“Unfettered and Alive – A Memoir”

Anne Summers.
Allen & Unwin
RRP $39

The Inspiringautobiography of one of Australia’s most influential women, from journalist to policy maker to change agent at large.

“I was born into a world that expected very little of women like me. We were meant to tread lightly on the earth, influencing events through our husbands and children, if at all. We were meant to fade into invisibility as we aged. I defied all of these expectations and so have millions of women like me.”

This is the compelling story of Anne Summers’ extraordinary life. Her story has her travelling around the world as she moves from job to job, in newspapers and magazines, advising prime ministers, leading feminist debates, writing memorable and influential books.

Anne has not been afraid to walk away from success and to satisfy her constant restlessness by charging down new and risky paths. Whatever position she has held, she has expanded what’s possible and helped us see things differently-often at high personal cost.

Anne shares revealing stories about the famous and powerful people she has worked with or reported on and is refreshingly frank about her own anxieties and mistakes. She shares a heart-breaking story of family violence and tells of her ultimate reconciliation with the father who had rejected her. Unfettered and Alive is a provocative and inspiring memoir from someone who broke through so many boundaries to show what women can do. As she continues to do.

Anne is an inspiration; tough, strong, talented. Yet like so many women of our time, she can be vulnerable, never revealing personal pain or problems. A risk-taker, an achiever, and when some risks failed, she moved sideways, forward and upwards. It was what women did, and continue to do, in a continuing fight for equality.

Her memoir is revealing, riveting, and relevant. I’m proud to know her. And dammit, now I wish I’d kept a diary!

Di Morrissey.

Di Morrissey and Anne Summers at the 2017 Sydney Writers Festival
Di Morrissey and Anne Summers launching their books in 2000












You are thirty now.

Already, you have done more with your life than you dreamed was possible. You have published your first book. You are about to start work as a journalist. But what you have already done does not matter so much as what you will do from now. Your life is still ahead of you.

You need to understand that what becomes of you is almost entirely up to you. It is your choice, your decision. You have already shown that you can shape your future. You wanted to be a writer but your much younger and more practical self told you such dreams were not for people like you. Yet you found the grit and the courage to shut your ears to those who had other plans for you, and you learned to put yourself first. That was quite an unusual thing to do back then. You and your close friends talked about lives that would be different from those that had been laid out for you by your parents and teachers but you knew no one who had done it. There were few women you could see to model your selves on. Except in books.

When you were a teenager you wanted something, anything, more engaging than the dreary and stultifying choices that seemed to be the only options for a Catholic girl in the staid city of Adelaide in the late 1950s. It was through books that you learned that there were other lives, different from those of your mother and her three sisters.

At the age of twenty your mother Eileen (but always known by her nickname Tun) married, and over the next fourteen years had six children. You were the first and the only girl. Her oldest sister, Sheila, married at what in those days was considered the very late age of 39 and quickly bore three children. Of the two younger sisters, Gwen entered the convent, becoming a Sister of Mercy, while Nance remained unmarried. She was, as they used to say, a spinster. You were given to understand that the lives of your mother and her sisters represented the only choices available to you. You could marry and have children, you could become a nun or, as the harsh language of the day had it, you could be ‘left on the shelf ’. As a fourteen­year­old you briefly flirted with the idea of becoming a nun, but you soon outgrew that. You found your spinster aunt to be the most intriguing of your female relatives. You envied Nance her freedom. No ‘home duties’ for her. That was the term most women in those days used to describe what they did; on the census form, they wrote ‘housewife’. Your aunt had a job, in a bank. She was the one who unwittingly first implanted in you the spark of the idea that marriage and kids need not be inevitable. She was just two years older than you are now when she died, of kidney disease. Nance Hogan never got to see what you did with your life, which is a shame because in all likelihood without her example, the path you trod might have been very different.

You left school as soon as it was legal at the age of sixteen and, again perhaps unconsciously following Nance’s example, your first job was in a bank. Because you were a girl, you were not allowed to handle the money but you were expected to make cups of tea for the tellers and the manager. It did not occur to you to demur. All you could think about was saving money as fast as you could to buy the typewriter you had convinced yourself was key to your future. You had been writing since you were about seven, fervently contributing to the children’s pages of The Advertiser, the Catholic newspaper The Southern Cross and the ABC’s children’s radio program, the Argonauts. You wrote short stories and plays and even sent off a piece to a national women’s magazine. Using a pseudonym of course.

You didn’t know women who were doing anything outside the home, let alone making a living with their typewriters, yet you were aware of them from books, many of them written by women. But they were remote creatures, from England or Ireland or even exotic places like France. You had yet to discover how a girl in Adelaide could become one of these women. All you could see was that on the printed page, there were no limits. You could imagine, and you could dream. You could tell yourself, I want to be a writer. I want to write books and be a journalist. You knew there were people, women, who did both. What you needed to figure out was: could you?

You were impatient to discover what life held for you. When you were in your twenties, you realised that life could be an adventure. You did not have to follow a pre­ordained path. In the 1960s all the old rules were starting to dissolve which meant there were opportunities, and choices, that once would not have been there for you. Perhaps the most important lesson of those years was the discovery that you were in charge of yourself. You could choose what to do, and if you realised that marrying young just as the women’s liberation movement was turning everyone’s life upside down had been the wrong thing for you, you were able to change course. You discovered the French writer Simone de Beauvoir and her revolutionary feminist book The Second Sex. It had been published twenty years earlier, in 1949, but its opening words, ‘One is not born but, rather, one becomes a woman’ had a profound impact on you. These words made you hungry to learn more about this critique of women’s traditional roles that presaged new ways of being a woman. You were especially taken with de Beauvoir’s later observation,  in  1965,  ‘Women  are  obliged  to  play  at  being  what they aren’t, to play, for example, at being great courtesans, to fake their personalities. They’re on the brink of neurosis,’ she said in an interview in The Paris Review. ‘I feel very sympathetic toward women of that type. They interest me more than the well­balanced housewife and mother. There are, of course, women who interest me even more, those who are both true and independent, who work and create.’1  She articulated who you wanted to be: a woman who was ‘both true and independent’, who could ‘work and create’. You will spend your entire life trying to do this. Just as, for the rest of your life, you will be trying to come to terms with what it means to be a woman. Because what it means will continue to evolve and change as you become a kind of woman that you did not know existed when you were a teenager.

You will not change who you are; your essential self will remain although it will develop and strengthen, and you will ultimately develop a set of core beliefs and values that will guide you at all times. But you will change what you do, not once or twice but many times, because you will embrace openings that present themselves and each time they will change your life. You will learn that if you reach out, and you are willing to take risks, there is usually no limit to what you can do. You will come to understand that if we defer our dreams they will never be realised. But you will also learn that what matters is not just what you do but your state of being. You ultimately describe yourself as ‘unfettered and alive’, a fortunate and in many ways privileged state of existence. It’s how you are, not who you are.

The road to becoming the woman you are today is long and at times meandering as you did not follow a linear path. You never had a plan beyond your dream of being a writer and a journalist. When people ask, as they used to at so­called ‘leadership’ conferences, what will you be doing in five years time, you would look at them blankly. Just as you can’t answer the question, How do you do what you do? Except by saying, I just do it.

Your life has been a patchwork of the unplanned and unpredictable with all the risks that involved, but also the intense enjoyment of the unexpected. Your haphazard approach, and your willingness to accept the offer of adventures, took you to places and jobs you could never have imagined as well as the ones you’d dreamed about. Like the one you are about to start. Not everything ended well, but you have never been bored. Along the way, you learned that you had to be brave, to absorb the pain of rejection, to not care too much what other people thought of you, to build a self­protective shell unto which you could retreat if you needed to.

The story you are going to tell in this book describes what it was like to become a woman living in an advanced Western economy during the last quarter of the twentieth century and the early decades of the 21st. And what it means to still be evolving as a woman into her eighth decade, some­ thing that was unimaginable to you when you were in your twenties. People thought then, as some people no doubt still do, that women had a use­by date. That to be old—even if the definition of ‘old’ has shifted upwards over the years, and been softened by the term ‘older’—meant you were no longer an actor in life. You were meant to retreat to the shadows of family or community, to be content to be a handmaiden to other people’s lives. You certainly had no expectation that you would be fit and healthy—and alive—and still reinventing yourself as you passed the ‘three score and ten’ benchmark that once was seen as our allotted life span.

It is not just you that changed. The very idea of what a woman is—and can be—has changed as well. The possibilities for women in the twentieth century were unparalleled in history, and you were fortunate to be born at the right time to benefit from these changes. Unlike your mother’s generation, let alone your grandmothers’. And unlike young women today who are born into a world where they are entitled to take for granted that they can become whoever and whatever they decide and that if their dream is denied, know they have the right to complain. You were born on the cusp of this change. You were part of the generation of women who had the un-precedented benefit of higher education and who were transformed by it. You were swept along by the changes to the world of women, but you also felt the need to help shape them because although many (although certainly not all) of your generation were given these opportunities, they created expectations that were not always delivered.

You also found that being a woman became intrinsic to your story. You were one of those redefining what being a woman was so it was rarely possible to just be a journalist, or a writer or whatever you happened to be doing at the time. Paraphrasing Julia Gillard in her farewell speech on the night she was deposed as Australia’s first woman prime minister in 2013, it is simply not possible for women to escape their gender. It is a given. Sometimes it matters. Sometimes it matters a lot. And your life has reflected that. Sometimes it was front and centre to what you were doing, or what was being done to you. Sometimes it barely mattered, but it could never be ignored. Women were, as de Beauvoir noted, ‘the other’. And they still are.

So while you did not choose to become a warrior for women you found yourself thrust along on the surge of history, propelled by desire and by anger. You felt keenly the injustice of the unfair ways women were expected to work harder, for less money and for far less recognition. You became angry at the double standards you observed in so many places. And you were incredulous that such injustices could prevail or even be reinstated because you assumed progress and change were linear and irreversible, but the progress of women, especially for women of your generation, turned out to be accompanied by fightback and pushback. In countries like Australia, this has taken the form of conservative governments trying to weaken or reverse gains or entitlements already won, and has given rise to a resurgence of unbelievably ugly forms of sexism and misogyny. In other parts of the world the resistance has been more sinister, even lethal. In 1980 in Pakistan you witnessed the new trend of women being ‘encouraged’ to cover their heads with the chador. Thirty years later the shooting of the schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai in that country’s Swat Valley because she helped girls go to school, showed that resistance to women’s equality had become a war. The increasingly anti­women strains of Islam in certain parts of the Middle East and Africa is another example. Yet at the same time, globalisation and communications technology allowed you to know these things were happening and provide ways to fight back.

As you tell your story and reflect on what you have done and what you have learned along the way, you will discover many things. Most of all you will be amazed to discover that the self­doubting and often self­loathing girl you once were is now a confident, shouty, fearless woman who became a journalist and a writer. And who, all these decades later, still is.’ 


Introduction to “Unfettered and Alive” by Anne Summers. 

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