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Research Guides

Gough Whitlam: Guide to Archives of Australia's Prime Ministers

Chapter 11 – Margaret Whitlam

This biographical essay was written by Clare Land, with additional material from the National Archives' Australia's Prime Ministers website.

Margaret Elaine Whitlam (née Dovey) was born in Bondi, Sydney, on 19 November 1919, the eldest child of Wilfred (Bill) Dovey (later a New South Wales Supreme Court judge) and Mary Dorothy Dovey (née Duncan). The child of a cultured upper-middle class family, Margaret attended Bondi Superior School and, from the age of 11, Sydney Church of England Girls' Grammar School, Darlinghurst. She excelled at sport, participated in school plays and developed considerable skill as a writer. In 1938, she represented Australia in breaststroke at the Empire Games.

Margaret went to the University of Sydney, where she enrolled in economics before transferring to social work in the School of Social Studies and Training. She was a serious and popular member of the Sydney University Dramatic Society, through which she first met Gough Whitlam. They met at the Society's Christmas party in December 1939. They married at Vaucluse in April 1942. In 2007, 65 years into their nearly 70-year marriage, Gough described Margaret as 'the partner of my life and my work'.

During World War II, Margaret was active in the University of Sydney's Voluntary Aid Detachment and the Women's Army National Service. In 1943, she worked as a social worker for the Family Welfare Bureau.

Margaret and Gough had three sons and a daughter. Antony and Nicholas were 'war-time' babies, born while Gough was serving as an air force navigator in the Pacific. On his return they built their first home in Cronulla, where both Stephen and Catherine were born. During her husband's early parliamentary career, Margaret played an important role in their local electorate and within the community. As there was no formal electoral office at that time, many constituents would come to the Whitlams' house, where Margaret would be their initial contact as Gough was frequently away. She was an active member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP) Women's Conference.

In 1964, Margaret became a part-time social worker with Parramatta District Hospital, and a justice of the peace. Following Gough Whitlam's election as Leader of the Opposition, and during his prime ministership, Margaret was a constant support, accompanying him on his many official visits and the countless engagements in The Lodge, around the country and internationally. In many ways Margaret Whitlam 'broke the mould' of the quiet, unassuming prime ministerial wife. She had her own strong opinions and was not hesitant to express them, admonishing the angry outbursts to which Gough was prone and making her own views clear. Margaret gained some prominence during the 1972 election campaign, and was often outspoken particularly about social issues. Intelligent and energetic, her views on legalised abortion, marijuana and women in the workforce were sometimes controversial, but they were moderate in the context of the women's movement at the time. She wrote a weekly column for Woman's Day magazine from 1973 until 1975.

Margaret served on the Australian National Advisory Committee for International Women's Year (1975), and was a member of the Australian delegation to the 1975 World Conference of the International Women's Year in Mexico. She was also a director of Commonwealth Hostels from 1974 to 1977.

As wife of the Prime Minister (1972–75), Margaret made some changes to The Lodge's décor and household staffing arrangements, and increasingly tried to give her role greater relevance and independence. She was more politically active during the May 1974 election campaign, which saw the Whitlam government re-elected. Margaret was deeply distressed by the circumstances of her husband's removal from office by the Governor-General on 11 November 1975. She was less conspicuous during the December 1975 election campaign, following her husband's dismissal as Prime Minister, and again during the 1977 election before he stepped down as Leader of the Opposition.

From the late 1970s until Gough Whitlam's appointment as Australian Ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 1983, Margaret Whitlam took on an impressive number of responsibilities in education and the arts at state and national levels. She was a director of Commonwealth Hostels (1974–77) and a member of the National Advisory Council for International Women's Year (1974–75). Margaret also served on the councils or boards of Musica Viva (1975); Australian Opera (c.1977); Sydney Dance Company (director, 1977–82); ACT Council of Social Service (president, 1978–80); Sydney Teachers' College (councillor, 1978–81); National Opera Conference (chair, 1979–81); Sydney College of Advanced Education (president of Council, 1982–83); Law Foundation of NSW (chair, Board of Governors, 1982–83). After the Whitlams returned to Australia, Margaret renewed her activity, serving with International Literacy Year (chair, National Advisory Council, 1989–91); UNESCO (goodwill ambassador, 1990); Safer Australia Committee (co-chair, 1995–96); National Book Council Awards (judge); College of Seniors; Microsurgery Research Council; and Australia–Ireland Council. In the 1990s, as a senior program consultant with International Study Programs, Margaret led 18 travel tours to Europe, China, Thailand and South America. She authored two books, My Day (1974) and My Other World (2001), in which she detailed her experiences during her decade-long work on the study tours, much of it with her husband. She was the subject of Susan Mitchell's Margaret Whitlam: a biography (2006).

Margaret was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in January 1983 for service to the community. In 1997, she and Gough Whitlam were jointly named National Living Treasures by the National Trust of Australia, and in 2007, the first joint life members of the ALP.

Margaret Whitlam died in Sydney, aged 92, on 17 March 2012. A memorial service was held at St James' Church, Sydney, on 23 March 2012.

Records of or about Margaret Whitlam

The National Archives of Australia holds records relating to Margaret Whitlam's membership of the Secretariat of the Australian National Advisory Committee for International Women's Year (1975), and her directorship of Commonwealth Hostels from 1974 to 1977.

The Whitlam Institute holds many of Margaret Whitlam's personal papers and speeches.

Her significant activities in numerous community-sector organisations are likely to be indirectly documented in those organisations' own archives.

The National Library of Australia's collection includes the papers of Margaret Whitlam's biographer, Susan Mitchell; a series of letters written by Gough Whitlam, including some referring to his proposal to Margaret and their marriage; biographical cuttings about Margaret; and an oral
history interview with Margaret. The Australian War Memorial holds a sound recording of a 1968 interview with Margaret. In addition the National Film and Sound Archive holds a copy of the 1993 interview-based film, The Life and Times of Margaret Whitlam (also available in some libraries).

The Australian Women's Register entry on Margaret Whitlam includes details of the organisations with which she had an association and lists a selection of published items about her.

Australian War Memorial

Margaret Whitlam interviewed by Sergeant Wayne Grant, 30 January 1968

This interview covers Whitlam, a visit to South Vietnam and civic action work of 110 Signal Squadron at the Dong Choui Orphanage, Vung Tau. For further information please contact the Australian War Memorial.

Series: S03608

National Archives of Australia


These photographs cover Gough Whitlam's activities during his parliamentary career. Some include Margaret Whitlam, who accompanied him on many overseas trips.

Series: M155
Quantity: 3.7 metres
Recorded by: 1952–78 Department of the House of Representatives – Member for Werriwa (Leader of the Opposition) (CA 692); The Hon. Edward Gough Whitlam AC, QC (CP 99)
Personal papers of Prime Minister EG Whitlam – photographs include visit to Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia and Philippines, 1967–68

This item is a folder of photographs from the Whitlams' visits to South-East Asia, including many of Margaret Whitlam.

M155, B11

This series is an album containing a single photograph and a series of newspaper articles created for Margaret Whitlam by the Office of the Status of Woman to commemorate her involvement in the 1975 Mexico world conference on women. Margaret joined Elizabeth Reid, adviser to the Prime Minister on women's matters, along with 11 other delegates, to represent Australia at the conference.

The album comprises a group photograph of the delegation and a series of newspaper articles collected during the conference. English translations areprovided for any articles originally published in Spanish.

Series: M5077
Quantity: 0.6 metres
Recorded by: 1975 Margaret Elaine Whitlam AO (CP 929)

This series consists of signed original minutes of board and annual general meetings of Commonwealth Hostels Limited and of Commonwealth Accommodation and Catering Services Limited. Margaret Whitlam was a director of Commonwealth Hostels from 1974 to 1977.

Series: C4719
Quantity: 0.9 metres
Recorded by: 1951–84 Commonwealth Hostels Limited, Central Office (CA 1649)
Minutes of board meetings, 1972–78 C4719, WOB 4

These four files record the activities in establishing the Inter-Departmental Advisory Committee under the auspices of the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the subsequent involvement of the International Women's Year Secretariat with the Committee. The files include background information, correspondence with non-government organisations and administrative details of meetings.

Series: A4227
Recorded by: 1974–76 Australian National Advisory Committee for International Women's Year 1975 – Secretariat (CA 2640)

National Library of Australia


This series comprises letters written by Gough Whitlam to his parents and his sister Freda between 1936 and 1951. They cover his time at Sydney University, in the Sydney University Regiment, with the Royal Australian Air Force, married life with Margaret in Sydney, and his early career as a barrister.

Series: MS7653
Gough Whitlam, St Paul's College, to 'Parents and Freda', 12 July 1940

Gough Whitlam and Margaret Dovey met in December 1939 at the Sydney University Dramatic Society Christmas party. In this letter, Whitlam detailed his social engagements with Margaret. He took her to Romano's for dinner and to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra 'on one of Dovey's two season tickets'.

Gough Whitlam, St Paul's College, to 'Parents', 26 June 1941

Gough Whitlam wrote of his dinner at the Dovey's: 'I must say D… looked rather well in red things'. He also reported that he was going to see Julius Caesar with 'young Willie Dovey', Margaret's younger brother Bill.

Gough Whitlam, Vaucluse, to 'Parents', 17 June 1942

Whitlam had been holidaying in Terrigal with Margaret and her mother, Mary Dovey. 'It's been very enjoyable at Terrigal. As a matter of fact I'm a very good brown all over.' He wrote of his plans to propose to Margaret:

…a number of our little friends have been getting married… It is not, however, this set of circumstances alone which induced me to broach the subject with Margaret of marrying when I was in the Air Force. She didn't mind at all, nor did Mary. Of course I've not yet approached Bill Snr [Margaret's father], as he is away…The only objection I can possibly conceive is my extreme [poverty], but on reflection I'm sure economic security is quite uncertain of attainment at any time, particularly in this decade… Of course it's all confidential.
Gough Whitlam, Judges' Chambers, Supreme Court, Sydney, to 'Parents and Freda', 29 January 1942

Whitlam was upset that his parents had not mentioned anything about his engagement to Margaret in their last letter:

Your delay and avoiding of the issue can't fail to make a bad impression and Mattie [Whitlam's mother] herself should know that such impressions may endure.
Gough Whitlam, Judges' Chambers, Supreme Court, Sydney, to 'Parents and Freda', 5 February 1942

Your letters of the past week have been much more welcome (Margaret was very pleased too). There was no need to fear either Big Bill's disapproval or my extravagance. On the first point, you must remember he and Mary did precisely the same thing last time, only more recipitately. If he'd objected to me, he would have made it plain before this. On the second point, you people seem to have long held the erroneous opinion that I am extravagant. In point of fact I'm very careful. My only indulgence is dress, which is due to over-compensation in view of my physical make-up. You people have to realise that the cost of living has risen for younger persons as well as middle-aged ones.


This series consists of cuttings about Margaret Whitlam from newspapers and magazines covering the period from her husband's entry into politics until 2000.


This series comprises correspondence, drafts, articles, press cuttings, reviews, interviews, publicity arrangements, reactions from readers and viewers, and several audio cassettes. Susan Mitchell authored Margaret Whitlam: a biography (2006).

Series: MS ACC05/14
Quantity: 0.9 metres (2 boxes) + 2 cartons

The bulk of Reid's papers document her period as Adviser to the Prime Minister of Australia on Women's Affairs and activities associated with International Women's Year (1975). They include: correspondence; diaries; notebooks; office files; academic and conference papers; articles; press releases; press cuttings; and publications. Reid included Margaret Whitlam on the National Advisory Council that she established to plan and organise International Women's Year in Australia, and to administer $2 million in grants to women's projects.

Finding aid available online.

Series: MS 9262
Quantity: 15 metres
Series 14 International Women's Year (1975), 1973–76

The papers in this series document Reid's roles as Convenor of the Australian National Advisory Committee for International Women's Year and Leader of the Australian Delegation to, and Vice-Chair of, the Preparatory United Nations Consultative Committee held in New York in March 1975. Of prime significance was Reid's role as leader of the Australian delegation to the World Conference for International Women's Year in Mexico, June 1975. Margaret Whitlam was involved in much of this activity; the series includes speeches by Margaret.

Duration: 113 minutes
Series: TRC 652

Tape 1. Side 1. Margaret Whitlam talked about the origin and background of the Dovey family in Australia; the career of her father, Justice Dovey; her childhood; her early interest in swimming; school and interschool swimming; interstate and international swimming at 12 years of age; Australian Championships and Empire Games in 1938; intervarsity swimming 1939; Sydney University – economics and then social work; and Metropolitan Business College – typing and shorthand. She spoke about her interest in the Sydney University Dramatic Society; meeting and marrying Gough Whitlam (who was then an articled clerk and senior student at St Paul's College); her life during the war, while Whitlam was in the air force, living in Elizabeth Bay, then living in Cronulla for 10 years, and her community activities; Whitlam's entry into Parliament and her subsequent electoral duties, such as balls, fetes, sporting carnivals, church services, and the difficulties involved.

Tape 1. Side 2. Margaret Whitlam returned to the workforce in 1964. She was a social worker at Parramatta District Hospital until Whitlam became Leader of the Opposition and her presence was required more often in Canberra. She spoke about living in Canberra; holidays all over Australia; her election to bodies such as the Labor Party Women's Conference; other intrinsic obligations; and the loss of her separate identity. Margaret talked about her interest in modern Greek, weaving, playing golf; official overseas trips to SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organisation) countries; a 1974 European tour; and dinner conversation with Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip.

Tape 2. Side 1. Margaret Whitlam discussed the 1973 tour of China and Japan, including the Great Wall of China and Ming tombs, and meeting Premier Chou En-Lai; and a 1977 China trip, including a demonstration of martial arts skills and the Tientsin earthquake experience. She gave her impressions of world leaders and women in Australia: Lyndon Baines Johnson and Lady Bird Johnson, United States; Helmut Schmidt, Germany; Aldo Moro, Italy; Kosygin and Molotov, Soviet Union; Dame Enid Lyons; Dame Pattie Menzies; Lady (Maie) Casey AC; and Australian women generally. She also discussed the problems of being a politician's wife; having to cushion the children from criticism; her relationship with party leaders Dr HV Evatt and Arthur Calwell; her relationship with the press, including the 'hoo-haa' quote on inflation; hitlam's difficulty transitioning from Deputy Leader to Leader of the ALP; the prime ministerial years; and Whitlam's retirement, including her involvement in his new work.

National Film and Sound Archive

Margaret Whitlam: the life and times, 1993
Maxine McKew interviewed Margaret Whitlam in 1993. Margaret spoke about her childhood, career choices and life married to Gough Whitlam. She reflected on the time when she was 'first lady' and her hopes to be remembered as fair-minded. The interview is intercut with still Photographs.

Whitlam Institute

The Institute holds a range of Margaret Whitlam's personal records, including memorabilia from the period of the Whitlam government onwards, her appointment diaries from 1936 to 2010, and some material relating to her parents.

As a tribute to Margaret Whitlam on her death in March 2012, the Whitlam Institute published three web pages, including photographs, speeches and documents, as well as parliamentary condolences.

Memorabilia belonging to Margaret Whitlam's mother Mary Dorothy Dovey from 1950 to 1954
Included in this collection is an invitation to the Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – 'By Command of The Queen, the Earl Marshall is directed to invite "Mrs WR Dovey" to be present at the Abbey Church of Westminster on the 2nd day of June 1953'.
Framed letter to WE Dovey Esq (Margaret Whitlam's father) from Sir Robert Menzies, 21 April 1939
This letter is in reply to a letter of congratulations to Menzies from Margaret's father.
Certificates and papers of Margaret Elaine Whitlam [née Dovey], 1920–2006
This is a selection of original documents, including Margaret's Baptismal Certificate; Certificate of Marriage; employment papers; wedding invitation; 80th birthday invitation; 60th wedding anniversary invitation; and invitation to the launch of her biography.
Correspondence and memorabilia belonging to Margaret Whitlam, 1973 to 2012
This collection includes a letter of welcome to London from UK Prime Minister Edward Heath; a letter of thanks from Pierre Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada; an invitation to a luncheon for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1973; photographs taken during official visits to China in October 1973 and Japan in 1974; a personal letter of thanks from Princess Margaret (Countess of Snowdon); an invitation to Queen Elizabeth II's Silver Jubilee in June 1977; an invitation to a State luncheon for Crown Prince Frederik and Crown Princess Mary of Denmark; and condolences from Queen Elizabeth II on the death of Margaret in March 2012.
Personal diaries, 1936–65
In the early years, Margaret Whitlam made many entries in her handwritten diaries. Later she simply recorded appointments, functions or events to be remembered.
Personal diaries, 1977–89
These handwritten diaries (1977–79 and 1982–89) show entries in pencil or pen, mostly of engagements and appointments. There are brief notes on some pages about friends and acquaintances, including addresses and phone numbers in sections at the back. Some of the diaries show travel destinations and times of flights for both Margaret and Gough. The diaries from 1983 to 1986 cover the Whitlams' time in Paris, while Gough was Australia's Permanent Delegate to UNESCO.
Personal diaries, 1990–99
These handwritten diaries are similar to the previous set. In addition, most include the birthdays of Margaret, Gough and the children.
Personal diaries, 2000–10
These handwritten diaries show entries for engagements and appointments throughout each year. Most years they include the birthdays of Margaret, Gough and the children, as well as other events of interest.
Speech by Mrs Margaret Whitlam to an ALP Regional Women's Conference in Bathurst, NSW, 31 October 1976
This is the typed, eight-page speech Margaret Whitlam made to an ALP Regional Women's Conference in Bathurst. In it, she noted that women were more conservative than men and that this was reflected in their voting. She said a large number of women only had social contact with a limited number of individuals or organisations, such as school principals, who held conservative views. The Labor Party was seen as creating change and instability, but its programs assisted women, especially those in need, by providing finance to staff pre-school childcare centres and equal pay for women.
Correspondence on the appointment of the Order of Australia to Margaret Elaine Whitlam, 26 January 1983
Margaret Whitlam received correspondence from Government House, as well as letters and telegrams from others, offering their congratulations.
The so-called 'Letter of Passion' from Gough Whitlam to Margaret, written while Gough was stationed at Townsville, 22 July 1944
The speech Margaret Whitlam gave at the launch of the Whitlam Institute's Letter of Passion exhibition, 2002
The speech Gough Whitlam gave at the launch of the Whitlam Institute's Letter of Passion exhibition, 2002
Mrs Margaret Whitlam's personal copy of the conference briefing document for Australian delegates at the International Women's Year conference held in Mexico City from 19 June to 2 July 1975
The speech delivered by Mrs Margaret Whitlam at the informal discussions for the spouses of the participants of the meeting of Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kingston, Jamaica, 5 May 1975
News clipping of Margaret Whitlam's Women's Day article titled 'A seven-country women's mini conference in Jamaica', 9 June 1975
A handwritten Christmas card to Mr Graham Freudenberg from Gough and Margaret, despatched while the Whitlams were based in Paris following Gough Whitlam's appointment as Australian Ambassador to UNESCO, 1985
The speech by the Hon. EG Whitlam AC, QC on the occasion of the bestowing on Gough and Margaret Whitlam Life Memberships to the Australian Labor Party, 28 April 2007
The cover and photograph of the Hon. EG Whitlam AC, QC and Mrs Margaret Whitlam AO for the Special 10th Anniversary Issue of Good Weekend, The Sydney Morning Herald magazine, 8 October 1994
A telegram with Department of Foreign Affairs letterhead of the speech by Margaret Whitlam at the naming of the ship Australian Emblem in Kobe, Japan, 9 August 1974
A postcard from Margaret Whitlam to Graham Freudenberg sent from Paris, 5 May 1984