In the early 1970s, Wendy McCarthy was one of 80 women who took out a full-page advertisement in a national newspaper, publicly sharing their names and stating that they’d had abortions.
At the time, the law in Australia said that any woman who had a pregnancy terminated could face up to 10 years in jail. So could her doctor, for illegally performing the medical procedure.
“We sat around and thought this is ridiculous,” Wendy McCarthy reflects in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons podcast. “Those of us who’d had abortions decided to put our names in the paper and dare the police to charge us.”
“Not one of us was charged. And after that, we were never frightened.”
In this week’s podcast episode, Shirley Chowdhary is joined by Wendy, and her daughter Sophie McCarthy, for a special mother-daughter conversation. Both reflect on their careers, and what has changed for women, generationally, in Australia over the multiple decades of their lives.
Wendy is perhaps one of Australia’s most well-recognised pioneers of women’s rights. Fearlessly, she’s been at the forefront of feminist activism for decades, fighting for equality in politics, boardrooms and in reproductive health.
But as a young university graduate, Wendy was not someone who thought she’d have a long and wide-ranging career. An attitude that was the norm for young women at the time.
“To begin with, I never thought I’d have a career. I thought I’d have a job,” Wendy says. “I just couldn’t believe my luck that I was a university graduate, first in my family to go to university, and I had a guaranteed job for five years as a secondary school teacher. But I never thought it would be anything other than a job.”
“I loved it from the minute I walked into the classroom, but I never thought of a career.”
For Sophie, who is the founder and CEO of Sydney-based consulting firm McCarthy Mentoring, there was never any question she could have a long career encompassing almost anything she aspired to do.
“I did always assume I would have a career,” Sophie says. “But that’s probably because I had the mother I had, who made it possible and was a role model.”
Sophie also says that as a young adult in the 80s, she and her friends took for granted all the freedoms, particularly the reproductive rights that her mother’s generation had fought so hard for.
“We could get the morning after pill, could access contraception…have a termination of pregnancy,” she explains.
“In fact, most of my 20s was spent in lobby groups looking at reproductive rights in other countries, where they didn’t have those freedoms.”
Wendy’s career has spanned so many areas, including education, business, and political advisory, and she says that following her teaching career, she always had a plan to stand up for the rights of women and children.
And the more that she broke into male-dominated spaces, the more she realised women were just as capable as the men who held the power.
“For years we believed what men told us. The prevailing thinking was inherited from people who were in power — whether you want to call it a patriarchy or whatever — the existing power structure was male controlled,” she said.
“What kept happening for women like me was that we invaded parts of it, and it didn’t turn out to be that much anyway. As I moved into more and more structures, like being a board director, well, they weren’t gods. And they weren’t that clever anyway. We were all pretty much the same.”
Now, both Wendy and Sophie are passionate about mentoring, particularly young women who are figuring out their place in the world and what they want their careers to look like.
“Mum always had a nice saying: that all throughout your life, you should be a mentee and a mentor at the same time,” Sophie shares. “You should always be learning; you should always be giving back.”
Wendy suggests young people should step outside of the comfort zones, and ask someone they admire for advice.
“Learn to ask…Sometimes, thirty minutes can change someone’s attitude to life.”
As a veteran feminist activist, Wendy knows there’s still much to fight for in Australia in 2021. That includes making sure that all women have access to the same rights as the few who have been able to reach the top.
“We should never underplay our achievements. Ok, you can’t have everything at once, but you can have most things. What you need to make sure of, is that the rest of our species are getting the same thing,” she said.
“When you get that equality through the system, it’s a better system. And it’s worth fighting for.”
Listen to Wendy and Sophie in conversation with Shirley Chowdhary in the latest episode of The Leadership Lessons, a Women’s Agenda podcast made possible thanks to the support of Salesforce. You can listen here and subscribe on Apple or Spotify.