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50th Episode Special: Elizabeth Reid talks women, advocacy and change in Australia

27 minutes


Elizabeth Reid AO

Episode Notes

It’s our 50th episode and we are celebrating this milestone with a special interview with the first Women’s Advisor to a head of government anywhere in the world. Elizabeth Reid AO, Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and a former visiting Fellow at the Gender Relations Centre and Department of Human Geography at ANU, was appointed to advise then Prime Minister Gough Whitlam on the changes in policy that the women of Australia were desperate to see implemented. From placards and protests to the halls of power, Elizabeth Reid takes us through the ways in which women have tried to make society sit up and listen, and the challenges of being a figurehead for a social movement for change.


Elizabeth Reid (00:05):

Well, where we are right now is we’re in the room in which the Prime Ministers of the day used to sit. So this is where my boss sat when I worked for Whitlam.

Ginger Gorman (00:20):

When you walk into the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra, you’re reminded of the incredible people who came before you – sixteen prime ministers and hundreds of MPs, but also the thousands of people who worked behind the scenes out of the spotlight to help shape and grow Australia. One of those people was Elizabeth Reid, a key figure of the Women’s Liberation Movement, adept at demanding change through protest and advocacy. In 1973, she became the world’s first advisor on women’s affairs to a head of government and started to drive change from within.

Elizabeth Reid (01:04):

Old Parliament House to me is a very important building. It’s a building unlike New Parliament House, which fosters friendship and it minimizes conflict and confrontation, and it was a building where you had a huge number of cross-party friendships, and you’d often see somebody sitting in the dining room with one or two members of the opposition. This was the essence of democracy, this building. The people could come in and come out in a way that is very difficult to do in the New Parliament House. It’s almost impossible. It’s huge and you’re only allowed in certain places and so on. And in Australia, I think over the last couple of decades, we’ve been backsliding our democratic traditions, and I think this is a very good reminder that we once had sets of values that are very different from those we’ve been living in recent decades.

Ginger Gorman (02:11):

It’s true that the current Parliament House in Canberra is a behemoth. It has kilometers of corridors and a ministerial wing that segregates those with the most power from the back benches, cross benches and opposition. By contrast, when you enter Old Parliament House, it has a much warmer and inviting feeling. You enter into King’s Hall, which was both a public space and a thoroughfare for MPs and their staff walking from the chambers to the library or to get a bite to eat.

Elizabeth Reid (02:45):

This office was somewhere where you didn’t just come in and out. Mr. Whitlam’s secretary was, most of the time, Caroline Summerhayes, who lived just outside there. If you wanted to transact some business with Whitlam, you’d go to Caroline first and you’d say, “Is this a good time to go in there?” And she’d say, “Oh, stay away. He’s in a foul mood,” or, “Yes, slip in. He’s in a good mood.” And once you’re in, you were welcomed. There used to be a lounge there with a table in front, and he would sit there with you on the lounge and you could talk things through.

Ginger Gorman (03:28):

This is Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. And to mark our 50th episode and also 50 years since Gough Whitlam was elected, I’ve sat down with Elizabeth Reid, a national treasure and a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia to talk about fighting for change and making it happen.

Elizabeth Reid (03:50):

I think the relevant phrase that we want to start with here is my experience, and that is the experience of a woman. Because there are many cultures in the world where women, there’s no public space where they can speak out so they can’t even become part of a culture advocacy, and then there are many other countries or places in which women can speak, but they’re not listened to. They’re not heard. So to have a culture of advocacy, you have to have immense respect for women and women’s voices. Otherwise, you have public spaces in which only men feel entitled and empowered to speak within. And that’s part of what we were objecting to, I think, with the Women’s Liberation Movement. We wanted our voices to be heard. We wanted what we were saying to be listened to. We were demanding in fact that public spaces become spaces where our voices and our concerns were addressed.

Ginger Gorman (05:21):

You were appointed in 1973 by the Whitlam government as the world’s first Advisor on Women’s Affairs. And I notice in the movie, Brazen Hussies, you said not that you felt this deep passion or that was what you always wanted to do. You felt an obligation to apply for that role. Can you explain that to me? It was almost as if advocacy pushed you.

Elizabeth Reid (05:46):

By the time Whitlam advertised this job, I had been through one of the toughest schools, training schools for advocacy and protests that existed then and which no longer exists now, and that is the university environment. So in university, you learned how to run meetings, how to debate a position, how to organise protests, how to act on a protest, how to make signs for a protest. We didn’t have corflutes. We didn’t pay $200 each corflute, we went and made the signs, and that was all learnt. So university became a training ground for protests. NGOs also. But then with Howard with the abolition of SRC fees when they were no longer mandatory, all that aspect of university life got replaced by neo-liberal values.

Ginger Gorman (06:49):

SRCs were Student Representative Councils that represented undergraduates on university campuses. They were run by students for students. And while they were based on similar models from the UK in the 1800s, in Australia, they began on campus early in the 20th century.

Elizabeth Reid (07:09):

You went to university to get a job. You went to university to make your way in the world, to get a network of friends who were upwardly mobile. But we didn’t go to university for those reasons. University was a totally different place. So by the time I applied for that job with Whitlam, I had been marching along the streets. I had been writing why rape in marriage should be a crime. I had been demonstrating. I’ve been through the whole gamut. I think that when I look around nowadays, I don’t see that same training ground, and I think Australia has suffered because of that.

Ginger Gorman (07:53):

Are people born into a culture of advocacy or is it a learned skill?

Elizabeth Reid (08:01):

I learned protests at the knees of my parents. My parents were active reformers. Now, they didn’t march as I did, but they were involved in the Trade Union Movement, in the reform of the Catholic education system and all sorts of other protests, social movements, and they held meetings and planned and strategised. So all that I had imbibed in my youth.

Ginger Gorman (08:32):

What was it like being a young woman, full of spirit, having done all these big protests and so forth and then ending up in this youthful Whitlam government?

Elizabeth Reid (08:44):

What was it like? It was exciting. It was challenging. It was exhilarating. It was like being on a roller coaster. It was quite amazing, I think. I look back on those years and I think heavens above, first of all, I was a member of the Women’s Liberation Movement so I was used to demonstrating. I was used to street theater. I was used to all those forms of protests and of airing your grievances and of saying what changes you want to occur. And then Whitlam advertised this job. There was a big debate in the women’s movement over whether it was better to work inside a bureaucracy or whether it was better to stay outside and kick and scream until it changed. And of course, when Whitlam offered to open the halls of power to the Women’s Liberation Movement, he in effect called our bluff.

Ginger Gorman (09:47):

At the time, you really got criticized by the press associated with the Women’s Liberation Movement. They thought you should be screaming on the streets and that you’re in fact selling out by going into the bureaucracy to make change. How do you look back on that criticism now? Because you did actually affect a lot of change.

Elizabeth Reid (10:07):

Yes. I had worked on the outside. Whitlam advertised this job, and I felt it was a challenge to the Women’s Movement, a challenge to individual women whether they were going to say, “All right. I’m going to go into the halls of power and see what changes I can bring about because this opening has never been made before.” Never in recorded history had a head of government said, “Well, come on. Come in. Tell us what needs to be done.”

Elizabeth Reid (10:37):

So yes, there was a great deal of criticism in the Women’s Liberation press, but it was over two. One was whether you should go inside or stay outside and kick and scream. And the other was who was I or the person who was to be appointed? How could any one woman represent the women of Australia in all their diversity? And of course, I didn’t represent the women of Australia at all. Now, that dichotomy or that criticism festered for quite a while. And I guess it’s important to say that after I resigned from my Whitlam job, I left Australia. I felt I was a refugee from the Australian press seeking asylum elsewhere, and I went to work in developing countries on women and development then on HIV and development. And I didn’t come back to Australia until the 2000s. And when I came back, one of the first people to greet me was one of the most vociferous of the Sydney Women’s Liberation people says, “Well, Elizabeth, it’s nice to have you back and I hope all that is buried. We weren’t ever attacking you, the person. We were attacking the position.”

Ginger Gorman (12:02):

But it’s interesting that at the time, your colleagues in the Women’s Liberation Movement didn’t think that you could protest on the outside as well as being on the inside.

Elizabeth Reid (12:14):

Well, yes. I think it’s important to realise that we hadn’t ever been on the inside, which isn’t to say, of course there were women in the bureaucracies, but they hadn’t gone into the bureaucracy to bring about changes for women. What we did by going into bureaucracy was to show that the reform versus revolution debate was a false dichotomy. So with Whitlam’s blessing, we set out to instill what we call a revolutionary consciousness within Australians, or you might say we set out to end patriarchy, to destroy sexism, whichever way you want to put it, but we did call it instilling a revolutionary consciousness.

Ginger Gorman (13:05):

And if you think about that time when you first started in the role, how optimistic were you that it’d be easier to make change and get things done from that role as opposed to screaming on the streets with the placards?

Elizabeth Reid (13:22):

I think once I got into the job, I didn’t think about it at all. It’s funny, but I don’t think it ever crossed my mind that I might not get things done. I think it was, in one sense, it was clear that a lot of things had to be done. The Women’s Liberation Movement had drawn up lists. WIL had drawn up lists. The National Council of Women had drawn up lists of policies that had to be put in place for women. CWA had drawn up lists. Everybody had lists. Australia was overflowing with lists of policies needed for women. But nobody had tackled the question of, well, how do we do it? What are the policies that will bring about the outcomes that we really need? And how do we get those policies in place?

Elizabeth Reid (14:08):

So firstly, I think I didn’t have time to think about what changes would come about, but I think also, I think I felt I just needed to be adroit. You had to work out what you’re going to fight for. And we developed a whole theory of that which we then tabled for International Women’s Year. You had to be savvy enough to work the halls of power.

Ginger Gorman (14:42):

It’s incredible though, Elizabeth, thinking about that time because I’ve seen all this footage of you and photographs of you and there’s you, a very young woman, just completely surrounded by white men in suits.

Elizabeth Reid (14:54):

That’s right.

Ginger Gorman (14:57):

You were working with men, trying to break into this system as the only woman.

Elizabeth Reid (15:04):

Just about. Now, I had gone to school with Caroline Summerhayes, who was Whitlam’s secretary, so I had a natural ally, and there were other women on Whitlam’s staff. And I worked predominantly for Whitlam. That is important to say. So whilst you had a bloke’s culture here in Parliament House, very definitely, and if you look at the picture of Whitlam’s cabinet, you see the cabinet room just chockablock full of men in suits. But nevertheless, my focus was on getting Whitlam to understand what changes we wanted and to understand that no one change was ever going to be sufficient, it didn’t matter what it was, that we wanted a change across the board in the attitudes of all Australians towards women and the women towards themselves.

Ginger Gorman (16:04):

One of the most extraordinary things that happened when you were in that role is that ordinary women took up protests with their pen. The correspondence was absolutely extreme. And I think I read that Whitlam was the only person getting more letters than you.

Elizabeth Reid (16:20):


Ginger Gorman (16:21):

How do you think about that now that every day, women of all stripes wanted to talk to you?

Elizabeth Reid (16:28):

Look, it was Peter Wilenski that convinced Gough to create a position for somebody from the Women’s Liberation Movement. And Gough agreed. And that just the mail, the flood of mail itself bore out the importance of that advice. It was as if a wellspring opened up. It was as if suddenly, the women so thought there’s somebody there that will listen to what I have to say. And many of them would say, “I’ve been writing for years and nobody has done anything about it. But at last, I feel there’s somebody there that you can do something about it.”

Elizabeth Reid (17:11):

In the first year or so of my job, I just traveled all around Australia listening to women, tried to make it as diverse a group of women as I possibly could. And that combined with the mail gave me the set of concerns that were really gnawing away at women’s spirit and souls. It also enabled me to speak, to somehow reflect into the public spaces around here, the voices of women, women’s concerns. If women were here, this is what they would be yelling for or talking about or agitating towards.

Ginger Gorman (17:50):

In her first six months in the job, women wrote to Elizabeth Reid about issues large and small that affected their ability to live freely. Single women were refused bank loans or mortgages without a male guarantor. Married women temporarily unemployed were not eligible for unemployment benefits. Widows receiving five-eighths of the pension while widowers received full pensions. Commonwealth’s secondary school scholarships that could only be signed by the father. Women returning to the country with their husbands from overseas could not fill in their own quarantine and customs declaration. The list goes on and on. How do you keep persevering for change when it can often be glacial?

Elizabeth Reid (18:36):

Well, yes, change is a funny and slippery business. Some change can occur just by somebody saying … thou shalt and it is the case. And so change can be slow or change can be very, very quick, and I don’t think you can predict. I think if you compare those days with, say, the recent March4Justice, it arose I think because it was such widespread outrage. Whilst we may have been motivated at times by outrage, I think the Women’s Liberation Movement was motivated more by … everything was wrong in the world around us. Just about everything was gendered and women were oppressed everywhere. And if you allowed yourself to be outraged about one thing, what reaction could you have to all the others? The range of issues or the range of changes to decide was so enormous that you just ploughed on. If you couldn’t go there, you’d go down here.

Ginger Gorman (19:44):

What changes have you made that you are most proud of?

Elizabeth Reid (19:49):

Well, I don’t think one person affects change. I think change comes about through teamwork at a particular time and through dialogue. So there are changes that I was involved in that I could single out. And so for example, I talk about developing a revolutionary consciousness, and we did that through the establishment of the Royal Commission on Human Relations. That was so radical. It’s still the only one that’s ever been held in the world that we know of.

Ginger Gorman (20:28):

That was a groundbreaking and controversial commission. Its terms of references allowed it to inquire broadly into the family and the social, educational, legal and sexual aspects of male and female relationships. It helped change public discussion around families, gender, sexuality and how marriage impacted a woman’s role in society.

Elizabeth Reid (20:52):

It was the Whitlam government that introduced something as radical as not singling out women’s marital status in the way you address them. Anybody that wanted not to exhibit a marital status in the way they were addressed could be Ms. We introduced maternity leave to Commonwealth public service and so on, but then particular policies that if I hadn’t been around may not have come into existence, but I don’t claim to be the originator of them, was child care. There had been a report tabled in Parliament on preschool. And I point out to Whitlam that this was the only policy that he had gone to people with that didn’t help working women. It only helped those families where the woman didn’t need to work and could therefore take children to sessional preschool and that we needed a whole new childcare policy. And he agreed.

Ginger Gorman (21:55):

What’s the advantage of working inside a government or inside a big body like you have like the United Nations to achieve change?

Elizabeth Reid (22:04):

First of all, there are some things that could only be changed from the inside. So the drafting of legislation is an obvious one, but I actually don’t think there are any advantages per se. I think whether or not you affect change depends on a range of factors. One would be why you go into a bureaucracy. So for example, if you go in to bring about feminist objectives, you’re not functioning as a bureaucrat. You go in and you go in to speak truth to power. So you must have a sufficiently powerful position to not be trampled into the dust by speaking truth to power.

Ginger Gorman (22:51):

And support, do you think, because it’s very hard to go into big bureaucracies, which are, in your case, patriarchal?

Elizabeth Reid (22:59):


Ginger Gorman (23:00):

As this one lone person.

Elizabeth Reid (23:03):

That’s right. So you have to have networks of support, some of which will be inside that organization but many of which will be outside. And that’s when the reform and revolution non-dichotomy comes into play because those who are outside kicking and screaming can make a space broader, wider for public policy, and you can say, “Look, there’s obviously a need for change, so let’s do something about it.”

Ginger Gorman (23:36):

If you contrast that with what we’ve seen quite recently in the news, we’ve seen lots of protests. You mentioned March4Justice, huge anti-vax protests, many other protests. What do you think the function is of protests like that in modern Australia?

Elizabeth Reid (23:56):

I think any protest is about at least two things. One is airing a grievance, but the other essential role of protest is to educate, is to educate the populous about what your grievance is about.

Ginger Gorman (24:16):

Thanks for listening to Seriously Social. I’m Ginger Gorman. And a special thank you to Elizabeth Reid for letting me take her back to Old Parliament House. That building is now the Museum of Australian Democracy, and if you’re in Canberra or planning a trip, I really urge you to pay MOAD a visit.

Ginger Gorman (24:34):

You can also watch the full interview. There’s lots more anecdotes and highlights on the Seriously Social YouTube channel. It has been such a joy to have made 50 episodes of Seriously Social, and I hope you’ll join me for the next 50.

Ginger Gorman (24:50):

If you enjoyed this episode of Seriously Social and you’re looking for more great in depth chats to stretch your brain, check out Hands Up, the new podcast from the Public Education Foundation. What is the solution to the teaching crisis? How has all the disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic affected kids’ learning? Why are students calling for consent education in the curriculum? How should families best engage with schools? Hands Up is a podcast to help families and carers navigate school life. It’s for teachers, school leaders and anyone interested in education who wants to dig deeper into the complexities and challenges and the unique advantages of Australia’s public education system.

Speaker 3 (25:33):

We’re here because we can’t accept the crippling teacher shortages.

Speaker 4 (25:37):

I’ve been fighting for the working conditions of teachers, the learning conditions of students and our wages for 40 years.

Speaker 5 (25:44):

We often joke that we don’t have time to even go to the toilet or drink water, and that’s a typical day. And I think because a lot of teachers feel like they don’t have the time to teach well, and when they feel like they’re just rushing and not having the time and resources to design lessons properly or to mark students’ work properly or to interact with students properly, to build up relationships with them, they’re like, “This is not what I signed up for.”

Ginger Gorman (26:11):

Look out for Hands Up wherever you get your podcasts or visit to find out more. Seriously Social is produced by Kim Lester, engineered by Mark Gargoldonk, AKA Baldey and this episode was executive produced by Sue White, Bonnie Johnson and Clare McHugh. It’s an initiative of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Next time on Seriously Social, does sport unite us or divide us? See you then.

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