Australia’s first women’s advisor on why she left the country
I didn't have any well built protective mechanisms. But the best thing was that I was so busy that I really didn't have time to let them drag me under. I always had more work than I could possibly do, or somewhere to go or a meeting to attend or a speech to give or a speech to write or letters to answer.
And I think that's what saved me, because as I look back on it now, I think, how on earth did I get through that? It was only two and a half years I was in that job. I'm now over 80, so there are plenty more years in my life. But those two and a half years have somehow stood out in Australia as being my life, I guess.
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From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones. This is 7am.
Australia is the site of a world first: the first time a leader of a country had a special adviser on Women’s Affairs.
It was 1973, fifty years ago this year, that Elizabeth Reid was appointed to the new role.
Abortion access, workplace rights, contraception and education – it was a time of huge change in gender parity and access.
But the reaction to Reid, and the new position, was vicious in some circles, and she resigned just two and a half years into the job.
So, what motivated her? How did the job change her? And why did she leave Australia once it was all over?
Today, Elizabeth Reid, on being the first, and a lifetime of lessons.
It’s Wednesday, May 17.
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So, Elizabeth, it was 50 years ago now that you took on the role of Advisor on Women's Affairs to the Whitlam government. I thought that we could begin by going back to that time. What was it like to be a feminist activist in Australia in the early seventies, and do you think that Australia was open to the kind of radical change that you were fighting for?
Well, look. In the sixties we fought single issues. So we had homosexual law reform, abortion law reform, family planning, etc,. And these were the sorts of things that we marched about, wrote submissions about, wrote papers about, and so on.
And it wasn't until the women's liberation movement started having, here in the ACT, the first meeting was in November 1970… And it wasn’t until the women's liberation movement came along that we saw all of the issues that concerned us, that we felt about, being presented as an entity, as a whole.
Archival tape – Person 1:
“Everyone’s talking about women’s liberation, the women are getting together to talk about women’s liberation.”
Archival tape – Person 2:
“I wish that were true.”
Archival tape – Person 3:
“I think it is true!”
The thing that we said we were against was sexism. We needed to face up to all the manifestations of sexism.
Archival tape – Reporter 1:
“Australian housewives, do you think they lead an exciting existence or a dull one?”
Archival tape – Person 4:
“Well 50/50, I think. It depends on their makeup, don’t you think?”
And I think that was a radical change for us. So it was the time of street art.
Archival tape – Reporter 2:
“The Women's March a couple of Saturdays ago, the organisers then expected a thousand to turn up, at the most, and there were nearly 3000.”
And so we had demonstrations and placard making and shaking and so on.
Archival tape – Gough Whitlam:
“Men and women of Australia, the decision we will make for our country, on the 2nd of December, is a choice between the past and the future.”
Ok and so in 1972, Whitlam comes into power with a progressive agenda, but without any women in the caucus. And so, in response to the women’s liberation movement, he decides to create this new role of “womens advisor”. So, what were you doing when that job came up, how did you find out about it, and ultimately, how did you land the role?
Right. I had just come back to Australia from Oxford.
So I did my first degree in Canberra, and then was lucky enough to get a scholarship to Oxford. And I came back in 1970 to work as a research assistant at the ANU in the philosophy department. And the ad went in the paper and I think the actual wordings were that the person would be doing research into the needs of women, and was there to assist the Prime Minister on policy issues. But it was left a little vague and of course, the Sydney Women's Liberation Movement got up in arms about the position. They took the street, yelling and shouting and waving placards saying ‘no one woman is going to represent us’. But in fact, well over 400 people put in applications for that job.
I just decide I would apply for it. Other women decide they wouldn't, but I decide I would because I just felt this was a unique opportunity to go into the halls of power and work out what we wanted to do.
Do you remember the conversations that you had around that time? What were other people, these other activists who you knew, what were they saying about why they weren't interested in trying to, as you put it, get into the halls of power?
Well, yes. I mean, there was a huge debate that was going on in the women's movement over reform versus revolution. And so that if you had a strong line on that, a strong line pro revolution, that what we needed was a true revolution. Sort of of the kind that the men advocated in the anti-war movement or in other movements. But reform… We'd never had a chance to act in a reformist milieu before. And so there was a huge amount of to and fro-ing, both over whether you could achieve anything going in the halls of power, or whether you should stay outside and scream from the outside, make demands from the outside. And it was felt, very much, by the women's liberation movement, that power corrupts, and if you went into the halls of power, you would be automatically compromised. I mean, I have to say that for my whole time working for Whitlam, I used to get up in the morning and look at myself in the mirror and think, shit…am I being corrupted yet?
[Laughs]Did you come to an answer on that question?
Well, I. No. I didn’t, no. I decided it was very difficult to know yourself, whether you were corrupted. You could feel that you're pure and uncorrupted and continuing around. But unless you had a lot of feedback, it was quite difficult to tell whether you’re compromised or not by power itself.
I just wonder, when you took it on, at the very, sort of, beginning of that road, did you have any idea of the challenges ahead and how hard it might be and the, sort of, the pushback you might get from the press, from colleagues?
No, I don't think so. I don't think so.
Now once I got the job, I decided the first thing we needed to do was to go out and ask women what they thought women really needed. What do women want? And so I spent over a year travelling around Australia. I met with every group of women that would have me. My job was just to listen to what they were saying. So I met with women in jails, migrant women, Aboriginal women, women farmers, women in rural areas, women in urban areas, migrant women's resource centres, you name it. And it was a wonderful time. It was very tiring. But already the press had put their stamp on the job.
Once I got the job, the Prime Minister's boys in the press room, set up a press interview for me in my home. They started the cameras rolling and the first question they asked was, so would you call yourself a feminist? So obviously I said well, you tell me what you mean by it and I’ll answer it.
Archival tape – Elizabeth Reid:
“If you could tell me what that… what you meant by it?”
Archival tape – Reporter 3:
“Well, I mean, you disagree with marriage, and as I understand it, you only just tolerate children.”
Archival tape – Elizabeth Reid:
“Oh, on the contrary. I don't disagree with marriage and I love children.”
They went on from there to ask me about my views on pot, abortion, marijuana, homosexuality, etc., etc., etc.. And then, the next day was to be my first day in the Prime Minister's office. And I woke up that morning and I saw the papers and it was unbelievable. Prime Minister’s Supergirl says, legalise pot, legalise abortion, legalise prostitution, legalise homosexuality. And that was smeared across virtually every paper in Australia and it just didn't get any better. It only got worse.
Archival tape – Reporter 4:
“What have you actually achieved, in the time since your appointment, or has the government relegated you to the position of token Lady without any real power or influence?”
Almost every paper in Australia, when they were reporting on something that I'd done, they would say Elizabeth Reid, 33 years old, wearing no bra and whose daughter doesn't live with her, said in Canberra today.
Archival tape – Elizabeth Reid:
“I was asked no questions about, you know, what do you think is really the problem facing women in Australia? What do you intend to do in your job?”
Archival tape – Reporter 5:
“Ultimately, Australian women will pass judgement on Elizabeth Reid's effectiveness, but Australian men will be responsible for her success or failure.”
I mean, they thought if they put me down first and then report what I said in as scandalous a way as possible, the women of Australia might well turn against me.
And they didn't.
Yeah, I mean, despite your treatment in the media, you did achieve a lot in your time as women's advisor. If I can list some of those achievements. You organised funding for childcare, things like women's refuges. You helped set up funding for International Women's Year celebrations, as well as, I think, just speaking to so many women who were contacting you and pouring out their stories to you. So. So what are you most proud of, from your time in government?
What am I proud of? Well, the two that stand out was firstly, the supporting mothers benefit. This was an amazing, slight piece of legislation that gave women a small amount of money to help bring up their child without being forced either to marry against their wishes, or to give their child up for adoption. They got the option, for the first time, to keep their child and raise it themselves. And that just changed, dramatically, women’s lives. And to this day, I mean, 50 years later, I can get stopped in the street by somebody who says, I am who I am now because of you, because that supporting mothers' benefit. And the other thing that really changed women's lives was the free tertiary education. Women came out of the woodwork. You’d never seen a more diverse group of women, because they represented all women. Young women, but hundreds of older women, migrant women, they all took advantage of that free education. And life changed.
Life changed not only for them, but for their descendants. Their children and their grandchildren and so on, all led different lives because these women started being able to be educated. And so the minute it became free, the women just swamped.
It was lovely.
We’ll be back in a moment.
Archival tape – Elizabeth Reid:
"We women will no longer be manipulated for political ends, either in the international or in the national forum, for this deprives us of our dignity. We women will no longer tolerate paternalism, benign or otherwise, for it deprives us of our selfhood. And this is our conference. Thank you."
So Elizabeth, 1975 was significant in that it was the first ever UN declared International Women’s year. And you gave this speech we just heard to a World Conference in Mexico City, but just a few months after that, you resigned from your role. Why was that?
Oh, well. 1975 the Labor government was in turmoil. But for International Women's Year, each country was encouraged to set up a programme of action. And one of the key items in our program was the Women in Politics Conference, which is held here in Canberra in September 1975. And over 700 women came from all around Australia to attend. There were women from every background, every part of politics, and of course, there was tension and friction, particularly at first. And it started when we had a reception in Kings Hall, in the old Parliament House. And firstly, the invitation said when they specified what outfit we should wear, they said suit. So, many women turned up in men's suits.
And then outside of the hall, a group of Aboriginal women burst into the hall carrying placards and yelling that they’d been neglected. And then Labor women, who were opposed to Whitlam’s stand on East Timor, took placards and unfurled them behind Whitlam, when he was standing giving his speech.
Now we got through the tensions, we dealt with them, we put on extra sessions. We did everything we could to address people's concerns and the conference settled down, but the damage had been done. So the papers were full of photographs of statues in Kings Hall with bras draped over them, or women in men's suits, or writing on the toilets, "lesbians are lovely".
And so, at the end of the conference, three Labor men went into Whitlam’s office and said, you've got to get rid of her. She is going to cause you to lose votes at the next election, and we can't afford that. And Whitlam, eventually, gave in. And so it was decided that they would move me over to the bureaucracy. But it was a silencing trick, and I didn't go into the job in order to become a public servant. I just turned around on my heels, left his office and resigned. Went out with a mate to dinner and over my dinner, we wrote out my resignation.
And so, that’s what I did.
And you were quoted, at the time, as saying that when you quit, you needed to reassess who you were as a person. Who were you when you finished the job, as opposed to when you started? What effect did it have?
Wow, what a good question. Immediately I think I was literally exhausted. My life was honed down to just plain working. And I hadn't had a night off or night out for all that time, I think. I probably didn't exist much. I was very attenuated, I think.
It was October, so it was just about a month before the dismissal. And I just wanted to get away. And I didn't want to have to deal with the Australian press anymore. So, I sort of saw myself more as a refugee from the Australian press, and I fled to the wilds of Canada. And I stayed in a log cabin up there, with the grizzly bears migrating south outside, by myself for a while. And then I went on. I'd been invited to give a lecture at the UN, so I went over to the UN, gave a lecture, and ended up in Iran.
Yeah, so after you left Australian politics, you moved into international development work. You’ve worked with the U.N., in H.I.V advocacy, as well, I believe. And underlying your work, I think, there is this sense of a fight against imbalances of power, whether that is for women in Australia or around the world. When you look at what's changed in Australia, since your time as women's advisor, I mean, many of the things that were being fought for then have now become the norm. I'm thinking about equal pay for women, for example. I mean, there’s not perfect equality, but things are better than they were then. And yet, we've seen women on the steps of parliament with stories of harassment, assault, a culture of silence at Parliament House. So, when you look at the situation, particularly for women in politics in Australia today, what do you think and how do you compare it to the atmosphere and the things that surrounded you in the seventies?
Well, I think that the most dramatic change is that there's no collective movement, there’s no social movement. Now, what I mean by that was, I mean, we had the women's liberation movement and we had the women's electoral lobby and other groups. But nowadays, we saw we had the March for Justice, which was an event, and almost the only mass event that's occurred in recent years. Now, I think that we made a revolutionary change in women's lives, but there's still an awful lot to do and there's an awful lot to do in Australia. And I think you see that in things like the Brittany Higgins case, which has shown up some of the structural problems in our legal system. If you look at our defamation laws, you see that here you have structural problems, too. If you look at our consent laws, here you have structural problems. So we actually have a legal system that is itself rife with the entitlement of masculinity. It is born of toxic masculinity. Now, these institutions, which are pretty, very central to democracy, Parliament and the legal system, they weren't very functional in our days either. We have to stop now and restructure the whole culture of our institutions. And I think that's what we have to do.
And right at the beginning of this conversation, we were talking about this question of reform versus revolution. So, whether it's more effective to agitate for change from the outside is as an activist or, like you did, to join in and try and make a difference from inside the institutions of power. And so, at this point in your life, after all of your experience, where do you now sit on that question? What is more effective?
Well, I would want to begin by arguing that it isn't a question of reform versus revolution. What we showed back then was that where you have a progressive government and a women's social movement, you can instil a revolutionary consciousness. And you can get the government itself not just to introduce changes that we would tend to call reforms, but you can get a government that’s prepared to change the very attitudes and nature. But we've got a long way to go in effecting the change in our institutions, our workplaces, in our legal system, and so on.
Did you ever consider going back into politics, after that two and a half years?
No. That two and a half years taught me that politics is not a place conducive to being human. The hours are so long, you are separated so long from your family and friends. You can't function as a true, soft human. You have to become a machine.
And I just didn't want to live like that.
Well, Elizabeth, thank you so much for your time today. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.
Thank you Ruby, very much. I’ve enjoyed it too.
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Also in the news today…
There were no fire sprinklers in the hostel that went up in a blaze in Wellington yesterday.
The hostel, which can sleep 92, is believed to have been at full capacity on the night of the fire, which is being described as the most deadly fire in a decade.
A 78-year old US citizen has been sentenced to life in prison in China, after being found guilty of spying charges.
John Leung was the head of a Texas-based branch of the Association for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, an organisation that promotes Beijing’s claims over Taiwan and is thought to have close ties to the communist party.
I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am. See you tomorrow.
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Australia can claim a significant world first: a special government adviser on Women’s Affairs.
Fifty years ago, Elizabeth Reid stepped into the newly created role in Gough Whitlam’s government.
Abortion access, workplace rights, contraception and education – it was a time of huge change in gender parity and access. But the reaction to Reid and the new position was vicious in some circles. She resigned just two and a half years into the job.
What motivated her? How did the job change her? And why did she leave Australia once it was over?
Today, Elizabeth Reid, on being first – and a lifetime of lessons.
Guest: Women’s affairs adviser to Gough Whitlam, Elizabeth Reid.
7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.
It’s produced by Kara Jensen-Mackinnon, Zoltan Fecso and Cheyne Anderson.
Our technical producer is Atticus Bastow. Our editor is Scott Mitchell.
Sarah McVeigh is our Head of Audio. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.
Mixing by Andy Elston, Travis Evans, and Atticus Bastow.
Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.
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