Style, substance and flair: being Mrs Prime Minister

Date: 07/09/2009

The role of being a Prime Minister's wife has developed and changed since Federation, and over the years the women have led fascinating and influential lives. Amongst them are fashion designers, champion swimmers, philanthropists and one who became the first female member of the House of Representatives in her own right.

A new exhibition hosted by the Whitlam Institute at the University of Western Sydney, 'Mrs Prime Minister - Public Image, Private Lives', will provide us with a rare glimpse into the lives of Australia's remarkable 'first ladies' from 1901 to 2007, including Jane Barton, Enid Lyons, Pattie Menzies, Elsie Curtin, Zara Holt, Margaret Whitlam, Sonia McMahon, Hazel Hawke, Annita Keating and Janette Howard.

'Mrs Prime Minister' is a collection of rarely before seen images and personal documents from Australia's national institutions and from the personal collections of former prime ministers' wives. The 'Mrs Prime Minister' exhibition comes to the Whitlam Institute courtesy of the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House.

Whitlam Institute Director, Eric Sidoti, says that while the role of Prime Minister is historically well-documented, many Australians may not be as familiar with the stories of the 25 remarkable women who have occupied the role of Prime Ministerial spouse.

Zara Holt, for example, was a famous and successful fashion designer and business woman. She not only ran a thriving boutique, but had her work featured in Vogue Australia. Margaret Whitlam was a talented swimmer who represented Australia when she was young. Pattie Deakin at first found the position of Prime Minister's wife lonely and isolating, but countered this by becoming a great philanthropist.

"These 25 women are not just shadows who stand behind their husbands, or who occasionally opened a building or supported a charity; they have made real, significant and lasting contributions in many areas of public life," says Ms Sharon Bulkeley, curator of the 'Mrs Prime Minister' exhibition.

"More than that, they are real - they live, love, feel passionate or lonely, feel out of their depth or at the top of their game. These are emotions that we all have experienced, and something we can all relate to."

Eric Sidoti sees the exhibition as a window to the evolution of democracy in Australia.

"As you walk through this exhibition you can't help but realise that our democracy is a living, breathing organism. It is not confined to the Parliamentary Chambers, but is shaped by myriad elements," Mr Sidoti says.

"Each of the women featured in this exhibition brought their own mark to bear on our public perceptions and attitudes, not least of all those about the changing role of women in the political life of the nation."

'Mrs Prime Minister - Public Image, Private Lives' opens to the public on Friday 11 September. This will be the first showing of the touring exhibition in Sydney, and will be on display in the historic Female Orphan School at the UWS Parramatta campus.

Open to the public from September 11, 2009 to October 2, 2009
10am - 4pm, Monday - Saturday
Female Orphan School Gallery (Building EZ), Parramatta Campus, University of Western Sydney
General Admission $5.00 (incl. GST)

For exhibition information and bookings contact Amy Sambrooke at the Whitlam Institute on 02 9685 9072 or or visit



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