A Bonza Australian of the Year – Ita Buttrose

14 / 02 / 2013


A Bonza Sheila is a regular section paying tribute to an inspiring good woman, and Ita Buttrose certainly fits the bill. Ita spoke to Sheilas Editor Sarah Capper over the phone from her base in Sydney – below is a transcript of the conversation. Thank you, Ita, for taking time out of your busy Australian of the Year schedule!


SARAH CAPPER:  Your Father was a journalist, and you were born during the Second World War when he was away serving as a correspondent. By age 11 you had decided you wanted to be a journalist and a writer. How much did your father influence this big (and very accurate) career decision at such an early age?

ITA BUTTROSE:  Well obviously Dad influenced me greatly. I thought he and his friends – and my Mother’s friends – I thought they were exciting people. They all had opinions, they all had something to say, and they were well informed. I used to make my Dad’s breakfast when he was editing an afternoon newspaper here in Sydney and we would talk about stories and I found the whole thing fascinating. I loved writing anyway. At school I was pretty good at composition and I just knew that this was my calling, this was what I wanted to be. There was no doubt in my mind what I wanted to do when I grew up.


SARAH CAPPER:  Your parents divorced and subsequently your father’s private life appeared in one of the tabloids. Being so close to someone on the receiving end of this sort of journalism, did this provide any insight when you were later editor of magazines and newspapers, in terms of covering other people’s lives?

ITA BUTTROSE:  When I’ve been in positions of authority – and even just as a working journalist – I’ve always been very aware of the need for people to have their private moments and I’m not in favour of the way the media acts today. Certainly when I remember back to my parents’ divorce, not only was my father’s marriage and activities splashed all over several tabloids, but they tried to photograph my Mother at the Divorce Court. She was distressed and I put my handbag up and ruined the photograph, because I know how to do that! And the photographer swore at me. But you know, I felt there was no need – and I still feel there’s no need – that’s why I believe the Family Court is a  wonderful institution to prevent the media from reporting on people’s divorce cases. It’s nobody’s business but the couple getting divorced.


SARAH CAPPER:  We live in such a rich information age, with the Internet, with social media, and with everybody having cameras on their mobile phones. What do you think about the pressures current editors of magazines and newspapers face in terms of respecting people’s privacy?

ITA BUTTROSE: Well, we live in a world where there is no privacy. That’s what we’ve lost. And I think magazine editors and newspaper editors have to be mindful of that. You know there are times when the media shouldn’t be present. I find it disconcerting when I see the media intrude on people’s grief for instance, when somebody’s just been killed or somebody’s lost a child, and there’s a microphone shoved in their face to talk about these things.

We used to respect people at these sorts of moments in their lives, not intrude on them, and the standards of the media have to be upheld. And they come from the top.

So if management and the owners of media companies allow reporters to behave in this way, then what we see is this enormous invasion of privacy. I think we need to take a step back and say ‘Hang on, is this how we really want to behave?’

I think the media sometimes needs to examine its own behaviour. I can say that because I’ve worked in it all my life, just about.


SARAH CAPPER: Well back to that. I read that you said, “It was common for girls to leave school at 15 in the 50s because they weren’t going to have careers.” You certainly did have a career, achieving a lot in very little time and have continued to excel throughout your life. You left school at 15 to become a copygirl at the Australian Women’s Weekly. By 21, you were Social Editor, by 33, Editor (the youngest ever). And as Editor you broke the 1 million copies sold record.

All of this was achieved at such a young age as a woman in a very male dominated industry. While there have been some improvements in terms of women’s representation in publishing and media, there are still a lot of areas where men dominate certain areas of business and the working world. I am wondering what helped you deal with this sort of environment as a young woman?

ITA BUTTROSE:  I just felt I was entitled to be there. I’ve always felt that. I don’t see why any woman should be denied opportunities because of her gender. I think when I went into journalism it was a great sort-of finishing school if you like, because the gaps in my education were filled by the ‘need to know’. You can’t be a journalist, you can’t interview people of the kind I was often sent to interview without reading up on them, without learning things. You are always reading, learning, observing, trying to improve your knowledge, and that was very helpful to me.

Along the way I’ve had some good mentors, and that’s been helpful to me as well. And the more I went on, the more it seemed a natural place for me to be.

And yes of course I encountered obstacles and yes, women still do today. The thing you’ve got to tell yourself is that we are entitled to be there. We are entitled to try anything we want to with our lives. If we want to aim for the top, we will aim for the top. If you meet an obstacle, you have to find a way around it.


SARAH CAPPER: Did you have female or male mentors?

ITA BUTTROSE:  All my mentors were male because there were no women at my level.


SARAH CAPPER: So basically, if you can’t find a good woman, find a good bloke?

ITA BUTTROSE:  Oh absolutely, it doesn’t matter. At some point in your life you might have a male mentor and you might switch to a woman mentor. It’s horses for courses.

You think ‘what I need is this, and I think I could get that from that particular bloke in the company I’m working for. And now I’m looking for something else and I think that woman there is who I need to talk to’.


SARAH CAPPER:  You were founding Editor of Cleo, and there were a lot of articles about sex! (including the first ‘sealed’ section in a magazine, the Jack Thompson centrefold). I read that you said that “we wrote about sex as if we discovered it,” and you had the “best story conferences” coming up with ideas for any given edition, and that you “learnt things” along the way. The first edition’s first print run of 105,000 copies sold out within 48 hours. Clearly, there was a gap in the market! Just wondering if you can describe how revolutionary this venture was – at the time in Australian society in the 1970s – when it came to sex, and how much did women ‘need’ this magazine?

ITA BUTTROSE:   Well, Cleo was very much a revolutionary approach to magazine publishing in Australia when it appeared, and yes, while we did write about sex it was not the only thing on our minds. And I think that’s something people often overlook, if you look at the Cleo of today – which is really nothing like the Cleo I created.

So there were many issues that we looked at as well as sex, and as well as health, because we were very uninformed about our bodies – doctors didn’t talk to us about it – and so there were a lot of things we wanted to know.

You mentioned the first sealed section. Well the first sealed section was to deal with breasts, and it was to do with breast surgery after breast cancer, breast reduction, and the pictures were fairly graphic. Again, this was an issue that wasn’t discussed out in public or in mainstream media at that time, and because the pictures shocked us too a bit, that was the purpose behind it.  

So in terms of sexuality, and knowledge about how to have an orgasm, really basic things, I remember some man coming in to ask me about a hysterectomy his wife was having, and they couldn’t find out from their doctor whether they could have a “proper sex life” – his words, not mine – after the operation. You don’t realise how suppressed people were with these issues in Australia at the time.

But we also looked at the plight of women in Russia, and we looked at how Irish women were faring in their quest for equality, so there were a lot of things we canvassed, and it was this great opening of ideas and on all kinds of issues. We were the first women’s magazine to interview politicians, we covered political issues, we discussed zero population growth long before it was a popular topic – plus knowledge about our bodies, and knowledge about sex. All together it was quite a formidable package and it met the needs of women at that time, very well indeed.


SARAH CAPPER:   In the early 70s, at the helm of Cleo, you worked through your second pregnancy. I believe there was not a great deal of support from the Packers, the owners of Cleo, during this time. How did you deal with this?

ITA BUTTROSE:   The same way I deal with everything. I was pregnant and I wasn’t planning to send the baby back, and I certainly wasn’t thinking of an abortion, so this was where I was at. The problem in those days was that people – and men in particular – looked at pregnancy as some kind of illness.

I think the initial thoughts of the Packers, Sir Frank and Kerry, was that I wouldn’t be ‘well enough’ to run Cleo. And so when they saw that actually, you’re quite well when you’re pregnant. You have to be unlucky to have a pregnancy that puts you in bed for awhile. So when they saw it was business as usual – in fact, all I was having was a baby, I wasn’t ill – I think they were very reassured.

And I became a role model for other women. A colleague of mine who worked in one of our subsidiary companies was also pregnant around about my time and she said to me, “They were going to fire me! And I said to them, ‘Ita’s working! Look at Ita!’ and she said, ‘Thank god you work because I wouldn’t have my job’”.

It was a learning process for the fellas – women could actually be pregnant and still work – we didn’t lose our thinking processes and our ability in any way shape or form.


SARAH CAPPER:  You were balancing work and family before the phrase was even coined. So I’m sure you’ve become quite experienced at it.

Paper Giants, the highly acclaimed ABC Drama, documented part of this period of your life. What was the level of your involvement in the series, and did you have some sort of out of body experience when you actually watched your life being portrayed on screen?

ITA BUTTROSE:  Well I helped them with the research, I got together the original Cleo team, and we all swapped stories, because although we’d all worked together and were pretty friendly, there were things that some of us got up to that the rest of us didn’t know about. One of us would say, ‘You didn’t tell me that!’. It was quite fun, we all had a wonderful time getting together. We had a couple of lunches and it was just tremendous. I typed up all the information and gave it to the writer of the Program and then I read the script a few times but I didn’t have a final say, because there were a cast of thousands all around the script, as I was to discover.

But you know there were things like in one [scene] he had me cooking dinner with my husband, and he’s saying to me, “Do you want a glass of Chardonnay?”

And I said [to the Paper Giants writers], “Ah, we didn’t drink Chardonnay back then in the 70s. You know if I was having a drink it would have been a gin and tonic, and my husband would have been having a scotch.”

There were things like that. They had me saying in another scene, “What sauce would you like with your pasta?” and you know, we really weren’t into pasta in those days either! If we were having dinner, I suspect it would have been meat and two veg. There were all sorts of little things like that.  

There was one incredible moment where they had my character wearing hats to work and they said, “Oh Asher [Keddie, who played Ita in the series] just looks beautiful in her hats,” and I said, “Oh, what hats?” and they said, “the hats she’s wearing to work,” and I said, “Don’t be silly. I didn’t wear a hat to work.”

And they said, “Oh, but she looks lovely!” and I said, “You know, I look pretty good in a hat too, but I didn’t wear them to work.”

You think what women’s liberation was all about. I was thirty, I said, “Do you think I really wore a hat to work?”. Anyway, they got rid of them. A big battle. I advised them on things like that because they weren’t around in the 70s.


SARAH CAPPER:   And Asher Keddie’s portrayal of you? How did it feel, watching that?

ITA BUTTROSE: It was uncanny. It’s really weird watching someone be you, I’ve got to say. She certainly had my mannerisms, the way I walk, she had the way I talk.

I thought she lisped a bit too much, but she had the expressions in my voice, she did a great job, and she certainly did her homework.


SARAH CAPPER:   You were the first woman elected to the Board of News Limited and there’s been a little bit of improvement recently in the numbers of women on boards in Australia, from a pretty dire situation, even just a few years ago. There’s been calls to examine quota systems in addressing this issue. How do you think we better bridge the gap of women on boards, and in senior managerial roles?

ITA BUTTROSE: No one can get excited about the progress of women on boards – it’s pathetic, it’s absolutely pathetic. We represent more than 50% of the population, and 70% of the buying power and I don’t see how any company could say they’re running their business the best that they could without the input of women.

And it’s really time it stopped. I didn’t think we needed quotas but I do now. I think the issue has to be forced. I think there needs to be pressure put on the boardrooms of Australia to improve the situation. It’s gone on far enough. They just need to be told to get their act together. There’s no use letting them do it at their own pace – if we let them do it at their own pace, we’ll still be underrepresented in another ten years time.


SARAH CAPPER:  When I was preparing for this interview I created some ‘cluster’ areas of your life – like journalism, and business, and a pretty healthy looking ‘awards’ section, and under the heading ‘community’ I actually ran out of room on the page in listing your past and present involvement with so many different community organisations! What’s driven this? Why has this sense of giving back been such an important concern for you?

ITA BUTTROSE:  Because I think it is something you have to do. I don’t think life is just about taking, I think it’s also about giving. And I think you do need to give back.

And certainly it was the way I was raised. My Mother had me and my brothers out helping her collect funds for Legacy, when we were quite young, in Sydney. We manned stalls at the Spastic Centre fete, which is now the Cerebral Palsy Association. She always had us doing things. It was just the way I was raised. I’ve just increased my involvement.

People come to me, and you can see they’ve got a problem, or they need help with their communication, or they want a business plan, or whatever it is they want. And you think ‘Oh, I can help do that’.

There was a nun, Sister Bernice, I’ll never forget her, and she came to see me once. She sat down in front of me and I said, “Hello Sister”. I’m a Catholic, I was raised a Catholic, and I’m always very respectful of nuns. She looked after intellectually impaired adults for the Irabina Association. It was their tenth anniversary and she promised them a booklet, a magazine, and she said, “I’ve been wondering how to do it, and I was in the newsagent and I saw ‘Ita’ magazine, and so I came here.”

And I just looked at her and said, “Sister, you’re hoping that I will do this magazine for you?” and she nodded, “Yes, Ita, I am”.

And so we did! I did do it. We got photographs of the people she looked after and we put the magazine together, and I went over and spoke at a special celebration and handed the magazine over. It was a wonderful moment in the lives of the people Sister Bernice and her colleague Sister Margaret Mary had been helping for ten years. They had a bus and they drove them here and there. It was a really lovely thing. I was awfully busy at the time, but how could I say no!

It really is a good feeling when you see the results of something like that – a pleasure to so many people. A lot of my issues are to do with health now, and I just think health is the most important thing we’ve all got going for us. Health messages need to be delivered constantly and people need to understand the message. I think sometimes I am able to do that quite effectively.


SARAH CAPPER: On that note, you were Chairperson of the National Advisory Committee on HIV / AIDS from 1984 – 1988. Of this work you have previously said it was the “most worthwhile thing I’ve done in my life”. In what ways?

ITA BUTTROSE:     When the HIV virus appeared it was such a tricky little virus. There was such fear in the community. Such homophobia. When you think back to what it was like, it was terrible. I remember politicians saying all homosexuals should be quarantined in the outback. And you think, come on! What’s wrong with you?!

 I spoke in churches and Jewish temples and schools and I would say, “Would you love your child any less if he or she were gay?” and I’d think, “Of course you wouldn’t! Of course you wouldn’t.” And I wouldn’t. I wanted to get people thinking about what they were saying. We achieved a lot in Australia with our program. We didn’t see the virus spread into the drug using community the way it did in so many other countries. I think we did a very good job. And I think we can be proud of it. Yes, you do feel good about that and it was a worthwhile thing that I did.  


SARAH CAPPER:   You’ve been appointed Australian of the Year, 2013, and I did note in my reading that the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation named you their Australian of the Year in 1993, so they were 20 years ahead of their time.

ITA BUTTROSE:   They were, weren’t they! That was very nice of them, I remember being very thrilled at the time.


SARAH CAPPER:  In Australia we currently have women in positions of power and influence – a first female Prime Minister, a female Governor-General, and as mentioned, your good self in the Australian of the Year role. How much do you think these appointments help in improving the overall status of women and girls in Australian life? Do you think it permeates through broader society?

ITA BUTTROSE:    I hope so. I think it would say to younger women and girls that it is possible to get to the very top in your country, and there are many ways you can contribute. We have a female Prime Minister, we have a female Governor-General. I’m very honoured to be in this particular role. And we’ve a female deputy leader of the federal Opposition, and we’ve had female premiers. And so it is possible to get to the top.

Don’t for one moment think that those women haven’t put in the hard yards. And they would have run into obstacles, just like we all do. But they found a way to get over it. They’ve worked their way around them, and then made it to the very top of the pinnacle. All women can achieve that, if they want to.

 ‘If they want to’ is the important message there. You don’t have to do this. You just have to do your best. But if you want to get to the very top as a woman, it is possible. But no one says it is easy.


SARAH CAPPER:   If you could host a dinner party with a group of women across the spectrum of history, could you nominate a few that you would have liked to have met?

ITA BUTTROSE:       Oh what a hard call that is –

SARAH CAPPER:  Spend time in that hypothetical realm?

ITA BUTTROSE:       Yes, a hypothetical.

I’d love to sit down and natter with Hilary Clinton.

I wouldn’t mind including Jackie Kennedy in the mix. I’ve just always found her quite interesting, how she went on with her literary career.

Perhaps, if we went right back, you know, what made Boadicea tick?

Golda Meir, I wouldn’t mind meeting her. I used to read about her in the papers and wonder about the obstacles she overcame.

And Eleanor Roosevelt.

SARAH CAPPER: Yes, me too, she would be in my list for sure.

ITA BUTTROSE: I think that’s about it.


SARAH CAPPER:          Just finally, you’ve written eleven books, including an autobiography called ‘A Passionate Life’. As Australian of the Year 2013, could you nominate a couple of issues that you want Australians to become ‘passionate’ about – that are important to you, that you can potentially influence?

ITA BUTTROSE:      As I said when I accepted the award from the Prime Minister, I would like to remove the stigma that comes with a diagnosis of dementia. I want to remove that sense of shame that so many people feel when they’re told they have dementia. There should be no sense of shame. This is a chronic disease. And that’s the way we’ve got to view it. People should understand and remember at all times that someone with Dementia and Alzheimer’s is still a person. There’s still a person there; they may not always be there, but every now and then that person will pop out and take you by surprise.

And I would really like to raise the bar a bit on how we respect, and treat, our older Australians.

I think sometimes they’re written off as useless and past their used by date and they’re conscious of this. But nobody, nobody has a use by date quite frankly. As long as we’re still here, we have a use.

SARAH CAPPER:       Yes I know of a few older women who’ve said to me that once they get to a certain age they have felt – and they all use the same or similar words – that they feel ‘invisible’.

ITA BUTTROSE: Yes, I hear it all the time. Isn’t it shocking!


ITA BUTTROSE:       Invisible. Well we really have to accept, as I said to someone the other day, if we’re lucky, we get to be old. Not everybody gets to be old. Some of us make it, but some of us don’t. We’ve all lost friends along the way. And so to get there is quite an achievement.  

And to get there you’ve lived a lot of life, and a lot of years and you’ve acquired a lot of knowledge and wisdom. We’ve just got to tap into it and make older people feel a very valued part of the community.

For instance, I would like see more aged care facilities and retirement villages built near kindergartens and preschools. I would like to encourage the mixing of the little kids with older people, so the older people do feel part of the community and they are sharing their knowledge with little kids.

SARAH CAPPER: Connecting the generations –

ITA BUTTROSE:  Yes, they have a lot of patience, and children and tiny toddlers don’t really notice people are old. They just want a person who is going to read a story to them, play with them or pay them some attention. And with all these busy working parents, they sometimes lack that.

SARAH CAPPER:  That’s a lovely goal.

Ita Buttrose, thank you so much for your time –

ITA BUTTROSE:  A pleasure … thanks very much, I enjoyed talking to you.