Women pay the penalty
The Misogyny Factor
By Anne Summers NewSouth, 182pp, $19.99
IN Australian culture, the most forceful term of abuse is a word for the vulva. The original word, etymologically connected to similar words in a number of languages, has connotations of reverence and awe, acquiring its power to shock and its aura of obscenity only in recent centuries.
Yet Australia has women in key roles: prime minister and governor-general, High Court judges and university vice-chancellors. There are more women graduating from tertiary institutions than men. Then there are little girls struggling to run, climb and play because they are dressed in tutus, and older girls wrestling with self-loathing, restricting their eating and miserably focused on their perceived physical imperfections, distracted from exploring their abundant potential and opportunities.
Amid this knot of progress and backlash, Anne Summers in The Misogyny Factor poses the question: ‘‘ Why have we Australians denied ourselves the benefits of equality?’’ Summers’s perspective is that of someone whose rich working life has revolved around women’s rights. Her doctoral research resulted in the publication of Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975). With its revised editions, it has sold more than 100,000 copies. The book illuminates a continuing characterisation, traceable back to a Judeo-Christian binary that situates women as versions either of Mary Magdalene or the Virgin Mary.
Lucid and persuasive, Summers’s book was a central work in exposing sexist discourses and inspiring social change. It followed work such as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (1963) and Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970), and continued the vigorous debates of second-wave feminism.
Twenty years later, Summers asked: ‘‘ Where are the books or the articles by young Australian women setting out their thoughts, seizing control of the debates, tweaking the noses of the old guard?’’ That same year, Helen Garner’s The First Stone (1995), about a sexual harassment case at the University of Melbourne’s Ormond College, opened one part of these debates, soon taken up in bodyjamming (1997), a collection of responses edited by Jenna Mead.
Mead’s multifarious collection includes pieces by Elspeth Probyn and Amanda Lohrey, satirical contributions by Kaz Cooke and Judy Horacek on victim-blaming, and a piece by then-senator Natasha Stott Despoja about the undermining effects of media obsession with her physicality.
The Misogyny Factor originated in two speeches Summers delivered last year, a year she describes as ‘‘ the best year for Australian women since 1972’’, when the Whitlam government was elected and responded positively to a plan for equality proposed by the women’s movement. Summers delivered Her Rights at Work, now known as ‘‘ the Newcastle speech’’, as the University of Newcastle Human Rights and Social Justice Lecture. The speech focused on the ways Julia Gillard is ‘‘ attacked, vilified [and] demeaned in ways that are specifically related to her sex’’.
A version of the speech is the fulcrum of The Misogyny Factor, and Summers goes on to explore the numerous ways it coincided with and contributed to waves of action. Significantly, Summers’s speech was followed by Gillard’s ‘‘ misogyny’’ speech in parliament on October 9.
Before this, on the day Summers drove to Newcastle to deliver her address, Sydney broadcaster Alan Jones complained women — principally Gillard, but also Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and former Victorian police commissioner Christine Nixon — were ‘‘ destroying the joint’’.
Summers charts the reinvention of the phrase, beginning with a tweet sent by the writer, social commentator and University of Western Sydney lecturer Jane Caro, who quipped: ‘‘ Got time on my hands this Friday night so am sitting around coming up with