The longlist for the second Stella Prize for Australian women’s writing was announced a couple of weeks ago, and it’s a rather interesting selection, featuring only 5 novels alongside a short story collection, a true crime book, two memoirs, a biography, and a feminist history of the Australian goldfields era Eureka rebellion.
The Stella is a newcomer in terms of literary prizes, and it seems to be finding its feet quite nicely; this is a remarkably balanced list, especially in comparison with last year’s skew towards very literary fiction. Encouragingly, it also features two books by indigenous women, one of which, Alexis Wright’s The Swan Book, is a hot favourite to win the prize (personally, as I am still stunned and awed from the experience of reading it, I think it should, despite the hefty competition from some other really impressive titles).
The list doesn’t stop there, though; it is rounded out with the latest book from Australian feminist writer, publisher and public policy adviser, Anne Summers, which is called The Misogyny Factor. (To provide some very brief context to the title, Summers wrote and published this book in the immediate aftermath of then-Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard’s “misogyny speech” in the Australian parliament, in which she called out then-Opposition Leader, now-Prime Minister, Tony Abbott on his misogyny).
I approached this book with interest; Summers’ 1975 text, Damned Whores and God’s Police: the colonization of women in Australia, is one of the seminal texts of second wave Australian feminism, and I remember it fondly from my early college reading days. I did wonder, based on some of Summers’ more recent commentary, whether I would find The Misogyny Factor as – enlightening? thought-provoking? accurate? – as I found Damned Whores, but as it made it to the Stella list is some pretty competitive company, I hoped this meant it was worth a look.
Well, here is the thing – it IS worth a look, but it is also, fundamentally, disappointing.
Firstly, I should cover what Summers’ core project is in the text. Germinated from two speeches she gave in the Australian winter on 2012 (July-August), Summers has expanded her scope to make the case that Australian women’s equality is actually going backwards, and that a large part of the reason is, quite simply, misogyny. According to Summers, this is the substance and soul of this book:
I nominate three indicators of the success we have yet to achieve: inclusion, equality and respect. Until women are included in all areas of our society, until we are treated with equality and with respect once we are there, we will not have succeeded in what I call the equality project.
As it emerges in the introductory chapter, it is made very clear that Summers is talking about economic success, professional inclusion, career equality, workplace respect, in this book. The node is not nearly as broad as ‘women are human’; it’s boiled down to ‘women are and must be treated as fully capable of professional engagement as men, and should equally reap the economic rewards of this activity.’
Yeeeessssss, I found myself thinking as I read this scene setting chapter. Clearly, this is a (not terrifically original) idea that I can get behind, but is that all there is to the story? Surely there must be more to say about the complexities that make up human lives than this?
But no. Summers, to give her credit, is very specific about her scope and what it doesn’t encompass:
“I don’t deal with health or housework, with race or religion, with sexuality or stilettos.”
In one somewhat artistically balanced sentence, Summers has laid out exactly what the deficits of this book are for me as a reader who is also a participant in the Australian equality project. I do not see how a book about misogyny, about the cultural factors that suppress women, can be a full story if it ignores the potency of the other characteristics that impact on power, privilege and economic success. It’s not enough just to say, ‘well, but I’m only looking at workplace outcomes and how misogyny keeps women out of the boardroom’. If you determinedly refuse to look at race, at sexuality, at the impact of transphobia, at born class, and, yes, at the nuances and individualities of choice, then how can you possibly claim you are seeing an accurate picture of what’s going on?
This refusal to engage on any level with intersectionality renders this whole book shallower than it should have been, and that is a shame, because there is no doubt that Summers has some cracking material to work with. Because Australia, let me be clear, is indeed a society in which misogyny is rife, and a serious impediment to the lives of women.
Summers has data and examples by the bucketload to prosecute her claim that women are still not equal to men in real terms; all those depressing figures comparing female superannuation levels to male, all those extraordinarily malevolent public attacks on prominent women, all those statistics on sexual harassment in the workplace, all that evidence about the low value placed on making childcare accessible and affordable, and the impact this has on women’s workforce participation. The book is strongest when she’s presenting and extrapolating from this data, and weakest when she is sniping at other women (her savaging of ‘yummy mummy’ culture is unedifying, not least because it embeds a range of misogynistic, or at least anti-maternity, attitudes within it).
One thing that Summers gets passionately right in The Misogyny Factor is her analysis of the vitriol poured out on Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Gillard was attacked relentlessly, not just by the Opposition and the right wing commentariat but within popular discourse, in ways that would have been unheard of for a male politician. That so many Australian men to this day will contend quite seriously that ‘it was not because she was a woman! It’s because she was hopeless / a liar / too aggressive / too bitchy’ (all of these are direct quotes from men of my acquaintance) more or less underlines Summers’ point in thick black ink. I found the sections on Gillard the most rage-making, and thus probably the most effective, of the entire book.
Nonetheless, overall, this book never reaches the heights it could have because it is limited by the essentially white, educated, middle class feminist viewpoint of its author, for whom gender is the only game in town, or at least the only game worth playing. I don’t deny that gender is a powerful, perhaps in some circumstances the most powerful, factor in determining how women will experience their professional and economic lives, and I certainly wouldn’t claim that misogyny isn’t behind a lot of the barriers and difficulties women experience. But in a country like Australia, to so blithely dismiss the impact of sexuality and race and, for that matter, violence, is to miss so much of the opera that the song sounds out of tune to my ear.