May 4, 2021

Fifty years ago this week the hottest ticket in New York was to see one male chauvinist author take on four feminists: Norman Mailer versus Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, Diana Trilling and Jacqueline Ceballos. The Town Hall debate, immortalised in D.A Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus’s 1979 film Town Bloody Hall, was conceived after Mailer published his essay on the women’s liberation movement for Harper’s magazine.

Entitled “The Prisoner of Sex”, and later published as a small book, Mailer’s essay is largely a rebuttal to Kate Millett’s book Sexual Politics, which, alongside D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller, denounced Mailer’s work as misogynistic. When “The Prisoner of Sex” was first published, the editor of Harper’s magazine took out an ad in The New York Times announcing: “The Favourite Target of Women’s Lib Chooses His Weapon. Harper’s Magazine”. Adding: “Pick up a Copy. Before Your Newsstand is Picketed”.

Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email

Already registered? Sign in

The Prisoner of Sex is an odd book. Mailer refers to himself throughout in the third person. It contains literary analysis of the smutty bits in Miller and Lawrence, long and technical digressions on female anatomy, and meditations on the metaphysical nature of sex. For Mailer, the main problem with the women’s liberation movement is it evades the fundamental fact of biological difference: “Women, like men, were human beings” he writes, “but they were a step, or a stage, or a move or a leap nearer the creation of existence”.

Women, because of their reproductive capacities, were men’s “only connection to the future”. Without women, men would be alienated from nature: they would just bundle along, without any point or significance to their lives. This is why Mailer, who was a serial womaniser, was opposed to contraception and masturbation: they interfered with the organic, procreative essence of sexual relations. J Michael Lennon, Mailer’s authorised biographer, writes that, “from one perspective, his sixty years of writing can be seen as an untrammelled examination of all things sexual”. Alfred Kazin once described him as “the Rabbi of screwing, the Talmudist of fucking, the writer who has managed to be so solemn about sex as to make it grim”.

Joan Didion endorsed the book, writing that Mailer’s view “strikes me as exactly right”. Joyce Carol Oates was also sympathetic: Mailer, she writes, “is shameless in his passion for women, and one is led to believe anything he says because he says it so well”. Anatole Broyard, critic for The New York Times, called it Mailer’s best book. But it was also often panned — and badly. Brigid Brophy, in a review for The New York Times, contends that the “prose proceeds from malapropism” to “the rhapsodic plateau of the inside of a Christmas card”. The book was nominated for a National Book Award and earned Mailer $200,000 in royalties; but the only way I could buy it this year was to wait four weeks for my second-hand copy to arrive.

At the time of the debate, in 1971, Mailer was at the peak of productivity. Between 1965 and 1975, he wrote 16 books, directed three films, produced a play, and ran for Mayor of New York City. Mailer had been a key figure in American literary culture since his debut novel, The Naked and the Dead, was published in 1948. It spent 19 weeks in first place on the New York Times bestseller list and 40 translation rights were sold. Mailer was 25.

A year later, he briefly moved to Hollywood and hobnobbed with Charlie Chaplin, Marlon Brando and Humphrey Bogart. In the 1950s, when his follow up novel, Barbary Shore, was not as well-received as his first, he became the Philosopher of Hip. Fuelled by marijuana, booze, coffee and sleeping pills, he became a countercultural essayist who celebrated the intense immediacy of life. The fact that he stabbed and nearly killed his second wife Adele Morales in 1960 didn’t really hamper his fame. In his career, he gave over seven hundred interviews.

Millett was invited to take part in the Town Hall debate but she declined. Gloria Steinem, who was friendly with Mailer, also said no. But six months before the debate, an Australian academic at Warwick University published a book entitled The Female Eunuch. It became a bestseller and made the author a celebrity. For many people, the Town Hall debate was simply Germaine Greer versus Norman Mailer — the icon of Women’s Lib against the quintessential Male Chauvinist Pig.

In any case, the first speaker of the debate was Jacqueline Ceballos, the leader of the New York chapter of the National Organization for Women. In her speech, Ceballos argues that the root of everything — the peace movement, the civil rights movement — is “women’s liberation”. She mentioned that at work women are underpaid and overworked. And that we should encourage women to sue employers who discriminate against them.

She is not against marriage, but rather wants to change the direction so that “If women are married in a society that pushes them towards marriage, they should be paid for the work they do”. They should also receive pensions and vacation pay. And she attacks how women are portrayed in advertising as “stupid” and “senile”. A woman “gets an orgasm when she gets the shiny floor”. Doll-like before marriage, afterwards she is presented as a bitter shrew.

After her speech, Mailer says to Ceballos: “While everything you presented was certainly to the point and even politically feasible I would ask if there was anything in your programme that would give us men the notion that life might not continue to be as profoundly boring as it is today”. She is too square for him.

Greer is next to speak, “that distinguished and young and formidable lady writer Miss Germaine Greer from England” in Mailer’s words. Speaking in a posh British-Australian accent, Greer proclaims that she has to confront “the being I think most privileged in male elitist society — namely, the masculine artist. The pinnacle of the masculine elite”. The audience breaks into laughter: the statement seems to be directed at Mailer.

Women artists were either “menials” or “Goddesses”. Women can “neither be one nor the other with peace of mind” because “we are unfortunately improper Goddesses and unwilling menials. There is a battle waged between us”. Greer adds that: “The achievement of the male artistic ego is at my expense for I find the battle is dearer to him than the peace would ever be. The eternal battle with women, he boasts, sharpens our resistance, develops our strength, enlarges the scope of our cultural achievements”. Mailer says in response that the women’s liberation movement is insufficiently “dialectical”. That it’s possible for women to be both “slobs” and “Goddesses”. And it’s only through “extremes of experience” that women can achieve a higher state.

The next speaker is Jill Johnston, a dance critic at The Village Voice, who would two years later publish a book entitled Lesbian Nation. She argues that “Until all women are lesbians, there will be no true political revolution” because women must give each other a new sense of self, and “until women see in each other the possibility of a primal commitment, which includes sexual love, they will be denying themselves the love and value they readily accord to men – thus affirming their second class status”.

Mailer tells Johnston it’s time to close her speech, as she has gone over the allotted time. Two of her friends come on stage, and they start rolling on the floor together. To which Mailer responds: “Hey you know it’s great that you pay 25 bucks to see three dirty overalls on the floor, when you can see lots of cock and cunt for four dollars just down the street”.

The next and final speaker is Diana Trilling, who identified as an old-school feminist and was a key member of ‘The Family’: the group of writers and intellectuals in New York associated with magazines like Partsian Review, Commentary, and The New York Review of Books. Trilling states that the women’s liberation movement, as evidenced by the hostility to Mailer, has “an authoritarianism already this advanced in purpose and efficiency. Here we have achieved virtually nothing on behalf of women other than perhaps to open a door on grievances which they have either tried to suppress or lived with in loneliness”.

Trilling is opposed to many feminists “who will invalidate the biological differences between the sexes”. She objects to Mailer because while honouring biology, he “implicitly acquiesces in the intolerable uses in which culture has made of the biological differences between the sexes”. She adds that: “Biology is all very well Norman. All these women have biology. But they also have a repressive and life-diminishing culture to contend with”. And Mailer’s essay “fails in its imagination of the full humanity of women, as it would never fail in its imagination of the full humanity of men”.

After Trilling’s speech, Mailer reiterates his position: “Biology or physiology is not destiny. But it is half of it”, and if we ignore this we get the “most awful totalitarianism of them all” because it is a “left totalitarianism”. He dislikes what he considers the humourless aspect of the women’s liberation movement. And he states that female liberty, like every liberty, will be achieved against the grain, against the paradox that “there is much in human life that forbids liberty”.

The issue goes at the heart of human existence: “it is the deepest question that faces us”. He wants the discussion to be at a serious level, but “if you wish me to act the clown, I’ll take out my modest little Jewish dick and put it on the table. You can all spit at it and laugh at it, and then I’ll walk away and you’ll find it was just a dildo I left there. I hadn’t shown you the real one”. (Mailer’s three oldest daughters, ranging in ages from 21 to 12, were in the audience, as were his mother and sister).

Throughout the debate, the audience is raucous and intense. Audience members keep on storming off and shouting at the panel. The event is ostentatiously theatrical. It is less a debate than a carnival of competing egos. This is no surprise: Mailer was a showman throughout his career.

Greer, meanwhile, was involved in theatre groups in Australia and Britain. At Cambridge, she became a member of the Footlights. Her doctoral thesis was on Shakespeare’s comedies. The image of Greer as the Women’s Lib icon is also slightly misplaced, for as her biographer Christine Wallace puts it: “She was not a part of the grassroots feminism that gained momentum in America, Australia and Britain as the 1960s rolled on. Rather she was part of the counterculture, whose ‘free love’ tenet coincided with her libertarian view of spontaneous sex as the universal balm”.

Greer was involved with the anarchist libertarian group “the Push” during her MA at the University of Sydney.  She wrote articles for Oz, a countercultural underground magazine, where she promoted sleeping with rock stars. In 1969, she co-founded and edited the pornographic magazine Suck, where she gossiped about the sex lives of her friends. This was a time when many prominent members of the women’s liberation movement condemned pornography as misogynist. She wrote for Playboy in the 1970s and appeared nude in a copy of Suck published in 1972.

Lynne Segal described The Female Eunuch as “unrepresentative of women’s liberation in the early days; the movement was predominantly dismissed [by] Greer’s individualistic anarchism and dismissal of collective action”. Sheila Rowbotham described Greer as a “scarecrow feminist” who avoid “the stiff tense humourless tightness” of feminism and other revolutionary groups, but end up “becoming a sophisticated brand of titillation on the media” and “perform for a male audience”. Life magazine described her as “The Saucy Feminist that even Men like”. After reading The Female Eunuch, Henry Miller, one of Kate Millett’s bêtes noires, said: “The one woman in the Women’s Lib movement I’m in love with is Germaine. Oo-la-la! She is everybody’s liberator and she writes like a man. Reading her is like reading Tropic of Cancer.

The ostensible conflict between Greer and Mailer in the debate also belies the bond between them. Greer did her MA thesis on Lord Byron, and Mailer is in many respects a 20th century Byron: a writer who burst to celebrity in his mid-twenties and is consumed by the multiple dimensions of sex. In a piece for Oz magazine, she writes this about her encounter with a woman called Dr G (who she revealed is actually Greer): “Norman Mailer’s penis blossoms in her head”. Diana Trilling wrote afterwards that Greer did the event so she could sleep with Mailer.

There are more complicated aspects to Greer’s character. In The Female Eunuch, Greer argues that women should be “fucking for sex instead of ego and prestige”. And that they should also “mate down” — dating men with lower status than them. This was around the same time she was promoting “starfucking”.

Moreover, at the beginning of her book, she states: “The opponents of female suffrage lamented that woman’s emancipation would mean the end of marriage, morality and the state; their extremism was more clear-sighted than the woolly benevolence of liberals and humanists, who thought that giving women a measure of freedom would not upset anything. When we reap the harvest which the unwitting suffragettes sowed we shall see that the anti-feminists were after all right.”

But a year before writing this, she married the first man that asked her hand in marriage. Asked decades later why she married Paul de Feu, she said: “We got married because he thought it was a good idea” and “I thought he knew what he was doing. I am a woman of the fifties, I wait to be asked”. Elsewhere she states: “Men have to court me and make the running. I have never rung up a man in my life”. This from the woman whose book is about women taking control over their own sexual lives.

Despite her contradictions, The Female Eunuch is, nevertheless, a beautifully written, erudite, consistently fascinating, and very funny book — even if you don’t agree with all her arguments. As she states in her Town Hall speech, women should not be compelled to be either “menials” or “Goddesses”. She is not a feminist icon; she is an immensely gifted and complicated woman.

Ten years after the Town Hall debate, Martin Amis visited Mailer in his New York apartment to profile him for the Observer. Mailer is now married to his sixth wife and has eight or nine children. He needs to “earn $400,000 a year to stay abreast of alimony and tuition fees”. When Amis reminds Mailer of his previous opposition to any form of contraception, Mailer retorts: “I’ve got eight kids. I can’t afford to believe that any more. My hopes and expectations have changed. I no longer feel prepared to go to the wall for any big ideas”. Prisoner of Sex indeed.