Margaret Whitlam: A PM’s feminist wife who inspired generations of women Nov 19 1919 - March 17 2012 Print E-mail
 Melbourne ~ March 17, 2012

Tributes flow in for 'national treasure' Margaret Whitlam

Prime Minister Julia Gillard has paid tribute to former first lady Margaret Whitlam as a inspiration to women to follow their dreams.

Ms Gillard says she was "a remarkable woman, rightly loved and revered as a national treasure."

She says Mrs Whitlam was an accomplished woman in her own right, with an abiding commitment to social issues, reflecting her own professional training, as well as a tireless advocate for the arts, the environment and women's rights.
TV's Kath and Kim have somne fun with Margaret Whitlam at the launch of her autobiography in 2006.

She says Mrs Whitlam was an inspiration to many women "to lead lives of greater ambition and purpose."

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott has described Mrs Whitlam as a woman of style and substance following her death.

He described Mrs Whitlam as a great patron of the arts and "a woman of style and substance".

Mrs Whitlam inspired generations of Australian women and has the affection of the nation, says Multicultural Affairs Minister Kate Lundy.

Senator Lundy said she was an extraordinary woman who displayed great strength.

"Margaret Whitlam has the affection of this nation," Senator Lundy said in Melbourne today.

"She was an extraordinary woman, and in the contact I've had with her she was so strong and inspiring, and I think she has inspired many generations of Australian women.

"I think she'll be sorely missed."

Former prime minister Kevin Rudd said Mrs Whitlam would be deeply missed.

"Today Australia lost one of our greatest, Mr Rudd tweeted.

"Margaret Whitlam. Inspirational. And we hoped indestructible. We miss her deeply. KRudd."

Former NSW premier Kristina Keneally tweeted: "A great woman, a great life lived: Margaret Whitlam."


 Melbourne ~ March 17, 2012

Margaret Whitlam defined being a PM's wife


Margaret Whitlam ... always prepared to give her opinion. (Helen Nezdropa)

Margaret Whitlam did more than any woman before her to bring life and personality to Australia's most ill-defined job, being a prime minister's wife.

Tall, smart and rarely afraid to give an opinion, she became an almost equal partner in the Gough and Margaret show which thrilled and affronted Australians during his prime ministership and continued to fascinate during a long and active life post-politics.

Yet Margaret remained, first and foremost, a loyal wife and mother; the personification of all those intelligent women who came into their prime in the 1960s and who wrestled to reconcile new, radical and liberating ideas with their traditional backgrounds.

Happy day ... Margaret Dovey marrying Gough Whitlam in 1942.

She also occasionally hinted that, for all the richness of her life, she was not entirely satisfied with it, that she suffered frustrations and could have done more.

Margaret Elaine Dovey, who has died aged 92, was born on November 19 1919 in Bondi.

She had a privileged upbringing. Her father Wilfred became a NSW Supreme Court judge and her mother Mary was "full of good works".

Margaret went to SCEGGS, Darlinghurst, an elite Anglican school, where she excelled at sport. She swam breastroke for Australia at the 1938 Empire Games. Her other love was the theatre.

To her disappointment, she wasn't a prefect -- perhaps because she'd been caught running a Melbourne Cup sweep.

Her greater regret, until she met the even taller Gough, was her 188cm frame.

They met at Sydney University just after World War II started.

"I do believe it was instant. I thought he was dreamy," she recalled.

They married in April 1942, six weeks before he was called up by the RAAF. When their first son Antony was born, Gough was navigating bomber missions against the Japanese.

She gave up her social work before the birth and didn't return to it until Cathy, the youngest of their four children, was 11. She later wondered if she shouldn't have gone back to work earlier.

After the war the Whitlams moved to Cronulla and Gough threw himself into law and politics. In 1952 he won a by-election for the seat of Werriwa.

Margaret felt housebound and initially resented the way politics consumed her husband's time.

After he became opposition leader in 1967, the media started taking an interest in her. It generally liked what it saw. However at this stage she still presented a comfortable, domestic image.

"Women's Lib doesn't really appeal to me," she said then.

But she steadily became more forthright, asserting the right of politicians' wives to have opinions of their own. The media liked that too.

Believing that she was a political asset, Labor strategists gave her a substantial role in the 1972 "It's Time" election campaign.

Through a magazine column, radio and TV chat shows and interviews, she came across as an honest, thoughtful person with a mind of her own.

Asked what she thought of Sir William McMahon's glamorous young wife Sonia, she replied: "I'm a different age, a different shape and a different person. My main decoration is, I suppose, my conversation."

Influenced by Germaine Greer, she started embracing women's issues, particularly abortion law reform.

Greer interviewed her just after the election and thought she was the best political wife in the world.

Margaret also understood the dilemma of all PM's wives: "If you say nothing you're just dumb. If you talk, you're too talkative."

There was ambivalence after Gough came to power.

The first entry in her diary as the PM's wife started: "This is our first week at the Lodge and I'm loving it."

Yet less than a month later she wrote: "This is my life and I must make the most of it...I'm envying the life I've left."

Nevertheless, her diary for the first year, much of which was published in Woman's Day, was largely a catalogue of travels with Gough -- from dining with the Queen to opening country shows -- plus golf and tennis, the theatre and meeting interesting people.

Her media honeymoon continued.

After a long news conference for women journalists - when she supported abortion reform, contraceptive advice, wages for housewives and legalising marijuana - one wrote:

"Dame Pattie (Menzies) said little. Zara (Holt) said a lot but achieved little. Bettina (Gorton) was intellectually bright but evasive and Sonia (McMahon) was uninvolved.

"Margaret Whitlam is the first female resident of the Lodge who'll go in with guns blazing."

When the Whitlams went to London, she delighted the bitchy British press, opening her news conference by saying: "Ask me an outrageous question and I'll give you an outrageous answer."

She did affront the guardians of protocol with her Woman's Day account of dinner with the Queen at Windsor Castle -- burbling away about the pink eiderdown, the paintings in the bathroom, the salmon, turkey and pineapple bombe menu and the Queen's bouffant hair.

Her response to the criticism showed her growing confidence: "I came to represent all the ungainly people, the too-tall ones, the too-fat ones and the housebound as I'd been, who'd never go to China or Buckingham Palace and went through me."

Inevitably, the media turned on her.

In August 1974 she was reported, a little out of context, saying inflation was "a lot of hooha". She responded to the outrage that caused by savaging reporters as vultures, freeloaders and intruders.

Next month a newspaper started a new controversy by reporting her total pay packet -- from a television chat show, her magazine column and as a director of Commonwealth Hostels -- was more than $36,000 a year.

Gough was then getting, when allowances were included, $56,500.

ACTU president Bob Hawke - whom Margaret, in one of her worst predictions, said would never be PM - thought she was unwise.

As Labor's fortunes declined, Margaret made more waves on women's issues, but sensibly refused to comment on the loans affair, the main reason for its ultimate fall.

She was in Sydney on the momentous day of the dismissal.

"I just stood there. I was flummoxed," she recalled.

Gough told her not to return to Canberra, so she moved straight out of Kirribilli House and into a flat they'd just bought. She even had to go out and buy a television so she could watch events unfold.

Labor was thrashed in the ensuing election and Margaret never forgave Governor-General Sir John Kerr.

"I can hate pretty well now," she said.

She also hated the radio talk-back hosts, calling them died-in-the-wool Liberals who used their pernicious influence to hold suburban housewives in mental thraldom. The jocks, of course, bit back.

Margaret campaigned heavily in the 1977 election, saying a return to the Lodge would be a nice vindication and that this time she'd be much more her own person and would never again make herself totally available.

But Labor was again heavily defeated and Gough resigned.

The energetic Margaret gathered a wide range of responsibilities, from teaching English to migrants to being a director of the Sydney Dance Company. She wrote for magazines and newspapers and modelled clothes for a label called Think Big.

In 1983, with Labor back in power, Hawke appointed Gough Australia's ambassador to UNESCO. Margaret, a little reluctantly, went to Paris with him.

She enjoyed the French capital but missed all her educational and cultural activities and her growing brood of grandchildren. Her luxurious life there was "self-indulgent" and caused her "huge waves of guilt".

In 1985, 100,000 people at Sydney's Domain waited to hear Joan Sutherland sing.

When the Whitlams, home on leave, walked in hundreds surged forward to shake their hands and pat their backs. They got a bigger reception than the Hawkes.

Margaret said: "It was a rather stunning experience. Almost embarrassing. It was very nice. Very warming."

Journalist Kristin Williamson wrote of their reception: "If there is political royalty in Australia then the emeritus emperor and empress would have to be Gough and Margaret Whitlam."

Back home permanently, Margaret picked up where she'd left off, accumulating another portfolio of good works, plus more writing.

In her 70s she branched out again, becoming a celebrity tour leader of cultural rambles around Europe.

"I won't get out of harness until I'm dragged out," she declared.

Her standing as one of the few PM's wives to have touched the people independently of her husband remained high.

With Hazel Hawke, she is the only one to be listed as a National Treasure.

And in 2007 she and Gough became the first national life members of the ALP, an honour previously bestowed only at state level.

Diane Langmore, in her book Prime Ministers' Wives, said Margaret took the evolution of the role forward by accepting its public nature while trying to define herself, through parallel activities in education, the arts and welfare, as a separate identity rather than simply her husband's appendage.

"She was not an intellectual but an intelligent, lively and courageous woman trying to fill a difficult role with integrity and initiative," Langmore said.

"It was her misfortune that in doing so she was caught between the new ideas and commitments of the women's movement and the continuing cautious social conservatism of many Australians."

~ March 19, 2012

A towering figure in her own right

by: Tom Dusevic
MARGARET Whitlam believed the nation "got two for the price of one" when it elected her husband Gough to be prime minister in 1972. But to the men and women of Australia, Whitlam proved to be more than a trailblazing "first lady" or the earthed partner in our first power couple.

Beyond her patrician grace, commanding presence, quickness of mind and sharpness of tongue, Whitlam was fervently, and remains forever, one of us. A national swimming champion, war bride, outer-suburban mum, social worker, arts patron, writer, television host, tour leader, activist and stirrer, she was, at heart, of the community and for the community.

In their prime, Gough and Margaret were giants, towering over the landscape, at home or abroad, two outsized personalities during a tumultuous era of possibility and despair. While he tended to grandiosity, she brought dignity to the pairing; he was idolised and demonised along partisan lines, she was a respected model of equanimity.

Whitlam's 92 years spanned the making of modern Australia, from the end of World War I to the nation's first female leader. Yet she was more than a witness to our history: close to the centre of cataclysmic events such as the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975, she was also a ground-level, indispensable contributor to the progressive causes that changed us.

"What am I to do?" Whitlam wrote in her diary after Labor's historic victory in December 1972. "Stay in a cage -- wide open to view, of course -- and say nothing? That's not on but if I can do some good I'll certainly try." Try she did, leaving little untried, breaking down conventions, challenging our wisdoms.

She came from the bright side of town, a Sydney kid of the seashore, born Margaret Elaine Dovey on November 19, 1919. Growing up in a semi-detached house above the southern end of Bondi Beach, she recalled playing cricket and hopscotch or racing scooters in the back lane with neighbours. The sea -- surf or baths -- was also home.

Margaret's father Wilfred, or Bill, a lawyer, was then associate to the chief justice of Australia, and later became a NSW Supreme Court judge; mother Mary, her daughter said, was "full of good works", helping the Red Cross and other causes.

She attended Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School, Darlinghurst, showing a love of books, music, writing and drama from an early age. Margaret displayed flair in comic roles, once confessing: "I was a bit of a show-off in the drama department." She was disappointed when she did not become a prefect, her role in organising a Melbourne Cup sweep counting against her.

"At school being tall was the pits," she said about her 188cm height. She thought boys would not find her attractive and it held her back socially. But not in the water. She became Australian breaststroke champion and swam in the 1938 Empire Games held in her home city.

On the eve of her big event, with high expectations of a medal, she developed a throat infection. Her father scrambled around the eastern suburbs with her in tow for a remedy, without success. She finished sixth in the final.

She had her heart set on studying languages at the University of Sydney but did not achieve the marks to enter the arts faculty. She studied social work.

In 1939, Gough Whitlam entered her life at a Sydney University Dramatic Society Christmas party. She was wearing a pale green crepe ensemble and was conscious her hair was still wet from swimming. He was, "just the most divine-looking man I'd seen, he had this beautiful dry, dry wit -- and he was tall". They spent the night dancing together. "He was a pretty good dancer," she said years later, "even though he'd talked all the time and didn't listen to the music."

"From this hour," she wrote, "that was it for both of us." Two years later, while he was waiting for his call-up to the Royal Australian Air Force, Gough proposed. "I'm sick of this mucking around. Let's get hitched." They were married at St Michael's, Vaucluse, on April 22 , 1942. Six weeks later, Gough was called up to serve as a RAAF navigator.

During the war, after gaining her diploma, she worked at the Family Welfare Bureau until morning sickness halted her career. In 1944 she gave birth to the Whitlams' first child, Antony, who was followed by Nicholas (1945), Stephen (1950) and Catherine (1954).

At the end of the war, the couple built a house in Cronulla, in the Sutherland Shire in the city's far-flung south. Gough completed his law degree and was admitted to the bar in 1947, while Margaret graduated with a degree in social studies the following year.

Four years later, with three children, life changed drastically for the couple when Gough won the federal seat of Werriwa at a by-election. The new Labor MP split his week between Canberra and his city legal practice, while his wife became active in the ALP's Women's Conference.

In 1957, the family moved to Cabramatta, which was in the heart of the semi-rural electorate, on the southwest outskirts of the city. The area was teeming with kids, many were the children of so-called new Australians from Europe. The surrounding suburbs lacked basic facilities such as sewerage, paving and guttering, transport, hospitals, child care and swimming pools, which were taken for granted in established parts of Sydney.

Whitlam experienced this scarcity first hand, as a mother and a community worker, and she provided some of the push for an urban agenda that Labor adopted in later years to nourish its heartland. In 1964 she returned to part-time work at Parramatta District Hospital, in truth the only social worker employed there.

By 1967, Gough was opposition leader and she quit her job to take a more active role in politics. Whitlam travelled to Southeast Asia with her husband on an official visit, taking a particular interest in the region's hospitals, orphanages and schools. During the 1969 election, she even campaigned for Labor on her own.

"I couldn't be an adornment," she said years later. "I had to be something else." She became a frequent radio guest and a television panellist on Beauty and the Beast, and began writing a column for the mass-market weekly magazine Woman's Day.

Inspired, in part, by Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, she argued passionately for the need for equal pay for women and abortion law reform. After interviewing Whitlam, Greer described her as "an oasis of light, peace and common sense".

In the lead-up to Gough's famous victory, built on the "It's time" slogan, ALP back room operators saw the leader's wife as a prized political asset. "Mrs Whitlam can catch votes" said a key advertising agency document, which also urged that ALP branches be encouraged to hold "Meet Margaret Whitlam tea parties".

As Gough set about the "transformation of the nation", no less, his wife continued to write her column, setting off a great controversy. In her journalism, and elsewhere, she promoted conservation, women's issues, the legalisation of marijuana and acceptance of de facto relationships.

Margaret revolutionised the role of the prime minister's spouse, determined not merely to "float around opening and closing things".

Whitlam joined the board of Commonwealth Hostels as its first female member and the advisory committee for International Women's Year.

The press loved her, for a time. In 1973, she opened her first media conference in Britain with the tantalising offer: "Ask me an outrageous question and I'll give you an outrageous answer." The event sparked a story in The Daily Mail that said: "The Aussies have obviously got themselves a great big bloody beaut of a first lady in the former Miss 'Doodles' Dovey, the 6ft 2in tall ex-breaststroke champion."

Her reporting for Woman's Day, on tour and at home, gave readers a glimpse into the royal household and the high end of local politics. "I came to represent all the ungainly people," she once said of the column, "the too-tall ones, the too-fat ones, and the housebound, as I had been."

In 1974, following a trip to Japan to launch a container ship, she was asked in an airport interview about inflation in that country, which was running at about 25 per cent. Whitlam said inflation was about the same as here, but that all the "hoo-ha about inflation in the country can be said to be encouraged by the press".

This was attributed to her as inflation being "a lot of hoo-ha", which sparked protests by housewives. Margaret responded by calling the press "an ass", while journalists were "vultures, freeloaders and intruders". Her board fees, two-thirds of the prime minister's then salary, attracted more criticism, including from union supremo Bob Hawke.

She routinely offered advice to her husband, but it was not always heeded. She held a low opinion of the "tinny-voiced" John Kerr. She was also a friend of Kerr's first wife, Peg, and while she believed Kerr "seemed harmless enough", she told Gough he was not an appropriate choice to be governor-general. "I never thought (Kerr) was a strong person," she told an interviewer in 2006.

When Gough was dismissed by Kerr in November 1975, his wife, in Sydney, first heard about it from a driver. "They've sacked the boss," he told her. When she spoke to Gough, she told him he should have torn up the decree. Heavy election losses in 1975 and 1977, despite vocal public support for Gough, were borne heavily by the couple.

For Margaret, Kerr and Malcolm Fraser were scorned. "I couldn't understand and I can't forgive them," she said in a documentary about her life almost two decades later. "What they did was so wrong." But in later years, she, who had been more outspoken than her husband, said she couldn't be bothered being angry.

After Gough retired from parliament, Margaret taught English to migrants and modelled clothing for the Think Big label. She became a director of the Sydney Dance Company, chairwoman of the Opera Conference and chairwoman of the board of governors of the Law Foundation of NSW, and was a fixture on numerous boards in the fields of education, social welfare, culture and medicine. She received the Order of Australia for services to the community in 1983.

When Gough was appointed by newly elected prime minister Hawke to be ambassador to UNESCO, the couple moved to Paris for three years. Proud of her French accent -- unlike Gough, she moved about the city without an interpreter -- she wrote articles about the city's galleries and fashion for Vogue Australia.

In her 70s she became a "tour leader" (not guide, she insisted), taking groups on 18 study trips to 24 countries. Those experiences were shared in a book, My Other World. The Whitlams also toured Africa to win votes as part of Sydney's bid team to host the 2000 Olympics.

In 1997, after public voting in a National Trust poll, Gough and Margaret were the only couple to be declared National Living Treasures. In company, when Gough's ego or stridency were off the leash, Margaret would rein him in with a few judicious, but loud, strikes on the floor with her walking stick.

As gregarious octogenarians, in spite of the onset of frailty, they were a popular and lustrous element in their home city's party, cultural and event circuit. "We do feel pretty well liked. It does give us heart," she said at the time. "In another country they would have killed us, of course."

When a biography was published in 2006, Whitlam set off another media storm when she criticised prime minister John Howard's wife, Janette, for being "useless" when it came to serving the community. It was a fleeting flesh wound, a mellowing perhaps, by her precise standards of skewering. In 2007, the couple became the first people to receive ALP national life membership.

Margaret attributed the success of her long and sustaining partnership to her husband's "extraordinary sense of humour". He repaid the compliment by dedicating his books to her: "To my best appointment", "my most constant critic", and in a book about Italy, "my prima donna".

After a fall last month, she was hospitalised. She died on Saturday. Julia Gillard said she "inspired many women that they, too, could lead lives of greater ambition and purpose. Through her own independent activism and advocacy, she also helped redefine the role of 'first lady', giving it a new and deeper significance in the life of our nation."

In the 1993 documentary, Whitlam said she would like to be remembered as a "fair, tolerant and reasonably patient person". So typically modest and prescient in life, Whitlam will be celebrated as a shining Australian original, regarded as a beacon for future generations and, rare among political folk, loved on her own terms.

Margaret Elaine Whitlam. Prime minister's wife, community activist and national treasure. Born November 19, 1919, Sydney. Died March 17, 2012, Sydney, aged 92.