An explosion of radical ideas

Insights from the Germaine Greer Archive reveal the complex backstory to The Female Eunuch, one of the 20th century’s most influential books

Dr Rachel Buchanan, Curator, Germaine Greer Archive, University of Melbourne Archives

Dr Rachel Buchanan

Published 21 March 2016

The first card is written in a black Texta that has faded, 47 years on, to a bruised purple. In the top left-hand corner the young academic has written LINCOLN Abraham. Underneath it, the quote: “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.”

On the last card the word Culture is written in capitals in red pen in the top left-hand corner. Underneath is a typed reference, LESSING, DORIS, Children of Violence.

The old view – lower class cynic amoral: Germaine Greer got her PhD in 1968 from Cambridge University. Her thesis examined Shakespeare’s early comedies and this scholarship informed The Female Eunuch too. Picture: Germaine Greer archive, University of Melbourne Archives, 2014.0039.0173

In between Lincoln and Lessing, there are 551 double-sided index cards in three bundles. The cards are arranged as they were received by the University of Melbourne Archives (UMA) in 2014.

The system is anti-system ... The order is neither alphabetical nor chronological ... It is not based on subject, quotes or genre either

The Female Eunuch is broken into five idiosyncratic sections – Body, Soul, Love, Hate and Revolution – and each section is divided into sub-sections or chapters.

The beginning of a plan for The Female Eunuch

The words that best apply to the arrangement and content of cards are the ones that Greer used herself in a typed summary presented 47 years ago to Sonny Mehta, the commissioning editor for MacGibbon and Kee (an imprint of Granada Publishing). According to Greer’s Warwick University diary, the pair met at Golden Square, Soho on 17 March 1969 and again a few weeks later. Saw Sonny. Gave him synopsis. Talked til 5am, reads the entry for 29 March.

Germaine Greer by Walnut Whippet. Picture: Wikimedia Commons

At one of these meetings, Greer gave Mehta a three-page typed synopsis that proposed a collection of essays on what it was like to be a woman in 1969. The project would be organic, experimental, sensational and outrageous. The language would be accurate, sensual and direct.

The typescript with emendations and additions in Greer’s hand has been published on the University of Melbourne’s library digital collections repository along with other early fragments of the book, including typescripts, chapter drafts and handwritten notes. Now the index cards have been published too. You can find them by going to the University of Melbourne Archives website and typing the series number 2014.0039 into the “search digitised items” search box.

Material culture students Chloe Pagaduan and Emma Adams worked part-time for several months to catalogue each card. They scoured the pages of The Female Eunuch and its Notes section hunting for matches with the material on the index cards. Their well-thumbed paperback copies of The Eunuch are dotted with sticky notes and dog ears, a testament to their meticulous volunteer labour.

Inside the creative process

The index cards plot Greer’s anarchic reading and ideas offer scholars new insights into the extraordinarily eclectic scholarly, popular and counterculture sources behind The Female Eunuch (1970), one of the twentieth century’s most influential books.

Master and slave: The first of Germaine Greer’s 551 index cards for The Female Eunuch is a handwritten quote from Abraham Lincoln. Picture: Germaine Greer Archive, University of Melbourne Archives, 2014.0039.0071

“The cards are material evidence of the painstaking research Greer did and they provide an insight into her unique creative process,” Pagaduan says. “They are invaluable and irreplaceable.”

Along with carbon copies of typescripts and handwritten summaries of early versions of the book, the articles Greer wrote for the underground press and her lecture notes from Warwick University, the index cards are witnesses to the explosion of radical ideas – historical and modern – that fuelled this book.

The cards are part of the complex backstory to The Female Eunuch and they need to be read carefully.

In response to a query from UMA, Greer has suggested that further investigation is needed into the timing of the creation of the index file. The first draft of the Female Eunuch may have been written without index cards. Could some of the cards have been created, collaboratively, in response to queries from the fact-checkers for McGraw Hill, the Female Eunuch’s first American publishers? This question raises the intriguing possibility that the cards were not only a way for Greer to organise her research but also became a tool to support publication and republication, deal with copyright permissions and provide source material for further writing, publicity and debate.

Many index cards, such as ‘The Wicked Womb’ are inscribed on both sides. This one contains Germaine Greer’s notes on Sylvia Plath, Greek philosophers and the work of 17th century bishop and satirist Joseph Hall. Picture: Germaine Greer collection, University of Melbourne Archives 2014.0039.0086

Were the cards created in stages, rather than in one continuous burst of pre-writing research? The chronology for the creation of the cards still needs to be reconstructed in a scholarly way. What the cards clearly demonstrate is that Greer was reaching for an astonishing range of contemporary and historical sources and she was working very quickly in between many other commitments.

The Female Eunuch was published only 18 months after Greer first discussed it with Sonny Mehta. In that time, Greer was also a lecturer in English at Warwick University. She continued to write articles for OZ and other underground magazines and until May 1969 she spent two days a week in Manchester filming episodes of Granada TV’s Nice Time with Kenny Everett.

The cards are not a product of scholarly contemplation ... They carry the whiff of burnt rubber; they are evidence of speed, fervour, the reckless stunt

Energy still fizzes from them. As objects, they demand respect, inspire awe and invite contemplation of the labour (and paper) involved in pre-internet research methods, including flicking through drawers of card catalogues, browsing the shelves in libraries and handwriting or typing bibliographical information. There was no EndNote or Scrivener in 1969.

The cards’ dimensions (a standard 230mm by 127mm) are the only thing that is uniform about them. Some are yellow, some white, a few are blue or pale pink. Some are typed, most are handwritten. Most are written in English but one contains notes in Latin. Others are in German, Italian, French or Old English. There are proverbs and lists. Some cards are blank but for a title that has been struck out.

Some of the index cards, such as this list of slang terms for breasts, are like spoken word poetry. Read it aloud and see. Germaine Greer archive, University of Melbourne Archives, 2014.0039.0349

Greer’s knack for succinct decimation is on display in card 94, a reference to Kenneth Walker’s Sexual Behaviour Creative and Destructive (1996). Arrant nonsense all of it. Can’t be bothered. Card 168, on The Single Woman (1934) by R L Dickinson and Lura Beam, Greer writes: Awful, awful book … whole book a chamber of horrors!

Although Greer’s research was not for a PhD thesis (she was awarded hers in 1968 and those index cards are also in the Greer Archive) these two acerbic Eunuch cards are examples of what philosopher Umberto Eco calls the “disposal index card”. These ones remind a writer that they do not need a particular source.

Cataloguing mindswap

Eco’s manual How to Write a Thesis (1977) discusses 13 different types of cards, including the disposal index cards, the polemical index card, the review one, the thematic one and the tantalising “mindswap” (the card created via an exchange of information with another student).

MIT Press published a new edition of Eco’s book in 2015 and the chapter on “the work plan and the index cards” evokes nostalgia for this simple, flexible and once ubiquitous method of ordering, reordering and synthesising your research and your thoughts. Index cards can be shuffled, filed, flipped or laid flat like a hand of patience (or memory). They can be re-ordered as often as a researcher likes, allowing ideas to find new companions in the stack.

Greer’s index cards encompass the scholarly, creative, library, scientific and administrative purposes that these objects have been put to plus a few new groovy late 1960s ones. Is there any other collection of secular index cards that uses the word Soul more often?

She has created them for many of her books; the entire index card collection occupies 11 heavy oblong boxes. The first lot was made around 1968 – the references for Greer’s reading for her doctorate on early Shakespearean comedy – and the most recent are the cards for Shakespeare’s Wife (2007). The index cards on women artists comprises thousands of cards packed into five boxes; a monumental act of feminist bibliographic research in and of itself.

Banner image: Germaine Greer Picture: Jüschke/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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