One of the things that I do like about Elizabeth campus library is that we have a good Womens’ Studies collection. We had to weed a lot of older material that was long unused, but there are still a goodly number of classic titles. This is one of them.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Anne Summers is rightly famous for her ground-breaking Damned Whores and God’s Police: the colonisation of women in Australia. Ducks on the Pond is her autobiography from 1945 until the publication of Damned Whores in 1975.
As exprected, Summers tells her story well, and there is a wealth of wonderful details on growing up in post-war Adelaide. Living not far from Cabra Dominican College, where she attended school, I was fascinated by her description of navigating a muddy and unpleasant Cross Road.
One of six children, her parents were devoutly Catholic. Summers’ relationship with her parents was never easy. Her father served as a pilot in the RAAF during the Second World War, and was an alcoholic. He was also, she discovered later, an informer for Australian domestic intelligence on post-war Communist political activity in Australia. One day, her father took the family to Port Adelaide when a Soviet passenger ship was in dock, and was bemused by his constant note-taking.
But despite the political gulf that separated them, glimmers of affectation shine through. Like many returned veterans, her father rarely talked about his war service. There were only ever glimpses of it. One day she rang him from Surabaya in Indonesia. When she described to him where it was he responded, ‘I know. I laid mines there during the war.’ When Damned Whores was published, she learned that he had visited local bookshops and surreptitiously rearranged stock to that her book was more prominently displayed.
I was fascinated by her descriptions of ANZAC Day because I remember similar experiences of not knowing when men would come home, nor how drunk they would be. She wrote;
It was the first time that I can remember being revolted by men’s behaviour, though I did not think to reproach the men themselves. I blamed the day. The day acquired a dignity in the 1990s that was missing in the 1950s.
Her insights into being raised as a Catholic in this period said a lot about why many moved away from the church in general (and not Catholicism in particular). One lesson, Summers’ class studied Saint Maria Goretti, an Italian peasant girl elevated to Sainthood in 1950. Stabbed 11 times by a would-be rapist rather than submit to his advances, she was promoted as a paragon of chastity. ‘Reading this, I could only conclude that the church valued our chastity more than our lives.’
Yet these values didn’t apply to men. Date rape was relatively common, and it seemed to her that it was Catholic boys who tended to be the worst culprits. Working for the National Civic Council (Bob Santamaria’s Catholic political movement) in Melbourne, Summers was fired because her dress sense ‘inflamed the men’.
The thing that really stands out is how little role women had in public life before the 1960s. ‘Women only got written about if they were murder victims or murderers, or had lax morals like a woman I remember only as Joan, a Sydney bus conductress who was engaged in a very public fight to keep the child she had given birth too out of wedlock.’
Ducks on the Pond charts the author’s political evolution through her student activism in opposition to the Vietnam war. Her descriptions of the birth of the Women’s Liberation Movement in the early 1970s were fascinating in their detail, and for description of the opposition that they faced. She was involved in setting up Australia’s first women’s shelter in Sydney, and the book is worth reading for this section alone. Yet they found it difficult to secure government funding, even from a reforming Whitlam government.
A Labor activist in the 1960s and 70s would usually have had some trade union exposure (I wonder if that’s the case now). The book’s title came from a phrase that Summers heard in the shearing sheds. It was a warning that women were present and that the hands had to behave themselves.
She herself benefited from industrial muscle. Summers was fired from her job at the Duke of Brunswick Hotel when the then-owner discovered that she was a student. In the hotel at the time was ALP parliamentarian Clyde Cameron and AWU official Jack Wright. When they learned of her plight, both men threatened to declare the hotel ‘black’ unless she was reinstated. Faced with the loss of hard-drinking trade union regulars, Summers was quickly reinstated.
It was a pleasure to read. There is triumph, certainly, but also personal heartbreak in spades. The final chapter was particularly touching. There were statements here and there that I disagreed with. But it shows how far women have come as a result of the feminist movement. It also tells us that the need for a vibrant and active feminist movement is as important as ever.