Woman Whitlam, Margaret Elaine

Journalist and Social Worker

Written by Ruth Lee, Australian Catholic University

Margaret Elaine Whitlam was born in 1919 in Bondi to Mary Duncan, a teacher, and Wilfred Dovey, a barrister, who later became a Supreme Court Judge. Educated at Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School, she began an economics degree at Sydney University in 1938 but transferred to social work after two years of study. She met her future husband, Gough Whitlam, in 1939 and they married in 1942, the year that she completed her Diploma of Social Studies. Her first professional position was with the Family Welfare Bureau, Sydney. Settling in Cronulla then, she raised four children before returning to social work from 1964-1967 at Parramatta District Hospital ('Mrs Margaret Whitlam, AO').

Her leadership qualities, however, became apparent through her role as a political wife. Thrust into the public eye when her husband was elected Prime Minister of Australia in 1972, she redefined the role. She wrote in her diary: 'What am I to do? Stay in a cage - wide open to view, of course - and say nothing? That's not on but if I can do some good I'll certainly try' (Australian Prime Ministers website). Choosing the latter option she accepted the public nature of her new role but chose to use it to define an identity separate from but always supportive of her husband. She accepted the invitation to write a column that was published in Woman's Day magazine for many years, and also made frequent appearances on television. Ita Buttrose commented: 'That was unheard of as a woman in her generation. She was the first prime minister's wife to have a public profile' (Sunday Age, 18 March 2012 ).

Whitlam was committed to social justice, initially because of a belief that those who had privileges had a duty to assist others. As prime minister's wife she increasingly identified with the feminist cause, speaking out on such issues as equal pay, abortion reform, access to contraceptives and wages for housewives, as well as advocating drug reform, and working to improve adult education and services for migrants (Sunday Age, 18 March 2012). She was on the advisory committee for the International Women's Year 1974 - 1976, a Goodwill Ambassador for UNESCO and worked for many arts organisations including the New South Wales State Library, Musica Viva and the Australian Opera. In her retirement she led study tours around the world from 1991-2001.

In 2007 she and her husband were made life members of the Australian Labor Party (The Sunday Age, 18 March 2010). In 2010 the University of Western Sydney created the Whitlam Institute in recognition of both Margaret and Gough Whitlam's contribution to Australian society and named a chair of social work in her honour ('Whitlam Institute in the University of Western Sydney', 'Mrs Margaret Whitlam, AO'). Whitlam was awarded the Order of Australia in 1983, named an Australian Living National Treasure in 1997 and received a Centenary Medal in 2003.

Margaret Whitlam died in 2012. In tribute, biographer, Susan Mitchell, wrote that 'she became a much-loved role model for generations of Australian women starved for examples of women of independence and self-confidence. She taught us all to seize opportunities when they were offered' (Sunday Age, 18 March 2012). Prime Minister Julia Gillard added that she was 'an accomplished woman in her own right, [whose] 'self confident and forthright example inspired many women that they too could lead lives of greater ambition and purpose' (Sunday Age, 18 March 2012).

Published Resources


  • Mitchell, Susan, Margaret Whitlam: A Biography, Random House Australia, Milsons Point, New South Wales, 2006. Details

Online Resources