'My basic proposition is equality'

<i>Daily Life's </i> Clementine Ford with national treasure Anne Summers at her home in Sydney's Potts Point.

Daily Life's Clementine Ford with national treasure Anne Summers at her home in Sydney's Potts Point. Photo: Ben Rushton BGR

At just under an hour, Anne Summers' stirring "Her Rights At Work" speech has been viewed over 7,500 times online since its broadcast in August and read by over 100,000 people.

In typical Summers fashion, she presented to a stunned audience example after example of sexualised attacks endured by Julia Gillard since she took office.

It's an approach in keeping with the impressive body of work produced by Summers in her almost 50 years of activism. In addition to her seminal 1975 book Damned Whores and God's Police: The Colonisation of Women in Australia, Summers has authored five other books and the soon-to-be released The Misogyny Factor.

Anne Summers at her home in Sydney.

Anne Summers at her home in Sydney. Photo: Ben Rushton BGR

Her 2002 book The End of Equality outlined the assaults made on women's legislative rights under the Howard government, including the systematic attack on mothers' ability to re-enter the workforce by reducing Keating's child-care rebate and changing the terms of the Childcare Assistance payment.

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Her bestselling autobiography, Ducks on the Pond, is an unflinching account of life unfolding under the winds of change, which includes an eloquent description of her illegal abortion.

Summers is also a Walkley Award-winning journalist (her 1975 story on NSW prisons led to a royal commission) and a former editor of Ms. magazine.

<i>Daily Life</i> blogger Clementine Ford chats with Anne Summers.

Daily Life blogger Clementine Ford chats with Anne Summers. Photo: Ben Rushton

Under the Hawke government, she headed the Office for the Status of Women. She is an Officer of the Order of Australia and holds two honorary doctorates for her work to improve the lives of Australian women.

So you can appreciate that I was, to use Australian slang, "crapping my daks" at the thought of interviewing such a monolith of Australian feminist history for Daily Life's birthday.

For almost two hours, we sat and discussed the issues facing feminism today, and the failure so far of what Summers calls "the equality project" to achieve its goals:

Clementine Ford: It seems as if legislative equality has convinced people that social equality exists, when in fact there is a more pervasive and insidious sexism now?

Anne Summers: Why is it that 40 years after we put the equality project on the national agenda through Gough Whitlam, we've made so little progress? We knew about misogyny, but we assumed that if we changed the laws and had women everywhere doing everything, then people's attitudes would be changed and society would be changed. But it just hasn't. And that's been the big shock. I mean, it's illegal to sack women for being pregnant and it's illegal to pay them less – but those things happen every day.

The night that Julia [Gillard] made her speech [about misogyny, in Parliament], every single ABC program had a presenter pulling out a dictionary to define misogyny. And everyone rushed to talk about how "Tony Abbott has three daughters!" as if that meant anything!

CF: What are your thoughts on the women's movement as it is today?

AS: The women's movement has been a kind of amateur movement. We've never really professionalised it. No one agrees with me, but I still think we should form ourselves as a professional lobby group the way that the miners do and the farmers do. We have various women who do that, but they tend to be segmented. They represent certain types of women rather than a broader group.

We should have an outfit like a think tank that does research, with a spokesperson who lobbies on behalf of women professionally. This is stuff we used to do inside government, but government no longer wants that. So we should do it outside, and put the big pressure on.

CF: Would it be possible to organise all the strains of feminism into one think tank? The movement seems sadly beset at the moment by distracting in-fighting over who gets to speak for whom and how the different ideologies within it compete against each other.

AS: The problem is, we think we're an ideology and we're all about rights and we have to worry about each other's sensibilities. But out there in the real world, what's happening?

CF: It reminds me of the rise in "Choice Feminism", the idea that every choice is feminist by virtue of the fact a woman has been allowed to make it. Are we distracting ourselves by focusing too much on this?

My basic proposition is equality. It used to be liberation, but now I'm more pragmatic. If we could achieve equality, that'd be pretty f---ing amazing.

In order for women to have a meaningful shot at it, there are two basic elements. The first is financial self-sufficiency, which gives us choices about who we live with (if anyone), and the ability to leave if we don't like where we've ended up. The second is the ability to control our fertility – when, where and if we're going to have kids.

If you're not in control of your life, you're dependent upon other people who've determine things for you. But we seem to be getting distracted from these fundamentals. I was at a feminist conference a few years ago and they spent an hour arguing if the food should be vegan!

And I'm going to add a third one. We have to be free from violence. There's a normalisation of violence; that it's part of our society. Now we have a special provision for leave in the award [scheme] if you're a victim of domestic violence. There are more than 150,000 public servants whose awards cover domestic violence leave. It is tragic that this is necessary. We have to be pragmatic about this to save lives. But that doesn't mean that we should accept that violence is going to be with us forever. It hasn't gone down any less.

CF: It's about political will as well. I remember working for an organisation in Adelaide a few years ago, and we were campaigning for the institution of a domestic violence death review panel in SA. We were told in no uncertain terms that it wasn't something the Attorney-General would be interested in.

AS: We have to continually stress that it's women and children whose lives are disrupted. It's the main cause of homelessness in women in Australia. And I think we should treat men who are convicted of domestic violence the same way we treat pedophiles.

You don't hire them to write columns, you don't reward them for their behaviour. There are a lot of famous men out there who have been convicted of domestic violence. And it's just tolerated. "He didn't mean it", or "He's sorry". We have to shine a light on the reality of it, however painful it is, because it's the first step to addressing it.

CF: What are your thoughts on the government's changes to the single parent payment scheme [moving parents on these payments to the Newstart unemployment allowance once their youngest child turns eight]?

AS: I just find it inexplicable. I understand where Gillard is coming from – she firmly believes women are better off with jobs. And I agree with her in theory.

But in practice, single mothers with young children don't find it as easy to get jobs, particularly given that our childcare system is so terrible. This is one of these examples where the theory and the practice are on a collision course. The changes to the scheme were done to remove an anomaly in the system, but politically and in terms of humane treatment of a disadvantaged group, it's absolutely the wrong thing to have done.

CF: How can it be repaired?

AS: They have to raise the Newstart allowance for everybody, not just single parents. But they need to have some special kind of allowance or payment for single parents to ensure their incomes don't suffer. To lose $100 a week is a lot of money for anyone – but if you're living on the margins of life, that's an absolute fortune."

CF: It occurs to me that one of the most important things we can do in Australia is to make it a shameful thing for fathers to not be equally involved in parenting.

AS: There is a deep-seated view in Australia that women can work, but not once they have children. For example, only 38 per cent of educated "Gen X" women [born between about 1960 and 1980] are in full-time jobs compared to 90 per cent of educated Gen X men.”

CF: I knew a stay-at-home-mum who didn't choose to take on that role. I've always felt that she would have been much happier if she'd been empowered to work.

AS: People really underplay the incredible self-esteem that comes from having your own income. No matter what the job is, you're outside of the domestic sphere so you have an identity separate to that. You have people who relate to you in a way that isn't as a wife or a mother.

Even if you spend most of your income on childcare, you are developing an attachment to the workplace that will eventually reward you with your own money and superannuation. [Statistics suggest women born now will typically retire with $1 million less than their male counterparts.] It makes women feel differently about themselves. You develop friendships or collegial relationships, so it gives you access to a life outside domesticity.

CF: Financial independence seems to be key to helping to liberate women from violent domestic situations. So why do we spend so much time encouraging mothers to stay out of the workforce?

AS: [Victoria Police Chief Commissioner] Ken Lay delivered a fantastic speech at White Ribbon Day last year, where he reinforced that violence happens across the board – over 100 calls a day are made to Victoria Police reporting incidents of domestic violence, every ten minutes.

Those are just the ones reported. In his speech, he said this happens from poorer areas to Toorak. He specifically mentioned Toorak. So you must never make the mistake of thinking violence is a working-class problem. It's about men wanting to control women. A lot of violence really is payback for women having independence.

CF: What can we expect from your new book The Misogyny Factor?

AS: It arose out of a speech I gave at the Fraser Oration last year in July. I laid out the idea of the equality project and how it had failed, and I was approached by my publisher to write a short book. Then "Her Rights At Work" happened, so it's a combination of these two things.

CF: What is your advice for the modern generation?

AS: We have to get back to those three key things – financial self-sufficiency, freedom of reproductive rights and stopping domestic violence. We have to have safe and effective contraception and access to safe and legal abortion. The unfinished business here is that abortion in NSW and Queensland is still listed as a criminal offence. You can get an abortion if you need one, but at the moment that could change, so we need to fix that up.”

CF: We've been overcome by complacency.

AS: Yes, but also distracted. There are certain lifestyle issues we need to consider. It's very important that we have the right to wear what we like on the street, but more fundamental is the right to earn our own money to even buy clothes to walk down the street in.

Personally, I'm not interested in the issue of women on boards, but the fact that women aren't on boards is symptomatic of everything else. "Slutwalk" [marches that defend a woman's right to dress as she wishes and protest the culture of victim-blaming] is important, but that isn't my issue either. My issue is that we still don't have equality in this country. All of these other things are connected, but they have to build up on the basics.

Anne Summers' book The Misogyny Factor is out in May, through New South Press. You can read more of her work at her website, annesummers.com.au. Follow her on twitter on @summersanne.