Australia's leaders past and present gather to remember Margaret Whitlam, former 'First Lady'

The World

A large part of the Sydney downtown area was closed off Friday, so high profile was the lineup of Australian political figures attending a memorial service for Margaret Whitlam, wife of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam.

Margaret Whitlam, a revered former "first lady" of Australian politics — described by serving PM Julia Gillard as a "national treasure" — died last week, aged 92.

Every living Labor past Prime Minister, including Gough Whitlam, in a wheelchair, attended the service at St James Church.

The gathering was made more impressive by the close proximity of so many political adversaries — and even the shock joint arrival of former Prime Minister Paul Keating with his former wife, Annita.

The couple split soon after Keating lost office in 1996 and have rarely, if at all, been seen in each others company since.

Margaret Whitlam, a qualified social worker, has been described as one of the few wives of prime ministers to have touched the Australian people independently of their husbands.

Many Australian lawmakers, on both sides of politics, spoke during a parliamentary session last week of how they had admired and emulated a woman who gave strength to other women and continued a full and public life quite independently of her role as a supportive prime minister's wife.

Gillard said (quotes from

"Margaret was an accomplished woman in her own right, with an abiding commitment to social issues, reflecting her own professional training, as well as a tireless advocate for the arts, the environment and women's rights.

"Through her own independent activism and advocacy, she also helped redefine the role of 'first lady,' giving it a new and deeper significance in the life of our nation."

Her biographer, Susan Mitchell, said Whitlam was never afraid to speak her mind.

"Certainly she made it quite clear in her attitudes towards women's rights to have abortions, she even believed that marijuana should be legalized. She said 'I have to be my own person, I'm not just going to be some ageing princess locked up in a tower.'"

Gough Whitlam, who would have celebrated his 70th anniversary with Margaret next month, called her simply "the love of my life".

"She encouraged and sustained me and our four children, their families and many other people in a life full of engagement with Australians from all walks of life."

The Whitlam family had declined the offer of a state funeral.

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