Renowned feminist and writer Anne Summers was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters from the University of Sydney in recognition of her outstanding contributions to society, last Wednesday.
She was awarded the title at a
graduation ceremony held in the Great Hall.
Summers has previously been awarded an Office of the Order of Australia for her services to journalism and women as well as honorary doctorates from Flinders University, the University of New South Wales, the University of South Australia and The University of Adelaide.
As the family and friends of graduands filed in and found their seats, a video of accomplished and well-known alumni occupied the big screen ahead, conjuring up memories of USyd’s ‘Inspired’ poster campaign which featured many of the same faces, including Summers’.
Her inclusion amongst these ‘visionary’ movers of change in society, however, appeared somewhat ironic considering how she, as a student, railed against the notion of the institution and its prestige — she told the audience she did not attend her own graduation ceremony as it “was not cool to gown up and front up”.
Summers’ Damned Whores and God’s Police (1975) is the first book to be accepted by the University as a PhD.
This was foregrounded throughout her presentation as a landmark achievement, not merely because it was unprecedented but also because Summers was a woman.
Both Summers and Pro-Chancellor Dorothy Hoddinot highlighted that women now make up 57 per cent of students at the University.
Yet Summers was quick to note “that it wasn’t always the case”, stressing the vast improvements since the 1970s, when Summers and female students and teaching staff were in the minority.
She went on to discuss the “pantheon” of female honorary recipients that have gone before her, emphasising how unpredictable the path beyond University can be and how our lives can “turn out differently from the way we expect”.
Summers spoke about her activist days of student protest and politics, of strikes and of establishing groups like the Elsie Women’s Refuge, the Sydney Rape Crisis Centre and Refractory Girl, the first women’s studies journal.
Summers acknowledged in her address that “the University of Sydney made me”. In this way, the speech showcased an alumnus who has dedicated her life’s work to pioneering women’s rights and whose revolutionary desire for change, which was formed and fostered at University, laid the groundwork for her future pursuits and achievements.
Honorary Doctorates allow the University to celebrate not only particular distinguished alumni but also the special cause or work that they have devoted themselves to.
Awarding Summers this Doctorate signifies the continued relevance and importance of women’s issues in Australian society and student life, and highlights the capacity to “be bold” and “have fun” as Anne stated in her speech, still retains urgency.