Author Anne Summers.
Author Anne Summers.

Anne Summers has done it all, and wants others to as well

Policy maker, political adviser, board member, editor, journalist, publisher, political advocate and author. Dr Anne Summers has fulfilled all of these roles, and embraced the challenges as well as the triumphs.

Her latest book, Unfettered and Alive: A Memoir, is the exhilarating story of a life that has included everything from advising prime ministers and leading feminist debates to presiding over Greenpeace International and writing influencing books.

She also frankly explores her own family story, personal anxieties and mistakes.

"I have been very fortunate to have so many opportunities and to be able to do so many different jobs and to travel the world many times over,” Summers explains.

"I sometimes pinch myself and think, 'Did I really do that'?'”

Summers is a leader of the generation and the movement that has improved women's rights in Australia.

Her first book, Damned Whores and God's Police, published in 1975, changed the way Australia viewed women. The bestseller has been reprinted many times and updated in 1994 and 2002. A new edition was published on International Women's Day 2016.

Her contribution to society has earned her five honorary doctorates and in 1989 she became an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for service to journalism and women's affairs. She won a Walkley Award for her journalism in the same year.

Summers, who co-founded Elsie, the first women's refuge in modern Australia, says by sharing her stories in Unfettered and Alive she hopes to encourage people, especially younger women, to have the courage and drive to achieve an extraordinary life.

"As I write in the book, I have had my fair share of setbacks and I haven't always succeeded, but I have taken the good with the not so good,” she says.

"As it states on the back (of my book), 'I was born into a world that expected very little of women like me. We were meant to tread lightly on the Earth, influencing events through our husbands and children, if at all.'

"Well that is what I grew up with, that notion of treading lightly, but I managed to turn my life into something else - something I am very proud of.”

Summers has had many accolades, but one she believes her late mother Eileen Cooper would be proud of is her image on a postage stamp. In 2011 Summers, along with three other women (Eva Cox, Germaine Greer and Elizabeth Evatt) who made their mark in advancing gender equality, joined the ranks of great Australians to appear on a stamp.

"She would have loved that,” Summers says with a throaty laugh.

postage stamps anne summers
Anne Summers appeared on a postage stamp in 2011.

Summers grew up as the eldest of six children in a strict Catholic household.

She says her father's alcoholism and violent moods taught her to be tough. That resilience put her in good stead for life.

Asked what had been her most fulfilling role to date, Summers replied: "I always take the view that whatever I am doing at the moment is my favourite thing. I don't want to say one experience or role was better than the other. Everything has been interesting, everything has been different.”

Summers says reforms passed in the Queensland Parliament last month removing abortion from the criminal code was a major win for women. "This is critical for women's rights. It is one of the most fundamental rights a woman needs in order to be in charge of her life and everything she does.

"She has to be able to decide when she is ready to have a baby.”

Summers says that although much has been achieved in women's rights over the past four decades, the fight for women's equality is far from over.

"The changes in women's workforce participation and women's education have been hugely dramatic in the past 40 years.

"And that has made a phenomenal difference to women. If a woman has education, a skill, if she can get a job and earn her own money, that gives her a degree of independence which was unheard of in the previous generation of women.

"There are still a lot of challenges though. Women still don't get equal pay, they still don't get promoted on par with men, and they still don't get all the opportunities we should have.

"We are in a better position than we were before when it comes to employment but that has thrown up a lot of other issues that as a society we have been pretty slack at addressing.”

Summers says childcare reform should be a priority.

"We spend a fortune on childcare in this country and the system is hopeless and it doesn't work,” she says.

"We haven't actually thought through what support systems need to be in place to allow women to fully participate in the economy.

"The idea that women should sacrifice their lives and their careers because they have given birth to a baby is something we have to get over.

"Men have to be involved. If men's jobs were as disrupted as women's jobs because of children, we would sort the issue of childcare out super quick.”

With the increase in the number of women participating in the workforce, the spotlight has been shone on the #MeToo movement which has highlighted the issue of harassment of women in the workplace.

"One of the things that is so significant about #MeToo is even though it was started by Hollywood actors complaining about a Hollywood producer, those stories still resonated with women everywhere no matter what job they have and the role they hold,” she says.

"Whether it is a Hollywood producer or a man running the local factory or running a restaurant or whatever, #MeToo resonates with women.

"Women are sharing the most horrible stories of what they have had to put up with in their workplaces. Nobody has really spoken about it until now.”