Dr Anne Summers AO has had an extraordinary career as a journalist, author, policy maker, bureaucrat, editor, publisher, board member and above all change agent. In conversation with Genevieve Jacobs, she will speak about her life and her new memoir Unfettered and Alive.
This is the compelling story of Anne Summers' extraordinary life. Her story has her travelling around the world as she moves from job to job, in newspapers and magazines, advising prime ministers, leading feminist debates, writing memorable and influential books. Anne has not been afraid to walk away from success and to satisfy her constant restlessness by charging down new and risky paths. Whatever position she has held, she has expanded what's possible and helped us see things differently-often at high personal cost.
Anne shares revealing stories about the famous and powerful people she has worked with or reported on and is refreshingly frank about her own anxieties and mistakes. She shares a heart-breaking story of family violence and tells of her ultimate reconciliation with the father who had rejected her. Unfettered and Alive is a provocative and inspiring memoir from someone who broke through so many boundaries to show what women can do.
Author Talk with Anne Summers
*Speakers: Marie-Louise Ayres (M), Genevieve Jacobs (G), Anne Summers (A)
*Location: National Library of Australia
*Date: 8 November 2018
M: Good evening, everybody, and welcome to the National Library of Australia and I’ll just ask those last few people to take their seats, thank you very much.
Welcome to the Library, I’m Marie-Louise Ayres and it’s my privilege and honour to be the Director General of the National Library of Australia. As we begin this evening I acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, the Ngunnawal and Ngambri peoples and thank them for their care and custodianship of the land that we are so privileged to do our national work from and many of us of course live on this land.
I’m really delighted that so many of you have joined us today to listen to Dr Anne Summers about her new memoir, Unfettered and Alive. Anne is a bestselling author, journalist and thought leader who has been prominent in Australian media, politics and feminist activism for the last four decades. She has advised governments, prime ministers, been an award-winning journalist, edited magazines in both Australia and New York, chaired the international environmental organisation, Greenpeace, and even had her image on a postage stamp. She’s the author of eight books including the classic, Damned Whores and God’s Police first published in 1975 and I’ve got a feeling she hasn’t even gotten started yet.
I’m also really delighted to say that Anne is well represented in the Library’s collection of course through her publications but also through her personal archive which is comprised of both physical papers and a very large digital archive. We also recorded her 2017 Kenneth Myer lecture which was delivered here and in Melbourne entitled 2020 Vision, Where is Australia Headed?
Joining Anne this evening is well-known and loved print and radio journalist, Genevieve Jacobs. A former presenter with the morning program on ABC radio Canberra Genevieve has assisted us in facilitating many conversations here at the Library. She’s recently been anointed Group Editor for Region Media which is headlined by the longstanding Canberra news site, the must read, The RiotAct. So please join me in welcoming Dr Anne Summers and Genevieve Jacobs.
G: Well, ladies and gentlemen, good evening to you, what a wonderfully warm welcome. Look at you all, we’re packed to the gills, it’s fabulous.
G: And I think the size of the crowd is probably testament to just how much esteem our guest tonight is held in by so many of us, she’s had several stints here in Canberra, of course, and I know that there are old friends and old colleagues among the audience. But Anne Summers looked at the same prospects as I think a lot of us when she was a convent girl in Adelaide and thought no, there’s more to it than that –
A: Thank goodness.
G: - and as Marie-Louise – yes – as Marie-Louise said a moment ago, yeah, there certainly was, an extraordinary career documented in this memoir, Unfettered and Alive. I’m going to start the conversation with Anne and I’ll give you about 15 minutes or so at the end – I do always say to my Canberra audiences I know you’ll have wonderful questions so thinking caps on but please when we get to that stage just do wait until we get a microphone to you so everyone can hear the questions and we can all participate in the conversation. Anne, a very warm welcome indeed.
A: Thank you very much, Genevieve, it’s great to be here.
G: And if you look back at –
A: And to meet you for the first time.
G: Thank you very much and to meet you. We’ve had the selfie out the back. Anne, if you look back at what was in many ways a conventional middleclass Catholic upbringing from the outside at least, one that many people in this room would probably identify with the elements thereof, where do you think the fire came from, the conviction that the established limits were way too close for comfort as far as your life was concerned?
A: It’s very hard to know exactly where they came from but I can tell you they manifested themselves very early on when I – as I say in the beginning of this book. I start it with a letter to myself, written to my 30-year-old self because the book starts with me age 30 going – I’ve just published my first book, Damned Whores and God’s Police and I’ve just got a job, my first job as a real journalist with The National Times. This is December 1975 and I think I’ve achieved my life’s two ambitions and I sort of thought basically life was over and instead of course it was just really beginning. But to get to the point from where I’d been as this sort of un – lacking in confidence, in many ways self-loathing Catholic school girl, one of six children, the only girl, pretty unhappy home life, very difficult relationship with my father, not enjoying school. I left school the second I was legally able so how I got from being that girl to the person at 30 who’d achieved her life’s ambitions is something that I kind of tried to grapple with in this letter to myself, to my 30-year-old self.
And one of the things that I realised is that when I was growing up in Adelaide and I’d – back then I mean some of you who will remember those days, is the only women that I ever saw were those women in my own family or the nuns at school or perhaps the lady that you know worked in the local shop but there were no women around you know there was no women members of Parliament, there was - if you had television – we didn’t at that point but when you did have television the only women you saw on television apart maybe from Dame Margot Fontaine flittering across a stage would be you know the girls in bikinis reading the weather at the end of the news. There were no women in public you know with voices of authority you know women weren’t allowed to read the news ‘cause their voices weren’t deemed to be high enough and therefore no-one would believe what they said.
So the only women that I really could look to for what I might do with my life were my mother and her sisters and my mother was you know what we used to be called a housewife with six children and she had one sister who was a nun and another sister who was on the shelf as it used to be called back then if you were an unmarried lady of about 30, she was a spinster. And to me she was the most interesting one of the three because she was independent, she had a job. She was a lowly bank teller – well not a teller because girls weren’t able to be tellers but no, she worked in a bank in Finley in the Riverina but she had her own money and she was independent. And she took me to dinner one night to Florentino’s restaurant in Melbourne and this was the most sophisticated thing that had ever happened to me in my life and I thought well if being on the shelf and having money it’s looking like a pretty good option so I think that’s how I got started.
G: And I really wondered about the roots of the feminism because certainly your first career was in journalism and that’s threaded its way throughout your life but like a lot of young women in that era who pushed the boundaries a bit and came into contact with this Bohemian intellectual radical world it was still a very sexist world in many ways, wasn’t it? The parameters of that world were very male.
A: Yes but I mean in many respects they didn’t feel that way when I was in it because even though I was very involved in what we used to call women’s liberation, we didn’t really say the word feminism much back then, I certainly had the ideas but because I was involved in you know you were talking about the Sydney push, I mean it was a fringe group, it was a sort of sexually adventurous group if you like and certainly it was very male-dominated but I don’t think that we women felt as oppressed as our suburban sisters you know who were sort of you know tied to the apron strings with kids to worry about so we felt that we were freer. I guess later we realised that we probably weren’t, just it was a different kind of oppression.
But I guess my ideas about feminism all – before I started I was a journalist at the age of 30, I had had a number of jobs when I was a teenager first of all in a bank and then you know working in various shops and things like that so I’d experienced a lot of typical female employment and realised how – well first of all how badly paid it was and secondly how kind of dead end most of it was and how you weren’t expected to go anywhere ‘cause you were just basically waiting to – some guy to come along and choose you and so you could get married and then your life would basically be not yours to control anymore. I mean that was it.
G: The introduction –
A: Which didn’t really appeal to me.
G: No, for obvious reasons. Having a brain and all. As you say the introduction is a letter to yourself and you write in that that becoming a woman became intrinsic to your story. I just wondered if you could explain that. As your career took shape as a journalist but also beyond, what – this notion of a woman’s self being intrinsic to who you were.
A: I guess in 1975 – sorry, in 1965 I read Simone de Beauvoir’s book, The Second Sex and the opening line of that book had a very profound effect on me and she writes, one is not born, rather one becomes a woman. And the argument she was making is that – and she said a woman is something between – that resides between the male and the eunuch you know who basically has no intrinsic value or intrinsic definition even because she just is a socially constructed creature and a very inferior creature in the society in which she was writing about. And this was a very radical notion to me and that is that you know that women I saw around me, that that wasn’t the only thing one could, that one – that a woman was actually a socially constructed being and therefore you didn’t have to be the women I could see around you, you could be other constructs.
And what I learnt from reading books is that you could be a writer or you could be a political activist, you could be all sorts of things and this was very, very exciting to me but when I decided to write this book and to tell my story, I mean I realised it was a story of how I became the person I am today, having started off as that very uncertain self-loathing girl. And it’s a long journey, it’s over many, many decades – I don’t need to say exactly how many but long and one of the things that I learnt, and it’s sort of a bit like when Julia Gillard said on the final night you know when she was booted out of the prime ministership and she said you know gender doesn’t determine everyone - I mean sometimes it’s really important, sometimes it matters a lot, sometimes it doesn’t matter at all but as a woman you can’t really escape your gender and most of the time you don’t want to but figuring out how it is a factor in which you do with your life has been a lifelong preoccupation for me as a feminist and also as a woman because sometimes it’s mattered a lot, sometimes it hasn’t mattered at all in certain jobs or in certain situations that I’ve been in.
But I have been fortunate enough to have my adult life at the – been at the cusp of the changes that have been available for women of my generation that weren’t available say to my mother or to my grandmother because we were born at the end of the war, the baby boomer generation you know we had access to education and to a wider range of employment or to employment at all in many cases than had been available before. And of course you know we all know the women’s movement came along in the late ‘60s and we were able to start examining what it was that a woman was meant to be and then could be and we realised that we could take charge of our lives and we could create our own future.
G: And there are some interesting choices there. When you came here first to the Press Gallery for the Fin Review I mean this was still the kind of place where Cabinet ministers would sometimes chase young women journalists around their offices quite literally.
A: Oh yeah. Still happening in New South Wales.
G: Apparently so. For some women though the way around that was in the past to essentially turn themselves into one of the blokes just in order to get the job done. Were you tempted at any point as a journalist or later in your political career by that kind of accommodation so that you could simply just get the work done?
A: I don’t think I really saw it that way, I mean I you know do recount a couple of stories where – I mean I didn’t think most of the time that my being a woman was a disadvantage. I mean the fact that I worked for the Financial Review and it you know it was an important paper and anyone who wanted to reach that audience had to deal with me ‘cause I was the bureau chief and the political correspondent. That kind of outweighed a lot of things but there were times when for example a Cabinet minister said well you know if you want to come over on Sunday night we could have a bit of a chat about a few portfolio issues. I thought fine. When I got there the lights were low, the wine was open and he wasn’t quite wearing a smoking jacket but he might as well have been. And I thought I bet this doesn’t happen to Laurie Oakes.
And then there was a time when you know Malcolm Fraser was invited up to Queensland once, St Patrick’s Day, by - the Queensland Irish Association had their legendary St Patrick’s Day lunch and the only problem was it’s held in their club which then – I think this was about 1981 – did not admit women so Michelle Grattan and I couldn’t go. And so we said to Malcolm Fraser well look you know if you do this, we can’t do our jobs, it’s not fair, you shouldn’t do it. Well he was really impressed by that argument. So he went in and did the lunch and all the blokes from the Gallery went and reported on him and Michelle and I stood out in the street and gave radio interviews to whoever wanted to talk to us so there were – those sorts of things happened.
G: I would ask you to just – it’s not about a recitation of anecdotes but there is a marvellous story of you ending up sitting on Alan Jones’ knee in the prime ministerial plane.
A: You didn’t have to bring that up. Well yes. There was a night when – I do write about the fact that occasionally you saw the lighter side of Malcolm Fraser. It was pretty rare but there was one night when a few – there were only a few journalists travelling with him this night and his advisers, some of his advisers and one of whom was Alan Jones who was his speech writer. And some of you probably remember back then when he was speech writer? Before he went on to other things. And Malcolm was very, very late getting back to the plane and we were all sitting on the tarmac somewhere on the Gold Coast waiting for him to come and knowing if he didn’t hurry up and get there we were going to miss the curfew in Melbourne and it was going to be difficult. We were killing a few bottles of Grange while we waited. That’s the way they used to shut us up on the VIP. And it turned out that Malcolm was having a drink with Sir Jack Egerton and trying to do a deal with him about Eric Robinson – Sir Eric Robinson had just died and they were trying to do a deal about the seat and they’d drank – killed a bottle of Scotch together.
So when Malcolm arrived he was very, very happy and relaxed and as soon as we were wheels up he got out his camera and started taking photographs of everybody and he said to me, Anne, why don’t you sit on Alan’s knee? The photo still exists. But it’s not in the book.
G: No, it’s not. America has been an important recurring part of your life and also in the story of your career, you visited there a number of times over the years and been very enmeshed in some of the crucibles of second wave feminism along the way. Tell me how America has shaped you as a writer, a publisher, a thinker and an activist.
A: I guess – I first went to America in 1976 and I was the first person I knew to ever go there ‘cause you know we all hated America of course because of the Vietnam war even though many of the writers that we most admired were American and of course we love the music and - I went, I decided to go in ’76 for various reasons and ever since then I’ve had – as I say I was the first person I know to go. Most people I knew went to England, I was never interested in going to England. The – I think I’ve had this extraordinary fascination with the country ever since because it is a very perplexing, very exciting, very hideous you know it’s - everything you can think about a country America has in – to a huge degree.
But the first time I went there in 1976 and it was to New York and it was before New York was the big apple. It was a very scary place in the ‘70s, terrible crime but it was still - had an exciting edge to it and I you know Patti Smith was singing at a garage down the street and you know there were poets and artists and people I knew kind of lived in this downturn grungy sort of existence and I was tempted to stay but in the end I decided to come back to the security of the press gallery. But I kept going back and back and back and I’m now back there again I think on my fifth time so there’s something about the place that keeps me enchanted.
And I guess I like the energy and the excitement and think you know there are some wonderful writers, there’s some wonderful thinkers even in this terrible political time that we’re going through in America at the moment though yesterday I think you know presented some good checks to Trump. Even when the bad things are dominant there is just this tremendous imagination and creativity which I find very admirable.
G: It’s also the scene for one of the really toughest parts of this book which is about the travails of taking over Ms magazine from Gloria Steinem, one of those icons of second wave feminism, such a huge opportunity you thought and it turned out very differently in many ways. And part of that was that you confronted the hard business of running a magazine for whose financing you were responsible and really perhaps questioning in many ways your own beliefs about what women wanted to read, what they wanted to hear, what responsibilities you had towards that market and what the commercial realities were.
A: Well I guess – I mean taking over an iconic American feminist magazine such as Ms, and I’m sure everybody here knows of Ms magazine, it was founded in 1972 by Gloria Steinem as a feminist. It was meant to be a commercially – commercial magazine but like the – unlike the other mainstream women’s magazines which you know Gloria used to argue made women feel bad about themselves or insecure about themselves Ms was going to celebrate women and give women things to be proud of and to show you know what was happening with the new women as we were becoming under feminism. But by the time I took it over Ms was 15 years old and the shine had gone off it, the circulation was down, advertising was definitely down. It was in tremendous debt which is why it was for sale, we – when Fairfax bought it it you know we had to – we basically paid a very low purchase price but we just took over all their debts.
And one of the things that I discovered, we dis – my business partner, Sandra Yates, and I discovered to our consternation is that the – when we did some research into Ms’ actual and potential readership is that women by and large didn’t like Ms anymore ‘cause it made them feel guilty. So the whole reason for starting a magazine to make women feel better about themselves in contrast to the mainstream women’s magazines had kind of reached this point where Ms was a bit of a downer. And it was the ‘80s, it was the middle to late ‘80s, it was a time when women were in the workforce in large numbers, there was this pressure to have it all, was the phrase then, having it all and women that we talked to felt under this tremendous pressure. They wanted to be in the workforce but they hated the fact that they had to do their jobs and go home and do another job and got no help from the partner and they didn’t want to read a magazine that made them feel guilty for feeling upset about this.
And so this was a very large issue and how to tackle that editorially and not get – run into trouble with the sort of very strict feminist view that I’d inherited in the magazine turned out to be an irreconcilable conflict. And at the same time we found that getting advertising for Ms was almost impossible because of the reputation of the magazine. But one of the things that we were determined to keep alive was the spirit of the magazine that Gloria had founded and we certainly weren’t going to accept beauty advertising or you know cosmetic advertising or food advertising, all the main staple advertising in women’s magazines and which kept them going as – it used to be the case in America that you paid virtually nothing to subscribe to a magazine, you might pay $12 a year for 12 copies and the reason for that was because advertising paid for the production of the magazine and this gave advertisers tremendous power.
And most of the women’s magazines you know their staple of ads was food, fashion and beauty, cosmetics and the advertisers of those products all demanded complementary edit and we weren’t prepared to run articles on makeup or we weren’t prepared to run recipes and we weren’t prepared to run fashion therefore none of that advertising was available to us so you know we ended up with cigarettes which of course everybody hated and various other categories that were – that nevertheless still - and when we got a lot of car advertising which was fantastic, Detroit, they didn’t demand we wrote about cars but they did demand that when the reader turned the page to see their ad that they be feeling happy. And therefore - and I had this terrible story which I tell in great detail in the book about running a you know a big article about a very, very famous and very sad case about a woman involved in a very famous domestic violence and murder case in New York and I ran a big series – a big package of articles about her and you know the advertisers objected because they didn’t want their readers to feel depressed about this – the violence that this woman had endured when they looked at the ad for Chevrolet.
So they would pay for the ad so these sorts of things were very, very difficult and in the end almost impossible to manage. But then on top of that we had some you know business – I mean it’s such a long and complicated story we probably shouldn’t spend too much time on it but we were basically brought to our knees, Sandra and I, having done this you know amazing thing of raising $20m on Wall Street when that was a lot of money to buy the two magazines after Fairfax wanted to sell them only to be brought to our knees by a boycott of our other magazine, Sassy, teenage girls’ magazine by the religious right you know Moral Majority and some of these other groups who objected to what we were running in Sassy about teenage pregnancy and so on.
G: And it’s bruising and hard to read about, not least because America seems to be a place where battles over ideological purity are such a sort of endlessly fertile ground –
A: Horrible, horrible.
G: But just moving on from that but perhaps connected I want to also talk about the way in which you discuss your terminations because here and now in 2018 it’s still slightly unusual I think to have quite a frank description of what a woman weighs up when she’s making the decision to have an abortion. You do that several times here.
G: Tell me why.
A: Well it seemed to me that if I’m going to tell the story of my life over the past 40 years and try to have that story be you know both honest and true but also relevant that you know I’m trying to tell – I’m not trying to gloss over what happened. I mean I don’t gloss over these really terrible experiences at Ms and later on at Good Weekend when I had a really, really terrible time. It also seems to me that you know being a woman matters sometimes and matters a lot other times and most of us find ourselves pregnant then when we don’t want to be at some stage in our lives and it happened to me unwittingly and unwantedly and I had to make decisions about it. So I decided to include those instances in the book and to talk about I mean all of the pressures that over the years - I think it’s changed quite a bit but you know there were certain periods of my life when during the ‘80s where there was time when you know we were told that you know if we didn’t hurry up we’d miss out and we’d spend the rest of our lives regretting you know and our biological clocks were going tick, tick, tick.
And there are all these articles, all this incredible pressure being put on single women to have babies and I know a lot of my friends did and I thought about it, of course I did but then I decided no, I wasn’t going to do that. And so I spent quite a lot of time discussing those pressures, having already decided in my 20s I didn’t want children but you know you can’t make that decision you know last forever because it gets – either you find yourself pregnant and you have to revisit the decision or you’re subjected to all this extraordinary social pressure as occurred during the ‘80s for women you know I mean the constant theme throughout the book and throughout my life. And it’s something I’ve always been conscious of and written about a lot in various ways is – and it goes back to Damned Whores and God’s Police, I mean here in Australia we really deep down don’t think a woman is a real woman if she doesn’t have children.
And that is still – and that was the – Good Weekend episode, this very, very strong censorious view against a woman – I mean she can be terrific, she can achieve all these things and all the rest of it but deep down she isn’t quite the real thing if she doesn’t have children. And also that is a constant pressure and I felt that it would be completely disingenuous of me to write about my life and not talk about these things and not give real examples about being pregnant, not wanting to be and having an abortion, having a couple of abortions.
And I mean one of the things that I do talk about, and I mean I had this huge shitfight with Malcolm Fraser and the press gallery many years – some of you might remember when he wouldn’t let me fly on his plane around the world because of a fight we’d had and so my boss, Max Walsh, at the Financial Review said okay, I’m not going to be dictated to by the Prime Minister and he accused Malcolm Fraser of news management and sex discrimination, which is great, and said no, Anne Summers is going to cover this trip anyway ‘cause he was going to Washington. It was – the Russians had just invaded Afghanistan and Malcolm was going off to save the world. So he said okay, you can follow them commercially so I went ‘round he world commercially and you know every time they landed I’d be there on the tarmac which you could do then, really giving him the shits. But the trouble is just when we decided to do this I discovered I was pregnant and so I had to do this you know this galivanting around the world feeling very, very sick and it was something, I thought okay, this is something that only women have to put up with and I wanted to record that.
G: And as you say the sort of Damned Whores or God’s Police sort of dichotomy is all about people making presumptions about women, not actually examining in any kind of forensic detail what women think, what women want to believe and when you went on to work in Canberra for the second sort of political stint for Paul Keating one of the significant things that you did was for the first time to decide to do deep, real, thorough policy research on what causes did matter to women, what may sway their vote. It’s extraordinary to read this, to think that no-one had twigged that 50% of the population who have the vote might actually have some causes of their own.
A: I know ‘cause when I you know Keating got in touch with me or rather Don Watson in his office got in touch with me and said you know Paul’s got a bit of a problem with women and – by which he meant a political problem, of course, that there was you know that Keating wasn’t as you know there was a big gender gap in support for Keating and Keating had just become the leader, he’d taken the job from Bob Hawke and he had about a year to go ‘til the election. And they were wondering what they could do to try and remedy this and so they had the bright idea of – I was in New York yet again – of asking me if I’d come back and help and eventually I did.
So when I arrived I said well you know ‘cause they said well we know why women hate Paul – this is what the PMO said – okay, why do they hate Paul? They hate him because of his aggression in question time. I thought well actually every woman I know thinks he’s fantastic in question time and they love the wit and they love the jokes and the you know a souffle doesn’t rise twice and a shiver looking for a spine to run up and I’m going to do you slowly, mate you know most women I know love that so I wasn’t sure that was really the problem. So I said what does the research say? What research? So then I was able to persuade them that we should do these – this focus group research Australia-wide, went very, very comprehensive, asking women – and they were carefully chosen women all around – basically to talk about their lives, what they thought about their lives as women, to ask them what they thought the most important issues facing the country were and to ask them what the three most important issues affecting them that the government could maybe do something about were.
And the results were so uniform, regardless of which capital city, which regional centre, wherever we were, absolutely unanimous results, the three things that women nominated that they wanted government to do something about for them, childcare, women’s health, domestic violence. This is 1992. And what really staggered me, I mean I wasn't surprised about childcare. Women’s health, we thought was a little bit was you know ‘cause Hewson was running ‘round promising to get rid of Medicare so there was a little bit of that but we also figured, and the researcher we had is a very brilliant woman who I’d worked with a lot before and since who is very good at kind of hearing what’s not quite being said. And she interpreted that to mean that women’s health was also a little bit about me and my value as a woman and me time and you know having a little bit of space to myself so it was health, I mean definitely and we did some good policies, we started breast screening as a response to that and you know it’s grown to what it is today. We started cervical cancer screening as a result of that so we did various thing to respond.
But the violence thing, I mean obviously I knew about violence, I’d been involved in starting <inaudible> 32:50 Women’s Refuge you know some years earlier so we knew about domestic violence but what really staggered me was how pervasive it was and how many women in the groups, it was clearly something that was affecting their lives. And it was really shocking, it was really sad but it was also a huge challenge because to the extent you could do anything about domestic violence back then, it was a state matter you know it was a you know a police matter or you know the refuges and everything were administered by the states so trying to figure out what the Commonwealth could do was a huge challenge and I think you know how was it? Twenty odd years later, 25 years later we’re still trying to figure it out and not getting very far.
G: Mm and I think we’re you know we’re still having those discussions. Just yesterday on the radio I listened to a discussion about this very thing, that we are making progress on the openness of the discussion but the attitudes. You yourself –
A: Or stopping it.
G: Yeah, stopping it and going to the sort of – the real roots of why it happens. As you said a moment ago you yourself went through a horrible, ghastly accusation of sexual harassment during your time editing Good Weekend which also demonstrated how deep the antipathy towards the agents of quite profound social change around gender could be and you characterised this as a war against women and maybe what we saw happen to Julia Gillard even more recently is also a part of it.
A: It’s part of the same continuum, I think.
G: And that’s really my question, do you see our gender struggles as an ongoing war against women, as a specific targeting still here now, 2018?
A: Just before I get to that too, I’ll just clarify that. I wasn’t actually accused of sexual harassment, what happened was that there was a rumour going around that I was going to be.
G: Yes, I'm sorry, I should have made that clearer.
A: And that was – turned out to be wrong and the person who was going to complain about me didn’t complain and said –
G: And had never intended to and was –
A: And said there was nothing about which he could complain so – but it was a very vicious rumour that took off in the media and eventually got into the press and you know terrible things said about me and believed by a lot of people for about three months, it was a very, very horrible period in my life. But then the way it developed in excruciating detail which I won’t go into now but it’s true, I mean it made me realise that yes, we’re always going to be targeted if we got a little bit out of you know a little bit too uppity, I guess.
G: Heads above the parapet.
A: And I really didn’t understand it ‘cause I mean I was just a magazine editor, I was you know only editing a little weekend you know throwaway magazine, I wasn’t – I talk about Carmen Lawrence and what happened to her and Joan Kirner and you know Julia Gillard, I mean these are wom – Jenny George – these are all women you know in big public positions, ministers, premiers you know heads of the trade union movement and what was done to them was horrible but perhaps more explicable, why go after you know someone like me? So it just showed sort of really how pervasive this view is on the part of some people that women shouldn’t be able to succeed outside of the you know the white picket fence little place that some people would have us inhabit.
G: Do you connect that sense of an ongoing war against women from the powers that be with the me too movement, the backlash that we’re in the midst of now? And you and I had a phone conversation a couple of days ago and you said in some ways you saw this great momentum from younger women realising well holy cow, it’s true after all, it’s really still happening.
A: Oh very much so. I mean I – this is the thing on – with me too which I find very puzzling about Australia and how it’s manifested itself. I mean it’s – I don’t know whether it’s actually stalled here or whether it’s – I don’t know what’s happening, I mean the stuff today with Luke Foley I guess is another little twist and turn in the way in which it’s manifested but just – I can just digress for a second, I mean I wrote an article about six weeks ago for The Australian Financial Review magazine about me too in America and in that article I listed the names of 120 men, American men and they were all really powerful, mostly very well-known men and not just Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey and Charlie Rose and Matt Laren and all those but you know really incredible – and the Chief Conductor of the Met you know the Editor of the Paris Review you know the head of CBS, all these actors, all these politicians, 120 of them in the course of the last year since me too started in October 2017 have lost their jobs, been fired, forced to resign, lost everything as a result of me too accusations that have been investigated by their employers or their colleagues, found to be credible and there have been these consequences and these men, these very powerful, influential men have lost their jobs.
And I find it impossible to believe that Australia is so dissimilar that we don’t have that situation here so why is it that the complaints here aren’t even being aired let alone for the most part acted on and I don’t know the answer to that, I’m just asking the question and people say to me oh it’s the defamation laws and possibly and we do have the defamation case in court in Sydney at the moment that I’m not going to say a single word about. But it is just very puzzling to me that we are not willing to have the conversation as openly as they are having it in the States.
G: And perhaps we lose the energy and the dynamism that we see in the States, that sort of raw commitment, that people come forward with fire in their bellies. I’m going to turn over fairly shortly to you in the audience so thinking caps on and hands up in a minute but before I do, Anne, you say towards the end of the book that you’ve often – and I like this phrase – you’ve often shed your skin, you’ve changed jobs, lives, continents. You once asked Betty Friedan how she would describe herself and at that stage she was an older woman and she’d been through some very tough battles so I want to ask you the same thing, how do you now describe Anne Summers?
A: Well what surprised me about Betty Friedan is – she was in Sydney and had dinner with her and I said how would you describe yourself? And she said firstly I’m an American, secondly I’m a Jew, thirdly I'm a woman and I don’t know why I was surprised but for some reason I thought she’d say woman first and then I guess I was also surprised that she’s got three kids and she didn’t say she was a mother and – given you know so that surprised me but if you ask me that question as you just did it wouldn’t occur to me – for me to say I’m an Australian. Not that I you know disavow it but it’s not the way I define myself so I mean I would call myself a woman of eternal curiosity who’s you know still looking for the next adventure.
G: Look, just one final question. One of the threads through the book is – and you mention it yourself – your difficult relationship with your father in particular, also with your mother to some degree. I had a sense reading this that these were perhaps not words you would have written 20 years ago, that there has been – as you’ve shed your skin, as you’ve changed and evolved, that there’s been a different understanding of those people and how they had shaped your life, what they had meant, how you yourself had come to terms with that relationship so I just wanted to ask you to comment on that.
A: Well I have actually written about my family in other you know I’ve written a lot about my mother in a book called The Lost Mother so she doesn’t feature as much in this book because of that, and I have written about my father previously but what I talk about particularly in this book is my ultimate reconciliation with him which was almost literally on his deathbed and it was – and I talk quite a lot about the – his decline, I guess. I mean he was a very frightening, foreboding figure to me when I was young and I really you know did not like him, I hated him and couldn’t wait to get away from home. But as he got older and he got sick and I started to feel sorry for him and we realised that – and you know various family things had happened that we realised we had to try to reconcile before he died. But it was still a very hard thing to do you know it’s not just a matter of forgiving somebody, I found that very hard to do but – and I guess we don’t really have the language and the paths and the ability to – and we had to find it and it was very, very tough.
The other thing that I write about in this book which I think is also important is I’ve tried to look at the – and this is relevant to my father – the violence that existed in his life and his own father was a shockingly violent man towards he and his brother and his mother and my father obviously inherited some of that. My father was never physically violent but he was very verbally - very hostile and he was you know a pretty bad drunk. But the violence that he inherited or that he grew up with and his father had been in the first world war and my father was in the second world war and I sort of make the point that people of my generation, we know about the second world war and we know a bit about what it did to our fathers even if they wouldn’t talk about it, my father never did, but we’ve been able to read about it and we’ve seen all the movies and all that stuff but we didn’t really know much about the first world war and you know an even more brutal war in many ways.
And my grandfather was you know in the fields of France and had a pretty shocking time. And when he died, he died quite young, in the ‘30s, and when he died, his wife and his two sons, my father and his brother, they bought him a hole in the ground in West Terrace Cemetery in Adelaide and that was it, no headstone, no cross, no name, nothing. And he lay in that unmarked grave for something like 75 years before my brothers and I decided to reclaim him. And so you know what we as a family have tried to do, my brothers and I and my cousin, the daughter of my father’s brother, is we have tried to sort of confront the violence that existed in our family and tried to expunge it. And we did it, we were motivated by two things, one was I wrote a little bit in The Lost Mother about this grandfather in the unmarked grave and how we just thought he could stay there and rot as far as we’re concerned ‘cause he was so violent and what he’d done to his kids.
But then I had received a letter from a woman who - sort of in her 80s and she said she was the daughter of a world war one veteran and she’d been to the fields of France and she’d seen all the unmarked graves and she’d wept over those graves and she said look you know terrible things were done to these men and you know we don’t have to forgive them, she said, but you should reclaim him, you should at least own him and you should bring him back into your family. And shortly after I got that letter and showed it to my brothers and it really got us thinking. Shortly after that Rosie Batty you know spoke to the country about what had happened to her son and she said that you know Australians have to confront the violence in our families and so this is what we did. And you know our violence, our story isn’t nearly as bad as many stories but it’s still one little family trying to deal with that and I hope that we have expunged the violence now from our family.
G: And I think what was so significant for me reading about that was that this is an illustration of all the conundrums we face. We have powerful values that can drive us as human beings but we must always balance those somehow with compassion, with some kind of understanding, with a reconciliation that doesn’t undermine our values but has to coexist with them.
A: So in the case of the grandfather we reclaimed him, we’ve given him a headstone, we’ve put his name on it and his dates. We didn’t put his wife or son’s names on because if they chose not to we thought we couldn’t do that so we just put his years of war service and remembered by his grandchildren and listed our names. And we had a lot of discussion around the grave when we did this with my brothers and their children and so we had this discussion and we basically had a lot of arguments about what this meant and whether we you know did we forgive him? And I think no, we don’t forgive him for what he did but we acknowledge him and we’ve claimed him. And I'm still not quite sure what the distinction is and what it means but he’s now part of our family, that headstone’s there, we can go and see him and you know we now say he belongs to us even though we can never accept what he did.
And then the terrible thing is – which I kind of finished that chapter is by saying that after we had that ceremony – this was in October 2014 that we did this so just a few years ago – just looking around this windswept cemetery in Adelaide where – it’s in the Catholic section of this cemetery, just noticing how many other unmarked graves there were.
G: Yes and wondering what stories lay behind those. We’ve got time for about 10 minutes’ worth of questions and I feel sure you’ll have them so put your hand up and we’ve got a microphone on either side. Have we got a question from the floor? We’ll start down the front here with you. Yeah so just hang on a second ‘til I get the microphone to you.
Au: Hello and thank you so much for coming, thank you so much for the book. The midterm elections yesterday, I was hoping would be a repudiation against Trump and that’s not how I’m feeling today.
A: You should be.
Au: This is why I'm asking because while we did certainly have a fantastic turnout of women it just wasn’t quite the blue wave I guess that we were looking for and I just wanted your contextual –
A: Well I probably shouldn't spend too much time on this ‘cause I know people want to <inaudible> 47:25 the book and I am writing a piece for The Herald on Saturday which I’ll try and in 850 words say what I can but let me just make two points. The Democrats had one job to do and that was to get the House and they did. And that is - for the first time Donald Trump is going to be checked and held accountable. The Democrats will control all those committees, they have the power to subpoena, they have the power of impeachment, they can make life very difficult for him so I think that’s extremely good result and you know the Senate’s not over, they haven’t won the Senate but they may not have lost as many seats as we first thought yesterday. But the big news I think out of yesterday is that the Democrats won statewide both governorships and Senate races in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, three states that Trump won in 2016. Now if those votes hold he cannot win in 2020, the blue wall is back so this is a very good result.
Au: Anne, would you think that a Catholic convent education has been a catalyst rather than a deterrence for a lot of successful women?
A: No. Despite it, I’d say, in my case anyway. And Peter, I have to say you are in the book.
G: Okay, have we got –
A: For getting me out of trouble once. As in Peter is a lawyer.
G: I have to say just while the microphone’s going up there I’m the product of a Catholic education too, albeit a little bit later and I thought it was terrific, the nuns were trailblazers but maybe it depends where you were.
A: Not mine.
G: No. Who you got, what variety you got.
A: It was a bit earlier too so –
G: Go ahead.
Au: Anne, thank you for the book. I guess I just wanted to ask you where the courage comes from to write so honestly. You always have written very honestly about your own life and very honestly about experiences in your life that perhaps others wouldn’t share so is that something that you feel was innate within you or have you had to work to grow that courage?
A: Well it’s a good question, I don’t really know, I just do it. And I mean I often cop a lot of you know I mean I got – my previous book about my family, Ducks on The Pond caused major, major problems in my family. So you know my mother was very, very upset about that. I just feel that if I’m going to tell the story I have to tell it honestly and as honestly as I can and that’s just the way I feel about it so I do it. I mean I guess it’s like anything else, the more you do it the more you do it.
G: And I think the value of – we discussed earlier choosing to write about your terminations and I’m always struck for years by the description of termination as being both more and less weighty than people expect it to be.
A: Yeah, why should it be secret? Why should it be shameful? I mean it’s just – it’s extremely common and everyone or most women have you know and we should you know there’s been a – one thing I really like about sort of young feminists today don’t have that same reticence. I mean maybe those of us who grew up in the area when it was illegal and you know criminal and so on you know you could go to jail if you didn’t get killed by the termination, well maybe we inherited certain reticence. But I mean there’s now you know Clementine Ford and people like that, they write very openly about their abortions and they encourage others to do the same. There’s a hashtag that Lindy West created, shout out your abortion and it’s something that you know why should it be a secret? Why should we be ashamed of it? It’s a medical decision that you make and you take the consequences for and nobody else’s business except you know by telling other people you help make it easier for them.
G: And essentially related to your sovereignty over your own body.
G: Whatever choices you make. Okay, some more questions, have we got someone else up the back? Yeah, I think just there.
Au: Thanks Anne. I’d be really interested in your take on Germane Greer’s recent writings about consent or lack thereof, very controversial.
A: I haven’t read it, I'm really sorry. I mean I know I should have but I you know I was in America <inaudible> 51:47 bloody book when I get here and I’ve been so busy with mine I haven’t actually read hers so I will get round to it but I haven’t done it yet so I’m sorry, I can’t really comment.
G: And I think we’ve got another question here, yeah and then we’ll go up the back.
Au: Thank you for all that you’ve done for Australian women. There’s a lot of discussion around achieving 50/50 or 40% or 30% of boards and so on. How hopeful are you that this actually might be achieved some time soon let alone targets of 100%?
A: Oh boards?
Au: Well on boards or in councils, parliaments, whatever.
A: Well I think they’re a bit different. I mean I think - can I talk about parliaments? That’s I think more my area than boards but I think – I mean the election yesterday in the United States you know the wave of women, the year of the women, all these women elected and you know lots and lots of great women were elected. The US Congress is still going to have you know considerably fewer women than the Australian Parliament, considerably fewer and we’re not that great but we’re a lot better than they are even after all this effort so – and the reason we are better than that is all because of what Labor did you know 20 odd years ago in introducing quotas, something which the conservative side of politics just you know can’t bring themselves to even contemplate.
The only way in which you get more women into these positions is by deciding it’s going to happen and finding mechanisms to make it happen and they can be targets, they can be quotas, they can be you know legislation, they can be whatever but it’s not going to happen by accident as the experience of the Liberal Party in this country federally has shown. It hasn’t happened and in fact the reverse has happened because some of the women who’ve already been elected have now lost their seats or have resigned or you know weren’t preselected again and so the numbers of women in that House of Representatives on the conservative side will actually go down after the next election whereas Labor’s probably going to hit 50%. So you know the same principle applies to boards but obviously it’s a kind of a different mechanism involved there. But if we want to have more women – if women are going to represent – be truly represented in the decision-making bodies of our country as they should be it’s not going to happen by accident, we have to make it happen.
G: And I think with that argument –
A: And we can, there’s no reason why we can’t, we just have to want to.
G: I’d love to think about this argument on merit, inferring that every bloke who’s in parliament is a shining example of rectitude, probity and sheer outstanding talent –
A: Barnaby Joyce.
G: Barnaby Joyce, yeah. Final question I think up the back.
Au: Thank you very much indeed for your presentation. I came back in – from North America with a copy of the McGraw-Hill’s Guide for Authors, Editors and Publishers and sent it to the AGPS and said the style manual should be changed and it’s my understanding that you then wrote the section on inclusive language which I think makes a great deal of difference to the way we view the different genders and so on. So I’m just wondering what your views are now to the extent to which that had an effect on – there was an enormous controversy afterwards on the way that women have been treated in Australia.
A: On the style manual.
A: Well you got a good memory. Better than mine. All I remember is that when I was in the Office of Status of Women I used to get you know invited to be on lots of different things ‘cause it was all very politically the go back then and I was on the committee that rewrote the Commonwealth Style Manual to make it non-sexist and non – we didn’t use the word gender back then but we – to make it – all legislation back then used the male pronoun, I mean so one of the things we addressed was the use of pronouns back when there was just two. And I hope it had an effect but it’s not something I really studied so I can’t say but I mean I think it was a good thing that it was done and it certainly was a great statement of intent on the part of government and that part of the bureaucracy, that they wanted the language of government to more fairly reflect the full population.
G: I think we’ve finished. Anne Summers, many thanks.
A: Thanks very much, thank you.
M: And Anne, just having talked about 50/50 I’m thinking that the next time you visit us to speak at the Library I’m really hoping that the audience is a 50/50 audience because I don’t think I can quite believe that the composition of our audience is just because women are better organised and hit the book button faster than others so – because in fact of course your life, your achievements and what you’ve written about are actually lessons for the men and women of Australia and it’d be nice to have that heard too.
Now copies of Unfettered and Alive are available up in the Library’s bookshop with a 10% discount and Anne has very kindly agreed to sign copies of these so we’ll bring her a drink at the same time so that she’s not dry but I’d like to thank you all for coming here this evening and ask you just to join me again in thanking Dr Anne Summers and Genevieve Jacobs and invite you to all come up for some refreshments in our foyer. Thank you.
A: Thank you, thank you so much, that was great.
G: My pleasure, I really thoroughly enjoyed -
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