceived to be a negative response within the Australian press, she concluded by acknowledging the many people who had supported her during her visit:

‘So to all the people who have plucked my sleeve in the street, who have let me talk my heart out at luncheons, who waited outside and in the Town Hall to show their support for Abortion Law Repeal, to the Media Women, the lady in the Health Food Shop, the fruit shop and at the newsagency at Bondi, and the gentleman who gave me a lift of the dry cleaner’s thank-you for the impact you had on me. I’ll miss you.’[8]

The responses to Greer during her return visit from January – March 1972 highlight many of the tensions that were apparent within Australia society during the early seventies. The explosion of what Claudia Wright called the Greer ‘bomb’ is reflected in the extent to which women’s roles were being shaken up – something that was being met with a mixture of both fierce resistance and joyous celebration. The Greer Archive offers important insights into the impact that Greer’s visit had, not only within Australian society, but also upon Greer herself.

Image 4 Copy of the review by Thelma Forshaw that first appeared in The Age, 15 January 1972

[1] Claudia Wright, The Herald, 25 March, 1972

[2] Kerry McGlynn, The Sunday Telegraph, 16 January 1972

[3] Thelma Forshaw, The Age, 15 January, 1972

[4] Letters to the Editor, The Age, 20 January, 1972

[5] Letter to Germaine Greer from ‘Adelaide Tonight’ Producer Frank Ward, 25 January, 1972 located in The University of Melbourne Archives: Early Years 2014.0044 Unit 15

[6] Letters to the Editor, The Age, 27 January 1972

[7] The Sydney Morning Herald, 23 March, 1972

[8] Typewritten notes by Germaine Greer, located in the University of Melbourne Archives: Early Years 2014.0044 Unit 15

Image 1 Germaine Greer at her first Sydney Press Conference, as reported in The Sunday Telegraph (source News Limited). Many press articles of this event used versions of this photograph. University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Collection, Early Years series, 2014.0044, Unit 15

Image 2 Thelma Forshaw’s review of ‘The Female Eunuch’, The Age, 15 January 1972. University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Collection, Early Years series, 2014.0044, Unit 15

Image 3 Flyer for Sydney Town Hall debate, University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Collection, Early Years series, 2014.0044, Unit 15

Image 4 Image 4 Copy of the review by Thelma Forshaw that first appeared in The Age in The Saturday Review section, 15 January 1972, University of Melbourne Archives, Germaine Greer Collection, Early Years series, 2014.0044, Unit 15

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *