The Australian Women's Weekly
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.
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.