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From 1972 to 1975, Margaret Whitlam was an outspoken prime ministerial wife, a frequent guest speaker, broadcaster and columnist. She accompanied Gough Whitlam on his extensive travels, including visits to China, Japan, India, North America and Europe.
Margaret Whitlam served on the International Women's Year Advisory Committee from 1974 to 1975. After the dismissal of the Whitlam government, she served on many public bodies. In the 1990s she was honoured by the National Trust of Australia as a National Living Treasure. She died in March 2012 at the age of 92.
A political wife
Margaret Whitlam was a prime ministerial wife for three years, from 1972 to 1975. She was a political wife from the beginning of her marriage to Gough Whitlam in April 1942. Both were interested in politics. Both supported the government of John Curtin at the 1943 election, and the referendum on post-war reconstruction and democratic rights a year later. Margaret Whitlam sent Gough Whitlam the campaign materials for the election and the referendum that he distributed while stationed with his Royal Australian Air Force squadron at a remote base in northern Australia.
A swimming champion, Margaret Whitlam represented Australia at the third Empire Games, held in Sydney in 1938. Ten years later, after her marriage and the birth of the couple’s two younger sons, she graduated in social studies from the University of Sydney. After Whitlam was elected to parliament in 1952, her work in the electorate intensified, including attendance at balls, fetes, sporting carnivals and church services, as well as party meetings. There were also the duties in Canberra. Margaret Whitlam attended every opening of parliament and the associated events. She was also an active member of the Labor Party Women’s Conference.
Margaret Whitlam took a job as a social worker at Parramatta District Hospital from 1964 to 1967, when Gough Whitlam became Leader of the Opposition. Her political work increased with his and, in January 1968 when John Gorton became Prime Minister after the death of Harold Holt, they made an official trip to South-East Asia. Margaret Whitlam’s duties on the trip included visiting schools, hospitals and orphanages in the South Vietnamese capital Saigon.
A prime ministerial wife
When Gough Whitlam became Prime Minister on 5 December 1972, Margaret Whitlam soon gained public attention as an outspoken prime ministerial wife. She spoke frankly about the ambiguous role, undefined duties and loss of a separate identity. She wrote in her diary in December 1972, ‘What am I to do? 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’.
As prime ministerial wife she became a frequent guest speaker, including on radio and television. In the years leading up to the 1972 election Margaret had been a panellist on the popular television program Beauty and the Beast. She also contributed a regular column to the magazine Woman’s Day from 1973 to 1975, through which readers were offered insights into the working life of the wife of the head of government. Her speeches, interviews and articles publicised women’s rights, conservation, and the issues and experiences gained in her own professional life.
Margaret Whitlam accompanied Gough Whitlam on his extensive travels, including visits to China, Japan, India, North America and Europe. At The Lodge she arranged and hosted many official events, including a royal lunch in the garden during the 1973 visit to Australia of Queen Elizabeth II. Official visitors to The Lodge during the Whitlams’ term included Chief Minister of Papua New Guinea, Michael Somare, and feminist author, Germaine Greer.
Margaret Whitlam served on the International Women’s Year Advisory Committee from 1974 to 1975, and helped to determine the distribution of project funding. A much admired public figure, she continued her public career after the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975.
She served on governing or advisory bodies of the Sydney Dance Company, Sydney Teachers’ College, Sydney College of Advanced Education, Law Foundation of New South Wales, ACT Council of Social Service, National Opera Conference, Australian Opera, Musica Viva, International Women’s Year, International Literacy Year, College of Seniors, Microsurgery Research Council and the Australia–Ireland Council.
From 1983 to 1986 the Whitlams lived in Paris, after the Hawke government appointed Gough Whitlam Ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). In 1983, Margaret Whitlam received the Order of Australia. At the Australian Labor Party national conference in April 2007, Gough and Margaret Whitlam were made national life members of the party they had both belonged to for over 60 years.
Langmore, Diane, The Prime Ministers’ Wives: The Public and Private Lives of Ten Australian Women, McPhee Gribble, Melbourne, 1992.
Mitchell, Susan, Margaret Whitlam: A Biography, Random House Australia, Sydney, 2006.
Whitlam, Margaret, My Day, Collins, Sydney, 1973.
Whitlam, Margaret, My Other World, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 2001.