Anne Summers on the men in her life

by Robyn Doreian - 22/06/14, 3:00 AM
Anne Summers.

Anne Summers.Photo: Nic Walker


Until recently, I had never seen a photograph of my paternal grandfather, John Patrick Cooper. He was a stretcher-bearer in France during World War I but he was never spoken of. He was so violent he put my uncle in hospital with a broken arm and jaw at age seven. This was so shocking his family shut him out of their memory.

My father, Austin, had his own demons from war. He was part of 43 Squadron and piloted night flights over Sumatra and Borneo. Fortunately he was never captured, but he crashed his plane and was injured. I've seen letters he'd written from Darwin and there was an incredible anxiety in them, as to whether or not he'd come back.

Ann Summers is pictured at home in Potts Point, Sydney.
Ann Summers is pictured at home in Potts Point, Sydney.Photo: James Horan

I had five brothers and my father found it difficult having a teenage girl. He was never violent, but our relationship was verbally aggressive and at 17 I left Adelaide for Melbourne.

To keep up appearances, my mother, Eileen, said I'd left to do a course in fashion design. She'd arranged lodgings at a hostel for Catholic girls but, unbeknown to her, at 18 I'd moved to a bedsit in South Yarra. At one point I went to Mildura to pick fruit with a guy I was involved with. I had to pretend to be married and wore a curtain ring on my finger.

Following that adventure, I returned to Adelaide. I got a job at a department store where I met a good-looking guy. He paid me a lot of attention and I was flattered. We went to the beach at night and he had sex with me. I never agreed to it and struggled but I couldn't stop him. As a result, I got pregnant at 19.

There was no thought of getting married: I scarcely knew him and after three years of menial jobs I knew my future was at university. I couldn't get an abortion in Adelaide, so I sought a backyard abortionist in Melbourne. The procedure wasn't done properly, so back in Adelaide I went to my local GP. He was horrified and sent me to a hospital to get fixed up.

The experience made me realise how unfair it is that women have to go through this, often alone. Via subterfuge, I had to find vast sums of money and even then it wasn't done properly. Plus, it was illegal. It made me a lifelong campaigner for safe and legal abortion.

A few months later at Adelaide Uni, I met my ex-husband, John Summers. He was a bit of a rebel and rode a motorbike. He introduced me to Bob Dylan and a world that changed my life.

My involvement in the Women's Liberation Movement motivated my departure from the marriage. John was a good person but after three years I wanted a new life. That prompted a move to Sydney, where in the early '70s I helped set up the first women's refuge in Glebe for victims of domestic violence.

I worked for Bob Hawke in 1983 at the federal Office of the Status of Women, he had a reputation as a womaniser. But he respected women. His trade union background meant he was versed in the principles of equality. Plus, his wife, Hazel, was a feminist. One of his first pieces of legislation was the Sex Discrimination Act. He also introduced affirmative action laws. Tragically, 30 years on, the gender pay gap remains.

Gender equality in Australia is not even close. "Can women have it all?" Is a question only asked of women. Why should it be that the person who gives birth has to give up everything? Men have got to accept that if they want to have children, they have to make sacrifices, too, and those sacrifices need to be shared equally.

Chip Rolley, my partner of 25 years, is 19 years my junior. We met in New York when I was the editor-in-chief of feminist magazine Ms, and he was at teenage girls' monthly Sassy. Chip is more of a feminist than I am, as his mother raised him with that perspective. It's men like him who breed optimism about the future, as they understand the best way to enjoy relationships with women is on a true equal footing.

Before my father died in 1988, we had reconciled. I was able to forgive him and I reached an appreciation of what he had gone through. Once he had stopped drinking, my parents' relationship also blossomed. They had an incredible final few years together.

Some years later, my mother [Eileen, who died in 2005] said she felt a new freedom and confidence. She'd had to learn to define herself, but not in relation to my father, as he was gone. At 80 she studied at university and read French playwrights. Defining yourself is one the big challenges for women: first you are a woman, but you are many things besides.

Cate Blanchett in Conversation with Anne Summers is at the Sydney Theatre on June 26;

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