Women pay the penalty

The Misog­yny Fac­tor

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

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

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