Addressing the crowd, she said she was proud to receive the honour, particularly given she missed the opportunity to attend her graduation in the 1970s. “It was not cool to gown up and front up [back then]” she said. “I am no longer seen as the refractory girl.”
Summers added she was also proud to be a woman acknowledged by the university, at a time when 57% of students are now female — given women were still a minority when she was a post graduate student back in the 1970s.
Summers received the award in recognition of her long career in journalism, as well as her work in providing “remarkable and enduring leadership for generations of Australian women.”
“Whether in politics, media, business or NGOs, her work has always been underpinned by a commitment to challenge and change. The University is delighted to honour such outstanding impact,” said Professor Annamarie Jagose, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.
Dr Michael Spence, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney, said Summers has influenced many aspects of society by voicing her concern over crucial issues affecting women and girls. “She represents the very best of a Sydney graduate – challenging the world and improving it throughout her lifetime.”
Summers graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Adelaide in 1970, before going on to co-found the Women’s Liberation Movement in Australia, and then getting involved in creating the nation’s first women’s and children’s domestic violence refuge.
As a journalist at the Australian Financial Review and the National Times, she won a Walkley award in 1976 for an investigation into NSW prisons, and later went on to receive a PhD from the University of Sydney for her study on the history of women in Australia, with Damned Whores and God’s Police — which stayed in print until 2008, with a new edition published 2016. She’s continued her writing, and gone on to publish a number of best-selling books.
Summers has also served as an advisor on women in the Hawke and Keating governments, has chaired the Greenpeace Australia board and been deputy vice president of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum.
“My life certainly did not follow a predicable path and for many of you who are graduating today the same will be true,” said Summers during her address on Wednesday.
“We need to be open to ideas and opportunities that might lure us away from what we thought was our destiny.
“You need not be bound by convention or tradition or anyone’s expectations – including your own. All you need is to believe in yourself. Work hard. Be bold. Have fun.”
She also urged those in the audience to embrace the future with enthusiasm and optimism.
“The world is way more complicated and, in some ways, more scary than it was when I was graduating but it is also a more exciting place.”
Summers shared more on the history of the university — including the fact the Manning Bar got its name from Sir William Manning, who initially proposed that women be admitted as students back in 1881, 30 years after the university was established.
She also thanked her mentor and champion Henry Mayer, who “tolerated my activism” and accepted she was a diligent student, even when she was part of groups founding the Elsie Women’s Refuge, the Sydney Rape Crisis Centre and Refractory Girl, the first women’s studies journal.
“While other teachers advised me that ‘studying women’ would be bad for my career, Henry took the opposite view. He understood that ‘women’ was becoming a new field of study, not just a dilettantish sideline or a passing political diversion.
“He also encouraged me to turn what I was discovering into a book.
“That book Damned Whores and God’s Police was published in 1975 and only then did Henry insist that I submit it for a doctorate.”