Anne Summers: 'I am not yet finished and I never will be'

Talking points

  • Anne Summers says there are political parties in this country who do still not accept the fact that women should work outside the home.
  • Anne Summers will be talking at the National Library of Australia on November 8 at 6pm. Tickets $20 includes refreshments. Bookings at nla.gov.au/events

Anne Summers is the first to admit she never stops. At 73, she’s not thinking about stepping down from an extraordinary career as a journalist, author, policy maker, political adviser, bureaucrat, board member, editor, publisher and political activist.

It’s tiring just reading her autobiography. I kind of wanted a chapter, to wrap up Unfettered and Alive: A Memoir, where she said this is it, that she's had her say, that she was ready to go quietly into the night.

But no. Anne Summers is unfettered and alive as ever.

Anne Summers:  “I was born into a world that expected very little of women like me.”

Anne Summers: “I was born into a world that expected very little of women like me.” Credit:Kevin McDermott

Just as her own spinster aunt Nance inspired a teenaged Summers to think beyond the confines of marriage and motherhood, Summers is still keen to inspire generations of women – and men she’s quick to say – that there is more to life than we are told.

“I was born into a world that expected very little of women like me,” she writes.

“We were meant to tread lightly on the earth, influencing events through our husbands and children, if at all.

“We were meant to fade into invisibility as we aged. I defied all of those expectations and so have millions of women like me.”

Speaking on the eve her Australian tour, Summers is full of passion. The book is her primary focus, it’s a 500-page account of her life which reads like a social history of the past 40 years, as well as being a fascinating insight into a woman who always pushed the boundaries.

Unfettered and Alive: A memoir. By Anne Summers. Allen & Unwin. $39.99.

Unfettered and Alive: A memoir. By Anne Summers. Allen & Unwin. $39.99.

“I never expected this life,” she says from New York, where she now lives with her long-term partner Chip Rolley, to whom the book is dedicated.

“But then I’ve never looked forward. I don't plan what I'm going to do, I prefer to concentrate on the now. I never had those kind of expectations, the book is about what I've done, not what’s to come.”

But it is in some sense about the present, and the future, I press her. Women are still fighting for equality, women still need a voice, the issues she faced as a young woman in male-dominated industries are still relevant. Has anything really changed?

“Yes, some of the stuff that happened 20 or 30 years ago is still very relevant, some of it depressingly so, that we haven't moved on enough, that we do need to keep thinking about things.”

She says Australia's conservative politics make her angry.

“There are political parties in this country who do still not, deep down, accept the fact that women should work outside the home,” she says.

“You can see that in their political representation, in their parties, they've made no effort to bring women in in any significant numbers.

“Women voices are not represented in the policy making areas of the parties so the policies don't reflect women's experiences or women’s views.

“It’s very apparent that a lot of them [are] particularly, well I call them misogynists, but they're also very stuck in the past with a view of women that goes back to the 1950s. It’s just ridiculous.”

For all her fervour there’s a certain gentleness to her. She’s humble in a way, not keen to look at the barriers she faced, rather thinking about the obstacles she worked hard to overcome.

Anne Summers and her long-term partner Chip Rolley.

Anne Summers and her long-term partner Chip Rolley. Credit:From Unfettered and Alive

“I like to look at what I did, how did I do it and what am I proud of,” she says.

“There are different answers according to which bit of my life we're talking about.

“For example, when I worked in the Press Gallery in Canberra the kinds of obstacles I encountered had nothing to do with me being a woman, it was more about being someone who was new to Canberra and new to political writing.

“I had a lot of inexperience to overcome, I also had a lot of political issues with the government of the day. I was in that job for five years so I learned to deal with these things.”

When she worked in the Office of Status of Women, from late 1983 to 1986, she felt stymied by the bureaucracy and the structure of government.

“They weren't personal obstacles but they were formidable.”

She has no regrets, she says.

“A lot of things didn't work out. I've suffered a lot of setbacks but if you're going to take risks you have to be prepared for failure.

“I failed at a number of things I've tried to do but that doesn't mean I regret having done them, it doesn't mean they were a waste of time.

“I was sad when we had to close my magazine Anne Summers Reports two years ago. I sent an email to my subscribers to let them know I didn't want to be judged on how long we lasted but how good we were.

“That's the way I look at things. You do the best you can at whatever you’re doing at the time, for however long you get the chance to do it.”

We do not know where we will end up, she writes.

“All I can say about myself is that I know I am not yet finished and I never will be.”

Unfettered and Alive: A memoir. By Anne Summers. Allen & Unwin. $39.99.

Anne Summers will be talking at the National Library of Australia on November 8 at 6pm. Tickets $20 includes refreshments. Bookings at nla.gov.au/events

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