Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975) was that rare thing in Australian publishing history: a bestseller. Since its publication, 40 years ago this year, it has sold more than 100,000 copies. Its success is even more remarkable when one considers its subject: “the colonisation of women in Australia.”
Anne Summers’ ambitious book reframed Australian history by placing women at its centre. The colonisation of Australia, she argued, had created a patriarchal gender order that reduced 19th-century women to one of two narrow roles: virtuous wives and mothers, dubbed “God’s police” and the transgressive “damned whores”.
For its republication in 1994, Summers included a “letter to the next generation”, which reignited feminist debate. Questioning why so few young women identified as feminists, the letter was a provocation. It succeeded, with responses such as Kathy Bail’s anthology DIY Feminism (1996) and Virginia Trioli’s Generation F (1996). Following Summers'call, Australian feminist activism has only increased in the 21st century.
Put simply, in 1975 Summers offered a new framework for understanding the lives of Australian women in the past. It was a feminist history “blockbuster”. With the exception of Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1971), it is our best-known Australian feminist book. It has remained almost continuously in print since its release.
An audacious act of imagination and scholarship, Damned Whores and God’s Police was, and remains, remarkable for a number of reasons.
History and women’s liberation
This work was a product of the political, social and cultural ferment of early 1970s Australia. Women’s liberation and Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) groups emerged around the country. The newly-elected Whitlam government was receptive to the women’s movement’s agenda, offering support for women’s refuges and health services.
Middle-class women were entering tertiary education in increasing numbers. Women’s liberationists, including Summers, were students or teachers in universities. Many would go on to become distinguished historians, including Ann Curthoys, Jill Julius Mathews, and Lyndall Ryan.
Summers was among a group of women who wanted to unite their activism and scholarship. A member of the founding collective of the feminist journal Refractory Girl in 1973, she helped establish Australia’s first women’s refuge, Elsie, in 1974.
Although Summers was a PhD candidate in Government at the University of Sydney while writing Damned Whores and God’s Police, the book’s genesis owed much to women’s liberationists. Curthoys, for example, insisted that Australian women must understand their own history if they were to write their own futures.
The book’s success made Summers a figurehead and a celebrity. It also made her a tall poppy: some of her most savage reviewers were fellow activists.
Yet most welcomed her book and recognised its achievement. Ann-Mari Jordens, writing in the journal Labour History in 1975, argued that:
Reading this book is like looking out the window to find that most familiar landmarks have changed and quite different people are walking about […] (Summers has) presented a picture of Australian society and culture […] in which Australian women for the first time are visible.
Of course, inevitably, such a pioneering work was a product of its era, and has its limitations. It neglected class differences between women. It sidelined the experiences of Indigenous women with its metaphor of “colonisation”.
The book’s vision of Australia as a patriarchy offered women little agency: did these categories really work the same way for all women across time?
Still, Damned Whores and God’s Police opened up fields of inquiry that would be pursued by feminists in the following decades.
Together with groundbreaking women’s histories – Beverly Kingston’s My Wife, My Daughter and Poor Mary-Ann (1975), Miriam Dixson’s The Real Matilda (1976), Edna Ryan and Ann Conlon’s Gentle Invaders (1975) – Summers’ book lay the groundwork for women’s history in Australia.
Women’s history, feminist history and gender history have been the most dynamic and productive fields of Australian historical inquiry ever since.
Feminist history since 1975
In the decades following, Australian universities began teaching women’s studies and women’s history courses. Feminist historians undertook rigorous, adventurous work, seeking out new ways to recover the lives and experiences of women in the past.
There was an increasing insistence that gender history, rather than women’s or feminist history, was the rightful preoccupation of feminists. Scholars argued that masculinity, as well as femininity, was an important site of inquiry.
Pathbreaking histories of Indigenous women began to appear and Indigenous women increasingly made their own historical interventions through autobiography, including Sally Morgan’s My Place (1987). As race became more important to feminist history, the study of whiteness, cross-cultural encounters and the intimate “contact zones” between Indigenous and white women flourished.
Most recently, Australian feminist historians have looked beyond the boundaries of the nation state to transnational history.
In this context, Summers’ book was important for several reasons beyond its germinal status.
First, it sparked a rich historiography of Australian convict women, provoked by its initial analysis and sources. Second, it was perhaps the best-known example of what Mary Spongberg dubbed the “feminist larrikinism” of the 1970s.
Summers also confronted male historians’ obsession with national identity. Her book opened up a feminist critique of Australian history and historiography. This peaked with Creating a Nation (1994), a revisionist feminist history of Australia written by Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath and Marian Quartly.
The fierce reaction Creating a Nation provoked – the historian John Hirst argued that women had little place in national histories because nations were created primarily by the acts of men – shows the importance of Summers’ first intervention in 1975.
A book of its time, a book for today
Much of Damned Whores and God’s Police is taken up with analysis of 1970s Australia, a society Summers and her fellow activists were trying to change. For that reason, it is of tremendous historical interest, especially to the generation of younger feminists who are now writing histories of the women’s liberation movement.
Summers' vision of Australian women’s history is often grim: subsequent generations of historians offered much more nuanced versions of the power relations between men and women in our past.
But as Julia Gillard speculated in her memoir My Story (2014), perhaps Australian culture still does judge women according to the binaries Summers proposed way back in 1975:
As a woman wielding power […] I was never going to be portrayed as a good woman. So I must be the bad woman, a scheming shrew, a heartless harridan or a lying bitch.
The gendered abuse levelled at Julia Gillard reminds us that Summers’ analysis of Australian society remains, disappointingly, relevant.
Damned Whores and God’s Police 40 Years On – Three Day Conference takes place at the University of Technology Sydney, September 21-13. Details here.
Michelle Arrow does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: The Conversation