Leslie Cannold: Writer, Commentator, Ethicist, Researcher
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Book Review - “The End of Equality: Work, Babies and Women’s Choices in 21st Century Australia”

By Anne Summers, Random House Australia, 2003. Paperback RRP $29.95

Who better than Anne Summers, a woman who lists among her achievements the best-selling book Damned Whores and God’s Police, advisor to former Prime Minister Keating and Officer of the Order of Australia for services to journalism and women, to write about the most pressing social problem of our time: the tragic imbalance between work and family responsibilities, and the devastating impact it is having on women’s well-being and the nation’s capacity to reproduce itself?

Heaven knows there has been no shortage of column inches dedicated to the problem, as well as diligent hand-wringing and sympathetic clucking noises from the Howard government. Yet while the problem seems to worsen almost hourly, the Government does nothing. The reason for this, Summers explains, is that the Government’s ideological preference for traditional family arrangements – where Daddy brings home the bacon and Mum cares for house and kids – precludes it from implementing policies designed to reduce working women’s stress.

To the contrary, this bias leads the Government to blatantly discriminate against families where both parents work by viciously underfunding childcare, and implementing tax and benefit policies that leave families with two earner $75 a week worse off on average than those with only one. Summers argues that Australian women are often unaware of such discriminatory policies because of the government’s decision to either eliminate or enfeeble the agencies that in the past not only would have publicly argued against them, bout kept ongoing tabs on the impact they were having on women’s equality.

Close to forty years on the political stage has done nothing to taint or muffle Summers’ activist indignation and thirsting for justice. She is not afraid to name names in her expansive discussion of how both Labour and Liberal politicians have failed women, as well as tossing bouquets at the few men – Victorian QC Chris Maxwell comes in for special mention – who use their power and influence to pursue justice for women. Given that she was amongst the band of optimistic second-wave feminists who confidently predicted that the mere presence of more women in Canberra would make a difference, I particularly admired her willingness to express disappointment in the 60 female members and senators who now comprise over a quarter of pollies on the Federal benches for failing to agitate on behalf of women. Emily’s List (the Labour women’s organization that funds progressive female candidates) rightly comes in for particular scrutiny for its inability – despite requiring all the candidates it funds to demonstrate that they are pro-choice and pro-childcare – to “galvanise” women to act on these commitments once elected.

Throughout the book, Summers reveals herself to be a woman who doesn’t just get mad, but gets active. She writes unselfconsciously (as if everyone leaps into constructive action when their fundamental values are challenged) about her outrage at Prime Minister Howard’s failure to appoint a female Governor General, and his subsequent leaking to the media that he desired to do so (leaving the clear impression that there wasn’t a single woman in the country who was qualified). Grabbing a copy of Who’s Who, it took Summers less than an hour to come up with 45 names of women who were more than qualified for the post.

I must admit to being somewhat disappointed by the analysis Summers provides of the causes of – and cures for – the work/family crunch and resultant “fertility strike.” Unlike her discussion of violence and the subterranean but highly politically sophisticated way in which the Howard government has “disappeared” women from the political agenda – where she clearly knows her way well around the factual and conceptual terrain – she consistently fails to call on the intellectual apparatus needed to make sense of the varied and complex things women want, do and settle for when it comes to work and family. There is no doubt this areas is complicated, with seeming contradictions at every turn. What to make, for instance, of repeated surveys that show that young Australian women are as committed as young men to the paid workforce (to remaining “attached” to it and progressing up the career ladder), but others that reveal substantial numbers of women claiming to “choose” total withdrawal from the paid workforce or insecure part-time non-career related jobs when they become mothers? “Constrained choice” and the meaning of being a “non-chooser” in liberal democratic societies like Australia are just some of the concepts found in thoughtful feminist analysis of women’s work/life decisions that would have assisted Summers to both explain such trends, and point the way ahead.

But if you’ve got a pulse and care about justice for women, you’re sure to finish the book itching to do something – anything – to catapult women’s quest for equality back on to the national agenda. Wisely, Summers is prepared, dedicating her final chapter to a list of “ten ways to change the world” and a directory of the relevant organizations and individuals to contact to make your displeasure known. Since going to press, she has even put this information up on her new website (annesummers.com.au) where – with the aid of hyperlinks – it is even easier to get started.

“Don’t get mad,” Summers advises, “get justice.” The rest she knows, is up to us.

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Email: leslie@cannold.com Mobile: 0417 114 859 Fax: +61 3 9348 2015 - PO Box 1337, St Kilda South VIC 3182 Australia