Unfettered and Alive by Anne Summers
Had I grown up in Australia, I’m sure Anne Summers would have been one of my heroes. Journalist, feminist, author, political adviser, activist, such a big Joni Mitchell fan that she named her new autobiography Unfettered and Alive? Sold, sold and sold.
However, being but a New Zealander, I was unaware of Summers until now – and discovering her has been a pleasure and an inspiration.
She published her first autobiography, Ducks on the Pond, back in 1999, and since that book looked at the first three decades of her life, here she jumps straight in at age 30. At first, I found this disorienting; I wanted to know how this already brilliant, already confident, already accomplished woman came to be. But as the book progressed, I found I could understand Summers through the lens of her career without needing the “origin story”.
As she leaps from one dazzling professional success to another, two things remain constant: her ambition and her idealism. We often act as if these traits are mutually exclusive, but they’re not, and I love that Summers makes no apologies for either. At one point, she recalls a friend’s assessment of her: “You’re only happy when you’re important.” It’s true, she writes. “For the past fifteen years … I had been in high-profile jobs, constantly in the spotlight, basking in the attention. It was who I was.”
Yet this is the same woman who describes, without a touch of disingenuousness, releasing helium balloons into the air on her 40th birthday and “[thinking] of them as representing our feminist dreams, able to soar to our full potential with no force able to stop us”. She likes being powerful, and she wants to make the world a better place. Why should those things be hard to reconcile?
Summers is at her most passionate writing about women, and she fights back against the idea that things are steadily getting better for us. “In the mid-1990s we had but the dimmest understanding of how profound the assault on us was going to be. In the second decade of the 21st century, we found the word [misogyny] needed to be revived to describe the surprising and distressing rise in public hostility to women, especially women in public roles.”
We see close-up how Summers’ own gender impacted on her career – how much harder she had to work, the many indignities she had to face. In the ’70s, when she was Canberra political correspondent for the Australian Financial Review, she was unable to report on a speech by the Prime Minister because the venue, the Queensland Irish Club, did not admit women. Around the same time, she attempted to buy her first house and was turned down by the bank because they didn’t lend to women, full stop. The next bank she tried agreed to the loan, but only if she had a male guarantor. “There was no income check on the person who signed,” she adds. “He just needed to be male.”
As well as idealism and ambition, Summers possesses that most vital of journalistic traits: a deep interest in the world around her. The book would have been a lot shorter than its 477 pages were it not for her thoughtful, comprehensive explanations of, well, everything: the news stories she covered, the government policy she helped create, the figures who influenced (or antagonised) her. Are the tangents all necessary? No, but they’re all interesting, and they leave the reader with a deeper understanding not just of one remarkable person but of an entire period in history.
Reviewer: India Lopez
Allen & Unwin, RRP $45