Trail­blazer: El­iz­a­beth Reid’s re­mark­able fight for women

She was Gough Whit­lam’s “su­per­girl”, a pas­sion­ate ad­vo­cate for women’s lib and so­cial re­form. Four decades on, Jo Chan­dler meets the ex­tra­or­di­nary El­iz­a­beth Reid and dis­cov­ers she is still fight­ing for women.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY ● SCOTT HAWKINS

Tehran, 1977: In a palace in the Ira­nian cap­i­tal’s last op­u­lent years un­der the Shah, Aus­tralian trade of­fi­cials set­tle in for a lav­ish ban­quet. They’re in­trigued by the vaguely fa­mil­iar wo­man with an Aus­tralian ac­cent sit­ting with their Ira­nian hosts. Then it dawns. El­iz­a­beth Reid had qui­etly dis­ap­peared from Can­berra in Oc­to­ber 1975, a month be­fore the Prime Min­is­ter she served as women’s ad­viser ex­ited rather more nois­ily. Now, here she was ad­vis­ing Princess Ashraf Pahlavi, sis­ter of the Shah, on United Na­tions ini­tia­tives for women around the world.

The trade del­e­gates, all men, si­dle up to the wo­man the Aus­tralian news­pa­pers had dubbed Gough Whit­lam’s “su­per­girl”. “You changed my life,” one of them told her. “My wife ut­terly in­sists on talk­ing about sex – we never talked about sex.” An­other in­ter­jected – lamented? – that his wife “now in­sists on get­ting sat­is­fied!”

From 1973 to 1975, El­iz­a­beth Reid was a con­duit of seis­mic so­cial up­heaval, a player in a plethora of Whit­lam gov­ern­ment re­forms – the sin­gle mother’s ben­e­fit, ex­panded child care, ma­ter­nity leave for Com­mon­wealth em­ploy­ees, no-fault di­vorce, the Fam­ily Court, the Royal Com­mis­sion on Hu­man Re­la­tion­ships, the push for equal pay, free ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion. Th­ese pen­e­trated deep into house­holds, re­la­tion­ships, as­pi­ra­tions. As the bed­room sto­ries of the trade of­fi­cials tes­ti­fied, the po­lit­i­cal had be­come deeply per­sonal.

Soon af­ter that din­ner, The Weekly pub­lished a fea­ture on El­iz­a­beth’s new life in Tehran, the re­porter shad­ow­ing her on an ex­cur­sion to talk to sex work­ers in one of the poor­est quar­ters of the city, not­ing how she was jos­tled by a mob of men and had to be ex­tracted by po­lice.

In the 40 years since, El­iz­a­beth Reid has qui­etly and fear­lessly per­sisted at the van­guard of women’s ad­vo­cacy, from Kin­shasa to New York. She’s fallen in love, had a child, lost a hus­band and be­come a trail­blaz­ing ac­tivist against the scourge that killed him, HIV/AIDS. There’s rather a lot to catch up on.

We set­tle down to the task in the lounge-cum-of­fice of El­iz­a­beth’s Can­berra house, papers piled high on the din­ing table, where she’s craft­ing a speech on the Aus­tralian fem­i­nist move­ment of the 1970s. A di­ag­no­sis of Parkin­son’s dis­ease has done lit­tle to slow down her work or trav­els, though she gets frus­trated when fast-flow­ing thoughts get stuck be­hind fin­gers that can’t find top speed on the key­board. She pushes through, as is her style. At 20, she suf­fered a ter­ri­ble head in­jury in a train crash. Doc­tors told her she

“could never think again”. Two years later, she talked her way back into uni­ver­sity and, ul­ti­mately, an Ox­ford schol­ar­ship.

El­iz­a­beth is the el­dest of six born to Catholic school­teach­ers in Ta­ree in 1942, both “rad­i­cal re­form­ers” from the church’s left-lean­ing pews. They en­cour­aged her ed­u­ca­tion and taught her to both cher­ish and ques­tion her faith. They set­tled in Can­berra when El­iz­a­beth was a teenager and over her decades of peri­patetic life, it has al­ways been home. In 1968, she re­turned from Ox­ford with her tod­dler daugh­ter, Kathryn. She’d mar­ried her boyfriend, a sci­en­tist she met in Can­berra, when she be­came preg­nant. “I didn’t know a sin­gle wo­man who had brought up chil­dren alone ... All I knew were shot­gun mar­riages.” He was “a very nice man”, she says, but the mar­riage was doomed.

She left Kathryn with her fa­ther in Can­berra and went back to Ox­ford to com­plete her stud­ies. By 1972, she was back with a phi­los­o­phy de­gree, a job at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity, neck-deep in La­bor Party pol­i­tics and the bur­geon­ing women’s move­ment, and con­tem­plat­ing ques­tions of the­ol­ogy, moral­ity and sex­u­al­ity with a group of like-minded Catholics.

She was liv­ing the lyrics of the It’s Time jin­gle that de­liv­ered Gough Whit­lam to of­fice. When the new Prime Min­is­ter in­vited her to tea at The Lodge af­ter she was se­lected to be­come his ad­viser, she wore a Laura Ash­ley frock and her “women’s lib” knick­ers – they had a fem­i­nist sym­bol on the crotch. “We chat­ted 10 to the dozen and from that mo­ment we got on very well,” she says.

Through the wild ride of the Whit­lam years, El­iz­a­beth lived in the spot­light – a de­ter­mined change-maker, some­times cel­e­brated, con­stantly scru­ti­nised, of­ten ridiculed, oc­ca­sion­ally vil­i­fied. News re­ports noted that she didn’t live with her daugh­ter and that she some­times didn’t wear a bra. At her first press con­fer­ence, she was grilled about her bro­ken mar­riage and her be­liefs. Hav­ing wres­tled with “ev­ery sin­gle is­sue they asked me about, I was bug­gered if I wasn’t go­ing to tell them what I thought,” she re­calls.

Some press re­ports were scathing. “Miss Reid said abor­tion, pros­ti­tu­tion, ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and mar­i­juana were all ar­eas in which ‘law should not have any say. All th­ese ques­tions are moral ones … they are mat­ters for in­di­vid­ual de­ci­sion’,” Mel­bourne’s The Sun-News Pic­to­rial re­ported, di­rect­ing read­ers to a scold­ing colum­nist who wrote, “How te­dious all this must be to that vast ma­jor­ity of Aus­tralian women who don’t want an abor­tion, who aren’t pros­ti­tutes or les­bians, and who pre­fer Marl­boro coun­try to a trip through mar­i­juana land.”

Fast for­ward to the lost years. In 1979, she phones her par­ents from Frank­furt air­port. They wire the fare home to Can­berra. She had fled Tehran af­ter months trapped in the Rev­o­lu­tion. Each morn­ing, her driver, a dis­ci­ple of Is­lamic leader Ay­a­tol­lah Khome­ini, would come to pick her up. To kill her, a for­eigner, would put him on the path to mar­tyr­dom. “So, each morn­ing, in Farsi, without men­tion­ing the sub­ject, we qui­etly ne­go­ti­ated that we would get through the day without him mur­der­ing any­body, in­clud­ing me.” It took seven at­tempts to get a seat on a flight out.

A year later, work­ing at the UN in New York, she met Bill Pruitt. Af­ter a whirl­wind ro­mance, she was to join him in Zaire, where he was di­rec­tor of the US Peace Corps. She didn’t want to marry, but the US gov­ern­ment in­sisted other­wise. “Bill says, ‘Ei­ther you marry me or you can’t come to Africa’,” she re­calls. She sent out the in­vi­ta­tions be­fore re­al­is­ing she had for­got­ten some­thing. Days be­fore her wed­ding, she got a shot­gun di­vorce.

The cou­ple lived a con­fronting life in what is now the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of Congo, wit­ness­ing

I didn’t know a sin­gle wo­man who had brought up chil­dren alone.

the regime of the despot Mobutu Sésé Seko. “It was in Zaire that I re­alised the real draw­back of work­ing in de­vel­op­ment is that you are al­ways work­ing in some­body else’s cul­ture, some­body else’s lan­guage, some­body else’s pol­i­tics, and it is not your job to give your opin­ion of their pol­i­tics.”

In 1982, Bill had emer­gency surgery in Africa and the US. He was a haemophil­iac. It was the early days of the HIV pan­demic and Bill was re­ceiv­ing mas­sive trans­fu­sions. “I said to the sur­geon, ‘What chance is there that he has been in­fected with HIV?’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ In the car on the way home, Bill stopped the taxi and got out and bought con­doms. That is why I’m still alive.” They went back to Kin­shasa with their baby, John, and “had three happy years be­fore the dy­ing started”, then moved to Can­berra, where Bill died in hos­pi­tal in 1986. Within an hour, he was dou­ble-bagged in plas­tic. She kept protest­ing that he posed no threat, but the panic of the times drowned her out. Her grief ig­nited a new phase of ac­tivism and work fo­cused on HIV. As the 1990s dawned, she led fledg­ling UN projects push­ing out of the med­i­cal sphere to tackle the so­cial chal­lenges of HIV in the de­vel­op­ing world, ad­vo­cat­ing a pro­gram of grass­roots con­ver­sa­tions, reach­ing deep into com­mu­ni­ties to con­front fear and stigma.

In 1998, El­iz­a­beth be­came head of the UN in Pa­pua New Guinea and has worked and trav­elled there fre­quently since. She’s dis­mayed that Aus­tralian fem­i­nists have not en­gaged with the strug­gles of the women who are our clos­est neigh­bours and who en­dure some of the worst vi­o­lence and health out­comes in the world. In 2008, the Ital­ian tenor An­drea Bo­celli toured Aus­tralia and do­nated a por­tion of his ticket sales to es­tab­lish schol­ar­ships for the chil­dren of peo­ple liv­ing with HIV in PNG. The Serendip­ity

Ed­u­ca­tion En­dow­ment Fund, which El­iz­a­beth over­sees, is “a mag­i­cal lit­tle scheme which brings hope to th­ese fam­i­lies and trans­forms their lives”.

It’s been a re­mark­able, globe-trot­ting life at the high­est lev­els of in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment, yet the last that many Aus­tralians heard of El­iz­a­beth Reid was when she mys­te­ri­ously van­ished in Oc­to­ber 1975. What hap­pened?

She came to be seen as a li­a­bil­ity, she says. From the out­set, she’d been whacked from some quar­ters, but got on with the job. “She trav­elled Aus­tralia, lis­ten­ing to women and find­ing out just ex­actly what they might hope for from a rad­i­cally re­form­ing gov­ern­ment,” says his­to­rian Pro­fes­sor Su­san Ma­garey. “El­iz­a­beth found her­self be­sieged by women want­ing to tell her about con­di­tions of their lives and how they needed to change.” She re­sponded with a to-do list of changes, from get­ting women ac­cess to loans and mort­gages without a man’s sig­na­ture, to bet­ter ur­ban plan­ning. “It was an im­mense un­der­tak­ing, un­prece­dented,” says Pro­fes­sor Ma­garey. “She was also im­mensely coura­geous. It’s not easy, now, to re­call just how ex­ten­sive were the as­sump­tions and be­liefs and re­jec­tions she was chal­leng­ing. Imag­ine a whole so­ci­ety of Don­ald Trumps and start from there!”

In Septem­ber 1975, El­iz­a­beth hosted a gath­er­ing in Can­berra of 700 Aus­tralian “Women In Pol­i­tics”. It was trans­for­ma­tive – and dis­rup­tive. In­structed to wear “black tie” to a re­cep­tion at [then] Par­lia­ment House, del­e­gates du­ti­fully wore black ties “and then de­cided to dec­o­rate all the stat­ues in King’s Hall with bras. And wrote with lip­stick on the toi­let mir­rors. This, of course, was splat­tered in the press ev­ery­where the next day,” El­iz­a­beth re­calls. She was sum­moned to the PM’s of­fice, where “a pha­lanx of party num­bers men” de­clared she had to go. “I re­signed and left Aus­tralia. I felt like a po­lit­i­cal refugee.”

She holed up in a cabin in the woods in Bri­tish Columbia, Canada, sup­plied with a ri­fle in case any griz­zly bears stopped by. Within days, she was ready to come back into the world. The old guard had “beaten me to the ground”, she says, but not be­fore she had achieved more than she had dreamed. “We had all the poli­cies in place and [PM] Mal­colm Fraser couldn’t turn them back.”

Aus­tralia had changed and she had been part of it. She took what she learned and drew on it over decades of front­line work for women in some of the most chal­lenged corners of the planet.

We had three happy years be­fore the dy­ing started.

1975 was In­ter­na­tional Women’s Year (IWY) and El­iz­a­beth Reid was in the spot­light at the UN (above) and as part of Gough Whit­lam’s IWY Com­mit­tee (left). TOP LEFT: The Weekly went to Iran in 1977 to re­port on her work there. OP­PO­SITE: El­iz­a­beth to­day,...

Back in her for­mer stomp­ing ground of Old Par­lia­ment House, the site of her years with PM Gough Whit­lam.

ABOVE, RIGHT: El­iz­a­beth is ac­com­pa­nied by her fa­ther Jim (above, right), mum Jean (be­hind) and hus­band-to-be Bill Pruitt on their wed­ding day in 1981. Five years af­ter the wed­ding, Bill died from HIV/ AIDS. ABOVE, LEFT: El­iz­a­beth helped to draft the...

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