Anne Summers’ new memoir and the bitter struggle over memory narratives of feminism

Anne Summers photographed in 2013 with Julia Gillard. Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Anne Summers’ new memoir and the bitter struggle over memory narratives of feminism

Review: Unfettered and Alive by Anne Summers (Allen and Unwin)


Years ago, when I was young, I lived in an apartment in Sydney’s Potts Point that looked straight down into Anne Summers’ house. Summers had recently published her “Letter to the Next Generation” – and it’s likely that any discomfort not arising from the strange proximity of our urban views was directly attributable to this.

In the “Letter”, Summers famously wrote that she was “horrified” and “mortified” by the antics of women like my younger self – the wayward daughters of the revolution who had failed to measure up on the long tough march to gender equality.

The “Letter” drew its inspiration from years Summers spent as editor of Ms. magazine. Oddly enough, Summers’ new autobiography, Unfettered and Alive, is also shot through with the upheaval of these years and the aftermath of her falling out with US feminists Gloria Steinem and Susan Faludi.

Anne Summers. Kevin McDermott

Many harsh things are said in this book. It’s difficult to decide whether to praise its “breathtaking honesty” – as critics undoubtedly will – or draw back like a witness to some gruesome accident.

These are bitter struggles over the memory narratives of feminism.

Unfettered and Alive picks up where Summers’ earlier autobiography, Ducks on the Pond, leaves off. It’s the 1970s, a time when women’s choices are startlingly limited. Women earn just 65.2% of men’s salaries. The employment ads are divided into men’s and women’s jobs. Women are not allowed to drink in the front bar at pubs – they are banished to the ladies lounge.

Summers, age 30, is already a leading figure in the Women’s Liberation Movement that puts an end to all this. She is the author of one of the most significant early works of Australian feminist history, Damned Whores and God’s Police, and a co-founder of the inner-city women’s refuge, Elsie.

Later, she will be remembered as the head of the Office of the Status of Women, and a significant figure in the passage of the Anti-Discrimination Act and the battles over affirmative action, though only a chapter of the book is devoted to this.


Read more: Damned Whores and God’s Police is still relevant to Australia 40 years on – more's the pity


A writer at last

Summers starts her story in 1975, when she answers an advertisement for an “energetic self-starter” at The National Times, then under the “wily” editorship of Max Suich. Here, she quickly sets to work on the multi-feature series that gave fresh impetus to the royal commission into the state of NSW prisons, and wins her a Walkley.

Summers at the National Press Club during the 1980 CHOGM meeting in Australia directing a question at British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Allen and Unwin

Other more woman-focused stories follow. There’s the “gang bang” of a teenage girl at St Paul’s College, Sydney University. Another story, “How women are trained: if it’s not rape what is it?” reports on events in the Far North Queensland town of Ingham, where police openly acknowledge that 30 or 40 local women and children have been raped. “I reported it to police,” one girl told Summers, recollecting the first time she was gang-raped by five men at the age of 13. “But I didn’t have enough evidence. I wasn’t bruised enough.”

Working in Canberra as a political correspondent in the Fraser years, Summers is painfully honest about her fear of not doing the job well. “I can see the absolute terror in your eyes,” a reporter from a rival newspaper told her.

She reports walking out of a media conference held by Bill Hayden, in which the “alternative prime minister” decided to kick things off with a rape joke. “My colleagues didn’t seem bothered by such things,” Summers writes. Sexist behaviour went unchallenged and unnoticed because “it was the way things were back then”.

But Summers is also judgmental about other women in her memoir. In an atmosphere in which cabinet ministers chase female reporters around their desks, Summers recollects telling off a female reporter for wearing a “sexy outfit”. “I was very tough on a woman in my bureau who came to work one day with a dress that was slit practically to the waist.”

Confessions tumble across the pages: her breast-reduction surgery, the weight-loss regime that saw her drop 10kg and her pride in her “brand new body”. She talks about being brought up on a DUI charge when she took up her appointment at the Office of the Status of Women. She reveals her fondness for Robert Burton suits – it’s the era of the “femocrats” and big hair, shoulder pads and flats are in.

The 1980s are a time of epic change for women. New legislation and policy frameworks are put into place. Not everybody appreciated it. “One morning I found flung across the windscreen of my car a life-size plastic sex doll … ” Summers is alarmed, “not because this tawdry piece of plastic could hurt me but because whoever put it there could”.

‘I was the first Australian journalist to interview a US Secretary of Defence when I sat down with Caspar Weinberger in his office at the Pentagon in June 1986.’ Allen and Unwin

The Ms. Years

Summers arrived at the “shambolic offices” of Ms. magazine, on West 40th Street, New York, following the unexpected purchase of the iconic feminist publication by Fairfax in 1987. Summers calls the magazine “chaotic”. It operated like a feminist collective, she writes, in which “everyone appeared to be equal” and everybody had to do their own “shitwork”.

According to Summers, this “might have been okay for the women’s movement” but it was “no way to run a magazine”. But Ms. did not understand itself as just another media outlet. It was the printed vanguard of US feminism. It was – and still is – synonymous with the name of US feminist Gloria Steinem.

Summers put the entire staff on 60 days’ probation and fired three. But later in the chapter she adds: “I … should have cleared out the whole place.”

Summers set about giving the magazine an “80s lift”. This included increasing the focus on fashion, makeup advertisements, and the inclusion of a gardening page. She also embarked on a total redesign, including a new logo, masthead and an advertising campaign with the tagline, “We’re not the Ms. we used to be”. The ad featured a string of photographs showing an old hippie morphing into a young woman with a “glamorous 1980s look”.

It can’t have been an easy time. Steinem lost editorial control over the magazine as part of the financial arrangement. But, according to Summers, the magazine remained “almost neurotically dependent on Steinem”.

The relationship between the two women quickly became strained. Summers says she constantly questioned “the gap between Steinem’s rhetoric and the way she conducted herself”. The contents of Steinem’s apartment are said to be “disturbing”, including the covers on Steinem’s loft bed, which was draped in “flimsy white fabric” and a “set of physician’s weighing scales” in her kitchen, all of which are said to be “strange stuff for a feminist”.

Gloria Steinem receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom from then US President Obama in 2013. Shutterstock

It was the Hedda Nussbaum case that brought matters at Ms. to breaking point. When Joel Nussbaum murdered his six-year-old daughter and bashed his wife Hedda, debates raged in feminist circles as to whether Hedda should have been treated as an accomplice to her daughter’s death. Summers and Steinem took up opposed positions. Summers argued it was time to “stop excusing the behaviour of all battered women”. Steinem argued that Hedda was a “total victim” and believed the coverage was a “betrayal of everything Ms. had ever stood for”.

The decision to pull a close-up image of the heavily beaten Hedda off Ms’s cover remains a matter of controversy today. Summers writes that the photo was removed on the advice of her head of advertising sales who said: “We’ve just cracked the beauty category. You can’t do this to me.”

There was a lot of pressure around revenue. Summers and Australian colleague Sandra Yates had recently engaged in an audacious management buyout, after Warwick Fairfax announced his untimely decision to sell. According to Summers, Ms. advertisers wanted their customers to be “happy” not “challenged or confronted”. “… our only chance of survival was to meet or, if possible, exceed our advertising budget.”

Fraught decisions followed. “I was stricken when Barbara Ehrenreich proposed her next column be a satire on fast cars,” writes Summers. “I explained to her how sensitive and demanding these advertisers were, how we could not afford to lose them. Would she be willing to change topics?”

Ehrenreich, the acerbic social critic, refused.

The first edition of Susan Faludi’s global bestseller Backlash: the Undeclared War Against Women carried several pages attacking the editorial direction of Ms. under Summer’s leadership. Back in Australia, following the forced sale of the publication, Summers was “stunned”. There was “a tone to the writing that made it sound almost malicious”. She initiated a “tough” exchange of lawyer’s letters, demanding a rewrite of all subsequent editions of the book.

The entry now stands at around one page, which Summers quotes. Faludi writes:

The magazine that had once investigated sexual harassment, domestic violence, the prescription drug industry and the treatment of women in third world countries now dashed off tributes to Hollywood stars, launched a fashion column, and delivered the real big news – pearls are back.

An air of anxiety

Women who do not conform to certain gender ideologies fare badly in Summers’ book. Stay-at-home mums are berated for pushing baby buggies, young women are berated for “baking and doing craftwork”.

An air of anxiety runs through the remaining chapters. The months on Paul Keating’s staff end with Summers “sobbing with humiliation and rage” at the notorious “True Believer’s Dinner” that wound up costing $35,000. She had wanted Bob McMullan to be minister for women, and he had refused. She also didn’t think the unions at Parliament House ought to be paid for working through the $100 per ticket event.

Her period as editor of The Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Weekend magazine was also clouded when the MEAA took action to “protest my management style”, after Summers fired her deputy for “disloyalty” over a sexual harassment allegation. “I was not a mother, so I must be a whore,” writes Summers, explaining the ferocity of the attacks.

In 2013, Summers returned to address this same “widespread hostility towards women”, which had prominently manifested itself in the “woman-shaming” of the prime minister, Julia Gillard. In a new book, and a series of articles and interviews, she situated Gillard’s treatment as part of a continuing cultural pattern of “malicious and mendacious slurs” against high-achieving women.

Anne Summers (right) receives an honorary Doctorate of Letters from Pro-Chancellor Dorothy Hoddinott at the University of Sydney in 2017. Paul Millar/AAP

Women are immeasurably better off for the achievements set out in Summers’ book, despite some frightening backwards steps since, not to mention a failure to gain ground on childcare policy and the gender wage gap. Feminism has also become more flexible, opening itself up to longstanding critiques around class and race.

But it remains difficult for women to have their voices heard. Women in Australia who have spoken up on #MeToo are almost immediately threatened with defamation action – and some of them are being sued. Women of all ages still name family and domestic violence, workplace sexual harassment and street violence and harassment close to the top of their list of concerns.

Next to this, “doing craftwork”, wearing a split skirt, or covering your bed in “flimsy white fabric” – as Gloria Steinem undoubtedly did – doesn’t seem like much to worry about.

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