Margaret Whitlam: Social campaigner and First Lady of Australia

 

When Margaret Whitlam heard in 1975 that her husband, Gough, had been dismissed as Australian prime minister, her response was characteristically blunt. "Why didn't you just tear it up?" she asked, referring to the document he had been handed by the Governor-General, Sir John Kerr.

That no-nonsense approach was one of the qualities that marked Whitlam out as much more than a prime minister's wife. Generous and gregarious, witty and down to earth, she was never afraid to speak her mind nor to forge her own path. A loyal consort and confidante, she was also a passionate advocate of social reform and a trailblazer for women's rights who broke the First Lady mould.

The affection in which she was held was demonstrated by the turn-out at her memorial service in Sydney, where a Who's Who of Australian politics and public life from the past 50 years assembled to pay final respects, and to shed a tear. At the front of the church sat a bowed figure in a wheelchair: 95-year-old Gough, the Australian Labor Party patriarch, mourning the woman he called "the love of my life". Theirs was a partnership of equals. The couple would soon have celebrated 70 years of marriage.

Although from a middle-class Sydney family, Margaret Elaine Dovey was a committed Labor supporter when she met Gough at a party in 1939. They had something else in common: she was 6ft 2in; he was two inches taller. "He was quite the most delicious thing I'd ever seen," she recalled later. Her father Bill was a lawyer, later a Supreme Court judge, her mother Mary an indefatigable community worker. Margaret grew up in Bondi and became a swimmer, winning the Australian breaststroke championships and competing in the 1938 Empire Games. She and Gough met while at the University of Sydney.

Margaret worked as a social worker and brought up their four children. In 1967 Gough, who had been a Federal MP since 1952, was elected Labor leader. In 1972, after 23 years in opposition, Labor came to power on a wave of enthusiasm for wide-ranging reform.

As First Lady Margaret was "vivid, independent and entirely herself", the current Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, observed following her death. She wrote a magazine column, was a regular guest on radio and TV, and even briefly hosted her own TV chat show. She led the Australian delegation to a UN conference on women and entertained Germaine Greer at the Lodge, the prime ministerial residence in Canberra.

Accompanying Gough on a state visit to London, Margaret was so popular that she held her own press conference. The Daily Mail wrote: "The Aussies have obviously got themselves a great big bloody beaut of a first lady." Back home, she argued for equal pay for women, abortion law reform, childcare and adult education. "I couldn't be an adornment ... [content to] float around opening and closing things," she declared. Her common touch and easy manner endeared her to Australians. "She was equally at ease munching a sausage at a Labor fund-raiser as she was dining at Buckingham Palace," one commentator, Mike Carlton, wrote recently.

In November 1975, amid rising inflation and unemployment, and following a series of scandals, the conservative-dominated Senate blocked legislation authorising government spending. With the country effectively at a standstill, Kerr took the unprecedented step of sacking Whitlam and installing the opposition leader, Malcolm Fraser, as prime minister. It was the most tumultuous time in Australia's modern political history. Margaret "just couldn't believe the whole thing". A month later, Fraser – the Whitlams' sworn enemy – won a general election. Margaret left a welcome letter in the Lodge for Fraser's wife, Tamie. Gough and Fraser later became good friends, unified by their progressive views.

Gough resigned the Labor leadership in 1977 and quit parliament the next year. However, he and Margaret continued to be active in public life. She became director of the Sydney Dance Company and chairman of the Opera Conference. She taught English to migrants, and modelled clothes for a large-size women's label. The couple spent three years in Paris in the mid-1980s, after Gough was appointed Australia's Unesco ambassador.

Into their 80s they were seen out and about in Sydney, especially at opening nights. In 2010 Gough moved into a nursing home but the couple met for coffee, or fish and chips by the beach. Margaret's death following a fall in February was mourned by many; she is survived by her husband, four children, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. Gough's friends fear he will not survive long without her.

Kathy Marks

Margaret Elaine Dovey, First Lady and social reformer: born Sydney 19 November 1919; Australian breaststroke champion 1937; first lady of Australia 1972-75; Order of Australia 1983; married 1942 Gough Whitlam (three sons, one daughter); died Sydney 17 March 2012.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Ashdown Group: Editor-in-chief - Financial Services - City, London

£60000 - £70000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Ashdown Group: Junior Application Support Analyst - Fluent German Speaker

£25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A global leader operating...

Ashdown Group: Accountant - London - £48,000 - 12 month FTC

£40000 - £48000 per annum + bonus + benefits: Ashdown Group: International Acc...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power