Gough Whitlam was elected Prime Minister of Australia 2nd December 1972 and was the first Australian Prime Minister to appoint a women’s advisor. Elizabeth Reid was appointed. Following is an interview with her conducted by Emma Renwick.
The Life Of Elizabeth
Elizabeth Reid was the first advisor to a PM on women’s affairs; appointed by Gough Whitlam.
She did an extraordinary job in extraordinary times – but her life both before and after those years has been no less interesting – and she shares it with Emma Renwick.
The actual interview took place over several hours – this is an edited transcript.
It is, however, a longer version than the one that went to air.
VOX POP: “I’d rather be the way I am, I like to be under me husband’s thumb!”
ELIZABETH REID: I think it’s hard to remember what Australia was like in the early seventies we always had that fair go mateship but it was a bloke’s world, it was shaped by blokes, talked about by blokes and constructed around their lives and needs and I think even the very fact that Whitlam had decided to appoint somebody, that’s when it all started, cartoons – all the shortlisted applicants for the job that were in swimsuits with a sash saying ten thousand dollars when in fact that was a very low level in the salary structure of the public service of the time and we did not have security of tenure jobs.
As Whitlam came to power, he had on his staff a man called Peter Wilenski, a very great man, well known in Canberra, but it’s perhaps not as well known that is was Peter that went to Gough and said I’ve just spent time in the States, I’ve seen this burgeoning women’s movement it’s going to be one of the greatest social justice movements in our century and I think you should bring onto your staff somebody that will speak with the voice of that movement.
This debate about reform from within or revolution from without was a very live one for us then with some of the women’s liberation saying no no we must stay outside because the price of moving in is cooptation and that is true and others like myself saying we’ve been given this chance we’ve just been challenged so at least apply for the job. So that was when I decided to put in an application for the job. Over 400 women and some men applied for the job, a shortlist was drawn up of extremely impressive women, a diverse group of extremely impressive women – I think a pin was stuck in the list and it was announced that I would be appointed to that job.
PRESS CONFERENCE 1972: “Would you describe yourself as a women’s liberationist.? If you could tell me what you meant by it? Well you disagree with marriage and as I understand it you only just tolerate children. On the contrary I don’t disagree with marriage, and I love children. Marriage is for those who want it … as for children I think they really are one of the great joys in life and I’d like to see more people have access to them, single people, old people, and men.”
ELIZABETH REID: So when my appointment was announced, one of the PM’s press staff organised a press conference and the press came and the press asked me what my views were on abortion, homosexuality, drugs and all these issues and because the job was all still up here I answered from up here. I was trained as a philosopher, I had extremely well elaborated views on all of them that had stood the test of lots of thinking and practice, so I told them exactly what I thought about abortion law and homosexuality and drugs and all this and then I saw the headlines the next day and that was the greatest shock of those years to see how questions that I had assumed were asked all in good faith were twisted and distorted and sensationalised, everything and so that on my very first day after I was appointed the headlines just slathered all this – Prime Minister’s Supergirl which is what they were calling us – supports abortion no subtlety or caveats or qualifications, or careful statements of this just headlines in black and white terms. I had just been appointed and the press had really twisted everything. So I learnt that this was not really going to be a job of the mind. I was appalled at the havoc I had wreaked by answering honestly and carefully the questions at the press conference and in some ways I sort of hid away in this very small office I had been given. and that was a very dramatic entry into a complex and difficult job and life from then on!
1973 4 CORNERS:
Elizabeth Reid: We see each other most of the – each day that I’m in Canberra.
Caroline Jones: Do you see pictures of your Mum in the newspaper some times?
Kathryn Weir: A lot.
Caroline Jones:W hat do you think about that?
Elizabeth Reid:S ometimes she says ‘no good’.
ELIZABETH REID 2005: I think for the male journalists there was – for women there was some vitriol but for the men there was this complete inability to cope with what was happening, there was a feeling of being really challenged and twisting and attempting to trivialise what was being done. I think there was a lot of misunderstanding because that was the way it was handled in parliament, it was no wonder that women also then began to feel that this is outrageous, that women shouldn’t be mothers or be married or whatever else and of course that wasn’t it at all but to get a voice to say it and be heard saying it was extremely difficult because that voice was mediated through the press.
VOX POPS Early 70’s: I’m very sceptical about some of the extremes it’s going to. I think actually women are in great danger of being dominated by women.
ELIZABETH REID 2005: I didn’t feel brave and courageous. I think with my background rather I used to get up every morning and look in the mirror and say have I compromised myself, do I look like a compromised woman, is it showing?
ELIZABETH REID WITH GOUGH WHITLAM, 4 CORNERS, 1973: The Preschool Commission is going to table their report soon and what I’d like to talk to you about is how quickly we can get the recommendations of the report discussed. And also how quickly we can get across to the electorate what we are doing and what is in it.
ELIZABETH REID 2005: I think the strains of achieving reform from the inside are truly immense and you are always compromising and how far you go in that act of compromising is a difficult decision to make. moral dilemmas and challenges were the ones that were always there for me, how do I move, when do I say no, or draw the line. What means do you use to achieve the end that you believe in.
ELIZABETH REID, ABC NEWS STORY BY JEFF MCMULLEN, 26/6/1975: Now the world is going to change. We are going to have to acknowledge the fact that they menstruate, they have children, and they will start, institutions like this will start having to accommodate them. Now I am very proud of the fact that I have a daughter and it’s about time that institutions accommodated to the fact that children exist and as women come into the world, I mean into the visible world, so too will children because we don’t have slaves behind looking after our children.
ELIZABETH REID: The Australian delegation to Mexico city was absolutely unique at that conference. We were one of the very few delegations headed by a woman and the most outspoken of the delegations because we had put a tremendous amount of work into trying to get the best possible outcome for that conference.
What they’d learnt in Mexico moved out in society and I think their voices and their diversity began to draw people into the women in politics conference. I think in the history of Australia I think that international acknowledgment of Australia in Mexico City and then the rising up of women with in the Women and Politics Conference, speaking out, the demonstrating, we will not tolerate these things being said about us they said in the Canberra times and things but it was born of real frustration and 700 women decided we’re not going to accept it.
JEAN REID, Mother: That was a difficult time because the media geared things to their own direction and used information in the wrong way, it was difficult for the whole family I think. We’re not exactly a family that looks for public scrutiny and we all found it very difficult at that time.
ELIZABETH REID: They flashed in front of the Prime Minister all of the front pages of all of the newspapers, all of this outrageous stuff going on at the beginning and during the Women and Politics Conference and said do you think you are going to get elected when you are associated with this and of course they are the same old outsiders who had been there from the start kicking against these forms of social change. What they didn’t see was the radical changes that had occurred that these events and policies were providing women with an understanding of why it was so important for them to go out and vote, and they could have got the women’s vote in a way they had never got before. So their political judgement I think was flawed, they did not get re-elected.
So when I decided I had to go I had to make a statement to the women of Australia that the commitment of the Whitlam government had ceased but I had to do it in such a way that didn’t detract from the Whitlam government – what it had done before that failure of nerves and false advice. So I had to write a resignation release that would do that so then I decided not to stay around for interviews. I didn’t want the press to get to me and to distort and continue to distort. I think I felt as a political refugee from the journalists of Australia, so I left Australia. The women took to the streets… understood that the Whitlam government no longer had the commitment to those policies.
JOHN REID, Son: Well she had this amazing public life where she was all over the newspapers, but it was amazing that she even got there. She had this tragic accident, she was involved in a train crash when she was seventeen and it almost stopped her from getting to where she got today.
ELIZABETH REID: Somebody had forgotten to take a train off the line and our train ran into the back of that train. …I happened to be walking through a door just as our train ran into the back of the other … and that was really, that was it. I was taken to hospital and packed in sand bags and things and it was a period that, it ended one period of my life and began a real struggle to work out what I might do next.
The doctors told me that I could never take work that required any intellectual input again for the rest of my life and I couldn’t study again for the rest of my life. On the basis of those sorts of medical certificates the public service decided it would be appropriate to declare me insane and kick me out, and that’s what happened.
What they also said was that if I were to go back to University, because I’m sure they felt the loss that I was feeling, and they said if I were to go back to university I would end up in a mental asylum unquote – that’s their words.
My parents who each of them didn’t have or weren’t able to continue on the path of education they might like to have followed, they had raised me on the assumption that I would go to University and I’d had a wonderful term there and I’d been stripped of the ability to continue and according to the doctors the ability to think. I found it very difficult to accept that I would never be able to go to University again and at night I used to slip out of my parents house and go down to the campus of the university and just wander around at night amongst the trees. In the world of the ‘might have been’.
They were reluctant to let me in but Finn Crisp was the Dean of Students and eventually Finn looked me in the eye and said ‘Elizabeth this is your decision and I will honour it’ and that was how I got back into ANU and back onto campus.
I was really terrified because I believed the doctors. I thought there was a real likelihood that this could happen. All I knew was that I would rather be in a mental asylum than spend a life punching holes in a monthly statistic cards or doing that sort of work. That I knew.
There is a sense in which ‘I’ was stripped away from me, not by the train crash, but by what the doctors said to me, and the way the public service reacted and declared me insane and kicked me out. There was perhaps a sense in me that with my families help I had come to exist to recreate a person, not the same but a different person and I think that throughout life that knowledge that I have done it and could always do it again has been a wonderful thing to fall back on.
JOHN REID: It definitely changed the course of her destiny, she had almost a perfect memory before then, she was on track to be the next national statistician and it completely changed the direction her life took, for the better I would say because I probably wouldn’t be here otherwise. After 1975 and the furore over National Women’s Year and her resignation just before the constitutional crisis she fled Australia and went overseas and took on various amazing jobs all over the world and while she was doing that was how she met my father who was an American.
ELIZABETH REID: In 1980 what happened was that I met Bill who was to become my husband…they were really wonderful years that we had there in Zaire. We would never have gladly left this work but sadly we were forced to leave it when we came to believe that it was possible that my husband was infected with HIV. Bill had Haemophilia and he had started to bleed and he was medically evacuated to the States and received just massive amounts of blood in the form of blood products at a time before these products were purified. We had been living in the fear that he was infected. In those days there were no tests. We went back to work living with this knowledge and tried to live our lives as if it might not be true, or it might be true. By now we’d had a young son and the three of us were living in Africa. We continued with our development work as long as Bill could – he did eventually get sick. When the test became available he was tested and found to be HIV positive from the blood products he’d received in hospital and we worked for as long as we could until eventually we had little choice, we had to find a place for him to come and to die and that was when we returned to Australia.
That was April 1986 and he died eventually on the last day of winter 31st of August that year, when my son had just turned four. Bill was the first person with HIV to die in Canberra.
I think I noticed it much more in Sydney because the illness was so much more centralised there – it had ravaged the community of gay men – we were outsiders because we were a happily married heterosexual couple – and I think it was very difficult often for people to known how to deal with us, it was as if they needed to single us out because we were heterosexual not homosexual without understanding that it was the ravages of the epidemic that people have in common and that it really didn’t matter how people got it or what their sexuality was – it’s that common knowledge of the epidemic and what it does to you as a human being that we shared and it took some time for that commonality to take root.
JOHN REID: My father’s death from HIV in 1986 really refocussed my mothers life, she had always worked in issues surrounding women.. she grew to realise there were more pressing issues coming to face the world and that she could constructively work for the rights of women and in HIV where she increasingly was active.
JEAN REID I think she felt a great responsibility that some way she had to make life easier for people who had HIV and who had faced the same problems that Bill had. So she sort of set her mind on to a career that dealt with that…I think she had made a big impact in that work.
ELIZABETH REID: Yes in 1989 we tabled in all Parliaments in Australia – State and Federal – the first national strategy on HIV for Australia and at almost the same time I was asked whether I’d be interested in heading the women’s development program in the United Nations Development Program in New York, UNDP – well, I figured I’d given enough years of my life to HIV. HIV had taken Bill away, brought a great deal of pain, taught me a lot of things. I had worked day and night, seven days a week, and every day of the year on HIV for many years and I thought, ‘all right, I’ll give that up, I’ve given my contribution, I’ll go back to working on women development.’
Well, I lasted only a few weeks after I got to New York. I got to New York, and so it’s late 1989 and UNDP are the core development agency of the UN system and is going through this reflective period of ‘what is going to be our priorities of the 1990s’, as we all do in metric systems, ‘We should be looking at debt relief and we should be looking at the environment’, and all these things and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘There’s this epidemic out there’. Nobody, but nobody was talking about what I thought was going on out there and so I just sat back and thought, ‘all right you’ve been living and working this for too long, you’re obviously obsessed by it, you think it’s everywhere, why don’t you just settle back and talk to them about gender sensitive 1990’s and let’s see what you can do’.
But after about six weeks I thought, ‘No, the problem is not with me, I don’t have things out of perspective, the problem is that these people from all parts of the world are sitting in this office here in New York and they haven’t been out in the world and they haven’t see what is going on’. So within a few months at UNDP, whilst I continued to head the Women and Development program I was appointed a Special Adviser to our Administrator on HIV and HIV and Development and within a couple of years that part of my work had grown so dramatically that the beginning of 1992 they split off and created an HIV and Development Program so I went there.
So that was really the beginning of my work. I stayed with UNDP until 2000 and it gave me an extraordinary institutional basis for trying to understand the links between this epidemic and development – social, economical and political factors that go to the development or underdevelopment of a country. Meanwhile, of course, the epidemic had been captured in the West as a medical condition so that understanding of the epidemic as a disease went into the national institutions related to health – but UNDP was a development institution and I saw myself as a development worker and so we’ve been struggling to conceive of this as something that spreads in some societies and not in others, spreads in some socio-economic conditions and not in others, spreads in some political conditions and not in others and has some consequences – and the consequent spread also differs – so we’ve been working both to see how if we can conceive of it in that way, we might be more effective in the way we respond to it and we may be more effective in attempting to minimise the socio-economic, economic and political consequences of it.
That work has taken me all around the world and when I left UNDO – I left not because I wanted to stop the work, but because I wanted a different nesting place for me to do the work – mainly because I wanted to return to Australia and spend more time with my family and be close to my family and friends and particularly as my parents are getting old. I am very glad I did it because my father actually died last year so I had those years together with him before he died. My mother is still alive. So it was good, I came back to Australia and have been trying to find ways – and found ways – to continue working on HIV but also whilst being here.
The epidemic is still spreading in most parts of the word like a bushfire. So whatever progress has been made on HIV has not been sufficient to really to slow it down.
There has only been a few counter examples to that – Uganda is an interesting counter example, it has sort of plateaued in some other countries – but it’s a fragile plateau, we’re never quite sure if it will take off again soon or if it is spreading in places we’re not looking for it. Clearly we have still a lot to learn about how effectively we should respond and the interesting thing is Australia has much to teach.
Australia and what we learnt over the Whitlam years about gender and power and power imbalances in relationships, why we established a Royal Commission on Interpersonal Relationships and then later, when the epidemic came to Australia, the way Australia decided as a nation to respond and in particular the relationship between the state and the community affected – so if you look at our communities of gay men and the way they rallied and created their organisations, worked amongst themselves and really slowed down the epidemic through community work – not just going out and telling people what to do, but through creating a community that would respond to the epidemic and having a government that was prepared to support that community and so we in Australia are one of the success stories in the response to the HIV epidemic.
Through the success of our community organisations, be that the gay men, prostitutes’ collectives, organisations of drug users etc – the space to organise has been granted and the power to organise has been there – and these communities have themselves shaped their own pathways and of course the response by government. And that’s a very important lesson of history – a lesson to learn – not the details, but the practices will work elsewhere too. So just as Australia has led on women and gender issues – and we have a lot to learn from that – so too have we led on HIV.
I think the strength is there and strength is the basis of activism. It will happen again, the times are not propitious for activism just now, you stand out, you have your photo taken, you get your books and have your HECS taken from you – everybody is terrified. The same thing happens with HIV. People demonstrate against US policy on HIV they get their photo taken, they are identified and they get their funding taken from them and the organisations that supported them don’t get funding any more – it’s a time of retaliation and vengeance and vindictiveness and silencing tactics and the paralysis of activism but it doesn’t mean to say that there is not a consciousness out there of the way things could and should be and it doesn’t mean the strength isn’t out there that forms the backbone of activism.
Well it is quite likely that all of the issues around these changes in industrial relations might be the kindling point for social change. There is no doubt whatsoever that women will be the worst hit by these changes, we are the weakest negotiators, we are brought up to negotiate, most of us have trouble negotiating. Negotiate your own award? I’d rather be out working than doing it – I don’t have that skill base and we’re going to find that the lack of leave – sick leave, annual compassionate leave for the care of children – the loss of all that is going to make it impossible, particularly for single mothers but for all women who want to combine work and children – it is going to be very difficult.
It is going to be difficult for men to combine work and children and families who combine them as we move also increasingly to an assumption of two incomes for survival. Now, we now live in a society where the figure is over 80% of the jobs created in the 1990s (we boast about our low rates of unemployment – over 80% of the jobs created in the 1990s had an annual income of 26-thousand Australia dollars or less. That’s close to the poverty line. We are creating jobs at or below the poverty line. We are creating working conditions that make it imperative for both parents to be in the workplace and then we are disadvantaging those who are in the workplace and have children. This has got to give and it will give I think in an eruption against those changes. We’ll never get back to the past but we’re going to have to forge a different future.
There has been this very interesting issue about women leaving having children until late. I had John when I was in my forties so it’s not new – my mother had three children in her forties – so this women having children at a later age is not new.
This sense of biological clock is new, we keep on having things imposed on us to inhibit us, that’s certainly true. I think that back in the 70s there was a feeling that either your were arguing that women should be in the workplace or arguing that women should be at home, depending on which position you took – which wasn’t true.
What we were arguing for was for choices, that women could make choices for these things. I think probably what happened, as women chose to move into the workface, they found that the workface was a very brutal place and that if you wanted to advance, to have a career, even a very concept of career comes from a work force that is constructed on the idea that men have a service industry in their houses, namely wives.
When women got in there, they had no service industry in their houses but they were treated as if it assumed that that would be all be taken care of and they would function solely in the public arena. And it became extremely hard for women. They were clearly going to lose out in those terms if they took time off to have children and raise them etc – and hence it did happen that more and more women were considering having children at a later age than before and there was almost this feeling that they turned on the early feminists and said, ‘This is where you’ve got us to’.
I think they just misunderstood what should be the target of their frustration. That target is the dichotomy between the public and the private that places career, advancement, promotion over everything else and carries an assumption that someone else takes care of everything that happens in the private realm. Therefore, they could have turned on us and said, ‘You’ve failed, and you failed us in important ways because you didn’t break down that dichotomy between public and private, you didn’t sufficiently draw men into the work of the home so that we could move properly into work. And that’s true. We really struggled to do that and we did not achieve it – no matter what.
There were significant changes in that more and more men were taking up the duties in the private realm and also finding pleasure in doing them, particularly in child raising, but when we say ‘more and more’ it was from such a slim base there are still too few men there and so, too many women are in the workplace unsupported in their private lives and we didn’t break down that barrier and recast what it was to live a life that included living with your family, with your friends and contributing productively to the work force.
JOHN REID: This coming weekend is the 30th anniversary of International Women’s Year for one thing it’s the year that my mother lead the delegation to the meeting in Mexico City – but it was also the year that my mother was truly pilloried by the national press to the point that she could no longer achieve anything. So I think for my mother it’s going to be a fairly mixed emotional journey this weekend, going back over the remarkable successes that were achieved by her and others but it will also BE reliving the final moments of a very, very difficult period of her life.
ELIZABETH REID: Saturday night is just the coming together of people who want to celebrate the achievements, but more importantly the values, the ways of being together that we have had over a long history but particularly in the 70s. The ‘sisterhood’ which is the most out of fashion word that you can imagine, but a lovely word, the coming together of women as women to work together for women, the sisterhood of women and the coming together of men and women to work for social change. The valuing of working together, the valuing of passion and of being outspoken and of getting out there and demonstrating. These are all things we want to celebrate because their lost in our current world and we feel that when we had them that you could celebrate these things, so I suspect Saturday will be passionate and probably rowdy one way or the other, there’ll be differences and there’ll be togetherness and in itself it will be an example of what we are celebrating. It will be the past and the present hopefully – it’ll be tremendous.