Whitlam Institute

Women's Rights

Women's Rights


Men and Women of Australia!

The Whitlam Government came to office at a time of immense social change. One of the most important of the social changes taking place during the 1960s and 1970s was the increased participation of women in the workforce. The Whitlam Government sought to ensure that workplace pay and conditions for women were in keeping with the principles of social equality and justice that guided the Government’s agenda. The Whitlam Government also acted to remove discrimination and injustice against women in other areas, and to improve the basis of equality upon which women could participate in society.


The Fight for Equal Pay | Funding for Support Services & International Women's Year | Establishment of the Single Mothers BenefitEstablishment of Parental Leave for Commonwealth Employees | Removal of Restrictions on Oral Contraceptives  | Appointment of a Women's Adviser to the Prime Minister


The Fight for Equal Pay

One of the first acts of the Whitlam Government was to seek to reopen the National Wage and Equal Pay cases at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission. Whilst the 1969 Equal Pay case had led to some improvement in women’s wages, the Commission’s findings in 1972 Equal Pay case meant that Australian women undertaking work similar to that undertaken by men should be paid an equal wage. 

Half a million female workers became eligible for full pay, and an overall rise in women’s wages of around 30% resulted from this case. From May 2, 1974, the Commission extended the adult minimum wage to include women workers for the first time after the Whitlam government passed legislation to amend the Conciliation and Arbitration Act.

Funding for Women's Support Services & International Women's Year

The Whitlam Government funded and supported grassroots organisations providing specialist health and welfare services for women. These included support for women’s health centres, refuges and crisis centres. The Whitlam Government provided funding for the establishment and operation of organisations such as the Leichardt Women’s Health Centre, the Liverpool Women’s Health Centre, the Sydney Rape Crisis Centre and eleven women’s refuges across the country.

1975 was designated by the United Nations as the International Women’s Year. The Whitlam Government appointed Elizabeth Reid to distribute $3 million of funding to events and projects to appropriately mark the year. This funding was directed towards a major conference on women’s health, to the costs of establishing centres offering women’s health and welfare services, to programs supporting victims of domestic violence, and to cultural projects such as a women’s film festival, literature and performances highlighting the contributions of creative Australian women.

Margaret Whitlam was heavily involved in the International Women’s Year, serving on the Australian National Advisory Committee for the International Women’s Year, and as a delegate to the World Conference to the International Women’s Year. In these roles, she delivered strong public speeches advocating for improved opportunities, rights and recognition for women in society


'The Realities of Equality of the Australian Scene in International Women's Year through Mrs Margaret Whitlam's Eyes', Speech, 1975.


Establishment of the Single Mothers Benefit

In 1973, the Whitlam Government introduced the single mothers benefit to provide financial assistance to supporting mothers who did not qualify for the widow’s pension. This benefit was later extended to include all single parents.

Establishment of Parental Leave for Commonwealth Employees

The Whitlam Government sought to change working conditions that were unfair to women. One way it sought to do this was by improving the Commonwealth Government’s own workplace conditions. The Commonwealth was a large employer, employing over 64,000 women in 1973.  On June 18, 1973, the Whitlam Government passed the Maternity Leave (Australian Government Employees) Act 1973. This legislation provided 52 weeks of leave for mothers (12 of which on full pay). It also outlawed discrimination against Commonwealth employees because of their pregnancy, and legislated to provide rights relating to the preservation of employment and status.

Removal of Restrictions on Oral Contraceptives

The oral contraceptive pill (or 'the pill' as it was more commonly known) was one of the most important developments in women's health the post-war era. It gave women an easy and affordable way of controlling their fertility. The Whitlam Government believed that the sales tax imposed on the sale of the pill reduced its accessibility.  During its first week in power, the Whitlam Government removed the Commonwealth sales tax that had been applied to the contraceptive pill, and made oral contraceptives available through the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme, in order to provide more affordable, equitable access.  The ban on advertising the sale of oral contraceptive pill in the Australian Capital Territory was also lifted.

Appointment of a Women's Adviser to the Prime Minister

The Whitlam Government was the first in the world to appoint a dedicated adviser on Women's affairs to the head of government. Elizabeth Reid was given this position in April 1973. Her role was particularly important at a time when there were still no women in Labor’s caucus.

It was her responsibility to organise Australia's participation in the International Women's Year in 1975. She convened the International Women's Year National Advisory Committee, led Australia's delegation to the International Women's Year Conference in 1975, and represented Australia at the United Nations forum on the Role of Women in Population and Development in 1974.

Reid was also responsible for the coordination of the government's funding of women's support services such as women's health centres, refuges, rape crisis centres and other programs.

Working at the heart of the government, she argued that all submissions to Cabinet should include an  assessment of their impact on women. According to political scientist Marion Sawyer, she achieved an almost 'quasi-ministerial status'. Her role attracted a great deal of attention and commentary from the media, and the general public - both hostile and sympathetic. She received vast quantities of correspondence - only the Prime Minister received more letters.