The prime ministerial spouse

'The Lodge is not my home. I just happen to be here to do a job.’ Tamie Fraser, 1977

What is the job of a prime ministerial spouse? Twenty-seven women have held this post and one man. They have shaped their own roles much more freely than the 29 prime ministers. Prime ministerial spouses are without a job description; that they are also without a salary gives them even greater range to interpret their duties.

All of Australia’s prime ministers except two have been married – Julia Gillard and John McEwen being the only exceptions (though he was recently widowed when prime minister in 1967–68 and remarried soon after) – thus suggesting that a spouse is important to a prime ministerial career. Yet from the first, prime ministerial spouses have been oddly invisible and their roles in Australian political history largely ignored. Even those who served most briefly reward inquiry, like Ada Watson (1904), Florence Reid (1904–05), or Vera Forde (1945). Ada Watson’s influence on her husband’s decision to end his political career remains an historical puzzle, while Florence Reid’s and Vera Forde’s contributions to Australian politics in peace and in war still await our attention and assessment.

Elsie Curtin in a room at The Lodge

'Home away from home' – Elsie Curtin at The Lodge, 1941.

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From the first, prime ministerial wives had prominent roles both at home and when travelling overseas. On their various official visits to Britain Jane Barton (1901–03), Pattie Deakin (1903–04, 1905–08, 1909–10), Margaret Fisher (1908–09, 1910–13, 1914–15), Mary Cook (1913–14) and Mary Hughes (1915–23) were all considered prime representatives of Australian womanhood. In some circles Margaret Fisher was seen as representing a dangerous Australian reformism, both because she led the Australian contingent in London’s huge 1911 suffrage procession and as the wife of the only Labor leader in the British Commonwealth.

Until the 21st prime ministerial wife, Tamie Fraser (1975–83), secured an official secretary to help deal with official correspondence, the women in this job managed as best they could. After Hazel Hawke (1983–89) undertook the conversion of a stairwell storage area at The Lodge, the prime ministerial wife at last had a small office space. Without the strong lobbying of Ethel Bruce (1923–29), the first to occupy The Lodge, there would not even have been the small morning room to receive the many visitors the job of prime ministerial wife entailed.

Enid Lyons surrounded by people

Enid Lyons at a function, 1950. Image courtesy ABC.

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The work of the most recent prime ministerial wives is hardly any better known than the roles of the first. Like their predecessors, Margaret Whitlam (1972–75), Tamie Fraser (1975–83), Hazel Hawke (1983–91), Annita Keating (1991–96), Janette Howard (1996–2007) and Thérèse Rein (2007–10) have faced the dual challenge of doing their job effectively while appearing to do nothing at all. Even the most prominent and able prime ministerial wives like Enid Lyons (1932–39) shielded their work – perhaps to keep the spotlight of leadership on their husbands. A focus on the real roles of prime ministerial wives would help us understand more about women's contribution to Australian political history.