Inspirational alumna Margaret Whitlam remembered

20 March 2012

Margaret Whitlam pictured in 2010 at the dinner to celebrate 70 years of Social Work education at the University of Sydney

She was brought up on the bright side of town, but Margaret Elaine Whitlam, who died on March 17, came from a family with a tradition of community service, studied social work, and experienced scarcity first hand as a mother and volunteer worker in Cabramatta in the late 50s, when it was a semi-rural settlement.

Mrs Whitlam completed her high school years at Sydney Church of England Girls Grammar School, Darlinghurst, intending to study languages at the University of Sydney but, falling short of the marks required for entry, she enrolled in the diploma of social work from the newly established School of Social Study and Training instead.

At the time of Mrs Whitlam's studies, the school was tucked away in the north-west corner of the Quadrangle. The University had been experiencing difficulties finding a 'home' for the social work trainers after subsuming the course from the private sector at the urging of the NSW Parliament. The government had been unwilling to dedicate funds to the fledgling professional training of "social service workers and child-welfare officers" until the course was subject to academic rigour.

Trainee social worker Margaret Dovey met her future husband, Edward Gough Whitlam, at the Sydney University Dramatic Society Christmas Party in 1939. She later recalled that her hair was wet at that meeting because she had just come from a swim. Miss Dovey was a national champion in breaststroke, and swam for the University. When she met Gough Whitlam, each was immediately smitten with the other. They were married on April 22, 1942, a few weeks before Gough received his call-up papers as a RAAF navigator in World War II.

During the early years of her marriage, Mrs Whitlam continued working for the Family Welfare Bureau, until morning sickness halted her career. Remarkably for the time (and even now), Mrs Whitlam returned to University after the birth of her first two children, Antony (1944) and Nicholas (1945). She graduated with a degree in social studies in 1948, the year after her husband was admitted to the NSW bar.

In the early 1960s, while living in Cabramatta, Mrs Whitlam became increasingly involved in her husband's political career. He had by then been elected Member for Werriwa and she provided some of the push for the Labor Party's urban agenda, drawing on her experiences at home and from her part-time work as Parramatta District Hospital's only social worker.

– Margaret Elaine Whitlam (nee Dovey). Prime minister's wife, community activist and national treasure. Born November 19, 1919, Sydney. Died March 17, 2012, Sydney, aged 92.