by Maddie Palmer
Anne Summers was taking a rare break from work in front of Question Time on the afternoon of October 8. She watched Prime Minister Julia Gillard rise to the podium and begin the speech that would soon be heard worldwide. “I will not be lectured about sexism and misogyny by this man. I will not.”
Dr Summers’ ears pricked up. “What is going on here? I started tweeting, ‘she’s smoking, this is incredible’,” she said.
The Prime Minister’s speech has become a potent symbol of the daily aggressions experienced by women in Australian public life. For a journalist whose career has been dedicated to documenting and exploring these violations, it was a pivotal moment.
“One of the things I think is so important about Gillard’s sexism and misogyny speech is that it is the first time we’ve had a woman in a position of power say, ‘yes, it has happened to me, I’ve been discriminated against, I’ve been the subject of terrible slurs, I’ve been called a man’s bitch, I’ve been called a witch’, and I was offended by that,” Dr Summer said.
“In the past women who have done well, myself included, who have denounced sexism, all say, ‘it has never happened to me’. We thought it was disempowering if we identified as victim. She shattered that.”
The torrent of vitriol poured upon the Prime Minister was meticulously detailed in Anne Summers’ Human Rights and Social Justice Lecture, Her Rights at Work, at the University of Newcastle last year, and further explored in her new book The Misogyny Factor.
“It’s now been 40 years since Whitlam put equality on the national agenda; why is it, 40 years later, that we still don’t have it? Why has it proved to be so hard?”
Anne Summers has spent a lifetime asking various permutations of this question. She was born in Adelaide into a Catholic family of six and sent to Cabra Convent, where she soon realised there was a world beyond her field of vision.
“We were brought up to believe you could be a mother of six, or a nun, or be left on the shelf, which meant you’d be a teacher. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. We weren’t encouraged to be anything else. We were told not to go to university, because it was an occasion of sin. You could scarcely believe how restricting it was.
“There was one nun in particular who, herself a bit of a rebel, singled me out and said, ‘you’ve got a brain; use it’. And she encouraged me to read and encouraged my writing. That more than anything influenced me. The only thing I’ve ever wanted to do was to be a writer, and I’ve managed to do that along the way.”
After leaving at the age of 16, she gravitated towards the burgeoning bohemia of the early 1960s.
“We were saved by books. We just read and read, we read Jack Kerouac, and we read Collette, and we read all these books about different lives, and we listened to jazz, and we just knew that were was something else out there.”
That search for something else led her to academia. “I succeeded despite my education, not because of it. I was lucky because I was intelligent enough to go to university.”
Alongside the more formal educational experiences, she fell pregnant in 1965 and experienced first-hand the horrors caused by the abortion ban.
“It was terrifying, shocking. It cost 60 pounds. I was earning 15 pounds a week at the time. I had to go to Melbourne by myself, a 19-year-old girl, and stand on a street corner blindfolded. I was picked up by a strange man and taken to god knows where. Anything could have happened. There was none of the support systems or counselling that you find today. It was horrible. And it drove home the importance of the right to safe, legal abortion. That is non-negotiable. If anyone thinks they can get in the way of that, I’ll be there.”
After a brief marriage to a fellow student, Anne moved to Sydney, and became involved in activism, eventually helping to create the Women’s Liberation Movement. The group squatted in derelict houses in Glebe, turning them into the Elsie Women’s Refuge to provide shelter to women and children who were victims of domestic violence.
“It was easy in those days. There were meetings, you fronted up. When I first moved to Sydney, we didn’t even have a landline. If you wanted to communicate with someone, you had to go around to their house.” At the suggestion that this is a rather haphazard way to organise a movement, she smiles. “Well, we did. We did quite well, too.”
In 1975, she received a PhD for her book Dammed Whores and God’s Police, a seminal work of Australian feminist history that inserted women into the hyper-masculine Australian cultural narrative.
This led to a position on The National Times, a Walkley Award winning investigation into NSW prisons, editorship and eventually ownership of New York Ms magazine, and later a position in the Keating government heading the Office of the Status of Women.
In between, she released five more books, including an autobiography, continued to write opinion columns for Fairfax, edited her own magazine Anne Summers Reports. She now maintains an active presence and dialogue online via her website and social media.
“I spend most of my time trying to acknowledge groups that don’t get enough coverage in mainstream media – which are women, gays, trade unionists, environmentalists, and the indigenous. They don’t get treated fairly by the mainstream media.”
It’s an extraordinary and prolific career, but Anne Summers resists the suggestion she is doggedly ambitious.
“I’m very lazy, actually,” she says. “I’ve never planned anything in my life. Every major thing I’ve done has been somebody else’s idea. It means I’ve had a very interesting and exciting life. I’m up for adventures. Do you want to go to New York? Oh! Why not? Do you want to come and work in Paul Keating’s office? Oh, sure, it sounds great!
“My life has been full of serendipity. I don’t think I could have planned my life, the way it’s worked out. I just don’t think it would be have been possible.”
Still, her steely gaze and strong gestures suggest an understated tenacity.
“I’ve never worked harder in my life than I have now,” she says, adding that where she used to write a piece a month, she now feels slack if she hasn’t written three a week.
And she enjoys the benefits of social media.
“One of the things I really like about Facebook and Twitter is you can have engagement with all people. I engage with teenagers, and people in their 80s. That’s one of the things I like about social media, age isn’t a barrier.”