Woman McCarthy, Wendy (1941 - )

Orange, New South Wales, Australia
Board member, Company director and Feminist

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in Orange, New South Wales in 1941, Wendy McCarthy grew up on a soldier settlement farm in western N.S.W. Never conscious of deprivation while she was a child, as she grew she came to understand how primitive the conditions were and how difficult her mother's life must have been. Unable to attend school past the age of fourteen, McCarthy's mother was determined that Wendy would be well educated to ensure that her daughter had the choices she didn't have. McCarthy went to a one teacher primary school and started her secondary education at the government high school in Forbes, living in the Anglican hostel next door. Her final year was spent in Tamworth, boarding with a family in town. Apart from complaints about her Tamworth High School science teacher -'he was appalling but I did well despite him' (Interview) - her experience in regional high schools was positive and formative. 'Regional schools are a place where people learn about leadership in the community,' she says 'not in a streamed or private hot house'. They are places where 'people have their feet kept firmly on the ground' and where 'individuals enjoy a breadth of experience' (Interview).

Breadth of experience is something that McCarthy has enjoyed through the course of her career. After completing her tertiary education at the University of New England in Armadale, New South Wales ('a fantastic experience, shared with the first generation cohort of country students at university who recognised the opportunity they were being given') supported by a Commonwealth teaching scholarship, McCarthy taught in New South Wales schools for three years before broadening her experience overseas. Over the next three years she travelled with her husband (Gordon, who she married in 1964) to the United Kingdom and the United States, teaching in two very different systems and gaining important insights along the way. In London, she was part of the Harold Wilson Education Revolution, working with a teacher in Hammersmith who was committed to empowering girls from underprivileged backgrounds through access to education. In Pittsburgh she taught in the Catholic Education system alongside highly educated women. Experiencing life in different contexts overseas, 'changed me forever,' she says. 'I realised that the Australian model of women was not universal but was a cultural invention of our own. I also realised that there were better models' (Daughters of the Revolution).

Returning to Australia with six years of teaching experience across three continents, McCarthy was sure that the classroom was where she wanted to be and made an appointment with the NSW Department of Education to discuss her options. The attending clerk advised her that not only would her three years teaching overseas not be recognised when determining her starting pay, she would only be considered for casual positions. Wendy was pregnant and this, apparently, meant an offer of permanent employment was impossible. She accepted the casual contract, but wondered how it was that 'a child-centred business could discriminate against motherhood but not fatherhood' (Daughters of the Revolution). Her feminist activism was ensured from that point, as was her involvement in issues relating to childbirth, children and childcare. She was a member of the Childbirth Education Association, an organisation that was concerned, amongst other things, to allow fathers to be present at the birth of their children. She was a cofounder of the New South Wales branch of the Women's Electoral Lobby in 1972.

McCarthy remained in the secondary school system until 1973, worked in the TAFE system for a short while and then took the choice that set her on the pathway to leadership positions across business, government, community and not-for-profit sectors. In 1975 she accepted the position of Education and Media Officer for Family Planning NSW and in 1979 became CEO of the federal family planning federal body where she came to the attention of the Commonwealth Office for Women which was establishing the National Women's Advisory Council (NWAC) a new office that was to advise the prime minister on policy issues effecting women. Invited for her experience in the important areas of family planning and women's health, it was clear that her broad leadership qualities, as much as her understanding of the sector, were a key factor in her appointment. She was recognised as a change agent who was admired and supported by people across the political spectrum. McCarthy was an inaugural member of the NWAC and during her tenure was brought into a network of extraordinarily talented women that included Dame Beryl Beaurepaire and Quentin Bryce. As well as enjoying important professional relationships with these women, she developed long standing friendships.

As a trailblazing leader for women in a number of sectors, her specific skills became obvious to those who worked with her. Along with being recognised for her ability to negotiate support across broad coalitions, McCarthy developed a reputation for being 'a safe pair of hands' particularly at the helm of organisations that needed to undergo change (Interview). She has been variously described as 'tenacious', 'persistent', 'committed' and 'thorough' (Price). Even those who have been on the wrong side of an argument with her admire her capacity to work well under pressure, her independence and her 'capacity to judge an audience' (Price). But McCarthy herself recognises that personal qualities can only take women so far, and she stresses the importance of having good mentors, such as Beryl Beaurepaire,and Joan Bielski to her own success. 'One on one relationships enable the rehearsal of ideas without adverse penalties,' she says (Interview). Putting her money where her mouth is, she established her own mentoring business in 1998, which her daughter joined in 2007. In a perfect piece of succession planning her daughter bought the business in 2012

The extent and diversity of McCarthy's career since it accelerated in the 1970s is well documented, including in her autobiography, Don't Fence Me In. It reflects her general view that women who want to be leaders in their field must take risks and gain experience in a variety of contexts. She has worked for publicly listed companies (e.g. directorships at Star City Pty Ltd and Jacobsen Entertainment Group), government and statutory authorities (e.g. CEO of the National Trust of Australia, NSW, deputy chair of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and General Manager of the Australian Bicentennial Authority). She has held important roles in the not for profit sector, for example as Chair of Plan International and at The Royal Hospital for Women Foundation. She was Chancellor of the University of Canberra for ten years. In 2014, at the age of 72, the range of her professional activities includeschairing the boards of the following organisations: Circus Oz; McGrath Estate Agents; Pacific Friends of the Global Fund and headspace Youth Mental Health Foundation. She is a Non-Executive Director at GoodStart Childcare Limited and Bentham IMF Limited a publicly listed company. She is also a One Million Women ambassador.

The above is only a very partial list of McCarthy's extraordinary CV, and the extent of her achievements that have been formally and publicly acknowledged (The Long View). In 1989 she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for outstanding contributions to community affairs, women's affairs and the Bicentennial celebrations. In 2003 she was awarded a Centenary of Federation medal for business leadership and in 2005 she was nominated by the Sydney Morning Herald as one of Australia's Top 100 Public Intellectuals. In 2011 she was featured in the International Women's Day publication The Power of One which profiled 100 women who have shaped Australia. In 2013 she was named by Women's Agenda as the inaugural Inductee to the Women's Hall of Fame

In an article written in 2000, Jenna Price describes how McCarthy's 'ordinariness' as a wife and mother who is part of a happy, functioning family might somehow lead 'some to suspect her worth'. These are 'the accomplishments of the mother,' says Price. 'But the achievements of the worker, the thinker, the diplomat and the volunteer should be seen as greater than her maternal ones because they affect almost every Australian today' (Price, p. 17.) Perhaps Price, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, might now re-evaluate her assessment of the relative value of McCarthy's public and private contributions, based on the role model McCarthy has provided as one who has successfully combined family and career over the course of a lifetime. 'If you can't be a good feminist and a good mother,' says McCarthy, 'then God help us all. To be an active feminist and to raise a good family is my greatest achievement' (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Wendy McCarthy interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project [sound recording], 16 August 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/16; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources


  • McCarthy, Wendy, Don't Fence Me In, Random House Australia, Sydney, New South Wales, 2000. Details

Journal Articles


Newspaper Articles

  • Price, Jenna, 'Profile: Wendy McCarthy', Canberra Times, 23 April 2000, p. 7. Details

Online Resources