The Whitlam legacy for single mothers

It was a moving experience yesterday to provide a comment for the Conversation on the impact of the Whitlam Government in social policy in the article:

Gough Whitlam’s life and legacy: experts respond

While my last post lamented how difficult it remains for single parents, my reflections on Whitlam’s legacy in terms of  establishing the single mother’s benefit in 1973 reminded me of how difficult the situation had been prior to that. A recent Australian story about entertainment identity Jan Russ  attested to the dreadful position of many women as late as the 1960s when they had no options but to give up their children for adoption – and the trauma that continued to be lived out decades later.

Like many aspects of women’s equality, there is still far to go but the gains such as the single parent pension  need to be recognised and most of all protected for the future.

I reproduce my comment here:

One of the most outstanding achievements of the Whitlam government was the introductionof the supporting mother’s benefit in 1973 (now called parenting payment). Prior to 1973, only widows were entitled to pension payments, so other women who were raising children alone faced invidious choices, often involving a traumatic relinquishment of the child for adoption or having to work long hours to support her family, which was not an option for many women.

The pension payment gave single mothers (and, in 1977, also fathers) choices and options around the raising of their children, enabling a focus on full-time care for babies and small children and a balance between work and care when the children were older. It was an immensely important initiative in removing old stigmas around single mothers.

This achievement also linked to a proactive approach for women’s employment, taking forward the equal pay initiatives beginning in 1969 and resulting in equal pay for equal work across most of the workforce by 1972, and in 1974 a comparable minimum wage for both men and women. It is hard to believe some 40 years later that such a difference could have existed.

An important achievement of the Whitlam era, which should not be underestimated, was its support for civil society organisations, including women’s services and representative organisations. These organisations have been and continue to play an important role in fostering Australia’s participatory democracy. In many countries today, peoples strive to create these organisations, which have an important role in social and economic progress.

The introduction of Medicare and the abolition of university fees, combined with assistance for students from low-income families, were also major innovations of the Whitlam era in creating a more egalitarian and progressive society.

Cate Blanchett’s eulogy at Gough Whitlam’s memorial service on 5 November echoes the themes raised here:

3 thoughts on “The Whitlam legacy for single mothers

  1. I am a PhD candidate researching the trauma inflicted upon infants (now middle aged) who were taken from their single mothers for adoption under closed-record adoption policies and practices – acknowledged as illegal by the ‘National Apology for Forced Adoption’ (21st march, 2013). Despite the state and Commonwealth governments’ apologies we now see the promotion of adoption as the solution to other social problems. It is being promoted once again by the state and by Hollywood celebrities (as it was in the 1940s) but this time by Australian Hollywood celebrities (such as, ironically, Cate Blanchett who is among a string of Australian celebrities who are the adopting parents of American- born babies – because the USA refuses to acknowledge their past – and in 40 States currently, refuses mothers and adopted adults access to their records without tremendous effort through the courts).

    So, I wish to draw attention to the fact that the illegal practices of mid 20th century understood as forced adoption, included coercion to sign adoption consent forms and included denying single mothers information about Australian law and their rights to financial support and assistance with housing. They were denied this in order to procured thousands of ‘white’ ‘adoptable’ babies for the adoption market (Quartly, Swain and Cuthbert, 2013). I wish to draw your attention to Australian law at the time.
    “In 1957, the Annual NSW Child Welfare Report (p.25) stated that: mothers desiring to keep their babies are afforded every reasonable facility: financial assistance under Section 27 of the Child Welfare Act 1939 if required., admission of the baby to wardship until the mother is able to resume guardianship and skilled and sympathetic guidance by specially trained female officers of the Department who all ensure that indigent mothers receive social service benefits to which they are entitled” (cited by Cole, Releasing the Past: Mothers’ Stories of Their Stolen Babies, 2009, p. 7).

    It is incorrect that ‘only widows’ were entitled to financial assistance during this dark period in our history. Also, these practices did not end in the 1960s. Gough Whitlam made the Single Mother’s Benefit transparent in 1973 but illegal practices and lack of information for single mothers continued – one would have to be privileged to know the law in order to know one’s rights. Closed-record adoptions continued upon until the mid 1980s and systemic abuses of single mothers continued in Australian hospitals – in practices such as administering barbiturates directly after birth, administering stilboestrol to dry up breast milk and separating infants from their mothers at birth, continued until 1982 (Cole, 2009, p. 153).

    • Thank you for these comments Alison. Your PhD project is important and interesting. The information I quoted about the widow’s pension was drawn from an ABS year book.!OpenDocument
      This is also discussed in a UNSW research report (pp 19-20)

      It is not clear from either of these reports for how long, prior to 1973, that sole mothers could garner state government assistance – the reports only say that there was a 6 months qualifying period for Commonwealth assistance between 1973 and 1980 in which time states provided assistance. You quote the NSW legislation but I wonder if this was equally applicable in other states and territories. I also wonder what hurdles single mothers had to go through to get it – contributing of course to the pressure to give up their child for adoption. As you say, so many women were denied access to information about their rights with a purpose of enabling adoptions. So an important aspect of the Whitlam government legislation was to make transparent the conditions for the eligibility for a sole parent payment – although it is dreadful that you found that so many bad practices continued well into the 1980s. Wishing you the very best with your important project.

      • Hi Veronica

        Thank you for your reply to my previous comments and for providing links to valuable resources – much appreciated.

        You may be correct re: the law as referenced by Cole may only have been NSW law, so thank you for the direction towards further inquiry of the individual states’ laws. As each State’s adoption legislation is subtly different there may not have been anything similar in other states prior to ’73. Without Whitlam, Australia might now be far more like the United States, in my opinion. The US adoption market and legal surrogacy programming are huge profit making businesses – as they continue to deny mothers and adopted people access to their records in 40 States or make it very difficult (currently). At least we have acknowledged past injustices though paradoxically, apology seemingly only provides scope to repeat history.

        And yes, Cole’s work reveals how intimidating it was for mothers to access the Single Mother’s pension – a massive hurdle as you suggest – so thanks for further direction – if it took six months to qualify for assistance how many mothers lost their babies/children while waiting for funds to be made available or simply ‘gave up’ and ‘surrendered’ to the coercion, because the application process was so demeaning and demoralising.

        Thanks again for the links and for your kind words of support for my research.



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