Article first published 14 November 2014, Justinian
Gough Whitlam had a profound impact on the rights of women … His government was at the forefront of engaging women in the workforce … There’s still a long way to go, says Queensland barrister Kylie Hillard
AUSTRALIAN actor, Cate Blanchett, at Whitlam’s memorial service on November 5, said:
“I am a small part of Australia’s coming of age, and so many of those initiatives were enacted when I was three …”
She also referenced Bob Menzies:
“I was but three when he passed by but I shall be grateful ’til the day I die.”
There are good reasons why we should pay homage to Whitlam’s efforts at addressing inequalities for women.
Whitlam reopened the National Wage and Equal Pay cases at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, which later led to half-a-million female workers becoming eligible for full pay and resulted in an overall rise in women’s wages of around 30 percent.
Whitlam increased funding to specialist health and welfare services for women, including women’s health centres, refuges and crisis centres.
His government brought in the Family Law Act and no-fault divorce, allowing people to conduct divorce proceedings with dignity and in private.
His government established the single parent pension that allowed single mothers to get financial assistance, a benefit previously confined to single women who were widowed.
He was also the first head of a government in the world to appoint a dedicated adviser on women’s affairs. Among other things, Elizabeth Reid made submissions on matters before Cabinet that had implications for women.
Whitlam oversaw passage of the Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act 1973 that established paid parental leave for Commonwealth employees, a measure that affected over 64,000 women. This legislation also outlawed discrimination against Commonwealth employees on the grounds of pregnancy.
The government made access to oral contraceptives more accessible by the removal of the sales tax and placing contraceptives on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
Margaret Whitlam, was heavily involved in women’s issues, serving on the Australian National Advisory Committee for International Women’s Year and as a delegate to the World Conference to the International Women’s Year. In a speech delivered in 1975, she said:
“How equal do I feel? … how much easier is it to list the ways in which anyone feels unequal … It’s a weighted battle but at least we’re in it. This is the reality of our lives.”
Despite Whitlam’s great strides, the struggle for women’s equality still has a long way to go:
Women comprise almost half of the workforce, but:
• Comprise only 3.5 percent of executive positions and 12.5 percent of board or director positions in the ASX 200;
• Comprise only 33.5 percent of our judiciary overall;
• Across all fields in full time employment, female graduates earn less than their male counterparts;
The position is no better for the legal profession in Queensland.
The reality is that half our population remains marginalised. Whitlam was an inspiration to those who are anxious to change this reality. Lawyers and advocates are well placed to be part of the struggle.