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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Margaret Elaine Whitlam (1919–2012)

by John Faulkner

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Margaret Whitlam, by Terry Milligan, 1999

Margaret Whitlam, by Terry Milligan, 1999

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an20549198

I move that the Senate expresses its deep regret at the death, on 17 March 2012, of Margaret Elaine Whitlam AO, wife of former Prime Minister, the Honourable Edward Gough Whitlam, AC, QC, places on record its appreciation of her long and meritorious public service, and tenders its profound sympathy to her family in their bereavement. 

Mr President, I thank my colleagues for asking me to move this motion of condolence on their behalf. It is an honour to do so but an honour that I had hoped would never come my way. I knew Margaret well. I admired her very much and, despite her great age, it seems somehow impossible that she has not after all outlived us all to go on offering her wise and sometimes pointed advice to a new generation. Australia has lost one of its finest citizens. The Labor Party has lost one of its greatest and certainly its most gracious champion. Those of us who knew Margaret have lost a dear friend and her husband, Gough, and children, Tony, Nick, Stephen and Catherine, have lost a fiercely loyal and devoted wife and mother. 

Margaret Whitlam was one half of one of the most extraordinary and certainly the most enduring personal and political partnerships in Australian history. This April would have marked Gough and Margaret's 70th wedding anniversary. She was always by Gough's side; she was never in his shadow. Margaret accomplished an extraordinary balancing act as a private citizen in a very public role, and she did so with such good humour and graciousness that she earned an enduring place in the hearts of the nation. 

Born just after the end of World War I in Bondi, New South Wales, Margaret Elaine Dovey was the daughter of Mary and Wilfred Robert 'Bill' Dovey, then a young returned serviceman and law student, later a New South Wales Supreme Court Judge. Both her parents encouraged and supported Margaret in every endeavour she undertook and she grew to be a woman who was always willing to have a go at any new experience. Later in life this would include writing a newspaper column, hosting a television show, acting as a tour guide and travelling alone across America by Greyhound bus, staying at the YMCA. As a young woman, she threw herself wholeheartedly into musical and theatrical performance and athletics. She was, she later said, a bit of a show-off. 

It says a great deal about Margaret Whitlam's extraordinary life and exceptional contribution to Australia that representing her country as a champion athlete has become just a footnote to her subsequent achievements. The picture of the 18-year-old Margaret Dovey in her swimming costume and long braids sitting on the edge of the pool ready to swim for Australia in the 1938 Empire Games has become a familiar and iconic image. Less well known is the fact that for weeks before the Empire Games she had been suffering from a throat infection—this is in pre-penicillin days—a condition that simply had to be endured while it ran its course, and she competed against doctor's advice. Later, Margaret would say that nothing short of being strapped to a bed would have kept her from the starting blocks. Feeling so ill, she worried she would sink to the bottom of the pool mid-race. She finished last, but she turned up, she had not quit and she had given it her all. 

Perhaps that is why she was so well loved throughout her life by those who knew her and then by so many Australians who had never met her but who felt they knew her from her writing and her speeches. She was unmistakably someone who exemplified the idea of having a go and, having set herself to have a go, was not about to have any truck with half-measures. What Margaret Whitlam did, she did with her whole heart, with courage, with enthusiasm, without complaint and without hesitation, from setting her cap at the most gorgeous thing she had seen in her life—the young Edward Gough Whitlam—to her work as a social worker with the Family Welfare Bureau as a young wartime bride, to postwar wife and mother, and then to political engagement. 

It annoyed Margaret—and would continue to annoy her throughout her life—when people assumed her political views and commitment were a reflection of those of her husband. Her maternal grandfather, after all, had been a preselected Labor candidate and Margaret had cast her first vote for Jessie Street. She recounted later at her first official function as the wife of the newly minted member for Werriwa—the Coronation Dinner in 1953—a Liberal sitting opposite her asked, 'God, Margaret, what's a nice girl like you doing in the Labor Party?' She retorted, 'I belong to the party that cares about people.' She said time and time again that her views were her own: 'I say what I think when I want. I am not a mouthpiece for my husband or for the ALP and it is very frustrating for me when people assume that I am.' No one who knew Margaret Whitlam could have any doubt that, had the times and expectations of women's lives been different, she herself would have risen to great heights in a career of her choice. Indeed, when Gough's high-stakes gambit of crash through or crash in seeking the leadership of the federal parliamentary Labor Party in 1966 looked like it might end in his expulsion from the Labor Party, his plan was to resign from parliament so that Margaret could seek preselection as Labor candidate for Werriwa. He said to me, beaming with obvious pride when recounting the story, 'She would have won, too.' Gough's victory at the federal executive meant we never saw Margaret Whitlam MP, but her commitment and contribution to the causes she believed in and the party she had chosen was no less for being pursued outside the parliament. 

Perhaps only those of us in politics can really appreciate the impact that years of preselection bids, election campaigns, parliamentary sittings, endless branch meetings and fundraisers and electorate function after function can have on a family. Perhaps only those of us in politics can appreciate just what six years on the back bench or seven years in the shadow cabinet or 25 years in parliament really meant to Gough and Margaret, both the sacrifices and the rewards. Perhaps only those of us in the party can appreciate that in Labor, where reform should be a cause, not a career choice, a unified agenda is as essential around the kitchen table as it is on the conference floor. 

As well as running the Whitlam household largely single-handedly during Gough's absences on parliamentary and later shadow ministerial and leadership duties—a burden many political spouses shoulder and one that all of us who hold elected office are aware of—Margaret was wholeheartedly involved in the local community. She took part in the endless slog of campaigning and, in Gough's words, looked after the branches—always making sure to take her knitting in case proceedings turned tedious. She took classes in public speaking and in committee procedure. She was a delegate to, then president of, the Werriwa Federal Electorate Council of the Australian Labor Party and a delegate to the Labor Women's Conference. As was the expectation then, she was always ready to host the booth workers and election campaigners in the Whitlam home on election night. It is little wonder that after the 1972 election, when Margaret found herself in the Lodge without children to chase or meals to cook or a paid job, she put up with sitting on her thumbs and doing nothing, as she called it, for a week and no longer. 

As a young woman, Margaret had been tremendously impressed by Elsie Curtin's austerity hints in the newspapers. How refreshing, she thought, to have a Prime Minister's wife who speaks out. And speak out Margaret Whitlam did. As a young married couple in Sydney's southern suburbs, the Whitlams had embodied the difficulties and opportunities of making a life for a young family at a time when wartime rationing and postwar optimism coexisted. As a prime ministerial couple in the Lodge, they came again to stand for a particular moment in Australian history, a time of social change and cultural freedom. No less than her husband, Margaret Whitlam was a public representation of a fresh, new, modern Australia. She had clear views and no fear of expressing them—views which still, 40 years later, are far from conservative. As Margaret said: 'It is absurd just because you are a politician's wife to sit around like a dummy saying nothing or echoing him. You might as well give up living.' 

Speaking to the press soon after the 1972 election, she spoke frankly in favour of equal pay for women, the need for the decriminalisation of abortion, the legalisation of marijuana and her belief that marriage was not necessary unless the couple involved intended to have children. She described herself as a fellow traveller rather than an active feminist because, she said, she was too lazy to march, but she was throughout her time in the Lodge a consistent and strong advocate for women's rights. While she was careful to always point out that her views were her own and that she did not try and intrude on the policy-making of Australia's elected representatives, she did admit that from time to time she gave her husband a good thump if he got out of line. She said: 

That is the privilege of a wife of my vintage

Keeping Gough in line was in fact a lifelong project for Margaret. Many of us have had the experience of having a speech by Gough Whitlam enhanced by the accompaniment of Margaret Whitlam's gentle heckling from the front row—in later years, augmented by the thump of her walking-stick on the floor if she felt he was going on for too long. 

Very soon after Labor's election win in 1972, Margaret was offered a column in Woman's Day to write every week about her experiences as the Prime Minister's wife. Having rejected a job offer from Frank Packer on leaving school because he would not put her on the police rounds—'Our girls only do social rounds,' he told her—Margaret leapt at the chance to write for Woman's Day. It was her opportunity to share the extraordinary experiences of her life with people who would never have the chance to know of them firsthand. She wrote about the day-to-day realities of life in the Lodge and about the day-to-day absurdities of life in the political spotlight. When she travelled overseas with Gough, she took her readers with her through her columns—to China, to Tokyo, to Rome; even to dinner with the Queen in Windsor Castle. Some felt it was improper of the Prime Minister's wife to demystify not only her own life but the life of the Queen of England, but Margaret was unmoved by criticism. She responded: 

I came to represent all the ungainly people, the too-tall ones, the too-fat ones and the housebound as I'd been, who'd never go to China or Buckingham Palace and went through me. 

In 1975, she was a member of the Advisory Committee for International Women's Year, a position she was at first reluctant to accept because she felt it had been offered only due to her position and because she worried that the other women involved would think that she was insufficiently militant. She soon became a respected and integral part of the committee, not as the Prime Minister's wife but as Margaret Whitlam, a woman of great good sense, great good humour and absolutely no pretension. 

Margaret weathered the political storms of the Whitlam government with great equanimity, refusing to be swayed from what she thought was right. Nor was she meek in the face of media hostility. I must say, Margaret was never in her life meek in the face of anything, as the Australian press found out. When considering them to have misrepresented a comment she made on the subject of inflation, she used a public speech to declare that the press is 'an ass', 'vultures', 'praying mantises', 'uninvited guests' and 'intruders'. 

Many of the tributes published over the past few days have mentioned Margaret's response to the dismissal, saying that, instead of accepting the note withdrawing his commission, Gough, 'silly old man', 'should have torn it up'. Malcolm Fraser was lucky it was Mr, not Mrs, Whitlam meeting with the Governor General. John Kerr was luckier. The unreported rest of that sentence goes: 'and then slapped his'—that is, Kerr's—'face and told him to pull himself together.' 

During that tumultuous election campaign, the two years of opposition that followed and then Whitlam's final election campaign in 1977, Margaret was an absolute tower of strength for Gough but also for many others in the ALP. Although she had as much, and more, reason to be as devastated by the events as anyone, feeling sorry for herself was never Margaret's style. Margaret's glass was never half empty; it was always half full, preferably with red wine! 

After Gough's parliamentary career ended, for Margaret life as a truly private citizen, rather than in the unelected public role of a politician's wife, brought her more time to devote to her love of the arts in all its forms—music, drama, dance, painting and sculpture—and travel. She was a regular at concerts by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and visiting orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic. She described hearing the Berlin Philharmonic as a 'transcendental experience'. She was an enthusiast for Opera Australia and had fine aesthetic judgment. She spoke often about the importance of exposing young people to high culture, which could ignite creativity in them. When Margaret lived in Paris during Gough's term as ambassador to UNESCO, she devoted much time to the Louvre and many other major museums and the Gothic cathedrals. She was particularly excited by Italian Renaissance painting. For more than a decade Margaret was a director of ISP—International Study Programs. With Gough, she led 16 tours to Spain and Portugal, Greece and Turkey, South America, Russia, Italy, Germany, Indonesia and Britain. Both Gough and Margaret also visited scores of World Heritage sites and were strong advocates for their preservation. Among her many roles, Margaret served as a director of the Sydney Dance Company, as President of the Australian Capital Territory Council of Social Service, as chair of the Opera Conference and as UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for International Literacy Year. 

Gough and Margaret both possessed a wonderful sense of humour, albeit at times mysterious to those not in on the joke. Barry Jones reminds me that in 2004 Gough and Margaret attended a production in Sydney of August Strindberg's play The Dance of Death, starring Sir Ian McKellen as Edgar and Frances de la Tour as his tormented wife, Alice. Some weeks later, as Chairman of the Port Arthur Historic Site, Barry arranged for them to visit and to be driven around in the site's people mover. Gough sat in the front with the driver and Barry sat behind with Margaret. Without looking behind, Gough boomed, 'Is Alice on board?' 'I'm here, Edgar,' she responded in a voice of doom. Their shared political commitments and cultural interests—except for Margaret's love of The Bill—continued to provide a rich and full life for both. 

Although their private jokes could be impenetrable to outsiders, their devotion to each other was evident to all. As the infirmities of age encroached, they would each compete to be of service to the other—'I'll do that.' 'No, let me get it.' 'No, let me do that for you.'—much to the exasperation of friends and family because, as one observed, 'Neither of them is hugely mobile!' Even as health troubles curtailed and then ended Margaret's travels she continued to give generously, unstintingly of her time, particularly to the Australian Labor Party. She was not just an inspiration but also a constant encouragement to generations of ALP members and supporters. 

I remember her coming to a speech I gave last year. The venue required her to walk quite a long way, which was extremely arduous for her. When I thanked her for the effort she expended to get there she waved it away, saying simply, 'I wanted to be here.' When others might have become discouraged or disillusioned, or simply felt that they had given enough of themselves, their time and their energy, Margaret, like Gough, remained indefatigable, irrepressible and unflagging. She gave much and, as always, she never expected anything in return. Margaret was always appreciative and grateful for any kindness or courtesy she or, as she often referred to Gough, 'the old boy', received. I do not think she ever for a moment in her life felt that she was due anything, either for her position or for her efforts. 

In 2007 the Australian Labor Party recognised her contribution with national life membership. It was the second national life membership ever issued. The first had been given mere seconds before to the man beside her; her companion through everything, Edward Gough Whitlam. It was as impossible then as it is unbearable now to imagine them apart. 

While we are all in mourning for Margaret, for the passionate, irreverent, generous woman who touched the lives of everyone who knew her and of very many who did not, we know our sorrow is only a shadow of the grief felt by those closest to her. Our deepest sympathies go out to Gough, whom I spoke to just a few minutes ago, and to Margaret and Gough's children, Tony, Nick, Stephen and Catherine. Nothing we can say here will ease the burden of their loss, but I hope they can find some comfort in knowing how deeply loved and widely admired Margaret was. She was quite simply a wonderful human being and a great, great Australian.

Original Publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Faulkner, 'Whitlam, Margaret Elaine (1919–2012)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012