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Author Q&A: Anne Summers on Australian women’s history

And while it’s not exactly the same now as it was in 1994, it’s not a huge amount of change since then I would say – maybe some numbers have changed and, you know, we’ve had our first female prime minister, we’ve had our first governor-general. We’ve had a few important landmarks. But I think the same basic set of values and attitudes are pretty much the same.

What I’ve tried to do in the 2016 introduction is to look at whether or not the ‘damned whore’ or ‘God’s police’ stereotypes still persist, and I argue that they do.

The other thing I’ve done is – and I think this is hopefully going to be useful for students and anyone who’s writing about women’s history – to update the timeline of women’s achievements that first appeared in the 2002 edition. It goes back to 1788 and ends in November 2015 with Michelle Payne riding the winner of the Melbourne Cup, the first woman to do so. So it’s a really good checkpoint. You can go and see, you know: when did the first Australian woman win an Academy Award, when did the first woman get into parliament, when did we first get certain legislation and many, many more facts. I wanted it to be a really useful reference point for checking when these things happened.

A Women's Liberation march in Hyde Park, Sydney, 11 March 1972. Courtesy State Library NSW, ID d7_45738.
A Women’s Liberation march in Hyde Park, Sydney, 11 March 1972. Courtesy State Library NSW, ID d7_45738.

IH: What resources did you use when researching these milestones?
Anne: I had a researcher help me update the timeline. We used a combination of printed sources, parliamentary sources, and of course whatever we could find online to add to the basic Timeline events and appointments since 2002. We also added a new category, ‘Domestic and Family Violence’, to the existing categories of ‘Child care and parental leave’, ‘Fertility control’ and ‘Political rights’ so it is easy to find information on these specific subjects.

At the end, we’ve got a list of ‘Still to come’. Back in 2002, we had first female prime minister ‘still to come’. Well, we’ve ticked that one. Now we’re still waiting for: first leader of the federal opposition, first Archbishop of the Anglican and Catholic churches; first chief of the Australian defence force; first Chief Justice of Australia; first premier of South Australia (even though South Australia was the first state to give women the vote, it’s the only state that hasn’t had a woman premier); and finally equal pay for all employed women.

IH: It’s quite staggering to hear the round-up.
Anne: Exactly, exactly. And the other thing that I’ve added to the timeline this year that wasn’t in the previous one, but we thought it was so important: and that is we added in a timeline on domestic and family violence.

IH: How would you rate Australia in terms of our appreciation of women’s history?
Anne: Oh, I think we’re pretty ignorant of women’s history. I mean, I know we have a women’s history month but it doesn’t really get much attention. In the United States, it’s something that the president makes a proclamation about and it’s something that’s supported by the key institutions of American society, particularly in Washington. We’ve got nothing like that here. And that’s a great shame, because I think women’s history ought to celebrated and ought to be a field of living study that we continue to build on.

IH: What would you say we can learn by studying women’s history that the traditional approach perhaps doesn’t offer to the same degree?
Anne: Well, you know, it is a big question but it is the question because one of the things we can learn from history is, first of all, about who we are today and the forces that have shaped us.

That is why when I originally wrote this book back in the ’70s, my original idea was to try and form an understanding of how it was that the idea that mateship was seen as such a fundamental theme of our society. Why was everything built around men and their relationships with each other? Women barely got a look in.

That was my starting point, and then it became a much broader project when I decided to look at the question: why are some women regarded as good women and some women as bad women? How does that all work? To understand how that was and why that had occurred and why it persisted, I think, taught us a lot about ourselves.

I think you have to understand your own history if you’re ever going to change it.

And that’s a continuing project because obviously things change. One of the things that I say in the new 2016 introduction is, “Ok, let’s look at who are the ‘damned whores’ of 2016?” Back when I wrote the book 40 years ago – originally, of course, it was the female convicts. But then in 1975 I said the women who were regarded as the ‘damned whores’ of that era were really prostitutes, lesbians (and at the time you did not speak about lesbians; they were very much a hidden part of society, nothing like today), and women in prison. They were the three categories of ‘bad women’ then.

So the question I set myself this time, I said, ‘Well, okay, we wouldn’t really say that these categories are “bad” today, so who are the “bad women” today, and how do you even ask the question when, you know, we have girls walking down the street against slut-shaming wearing virtually no clothes – how does that all work?”
Today the big question is: who are the women who are the ‘other’, the ones who are regarded as not being part of mainstream society? We have various reasons for shunning these women. I’ve argued that today it’s not so much the women who are sexually active and sexually shunned like it was with lesbians or prostitutes; today it’s more likely the women who cover themselves so completely that we can’t see how they relate to our society. I’m talking about women in burqas or hijabs.

When the Syrian refugees were announced to be coming here – not that they’ve come yet – the government made it clear that they didn’t want single men, they only wanted married women and children. And this is sort of harking back to the Caroline Chisholm days where women were seen as a civilising force and, you know, men were disrupters of society.

So I’m asking the question, well, is this the way we’re seeing refugees? It’s not enough to say that, “Those single men might include terrorists!” Well of course they might, but so might the women –  there are plenty of women terrorists. So it’s raising a whole lot of questions that are hopefully a little bit uncomfortable, things that we don’t like to talk about, but that I think we should.

IH: You touched on how far we’ve got to go, and I think your checklist for what we’re still waiting for is a really good starting point. Is there anything else you’d like to add in terms of what, in another 40 years’ time, you’d like to look back and see that we’ve achieved since today?
Anne: Well yes, I mean there are three critical things that women must have in order to be independent and to have any chance of enjoying full equality. First thing, is they’ve got to be able to control their fertility and decide when and if they’re having children – and that means they have to have access to safe, reliable contraception backed up by safe and reliable abortions.

Secondly they’ve got to have economic self-sufficiency, and that means having the right sort of education to get a good job and getting equal pay.

Thirdly, they’ve got to be free from violence. So they’re the three things that women have to have. And we still don’t have those things, unfortunately – not completely. We might have some of them to some degree, but we don’t have all of them.

And I think the other thing, and it sort of relates to that, is that women have to understand that they’ll never be equal until they surrender the childcare function: it has to be shared equally with men. A lot of women don’t want to give it up and that’s why they work part time. It’s the one sphere where they’re in control, and they don’t want to give it up. And therefore that’s why they only work part time, that’s why they get less money – that’s why, you know, their whole lives are predicated on that inequality. I think that has to change; it should take two to raise a child.

The 2016 edition of Damned Whores and God’s Police by Anne Summers (NewSouth, $39.99) is out now. Plus, hear Anne in conversation with Deputy Opposition Leader Tanya Plibersek MP at the State Library of NSW this afternoon.  


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