Anne Summers: reducing violence is a marker of the path towards equality

Anne Summers: 'no gender equality until we end domestic violence'

We need much more research into its corrosive economic impact, the leading feminist said in the annual Colin Tatz Oration, presented by Plus61J Media.

Domestic violence needs to be recognised as one of the key impediments to preventing women from achieving equality and economic independence, the leading feminist and author Dr Anne Summers told a Sydney audience on Tuesday night.

In an address titled From Women’s Liberation to Gender Equity: A half century on: are we making progress?, Dr Summers said “it’s not just tax policies, childcare policies, parental leave policies and the gender pay gap that are keeping women out of the workforce. It’s also individuals, almost exclusively men, and they are using violence to do so.

“This violence may well turn out to be a barometer of our success in achieving gender equality. It is a far more integral measure of our progress that we had previously imagined,” she told the audience at Sydney’s Bondi Pavilion, in the fourth annual Colin Tatz Oration, presented by Plus61J Media.

In a wide-ranging speech that addressed whether women have “become less ambitious or are just adjusting to reality”, Dr Summers noted that the women’s movement had made substantial progress over the past 50 years.

“There are no longer legal impediments to any ambition we might harbour. We have very high levels of education in this country. There are few jobs we cannot aspire to (even if we have trouble getting some of them). The lives of women of my generation are infinitely better than those of my mother’s let alone my grandmother’s.

Our employment rate is not only lower’s than men’s. It is lower than women’s was 20 years ago.

“Surely, we have made good progress. And yet. Our employment rate is not only lower’s than men’s. It is lower than women’s was 20 years ago.”

Dr Summers spoke in detail about the impact of tax, child care parental leave and the gender pay gap in holding back women from achieving equality and equity (“equity means taking account of the fact that we don’t all start from the same place and that sometimes we need to be treated differently in order to enjoy equality”).

She then focussed on the under-researched problem of domestic violence, and the project she is now leading at the University of Technology, Sydney, to document its impact on women’s employment. The ABS Personal Safety Survey 2016 found that of the 62.1 per cent of women working either full-time or part-time, 87.7 per cent had experienced previous partner violence in the past 12 months, Dr Summers noted. 

Dr Summers in conversation with Plus61J General Manager, Ilona Lee

“I find it bewildering that there is practically no work on this topic because it has such severe consequences for the women involved, as well as for society. We claim to be concerned about the extent and severity of domestic violence and yet we pretty much ignore these women and the impact this violence has on their economic as well as physical wellbeing.”

She said there are at least two ways in which violence can impact on women’s employment. First, a woman can be actively prevented from working by her partner. That is financial abuse, a form of domestic violence. 

I find it bewildering that there is practically no work on this topic because it has such severe consequences for women.

Second, many women experiencing violence at home find it difficult to continue working due to physical injuries that are disfiguring or embarrassing; emotional exhaustion and/or earnings confiscated by their partner, which robs them of any economic benefit from their labour.

Dr Summers then challenged the existing government policy assumption “that we cannot end violence until we achieve gender equality. 

“It should be the other way round. We have only to look at countries with greater gender equality than Australia, the Nordic countries for example, to realise the fallacy of this assumption. These countries all have much higher rates of domestic and family violence than Australia does.”

In closing, Dr Summers argued that the definition of gender equity – “putting in place measures that will compensate for the barriers women experience in striving for equality” – needs to be expanded “to consider what measures we need to put in place to prevent the various kinds of abuse that make up contemporary domestic and family violence.

“We need to recognise that ‘domestic violence’ is no longer just, or even mainly, about physical violence.  The repertoire of forms of abuse available to perpetrators have been more extensive, more sophisticated and immensely more cunning and calculated than the traditional notion of a single incident of physical violence directed at the woman.”

Plus61J Media’s annual Colin Tatz Oration celebrates the life and legacy of scholar and activist Colin Tatz AO (1934-2019), the former director of the Australian Institute for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Professor Tatz devoted his working life to researching and combatting racism and discrimination and wrote hundreds of books and peer-reviewed articles on race politics, genocide, the Holocaust, antisemitism, and racism in sport.

Professor Tatz was one of Plus61J’s founding contributing writers and editorial advisors. After his death, an annual address was established in his name by Plus61J and the Tatz family.

All photos: Giselle Haber