Female Eunuch is probably the most influential book ever written by
an Australian. It has changed the lives of millions of women throughout the
world; and through them it has changed the lives of men and transformed our
Her penetrating, witty and controversial
analyses of our society are always stimulating. So, when she came to
Melbourne in 1997 for the annual
Writers’ Festival one newspaper commentator remarked that “Her guns are
blazing”, and “She’s cranky as usual”.
But what she had to say may have
surprised some. Although her theme was a familiar one - the role of women
and their continuing subjugation by men - she gave the impression that the
feminist battle had barely progressed. She said that in 1970 (when The
Female Eunuch was published) women had the right to say no to sex,
without apology. “Now they have a duty to say yes to whatever their partners
may desire; no holds are barred. Women cannot admit to feeling disgust or to
not enjoying the stuff that is going on - not if they want to seem cool.”
She went on to cite recent letters to the
advice column of Cleo magazine as illustrations, and commented: “To
judge from such letters men are still doing things to women rather than the
other way around, and the things they are doing are no more pleasurable or
loving and no less dangerous than the things they were doing a third of a
century ago.” In other words, according to Greer’s analysis, women in our
culture continue to be degraded. Power still rules, not love.
It is perhaps unfortunate that she did
not turn her analysis to the advice columns in the more popular women’s
magazines, like New Idea and Woman’s Day, rather than in an
upmarket one like Cleo. For it is these columns themselves that
There was a time when the advice columns
of such magazines were a small but important element of support for some of
the weaker members (especially young women) of our society. For example, the
“Mary Friend” advice column was a staple of Woman’s Day in the 1950s.
Most of the problems concerned relationships, usually with boyfriends or
husbands, though there were also many teenage women who had problems with
their parents. Even young men sometimes sought help.
For example, in a typical edition of the
column, that for 31 January 1955, a young woman worries that her fiance
seems to be dominated by his mother; a woman married for the second time
finds friction between her daughter and her new husband; another woman is
having mother-in-law problems; a young woman’s parents object to her
boyfriend because he is German; a 17-year-old girl complains that her mother
will not allow her to go to dances and parties or to develop friendships
with other young people; and a young man asks for advice on discouraging a
girl without hurting her feelings.
What stands out from the columns is the
utterly sympathetic and practical manner in which “Mary Friend” answers the
letters. Here is some of her counsel:
Your fiance seems to
accept his mother’s dominance without question, which suggests he will look
for strong maternal feelings in his wife. Do you want that type of man? Or
do you prefer a man who will make his own decisions, stand up for himself
and for you too? Think it over carefully. If you need a protective,
strong-willed man, it might be wiser to decide now you have made a mistake
that will lead to unhappiness.
A man’s nationality is
no guide to his sense of morality and values, and, without knowing your
boyfriend, I could not assess his worth as a suitor. However, I consider
three weeks acquaintance is far too short a time to consent to an
engagement. I think you would be much wiser to wait until you know him much
better before you promise to marry him.
You are not being
unreasonable, because it is natural and right at your age that you have
young friends and enjoy life. I suspect your mother is being selfish and
wants to monopolise you, but any solution I could suggest will only
aggravate the conflict. Have you an older relative who could influence her,
or could you ask your minister to have a talk with her about allowing you
It is all so reasonable and sensible. It
is the kind of common-sense advice that, in other cultures, might be passed
on between women of all ages gathering water at the village well, or washing
clothes together in the river, or, in my wife’s Korean culture, eating
kimchi pickled cabbage and dried squid in the kitchen while the husbands
get drunk together on soju grain liquor in the living room. It is
advice that faces up to the realities of our day-to-day existence; such
guidance does not shy away from the fact that life is not always easy and
that many problems do not admit of neat and easy solutions. Life often
Kate Samperi spent a couple of decades
answering readers’ problems for Woman’s Day. In her 1991 book Dear
Kate she wrote:
When people make a
decision to write to me or consult another practitioner, it can be the
turning points in their lives. By putting their thoughts on paper, they are
putting space between themselves and their difficulties. In many cases, what
they focus on and write about is not the problem. They are seeing the
symptoms but have no insights as to the cause. Yet the clues are always
there. My area of expertise is to find those clues and then direct their
attention to the aspects of the problem of which they are unaware. Handling
life successfully is looking with total honesty at our own behaviour,
instead of blaming others when they don’t respond the way we would like.
So, the change in advice columns today is
startling. It is beyond the wildest parody. Magazines like Woman’s Day
and New Idea and the Australian Women’s Weekly have handed
over the columns to a coven of clairvoyants, psychics, astrologers,
tarot-card readers, numerologists, feng shui experts and other
Reading all this prognostication is like
entering a time machine and being transported to a medieval bazaar that is
littered with the tents and caravans of seers of every stripe. The reader is
left free to wander and to select from what is sometimes quite contradictory
advice. Many of the advisers are linked to high-cost psychic telephone
services for further consultation.
Of course, women’s magazines have for
long had their horoscopes, sometimes compiled by the junior reporter, and it
has been fashionable for sophisticated women to joke about how they always
read them, the implication apparently being that they would not dream of
believing what is there, but that it is all in good fun.
Ita Buttrose, a former editor
of the Australian Women’s Weekly, was involved in the following
exchange when she appeared as a guest, in 1997, on ABC television’s “Club
Rampaging Roy Slaven and H.G. Nelson:
Roy: Did you ever read Women’s
Ita: (laughing) Word for word. On my
Roy: Did you? Well, what about bloody
“You and Your Stars”? Did you think that was a reasonable bloody thing
to put in the magazine?
Ita: Too right. I wouldn’t start the
day without reading my stars.
Roy: Do you read your stars?
Ita: Of course.
Roy: You don’t think the magazine
patronised women a little bit?
Roy: You don’t?
Roy: What, women like reading
rubbish, do they?
But the new moves into fortune telling
are of a different order altogether from the traditional horoscope. The
magazines have even extended freedom of choice to other types of advice. For
example, in the winter of 1997, the Woman’s Day “Your Good Health”
column gave readers a trifecta of choices for dealing with colds and flu.
A Sydney doctor listed practical steps to
avoid contracting the flu virus, noting that, “There is only anecdotal
evidence to support the belief that vitamins, minerals and herbal remedies
such as echinacea work to deter colds and flu”. Then a “medical herbalist”
advised on a variety of herbal remedies and stated that, “Over the past few
years the word echinacea has become part of everyday language, changing the
way we tackle winter ailments.” Finally, an “authority on juice therapy”
advised on cocktails of fruit and vegetable juices that “will be beneficial”
against colds and flu.
But it is in their advice columns dealing
with relationship problems and other personal concerns that the magazines so
degrade women. Because the common thread running through the columns is that
women are often victims, that their destiny is not really in their own
hands, except to the extent that they are able to take advantage of Lady
Luck. Yet the readers are at the same time led to believe that anything in
the world might be theirs, if only somehow they can weave the right magic.
Consider the following letter, from
Woman’s Day in 1955.
I am still in love
with a boy who used to take me out three years ago, but he is just friendly
and quite indifferent to me. Is there any way I can win him back, like
playing hard to get or telling him I love him? None of the other boys I’ve
been out with compare with him and I just can’t fall in love with anyone
* You will, some day.
Unrequited love burns itself out in time. I am not being callous when I tell
you that one day you will look at this boy and wonder what you ever saw in
him. I cannot give you much comfort to tide you over this unhappy experience
for I think it is quite useless to try to win him back. This has happened to
so many people so many times before, but the thing to remember is that their
love stories usually end up happily with somebody else.
“Mary Friend” column, Woman’s Day, 14 March 1955
Maybe this is an answer out of the school
of hard knocks. But it is honest and to the point. It allows the young woman
to take stock of her life. Compare it with the following:
My heart has been broken by a man I spent
three years with. He has moved in with another woman who has her own home. I
have been ringing psychic lines and they all told me something different.
Some say he will be back and others say he won’t. I am confused.
* You need to sit down
face to face with a good clairvoyant and have a complete reading. Someone
will steer you to a very accurate reader. Be guided by what she says, as it
will be correct. Make arrangements to pay off your phone bill.
“Dear Fiona” column, Woman’s Day, 23 June 1997
The reader is being told she does not
control her own destiny, that it is in the hands of chance.
It astonishes me to find that so much of
the vocabulary of the fortune tellers has become engraved onto modern
Australia. I lived in Asia for 17 years but had never heard of feng shui
until I came to live in Melbourne. (Admittedly it is a Chinese concept, and
I lived mainly in Japan, but as a journalist I travelled extensively around
In Australia, I find numerous books
available about feng shui, I hear it discussed on the radio, and
Woman’s Day has a feng shui adviser. In 1997, my local council
announced proposals for a Chinatown development near the new Eastern Freeway
extension. One of the project organisers told our community newspaper: “We
think Doncaster deserves its own Chinatown, and the feng shui is
When writer Blanche d’Alpuget married
former Prime Minister
Bob Hawke, she found it “psychologically very difficult” to move into
his home, which was identified so closely with his first wife, Hazel.
“Initially, I didn’t like it at all, and it has taken a lot of effort to get
it feeling like it’s mine and expresses what I want,” she told Good
Weekend magazine. “The first thing I did was call in the feng shui
man and knock down the main bedroom wall.”
Writers to the Woman’s Day feng
shui adviser seem quite naturally to adopt the vocabulary:
I forgot that feng shui says don’t
dust under the bed if you hope to become pregnant. How long will it take for
the baby spirits to settle after vacuuming? Also, where is the Ba-Gua
Children’s Position in our living room and what’s a good nursery colour?
* Feng shui
says never dust under the bed when hoping for pregnancy as this is where the
“ling” or baby spirits hover. Allow nine weeks for them to resettle. The
Children’s Position is always the middle of the wall to the right of the
wall containing your main entrance into the living room. To boost your
chances, place an item of yellow or white baby clothing such as baby bootees
here. Yellow or lemon are colours with really great feng shui for
“Feng Shui” column, Woman’s Day,
20 October 1997
Is it not ironic - or is tragic a better
word? - that while Australians turn to Asian clairvoyancy to try to boost
their luck, many of our Asian migrants are stressing discipline and hard
work in order to achieve extraordinary success in Australian society?
And am I the only person amazed at what
some readers now expect from an advice columnist? Who in the 1950s would
write to a magazine for help in finding a lost item? Such letters are no
longer uncommon. For example:
Can you see where I have hidden my
jewellery? I’m desperate.
* It’s in a small plastic bag in a packet
of washing powder under the kitchen sink.
“Dear Fiona” column, Woman’s Day,
20 October 1997
I’ve misplaced a gold nugget in my house
which was very precious to me. The last place I can recall it being was
sitting on my bedside table. Where should I look?
* The nugget was last seen on the bedside
table. It was knocked on the floor when the room was being cleaned and
collected in the vacuum cleaner where it is now setting.
“Psychic Matters” column, New Idea,
22 November 1997
I have lost a special watch that was
given to me by my parents. Can you help me find it?
* I see you removing the watch to show
someone, but being so distracted while trying to place it in your pocket,
the watch slid into a corner of a car seat covered with brown upholstery. I
feel you will find your treasure.
“Tarot” column, New Idea, 14
Australia may never really have been a
strongly Christian country, but at least people generally tended to accept a
Christian view of life: that people are not perfect; that hard work is
generally needed to make a go of things; that rewards and good luck may
come, but not necessarily; that life may - and often will - involve
Now, having forgotten these lessons, we
think that we can become perfect, if not through our own efforts then
through luck. These advice columns often teach women that through some kind
of magic incantation their problems are all capable of solution, and that no
particular hard work is needed on their part.
In other words, the women of Australia
are being transformed into fodder for the casinos and gaming parlours
springing up throughout the land. Sadly, this brings to mind the comment of
the British writer G.K.
Chesterton that when a person stops believing in God she doesn’t believe
in nothing; she believes in anything.
Perhaps it is a case that, like the
horoscopes, everyone reads these columns but no one really takes them
seriously. But if so, why are they proliferating? Why do so many women
apparently write to them for help? Why do these advisers continue to pay
large amounts to advertise their psychic lines, week after week? Sometimes I
fear for the future of our country when I see the kind of advice being given
out, apparently seriously, to people with problems.
To end this chapter, here is a final
“then and now” example from the advice pages:
Before my voice broke
when I was 15 I was considered a promising singer. Now, at 21, I feel my
voice is growing stronger - as a tenor instead of a soprano of course. Could
you tell me where I might have it trained?
* The Conservatorium
of Music at Melbourne University could recommend a good singing teacher to
you. Good luck with your training. We might some day hear you with the
National Theatre Opera.
“Mary Friend” column, Woman’s Day, 21 March 1955
I have been playing piano since I was
very young and my aim in life is to be a concert musician. Can you help?
* If you want to become a music expert,
try seeking inspiration from an artistic genius such as Mozart. Before
practising at the piano, draw a circle with a lipstick or crayon on a mirror
and then write the name of the artist you wish to be inspired by. Sit in
front of the mirror and look into the circle for a few moments and imagine
you see your favourite musician within the circle. Feel their energy mixing
with yours and breathe deeply and calmly until you are filled with the
inspiration to perform at your best.
“Cast a Spell” column, New Idea,
14 February 1998
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