In her 73 years, Anne Summers has packed in enough careers, experiences and achievements for several lifetimes. Since publishing her groundbreaking feminist book Damned Whores and God’s Police at the age of 30, she has been an award-winning journalist and editor, an adviser to two Labor prime ministers and the head of Greenpeace. At the same time, she wrote another seven books and earned an AO.
The title of the latest one, Unfettered and Alive, comes from the Joni Mitchell song “Free Man in Paris”. It suits a woman who has always forged her own way.
“I was born into a world that expected very little of women like me,” she writes. “We were meant to tread lightly on the earth, influencing events through our husbands and children, if at all. We were meant to fade into invisibility as we aged. I defied all of these expectations and so have millions of women like me.”
It’s a compelling look at a life that has had soaring heights and crushing lows. When Summers and Sandra Yates organised for publisher John Fairfax to buy Ms. magazine from Gloria Steinem and start up Sassy magazine in 1987, everything looked rosy. But within months, world sharemarkets had gone into freefall, derailing the takeover bid launched by “young Warwick” Fairfax, who jettisoned the magazines and gave the women just five weeks to raise $15 million to buy them.
They succeeded but, within less than a year, a consumer boycott of Sassy organised by the Moral Majority led to a catastrophic collapse in advertising revenue and Yates and Summers were forced to sell. Summers’ stories about Steinem’s perfidious behaviour throughout this saga are fascinating and cast the feminist icon in a whole new light.
“1989 still stands as both the best and the worst year of my life,” Summers writes. “It was the year I lost the magazines, lost my job and, I feared, the very foundations of my identity, but it was also the year that I met the man who would become the love of my life.”
Summers met Chip Rolley over the office photocopier and they have been together ever since. Although Chip is years younger, they don’t notice the age gap, she says, apart from tastes in music. “Impossibly, he does not care for Bob Dylan.”
By 1992, Summers was back in Australia, advising Paul Keating on his “problem with women”. In focus groups she asked women to nominate what was important to them and was shocked to find that after childcare and health, the third most common topic was family violence; “almost every woman mentioned it”.
The following year, when Keating had won “the unwinnable election”, Summers was standing in the wings at the Bankstown Sports Club, waiting to watch him speak. As he walked past, she grabbed his arm, urging “don’t forget to thank the sheilas” — the rest is history. One of the things Keating’s prime ministership will always be remembered for is his final comment on that night; “an extra special vote of thanks for the women of Australia who voted for us believing in the policies of this government”. Such was the power of Summer’s work that 1993 was the first election where the overall female vote for the ALP equalled the male vote.
At a time when “feminism” can mean almost anything, one of the most appealing aspects of Summers’ work is her focus on the less fortunate. From starting the first women’s refuge in Australia to influencing government policy on domestic violence and advocating for Indigenous people, she has always offered help to those who need it most.
This is a refreshing change from feminists like Sheryl Sandberg whose 2013 blockbuster Lean In appears to be, in the words of feminist commentator and author Catherine Fox, “all about fitting women into men’s shoes”. Sandberg and her ilk appear to be interested only in the lives of white, heterosexual middle-class women; I call it “Nice White Lady Feminism”. The backlash is building, however, and in her new book, The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism, Professor Catherine Rottenberg describes “neoliberal feminism” as a philosophy which is uninterested in a mass women’s movement or struggles for social justice. Rather, it has introduced the notion of a happy work-life balance as a feminist ideal.
“There is nothing about this feminism that threatens the powers that be,” writes Rottenberg.
Luckily, Anne Summers is not mellowing into someone who is content with the status quo. “Women have become a new kind of person, one that scarcely existed before and we are still evolving,” she writes. “We do not know where we will end up. All I can say about myself is that I know that I am not yet finished and I never will be.”