I tend to be slow at re-reading books I’ve read before, so I’m still only half-way through re-reading Anne Summers’ 772 page Damned Whores and God’s Police, The colonisation of women in Australia – but on International Women’s Day 2017 I think this moment in history is a really good time to share what’s in the introduction to the reissued 2016 edition…
For those too young to have read the original edition when it was first published in 1975, this classic work of influential feminist thought analysed the stereotyping of women as
virtuous mothers whose function was to civilise society, or bad girls who failed to conform and were spurned and vilified as a result.
It’s a long book, even without the introductions and author’s notes to successive editions in 1994 and 2002; the ‘Letter to the next generation’ in the 1994 edition, and ‘the March of Women’ in the 2002 edition and the ‘Timeline of achievements by and for Australian women 1788-2015’. But despite so much societal change since 1975 much of the book is still relevant and I recommend it to anyone who wants to understand the obstacles to real gender equality. (Which should be everyone, IMO). If you need convincing, I recommend Susan’s review at Goodreads.
However, it is the call to arms in the introduction to the 2016 edition which is so pertinent now. Summers begins by addressing young people who simply do not know what it was like. (All women of my generation have stories of discrimination and patronising behaviour that draw gasps from anyone under 30. You mean, you were not allowed to apply for a job you had been doing for three months anyway, because it was classified as a man’s job?? You mean, you got paid substantially less to do exactly the same job as a man?? You mean that you had to leave your job if you got pregnant and start again at the bottom of a promotion-by-seniority ladder when your children were grown? Really, you were told you had to graduate in a long white (!!) gown??
This is how Summers puts it:
The Australia I wrote about in the early 1970s has not changed totally beyond recognition, but I expect young people today might be astonished to learn what life used to be like for women. Even as late as 1975, when this book was first published, there were so many things women were unable to do. Some of these restrictions were self-imposed, cultural restraints, but in many cases they were underpinned by an absence of laws to enforce equality.
Even though in 1975 we were three years into the Whitlam government – the first federal government to commit to and legislate for women’s equality – there was still no federal anti-discrimination. Nor were there any state laws outlawing discrimination. It seems almost unbelievable today, but until the late 1970s it was perfectly legal for women in Australia to be treated as inferiors. Jobs were classified by sex and advertised as being for ‘Men and boys’ or ‘Women and girls’. There was rarely any overlap between the offerings, which meant that women were excluded from even applying for many positions.
And there were certainly no laws governing how women were treated in the workplace. (p.2)
There wasn’t even a word for the sexual harassment that was a daily embarrassment when I worked at Myer as a sixteen year old, and if there had been, it would have done me no good to know it since there was no redress. I could leave their employment, and I did. But if all seven of us had left, a replacement seven would have had to put up with it just the same. And in leaving, I might have been jumping out of the frypan and into the fire, again with no redress. So when public figures snigger and call this ‘locker room talk’ as if to legitimise it, and when voters think this kind of attitude doesn’t matter much, it shows that we have a long, long way to go. And we’d better get busy because the standard we walk past is the standard we accept.
The words we use matter. It is unnerving to think how Summers might write this paragraph now, just a few short months after publication of this new edition. She is addressing women, but implicit in her words is the assumption that our present understandings weren’t gendered. Did we realise how fragile these gains might be?
…reading the book also reminds us how different much of our language is now. We can reflect on attitude changes of course, how we have enlarged out understanding of things, but our shift in language also represents our progress in identifying, through naming, issues and forms of oppression that we did not fully grasp 40 years ago.
It is almost disconcerting to realise how ill equipped we were back then to talk about many key issues. We now understand the importance of language in political struggle. Once you have a name for something, you can start to understand it, and to address it. …[…]…
There are many instances in the book of archaic language and usage. ‘Gay’ meant something else then. We used the word ‘domestics’ to refer to violence in the home. It was standard to use the term ‘Blacks rather than Indigenous Australians. …[…] … It seems extraordinary today, but in the mid-1970s we did not use terms like ‘domestic violence’, ‘sexual harassment’, ‘date rape’ or ‘glass ceiling’ – let alone ‘same-sex marriage’ – because they had not yet been coined. We had not yet given names to some things even though they certainly existed. (p.4)
Summers rejects today’s arguments about feminism – who is, who isn’t, what it is, what it isn’t:
I think our energies would be better directed towards addressing the issues of inequality and actually changing them, rather than worrying about what people do or do not call themselves. We would do better to measure women’s representation – be it in boardrooms or on bookshelves – and to concern ourselves with the substance of women’s equality and how we can accelerate its pace. (p.5)
And while she agrees that we need to measure ‘how far we have come’ and ‘how far we have to go’ , she also counsels against a preoccupation with measuring merely the easily measurable forms of progress. She says that the reason her book has lasted so long and still resonates today is because of an uncomfortable truth:
But today we do not talk so much about what in the book I called the ‘invisible barriers’ – the ways women limited themselves and collaborated with the culture of oppression. We need to resume that conversation because while we might have made major changes and mapped a path to full equality, I am not sure if we have sufficiently reinvented ourselves. (p.7)
She expands on this:
Many, if not most, women still accept, deep down that it is their role to be God’s Police. They believe they are responsible for the emotional, as well as the physical wellbeing of the family; it is their job to manage and monitor and, where necessary, censor the behaviour of their husbands and their children. And there is wide consensus, in Australia and elsewhere, that this is the way things should be. Many women today want to add to, and modernise the God’s Police role rather than redefine, let alone abandon, it completely.
I am struck by how many young women today, aged in their 30s and 40s with big, full-time jobs and two or three children, have chosen to take on additional domestic roles such as baking, sewing, preserving or other time-consuming (and, I would argue, unnecessary) tasks that once fully occupied women who had no choice but to be what we today like to call ‘domestic goddesses’. Why do these women feel the need to do this? Is it atonement for not being full-time mothers? Is it to demonstrate their economic role outside the home does not come at the cost of domestic accomplishments? Is it to head off criticism that they are neglecting their nurturing roles? How to explain the often torrid criticisms of working mothers by their stay-at-home counterparts over such issues as tuckshop rosters? Why on earth do so many women feel so compromised or defensive simply because they are exercising their option to pursue equality? (p.9)
I hear what she says about these additional domestic roles. I actually like cooking so for me these tasks that she has characterised as unnecessary chores were never burdensome, not even when I was a full-time working mother and studying part-time as well. I found it relaxing to switch off my brain and potter about with a mixing spoon. But yes, I did (and still do) feel a pressure to have a clean and tidy home as if (a) it’s my responsibility and (b) it is I who will be judged for it not The Spouse.
I hadn’t realised until I read this Introduction that there are forces in Australia, and globally, that would strip away what we have already won. Summers explains that there hasn’t been a UN conference on women’s rights since 1995 because of the fear that some principles – especially to do with reproductive rights – might not be reaffirmed. Summers articulates what many of my generation discuss with alarm:
that young women are going to have to take up that fight, and keep it going. They are going to have to fight to keep what we already have – what they grew up assuming was unassailable and irreversible – and they are going to have to fight to enable us to keep moving forward. (p.15)
Summers cites the shocking increase in violence against women as one reason why the fight has become urgent. Already the statistics she uses about the number of women murdered each week are out-of-date, but she contrasts the lack of action on this national crisis with the immediate political and legal response to random acts of violence resulting in the deaths of two boys in Sydney in 2014. More contentiously she also contrasts the practice of Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition attending the funerals of soldiers killed on active service, but not the funerals of women killed as a result of domestic terrorism.
When are we going to treat this as the national emergency it is? Or are we in a continuing state of deep denial about the true causes of this violence? No amount of political window-dressing or emergency packages of the kind we saw from federal and state governments in the latter part of 2015, will end the violence until we end the inequality. The two things are deeply and inextricably linked and we have to accept this – and act on it. (p.17)
Re-reading this book – for all that some parts of it are dated – is a powerful reminder of the mindset that underlies the problems that persist today. I’ve written nearly 2000 words just about the introduction!
Author: Anne Summers
Title: Damned Whores and God’s Police
Publisher: NewSouth, 2016
Source: Personal copy, purchased at the Bendigo Writers’ Festival $39.99
Available from Fishpond: Damned Whores and God’s Police and make sure you check the prices using Booko if you are considering buying from any of the global behemoths because the prices vary enormously.