How an Aussie Feminist Fares

Adviser to prime minister says her country's `Crocodile Dundee' image is out of date

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

AMERICANS, if they know her at all, may remember Anne Summers as one of the bold Australian women who bought Ms. magazine. Or maybe they've heard of her in connection with those rather frank issues of Sassy magazine that got conservative groups in the United States so upset.

Here in Australia, sitting in her paneled office in the prime minister's suite in Parliament House, Dr. Summers is still in the feminist business.

She wryly refers to herself as the "gender-gap buster," but as Prime Minister Paul Keating's special adviser on women and on political strategy for next year's election, she's in a key position to influence policy.

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This is the latest step in a life geared to improving the lives of women. Summers wrote a feminist history of Australia in 1975; she's been a journalist and a foreign correspondent. She helped craft affirmative-action legislation in the Office on the Status of Women during the Bob Hawke administration. And she and her business partner bought Ms. and Sassy in the second women-led management buyout in United States corporate history. Summers lectured at top US universities. In 1989, she was made an Officer

of the Order of Australia for her services to women and to journalism.

Here are some of her thoughts on the changing status of women in Australia, Ms. magazine, and the twists and turns of her career:

Is Australia really as "macho" a society as it's been portrayed in the media?

The image of Australia as being an old-fashioned, sexist country is very out-of-date. Movies like "Crocodile Dundee" really were ... an exaggeration and stereotype of a certain kind of man. The more typical Australian man these days is a man who gets a present for the birth of his child. You see men now shopping with the children. This is such a dramatic change from when I was growing up; that would have been considered almost emasculating.

Having lived in the US, what differences do you see in the treatment of women there and in Australia?

The conjunction of the women's movement and mainstream politics is very different. In 1972, the women's movement in Australia was very energized: Women had plans, they were going to take on the world. In 1972, we elected the first progressive government. They created the first position of a woman's adviser. Now we have an Office on the Status of Women with nearly 50 people in it. There are women's advisory mechanisms throughout state and federal government - whereas, in the States at that time, you had N ixon. Nixon vetoed child-care legislation.

We hear a lot about violence against women here.

We do have a very serious problem with domestic violence, and sexual assaults are also increasing - or else women are more willing to talk about it. But the homicide rate is low by international standards. [In Australia, homicides rose from 330 in 1990 to 351 in '91.]

In New South Wales in the last seven years, the number of women taking out restraining orders has increased 20-fold. That shows that not only is violence out there and probably increasing, but that women now know they can do something about it. There's a lot of publicity given toward telling women their rights. And for the first time, there's been a National Strategy on Violence Against Women

Did you start out on a fast track to get where you are?

[Laughs.] I left school at 16 and did lots of low-rent "girl" jobs: shops, secretary, that kind of thing. I had three years in the work force before I decided I really should get my life in order and get myself some qualifications. So I went to university, got married, went to live in the outback for awhile. It took a long time to get the degree.

[She went on to write her feminist history of Australia, which she submitted as her doctoral thesis.] I went into journalism after it was published [in 1975].

I'd been interested in the women's movement from Day One. I had friends who were in SDS [Students for a Democratic Society in the US] who used to send me all the material. The women's groups started complaining about the men and the treatment of women in the antiwar movement and the student movement.

Suddenly, it just clicked: I was involved in the first women's liberation meeting in Adelaide in 1969. I guess my book was my attempt... to put feminism into a culturally specific context that made sense for Australia. The reputation Australians had for being a misogynist culture certainly, I think, was deserved. But I think we've made up for it somewhat.

What did you want to do with Ms.?

The most important thing I was able to do was bring in political coverage. Because of my political background and because of my belief that the political system should be more responsive to women, it was something I wanted very much to do. I set up a Washington bureau, and - this was 1988 - we had a presidential election to cover. It was fantastic!

I wanted to make Ms. more ... mainstream. It meant making it more accessible, making it more attractive to look at. And it was working - circulation increased; we were getting more younger readers. It was important to me that it not be just a house journal for the converted.

How did you manage being editor-in-chief of Ms. and editorial director of Sassy?

It was a very busy time. We had done leveraged buyouts of the two magazines. We had borrowed $20 million on Wall Street. Sassy did fantastically well in the first seven months. But we had a terrible time not being able to service our debt, with the banks putting pressure on us. Then the sky fell in when we had the advertiser boycott [after articles on contraception and gay teens ran in Sassy]. It resulted in the magazines having to be sold and losing control....

What does your work with Prime Minister Keating consist of?

I'm giving broader political advice and election strategy. I'm very pleased about this. I think it's important that women's advice not be marginalized. I think it should be right up there with the overall political strategy. [She also is an editor-at-large for Lang Communications, the company that bought Ms. and Sassy.]

What have your life goals been?

I didn't really plan my life in any way. I'm somebody who's had a lot of opportunities that I've grabbed as they went past. Some of the most interesting and exciting things I've ended up doing, such as buying and editing Ms., happened because I was willing to take a risk. And that's been true most of my life.

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