The great equaliser: Wendy McCarthy on a life of championing fairness

Wendy McCarthy is 80, a fact which sometimes surprises her.

She recently had to rethink swimming in heavy surf, when she was knocked by a wave and found her knees were less reliable than they used to be.

But she is not one of those people who always feels, at least on the inside, that she is 18, or 30, or whatever age was golden for her.

“I’ve always been pretty happy with wherever I was,” she says.

“I’ve had bad patches, but I feel now I have turned a corner – he’s not coming back.”

Wendy McCarthy arrives for lunch at Bills resplendent in a jungle-print suit, hot pink glasses and tangerine nails.Credit:Nick Moir

The “he” is McCarthy’s beloved husband of 53 years, Gordon, who died in 2017 and was the steady background presence to her remarkable life.

“I am learning to live the life of a single woman, which I haven’t been since I was 22.”

McCarthy is a feminist legend, an education and women’s health pioneer, multiple board appointee, mentor and devoted grandmother.

A new generation became better acquainted with her when she came out of semi-retirement in 2019 to front the push to finally decriminalise abortion in NSW.

McCarthy was one of 80 women who famously risked prosecution in 1972 when they took out a full-page advertisement in a national newspaper Nation Review announcing they had had (illegal) abortions.

Like most things McCarthy has been involved in, decriminalisation was achieved, but it is literally only one chapter of her remarkable memoir, Don’t Be Too Polite, Girls.

McCarthy and I meet for lunch at Bills in Darlinghurst.

McCarthy arrives resplendent in silver platform sneakers, a jungle-print tailored suit, hot pink glasses and tangerine nails.

She is the only person I can imagine accessorising such an outfit with an Order of Australia pin.

McCarthy orders the Fresh Aussie – Bills’ gravlax with poached eggs, greens, sourdough, avocado and cherry tomatoes.

I order the chopped salad with citrus sesame dressing and grilled chicken on the side.

McCarthy’s memoir begins with her childhood, which was peripatetic.

Her father Bill was a grazier, and he moved his young family to a soldier’s settlement plot in Garema in western NSW to eke out a living.

It was hard going, not least because Bill was an alcoholic whose increasing unreliability meant he lost his property, and many other jobs thereafter.

As McCarthy grew older, her father became menacing towards her mother Betty when he was drinking.

McCarthy orders the Fresh Aussie – Bills’ gravlax with poached eggs, greens, sourdough, avocado and cherry tomatoes.Credit:Nick Moir

As a young girl, she experienced stability and a sense of purpose at school.

She was 11 when she left home to attend Forbes Intermediate High School, boarding at the St John’s Anglican Hostel.

Her respectable, upwardly mobile mother was determined she would get an education, and ensured her daughter applied for a teaching scholarship.

McCarthy won one, and at 16 went to study at the University of New England.

She says now that education is the most important thing: “No one can take it away from you.”

I ask McCarthy what she considers the main lessons of her childhood.

“Don’t let yourself become a victim,” she says.

“You can only feel inferior if you give your consent.”

McCarthy’s innate self-esteem is a strong current through her book.

She knows her own worth and, as she puts it in one section: “I was simply not open to being patronised.”

I ask her where she gets that self-assurance from.

“It is, to some extent, my mother,” she says.

“Because even when she was on hard times, she presented herself well.”

McCarthy’s relationship with her mother was close in childhood, but strained as McCarthy grew older and married herself.

McCarthy says her mother enabled her education and advancement, but “I suppose she never thought of the end result, which was a very independent daughter who moved away from home early.”

“I think all parents have a sense of loss when their children become independent.”

Betty even refused to attend the launch in 2000 of McCarthy’s first memoir, Don’t Fence Me In.

“She didn’t like public disclosure, and she thought it was probably not in good taste to disclose private matters,” McCarthy says now.

“Things she saw as private, I saw as political. That was the ’70s.”

Wendy and Gordon’s wedding day in 1964.Credit:Courtesy of Wendy McCarthy

After some years of international travel with her husband Gordon, who she met at university, the couple settled in the late 1960s in McMahons Point in North Sydney, and McCarthy had three children within five years.

Her delight in motherhood is evident in her book.

It was during those years she became involved in pregnancy, motherhood and early childhood activism.

In 1968, she and Gordon joined the Childbirth Education Association, and lobbied for women to control their birthing experience, and for fathers to be able to attend their partners’ childbirth.

In 1972, McCarthy established the NSW branch of the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

What kind of reception did those early women’s lobbyists get from the male politicians of the era?

“Some of them thought we were impertinent and some of them thought we were unusual and most of them thought we were misguided,” she says.

“But there was no doubting our passion and determination.”

A Women’s Electoral Lobby meeting and debate at Drummoyne Civic Centre in 1982. McCarthy is third from right.Credit:Paul Wright

She sees strong parallels between her history and the activism taking place now around harassment, abuse and parliamentary culture.

“I see a lot of young women who just aren’t going to cop it,” she says.

“They want changes. They want respect. I think they want equity in their relationships. They want to be safe.”

Nonetheless, she says, “the feminist dialogue has moved a long way since the ’70s.”

McCarthy is happy that contemporary feminism focuses on domestic violence action (“back then people just blamed it on grog,” she says), and the inclusion of First Nations women.

Interestingly, when McCarthy describes this 1970s period of lobbying for women’s rights, she writes that, initially, she never thought of herself as a “women’s libber”.

She favoured reform, not revolution.

“It didn’t have a very good reputation,” she says of the women’s liberation movement.

Former police commissioner Christine Nixon (left), McCarthy, and women’s advocate Natasha Stott Despoja at the National Press Club in 2011.Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“It was considered to be based in communism.”

The Women’s Electoral Lobby “walked through the middle”, McCarthy says.

“Some of the women’s liberationists found us tedious but in the end we all moved to the centre, which is no doubt how most revolutions go.”

McCarthy shifted too. She began to believe that no real change was possible without women’s liberation.

She even ended up acquiring a pair of purple overalls, which she says she could never pull off with the panache of her friend Anne Summers.

As with the success of many men of her era, McCarthy’s career was enabled by the support of a loving partner at home.

Was Gordon ahead of his time or was he just a nice man? I ask. “Probably both,” she says.

“I don’t think he saw equality as an intellectual thing. He always thought I should go back to work. It was a 50-50 relationship,” she says.

McCarthy pronounces her gravlax delicious.

She has polished off most of her meal, as have I, but she slows down when she gets to the greens.

“I’m trying to like kale,” she says.

McCarthy came out of semi-retirement in 2019 to front the push to finally decriminalise abortion in NSW.Credit:James Alcock

We both order coffee with fat milk, as McCarthy specifies. She declines cake.

McCarthy has advised Brittany Higgins, Grace Tame and Chanel Contos.

What advice would she give young women now who want to get involved in activism but fear public attack?

“When you speak out, it’s a cleansing process,” she says.

“Because if you own it yourself, people can’t hurt you by going after you.”

McCarthy says gender equality advocates see “there is a lot of fear from men”.

“Deep in their system somewhere, there’s fear that you can go too far,” she says.

“And they don’t know what that means … but they wonder, ‘Where does it all go? And have I lost control?’”

McCarthy reckons that “the truth is for most men, they have”.

The bill from Bills in Darlinghurst.Credit:Jacqueline Maley

“The sooner they step up and take ownership of some of these things, they’ll have better lives and better relationships.”

Her advice to young men who want to support women’s equality is to “learn to respect a woman’s voice in the workplace, and the romantic space and in a toxic space”.

Men should also be aware of the assumptions they make about money and be aware of the gender pay gap, McCarthy says.

“It’s about the ambitions and aspirations that you both have, and recognising that you’re 23 per cent ahead of the woman sitting beside you, and what are you going to do about that?”

Before I let McCarthy go, I am interested in knowing whether she thinks young and middle-aged women have it harder today in any way.

She names social media.

“It distracts and diverts us from our development and education,” she says.

“The bad parts of it are all-pervasive, and you are measuring yourself against impossible standards.

“You know, you can’t chop off all your bum, or pump it all up. The Kardashians have a lot to answer for.”

And with that, she saunters out of the restaurant, elegant in her suit.

She says she longs to swap it out for the old purple overalls, “but I’m just not sure I can cope with my children’s faces if I do.”

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