Work plus or minus babies, more or less work, more or fewer babies, when, how – in contemporary Australia these topics are, as John Howard has astutely observed, barbeque stoppers. This alone means Anne Summers’ new book The End of Equality should walk off bookstore shelves and into living rooms from Coogee to Cherrybrook. Interest will be heightened by Summers’ reputation as a heavyweight former of opinion. Her pedigree’s impeccable – author of feminist bible Damned Whores and God’s Police and past editor of Ms Magazine, star femocrat (former head of the Office of the Status of Women and adviser to Paul Keating) and CEO-class decision maker.
The End of Equality serves up a potent combination of official statistics, the views of women of child-bearing age across Australia who participated in specially commissioned focus groups, and Summers’ own slant on the state of gender equality in our nation. In the style of Germaine Greer Meets Xena Warrior Princess, Summers identifies and dissects a dramatic decline in the terms and conditions of women’s participation in Australian society since the early 1990s. She finds women earning less compared to men – average weekly earnings just 66 per cent of men’s a decade ago. She notes a 50 per cent rise over the same period in female-headed sole parent families with children, two thirds of them totally reliant on government support, joined by large numbers of older divorced women lacking superannuation, all dwelling on the economic margins of society. Then there’s the 160 000 Australian women who want to work but can’t because they can’t get childcare, says Summers, and mothers of young children suffering government-imposed financial penalties for choosing to be in the workforce. She reports that one in four young Australian women will never have children, ten women are sexually assaulted in Australia every hour, nearly three-quarters of Australian companies don’t have a single woman director, and only six women barristers a year appear before the High Court. She makes the gloomy observation that the surge of female politicians into our Federal Parliament since 1996 has delivered no substantive improvement to the situation of Australian women outside parliaments. The general tone of Summers’ focus groups is even gloomier – "Many women feel very conflicted about the choices they have made, regretting them and envying other women’s lives. A surprising number said that if they could wave a magic wand they would change their lives."
Summers attributes this to a lack of political will to foster gender equality on the part of holders and brokers of power. The Howard regime comes in for scathing and wholesale criticism on this front. Summers takes aim and fires at everything from its mismanagement of domestic violence initiative PADV2 to its failure to take up Pru Goward’s minimalist model for a national paid maternity leave scheme. She tracks the ascendance of the "breeding creed" – that defines women first and foremost as mothers, and makes non-traditional women feel bad about themselves and their decisions – underpinned by a neo-con conspiracy of instinct and ideology between senior members of the Howard Ministry, Brian Harradine, Malcolm Turnbull, think tanks like the Centre for Independent Studies and the Menzies Research Centre, and unsisterly commentators like Cathy Sherry, Janet Albrechtsen and Angela Shanahan. Mark Latham and fellow party travellers are on her hit list too, and Summers peppers her argument with backhanded references to Labor’s own problematic bloke-focus.
Cathartic as all this may be, overall The End of Equality left me not just flattened – this subject matter is gruelling, sometimes nearly beyond belief – but also a bit flat. The book ends with a call to act up, but it’s fairly light on in terms of strategies for change. We need to know more about disarming the New Right culture warriors, whose toxic shocks aren’t confined to gender, but deliberately drag in frontier questions about race and what used to be called class. Summers’ important discussion of Sydney’s "doing it Leb style" gang rapes and sexual assault allegations against ATSIC’s Geoff Clark gestures towards this but she doesn’t quite bite the whole bullet.
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