Book – Women and Whitlam: Revisiting the Revolution
Editor: by Michelle Arrow,
Publisher: NewSouth Publishing (University of NSW Press Ltd)
Reviewed by Brian Morgan
Through the experiences and eyes of some 23 well known women who came to prominence about the time of Gough Whitlam’s election in 1972, we gain what I will call a “mosaic”, that is, a composite picture of many of the activities and actions which contributed to legislative reforms enabling us to see how the role of women in Australia, generally, has, hopefully, improved immeasurably for all time.
Reading the various contributions which make up this book, the political leanings of some of the writers were quite evident to the extent that I found some comments distracted one from the interesting material otherwise contained in their papers.
Older lawyers are likely to remember the Matrimonial Causes Act 1959 and how its fault-based regime was replaced by a Whitlam government Act, the Family Law Act 1975 which provided for no fault divorce.
Hopefully, all of us recall how today the plight of deserted wives, single mothers etc is so much more bearable due to their gaining entitlement to benefits in 1973 but there is so much more of which these authors remind us: child care, access to universities for all, encouraging a notion that men and women are equal, appointing females to major positions within the Government, demonstrating the worth of women by actions, not simply words.
All of these changed the lives of all women who, in the early 1970’s, were derided by a newspaper as sheilas: “$2M for the Sheilas- Surprisingly it’s Not a Joke” and worse.
One cannot help but think of our first female Prime Minister Julia Gillard and of how she was so poorly treated by members of Parliament on both sides and trolls, which reminds us that the job started by Whitlam had and still has a long way to go.
The first Chief Judge of the Family Court was a woman, Elizabeth Evatt, whom I have had the pleasure of meeting on several occasions. I never appeared before her but I found her to be very erudite and a lateral thinker in her views on appropriate reforms and her ability to articulate these issues so that they were more readily understood. The paper by her contained in this book is, similarly, readily understood and poignant. I commend her 11 page contribution to you, as remaining highly relevant in 2023. Of course, her appointment as Chief Justice of the new Family Court signalled the opening of opportunities which have now given rise to several Chief Justices, High Court Justices, Federal Court Judges, a Prime Minister and so on.
I don’t think anyone who reads this book would believe that these appointments were likely to occur without our having had a Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister.
The shame of it is that, 50 years later, there is still so much to achieve as demonstrated by a number of the contributors and which, I suggest, is self evident to all of us. And this is not to ignore the issues faced by First Nations women.
And, whilst Whitlam made no secret of his desire to achieve equality between men and women, this book demonstrates how short we, still, are of that mark.
The editor, in her Introduction, explains, “It is the first book about the Whitlam era to focus entirely on the government’s agenda for women: how it was shaped and enacted, what was gained and what remains to be done” (emphasis added).
Referring to this passage, this mosaic does achieve what its editor set out to do and, in so doing, it gives us a much greater insight into the role that activist women played in identifying, developing, encouraging and promoting the many changes in relation to women’s rights that were promoted by Whitlam. One can wonder at how much would have been achieved without their active involvement.
I conclude this review by citing part of the eulogy to Whitlam delivered by Cate Blanchett, (one of the contributors), set out at page 218:
“Women were probably the main beneficiaries of free tertiary education. So here today I may stand as an exemplar, but if you combine the modernising and enabling capacity afforded women by his legislations, you can begin to see that the nation was truly changed by him through the arts and through gender, thereby leading us towards an inclusive, compassionate maturity. So much of this achievement is directly attributable to policy initiatives Gough Whitlam began, with a series of reforms to extend the degree and quality of social opportunities to women in Australia”.