1945 - | NSW | Activist, reporter and editor
For 50 years, Anne Summers was one of the leaders of the generation and the movement that changed Australia for women. In the early 1970s, she established Australia’s first women’s refuge. Then she was an outstanding journalist. Among her best reports was an expose of the NSW prisons system in the National Times, which led to a Royal Commission. In 1987, she was appointed editor of the feminist magazine Ms in the US and led a management buyout of the magazine the following year. Summers was editor of Good Weekend magazine, and a Fairfax columnist. She was head of Prime Minister Hawke’s office of Status of Women from 1983 to 1986.
Some things about journalism never change. There should have been a noble reason why Anne Summers got her first reporting job at The National Times. Nope.
The then editor Max Suich was “very uninterested’’ in hiring her because she was from Sydney University. As Summers tells it: “He said he didn’t want any f...ing academics on the paper and I assured him I wasn’t a f…ing academic.’’
It took Max all of two seconds to recognise what he actually had; she was no white-coated ivory-towered academic, but a journalist with a heightened sense of injustice who knew how to shine light in places that needed illumination. Her words were spare, razor-sharp and hit their targets like a stealth bomber.
Summers was one of Australia’s biggest feminist brands – for more than 50 years she led a generation pushing to change the place of women in Australian society. In the 70s, she helped found Australia’s first women’s refuge and began to write and speak about issues she believed the media weren’t covering. Many were at times controversial – like early brilliant joint investigations into the culture of rape in some parts of Australia or more recently her strident criticism of the way the Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, was treated.
She may have wanted to change the world in a day but the Summers revolution was all logic, force of argument and razor sharp words. She’s never budged in all those decades, never tired, never sold out. I’m sure when her classic book Damned Whores and God’s Police was published she didn’t think she’d still be talking about issues like equal pay 40 years later but she still does so because (damn it) the problem still needs fixing.
She’s indefatigable. There’s her website, the books, speeches, magazines, journalism, campaigns, conversations, the Twitter feed and Anne Summers Reports. With others it could feel earnest but with her it doesn’t. She does everything with the cheeky love of the stir. She doesn’t talk about Anne Summers Reports any more. She calls it ASR now and has been “quite amazed’’ that no-one said ‘you are up yourself’ or ‘what a wanker’ about the original title.
Summers takes the mickey out of herself beautifully. She has the same name as a main street sex chain in the UK called Ann Summers. The Duchess of Cornwall laughed uproariously when she was introduced to the real Anne Summers a few years ago. The real Summers even went to one of the shops in the 70s and asked if her friend could photograph her under the sign “Ann Summers for sexual satisfaction.’’ They didn’t see the joke and threw her out.
Dr Anne Summers AO has a CV to dream of. She is a best-selling author, journalist, and to use that awful American term, “a thought leader” with a long career in politics, the media, business and the non-government sector in Australia, Europe and the United States. She’s been on a postage stamp as an Australian legend and describes her first book as her biggest break because people started to take her seriously.
She didn’t grow up as an activist. She recalls life in Adelaide as dull and dreary with ‘’women at home doing housework’’. She knew she had to escape from that stifling place and get to Sydney where she could become a writer and journalist. Nothing came easy. She went to university, started scouting for freelance assignments, made contact with the fledgling women’s movement, found some digs, finished that classic book and then made her name on The National Times with ground breaking investigations. She had planned to immediately write a follow up but journalism beckoned.
Later she became Canberra bureau chief for the Australian Financial Review (‘’you’d get to work at 10 in the morning and leave at midnight”) and then the paper’s North American editor. Much later, she edited Good Weekend magazine for Fairfax at a time when a cover profile was never a puff piece but told you what made the subject tick.
Her influence has been beyond Australia. In 1987, she moved to New York where she worked as editor-in-chief of America’s landmark feminist magazine Ms. In 1988, with business partner Sandra Yates, she bought Ms. and Sassy magazines in the second only women-led management buyout in US corporate history.
She wasn’t too scared to cross over from journalism to the other side. She was an advisor to Prime Minister Paul Keating and ran the Office of the Status of Women from 1983 to 1986 for Prime Minister Bob Hawke.
Summers won her first Walkley award while I was still at school. I re-read Damned Whores and God’s Police before writing this and second time around was astonished at the insights I had missed as a young women. You know you have a classic on your hands when the 40th anniversary of the book’s publication is marked by a star studded three-day conference.
Journalists essentially divide into two types – the impartial observer and those who have no fear of making themselves part of the story. Anne Summers is firmly in the second camp. And when she believes she doesn’t mince words. This is what she said about the treatment of Julia Gillard as Prime Minister: “It is difficult not to conclude that we Australians are … simply incapable of accepting a woman in charge of our country.’’
As always, it wasn’t cheap words and as usual she didn’t run away from a fight. It was a step by step, point by point argument – crafted with a surgeon’s helicopter gaze. Summers didn’t care whether we liked Julia Gillard. She didn’t care if we hated her. She just thought the way we treated her was different to previous male PMs. And that was something Summers believed passionately needed to change. Why? Because Australia would be a better place if it did.
Jill Baker has never been on a postage stamp. She has edited two newspapers (The Sunday Age and Sunday Herald Sun). She was group publisher at ACP and publishing director at Random House. She won a Walkley award, the Keith Murdoch award and the Melbourne Press Club Gold Quill for a feature article on her diagnosis with breast cancer after the unexpected death of her husband.
Courtesy of ABC
Damned Whores and God’s Police: The Colonization of Women in Australia, Anne Summers, Penguin Australia, 1975
Anne Summers' website