Unfettered and Alive follows Anne Summers’ professional career, starting in 1975 when she’d just published Damned Whores and God’s Police. The book would become a seminal feminist text but at the time it was a liability for Summers, who was trying to convince newspaper editors that she wasn’t really an academic and she really wanted to be a journalist.
I heard Anne Summers speak a couple of years ago at the Melbourne Writers Festival. I have a shocking memory so I can’t remember exactly what the session was, except that it was something about women in journalism and it was fascinating.
Summers tells incredibly compelling stories and she’s lived such a full and fascinating life, there are plenty of stories to tell. So I was very excited to see a copy of her latest memoir (it’s not her first) show up in my mailbox a few months ago.
I soon learned that this is a book that needs to be read slowly. I usually finish a book in a few days, maybe a week. I’ve been chipping away at this one for about 6 weeks in between other (slightly lighter) reads. It’s incredible and it’s important but there’s so much to get your head around as a reader, you need time to absorb and process each chunk.
By the time I’d finished the first chapter of Anne Summers’ memoir (I think that took us up to about 1978) I’d been through reporting on prison brutality – where men were beaten weekly just as a matter of course. I’d learned about ‘training’ girls in Ingham, Queensland – where up to 50 girls were gang raped in a small town over a period of months or years. And I’d learned that the misogyny entrenched in men’s university colleges has barely changed in the past half-century despite being publicly exposed.
Summers decided she’d had enough of this type of reporting after doing an exposé on NSW police corruption. She was warned to fear for her own safety.
I can’t say I wasn’t selfishly relieved she decided it was time for a change.
From then on her career was an astonishingly varied whirlwind. Political reporting in the Canberra press gallery, senior public servant championing women’s rights in federal policy, foreign correspondent in the U.S., then magazine mogul – purchasing Gloria Steinem’s Ms. and trying to turn its financial fortunes around (but not succeeding). After that it was back to Australian politics as adviser on women’s policy to Bob Hawke and Paul Keating in the 1980s and early-1990s.
From the mid-1990s Summers was furious and stunned to watch as policies, programs and legislation she’d fought for were dismantled in what she calls ‘an appalling reversal of fortune for the women of Australia.’
Over 444 pages of writing on a wide range of topics it was this arc that struck me most. If you’ve been asking yourself: What went wrong for women in Australia? How did women gain so much – quality, subsidised childcare, the right to continue working after marriage and not be discriminated against in the workforce, equal pay – only to watch the gender pay gap actually increase in recent decades? Summers, being so close to the political centre of power, and with a focus on women’s policy, offers some keen insights.
Turning her back on politics again and returning to journalism, The Good Weekend was to be Summers’ professional home in the mid-1990s.
Then in 2000, after a lifetime championing women’s rights from political and journalistic platforms, Anne Summers did something rather different. She joined the Board of Greenpeace International, overseeing multi-million dollar budgets and governance which supported a core of environmental activism. Why? Because it was a new adventure and she was headhunted for it. She stayed there for 7 years.
Personally, I like to think it was the perfect resolution of Summers’ early career identity struggles. She comments that in moving between journalism and public service:
I had no idea how to reconcile being a realist and an idealist, an observer and an activist. Maybe it simply was not possible.
I highly recommend grabbing yourself a copy of Unfettered and Alive. It may take you several months to get through it, but it’s well worth the effort.
Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review.