Gough Whitlam’s long list of achievements as prime minister included everything from abolishing conscription to creating Medibank, establishing Aboriginal land rights, voting at 18, prioritising relations with Asia, recognising China and indexing pensions.
But it was his commitment to increasing women’s workforce participation that really changed the lives of women, including by introducing equal pay, committing funding to health services and removing ‘luxury’ taxes on contraceptives.
Whitlam died overnight aged 98, leaving a long legacy of reforms at a time of significant social change that helped modernise Australia.
Born in Melbourne, Whitlam attended school in Canberra and later studied at the Sydney University. He married Margaret Dovey, a former athlete who had swum for Australia at the Empire Games, in 1942. Together they had four children and stayed married for almost 70 years until Margaret’s death in 2012.
When Whitlam led Labor to a campaign victory in 1972 with the slogan It’s time, he positioned education as essential for equal opportunity, and fought to ensure workplace pay and conditions for women were fair. He removed university fees and increased education spending. He reopened an equal pay case at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, with a major 1972 decision that saw half a million women becoming eligible for full pay, as well as an overall 30% rise in women’s wages. Later, the Commission extended the adult minimum wage to also include women.
The Whitlam Government also helped fund a range of health and welfare services for women, including health centres, crisis centres and refuges. When the United Nations declared 1975 International Women’s Year, Whitlam appointed Elizabeth Reid to oversee $3 million worth of funding for relevant events to mark the year. She later became Women’s Adviser to the Prime Minister – marking the Whitlam government as the first in the world to appoint such a position. In a 1975 speech by Margaret Whitlam on women’s rights, she said Reid must be the bravest woman in Australia — although she wasn’t too thrilled about her job title . “How many male advisers are there? It’s a weighted battle but at least we’re in it.”
Whitlam also improved working conditions for women in the public service, a significant move given the Commonwealth was employing more than 64,000 women in 1973. His government passed the Maternity Leave Act, offering 12 days full pay and 12 months unpaid leave for new mothers employed by the Commonwealth and outlawing pregnancy-related discrimination.
Whitlam also introduced significant reforms by passing the Family Law Act, which included major changes to divorce laws and establishing the Family Court of Australia. The single mother’s benefit, introduced in 1973, enabled single mothers to access financial assistance.
Whitlam’s speech following his 1975 dismissal in which he said “Well may we say ‘God save the Queen’ because nothing will save the governor-general” became one of his most remembered. At the same time, he also urged his supporters to, “Maintain you rage and enthusiasm”.
There’s plenty of rage to maintain. Now to just keep up the enthusiasm. Vale Gough Whitlam.