Damned Whores and God’s Police

Black-eyed Sue and Sweet Poll say goodbye (by Robert Sayers)

(by Anne Summers) (1975) (updated 1994, to 2000s and beyond)

The title is a bit of a howler, for it derives from a statement attributed to someone in partial error. But it is still a great title, and it synthesizes the point of the book, which is to reveal and detail how the bifurcation, by colonial authority, of early Australian females into saints and tramps, has formed the nation’s bedrock and permeated the social fabric ever since.

This is a difficult case to make.  For instance, such ‘types’ are considered somewhat one-dimensionally cartoonish now.  And wouldn’t the outlook change with the development of a free society?  You know, a pro-choice, sexually liberated, equal opportunity community, such as Australia is now, at least in theory, or aspiration?  And why are other countries created by the imperial diaspora (or not) just as sexist?  Why, then, is South Australia, a convict-free settlement, as sexist as Victoria, or New South Wales?

Be that as it may, what is delivered, fair and square, is a pungent, wide-ranging and well-written litany of structural unfairness, of men arranging things to suit themselves, of women adjusting to men’s convenience – a vibrant portrait of a society that, whilst prosperous, civilised, and outwardly ‘progressive’, has horns, tail and hooves bloodily pushing through.

It is illuminating to cite some of the many (earlier) examples from Summers’ book and compare them with current circumstances:

Then                                                      Now

‘Australian’ = Australian male                 Same, more or less

University – female minority                    Roughly 50/50

Hardly any female jockeys                     Same (Michelle Payne wins the Melbourne Cup and it rates like the Moon landing)

Male heavy-booze culture                      Same

‘Female’ interests’ “niche”, “twee”          Same

Male novels taken more seriously          Not any more

Womens’ sport snubbed except tennis  Same

Mateship is for blokes only                     Largely the same

Structural differences in employment     Mostly the same

Structural domestic differences              Mostly the same

Things are changing, immeasurably, unevenly, and (due to a shrinking world, increased social intercourse and less cohesive social groupings) materially. There have been considerable legal and social changes that render large swathes of Summers’ book of historical moment.  It would be interesting to see a 2016 edition of her work.  Consider, for example, Summers’ comment on violent, male-dominated team contact-sports: “Women are, by reason of their relative physical frailty and their conditioning to avoid violent encounters, unable to participate in this ferocious fraternity.”  I would be interested to hear the author’s take on that sentence today. To descend to a quote from a barman in the macho-comedy Anchorman, ‘the ladies can do what they want now, man.”

If equal opportunity, equal participation, equal engagement were the goals, the measure of progress becomes simple.  But is it worthy? As writer Hannah Dawson observed, counting women “has become a habit of our times.  How many women are there in Parliament? How many sit on company boards? How many review books?  The counting habit irritates those who take refuge in the idea of meritocracy and gnaws at those who think equal representation matters.” [Literary Review # 432 June 2015, p. 45.]  These measurement processes can lead one astray, down the dark stairs to The School of Resentment (invariably located in the basements of Institutions through which our long march has taken us).  We can add that in the introduction to the updated edition of her book, the author sensibly discards, or at least disavows, those parts of her book relying on Marxist dialectic as having any intelligent work to do in unpacking these issues.  This is a wise move (even if Ms Summers disagrees with a contention I have made elsewhere: that it will become universally given that the concept of equality has been the most evil of man’s ideas).  Marxist hogwash has no good news for the emancipation of women.

Summers often speaks as provocateur rather than commentator:

A girl learns at the same time that she is a female person and that she is an inferior person.”

Very few women amass money they have earned themselves.”

The mental asylum closely approximates the female rather than the male experience within the family.”

The evidence for these pronouncements being, frankly, unsatisfactory.  And sweeping statements and deploying phrases such as ‘illegal rape’ are unhelpful.

Women are socially isolated from each other as the withdrawal of the mother’s nurturance from the female child produces distrust and incipient hostility towards other women.”  This seems a vast overreach, and isn’t ‘withdrawal of the mother’s nurturance’ what we call ‘growing up’? Is it a mere backslide into bourgeois reaction to suggest adults make choices in life and tend to take paths which they are, deep down, most comfortable with?  Must everything be de-gendered? Stereotyping does save time but it can be met with reason rather than resentment.  But in this work, even humanitarian saint Caroline Chisholm gets a bake!  Summers is nothing if not consistent.

Of course, there is conditioning, determinism and structures of misogyny; yes, sure, women are burdened by biology, dogma and the nuclear ideal, but we need more cogent evidence than is given, albeit ingeniously, that there’s a societal monolith still out there, pushing a glass ceiling down on women’s heads across the board.  In the final analysis, the book deals as much in impressions as facts.  With sociological and ideological matters, this is inevitable.  Of course, impressions can be as potent (and true) as facts, but the enormous difficulty with this brief is that it becomes impossible not to generalise, and difficult to define a remediable problem.  But many good books have no answers, only questions, and this one is worthwhile reading, especially for old grouches like me.

In her concluding main chapter, Summers poses the question: “Is there a possibility of liberation for women in Australia?”   I don’t know the answer to that.  But hey, go for it.  You’re welcome to it.  Take it.  I suspect it’s a big zero, liberation.  And if you get there, could you tell me what it’s like?


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