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Remembering Freda Whitlam, address by Jane Smyth (Daly)

Once upon a time, when I was young and at PLC, we referred to ex-students as ‘The Old Girls’ and, to us, they did seem very old.  We, on the other hand thought we would enjoy eternal youth. Well, not so. Now, half a century later we are thankful to be  ‘Ex-students’ rather than ‘Old Girls’. 

Miss Keown and I agree that this name change has the all the marks of Miss Whitlam’s intervention because it reflects an awareness of, and deep respect for, individuals. 
Thank you Marina for inviting me today to reflect on the contribution of Miss Freda Whitlam AM, a fine, highly intelligent woman, a passionate educator with an immense capacity for kindness who was Principal of PLC  - Croydon then Sydney -  for 18 years.  

We cannot deny that, in her final years as Principal, Miss Whitlam was shamefully treated. I speak for many when I thank former principal Dr William Mc Keith, who is with us today, for documenting the Whitlam years in his book  ‘Sacking the Principal - Freda Whitlam and PLC ’ and for investigating the motives of those who undermined and, eventually, made Miss Whitlam’s Principalship so difficult and frustrating that she chose to resign rather than to let their continuing and vindictive behaviour effect students and further damage the school. 

Memories are wonderful things. I’ve had such pleasure reminiscing about the Whitlam years and inviting others to share recollections. We were a mere 15 years old when our new principal arrived.  PLC had gone through a difficult period– a previous principal, Miss MacIndoe, had left, sadly, after unresolved difficulties with Council - and an interim Principal, Miss Tassie, had held the school together for a year while a new principal was found. It was with some excitement we waited for the start of 1958.

At that time rules about school uniform were strictly enforced and despite the fact that our cotton summer tunics became thin with wear, then thinner and thinner if passed on, we were forbidden to wear petticoats despite our embarrassment sometimes when travelling on public transport in almost ‘see through’ garments. We all thought the ‘no petticoats’ rule ridiculous; we mumbled but did not protest. Petticoats must have been synonymous with sin – no young lady, certainly no PLC girl, would wear one.

As 1958 began my friend, Pam Cohen (then Pam Hughes), became a boarder which meant she arrived at school one day prior to the beginning of term I. Pam, as a new boarder was greeted warmly by the new Principal and Pam’s mother phoned me that evening in excitement: ‘Her name’s Miss Whitlam; she’s YOUNG and she’s SMART - you’re going to like her’. Then, she added, ‘And she’s going to let you wear black petticoats!’ A modern principal! We could not have imagined the benefits she would bring, the impressions she would make or the challenges she would face in a time of great social change. 

You will all appreciate that, as school girls, there was much we did not understand but, with time has come great appreciation of Miss Whitlam, the highly educated, complex, dedicated and kind woman who influenced us. She was liberal in outlook and she democratised PLC.  The needs of individuals were considered  - every girl in fourth year was involved in the production of the school play, school leaders were chosen not by staff but voted for by girls (even if the process not completely transparent!) and school leaders were not necessarily those of highest academic achievement. Breadth of educational experience was encouraged- every girl would work towards a life-saving award, every girl in the last year of school would read a lesson in Assembly - after private preparation with Miss Keown.  

Special mention today must be made of Miss Keown or ‘Audrey’, as she is known to many, for her great warmth, her interest in us all, her loyalty to the college, her superb skills and her delight in teaching. Miss Keown has a very special place here, having served PLC for over 43 years in various capacities.  (Marina Clark calls her ‘honey pot’ because at PLC functions people swarm around her).  We must acknowledge Miss Whitlam for bravely appointing Miss Keown against the wishes of council members, one of whom asserted that a wheelchair would make teaching drama impossible.’ (Really!) 

Thanks are due to Miss Whitlam for choosing Miss Keown; many will support me when I say this was one of the best staffing appointments ever made at PLC.

Having accepted this honour to speak I consulted other ex-students. What do they recall? What would they like me to say? A picture has emerged of Miss Whitlam’s passion for Education, her vast knowledge, her strong faith, and her love of the Arts. There were many accounts of kindness. With the agreement of several ex-students, I will share some of these: 

Janet Simpson sent an email: My sister and I (and our two young brothers) lost our mother in a car accident in February 1957. My sister was 10 and I was 13. Our brothers were 8 and 5. After a turbulent three years, when we changed schools several times and returned from Sydney to Gilgandra, where I had to do French by correspondence, our father decided we needed a female influence in our lives and better education options than Gilgandra offered. In mid January 1960, after the Leaving Certificate results were published in the Sydney Morning Herald, he approached Miss Whitlam, at very short notice. He wanted to enroll us that year. She accepted us, and we arrived about two weeks later. I feel much gratitude to her. We both trained as teachers, initially. My sister subsequently became a barrister and worked with Gough Whitlam on a defamation action of his; and became president of Labor Lawyers. She was also one of the first six women QCs in NSW, and the second female Supreme Court Justice (appointed in 1964). She recently retired at the statutory age, after 24 years on the bench, but was immediately sworn in again, as an acting judge. She is also now working with the Law Reform Commission on the vexed issue of consent in case of sexual assault. Miss Whitlam opened all those doors for us.

Margie Stuart (Gillespie) wrote: I would like to say that Miss Whitlam (Freda) was very kind to me in my last year at school, actually coaching me in her study after school for some weeks, without charge. I was having a bit of a struggle with a few things (I'd picked up French again very late, having not done it since first year high school) and I guess they must have known my mother was not rolling in cash. l remember her with fondness for that, even though at other times I know her demeanour could be off-putting. 

While with her in that situation, she was an excellent teacher with a gentle, good humoured manner and a talent for showing me 'shortcuts' to the rules of French grammar.

Once appointed, Miss Whitlam built on established music and drama. She instigated the annual school play (produced and directed by Miss Keown), developed a school orchestra, enlarged and improved the PLC ; she introduced bagpipes!

There was one musical change I did not welcome - Mendelsons Wedding March was often played at the conclusion of morning assembly to celebrate the marriage of an ex-student. I hoped each Monday morning, as we filed into the Assembly Hall (now College Hall), that someone, somewhere, over the weekend just passed, had reached that great pinnacle – marriage (preferable with former classmates as bridesmaids) - and we would, once again, hear that march I loved. (I have not imagined this! Noelene Martin also mentions it in her book ‘Freda – A Biography of Freda Whitlam’). 

One day came an announcement - my loved Mendelson march was to be played no more! But we were left with something more important - a message - I forget the words but the meaning was clear. A woman did not need a husband to achieve – she could achieve in her own right. It was probably the first feminist message most of us had ever heard. This may have been the birth of what has been named ‘The Freda Effect’; many of those small changes based on Miss Whitlam’s firm and principled beliefs had lasting benefit.

If, when we left the school in 1961, Miss Whitlam was already recognising some of the issues which would destabilise her term as Principal she did not reveal this to us.  When, later, we absorbed this information we felt some shame that we had been unaware of her struggles. Partly due to Miss Whitlam’s faith and courage and her need to hold the school together when others would tear it apart, the girls were largely protected from the disruption occurring around them. 

I thank Dr Mc Keith, again, for allowing deep hurts to heal during his term as Principal by warmly inviting Miss Whitlam back to the college, honouring her, opening the Freda Whitlam Science Centre and Amphitheatre, and, in the presence of her family, offering PLC’s gratitude. 

Had we been at PLC in the years prior to her appointment we may have missed out on Miss Whitlam’s strong directive to get the best education possible. Members of our year group are represented amongst farmers, artists, academics, teachers, lecturers, pharmacists, librarians, economists, writers, professional embroiderers, company directors, consultants, managers, doctors, architects, lawyers, decorators, wine makers, medical specialists and volunteers. We even have our own loved celebrity - the marvellous Marg Pomeranz. Pre Whitlam, girls most often chose future occupations from a more limited field of teaching, nursing and secretarial work. 

Sue Craig considered hairdressing until Miss Whitlam intervened and insisted, probably curtly, that she was capable of university study and encouraged her to repeat a year. Sue went on to become a highly regarded gynaecologist. (I don’t expect any of her patients ever considered this a loss to hairdressing.) 

I’ve been interested the number of such stories; I have permission to read an email from Liz Carpenter (Libby Dean) of Orange: I’m sorry I can’t be there – I’d hoped to come. I wanted to be there because Freda was very good to me. In my Intermediate year both my parents were very ill and I had surgery twice – it was a memorable year! My mother asked if I could repeat the year to gain my Intermediate Certificate and Miss Whitlam said ‘Certainly not! She has to go on with her peers. My mother said ‘But she won’t have her Intermediate Certificate’. Then Miss Whitlam replied ‘She’ll pass Fourth Year and no-one will ever ask for her Intermediate Certificate’.

Miss Whitlam died this year at the age of 98, she was very frail; her last years were a struggle. At a fine funeral in the Penrith Uniting Church, where she had been a parishioner and where she was loved and had made many friends, we gathered to farewell an extraordinary woman.

Miss Whitlam’s nephew the Honorable Antony Whitlam delivered the eulogy and told us that the years post PLC were satisfying times and, perhaps, the happiest part of her life.
Petra Graham (Loveridge) and her husband Allan were amongst Miss Whitlam’s closest friends during this final period and were delighted to share in some of her public recognition.

We shared some very special times with Freda as guests of hers at the launch of Noelene Martin's book at the Whitlam Institute, at a celebration arranged by Penrith Council to make Freda a 'Freeman of the City' and we accompanied her to the NSW U3A Conference in Penrith when they celebrated her 90th birthday. Freda continued to inspire us during her Comparative Religion classes, we drove her home from Springwood many times, and enjoyed lunch together too. In many ways she continued her 'lessons in life’ when we spent time with her at the Nursing Home over her last four and half years.
Our friendship with Freda was special later in our lives and both Allan and I will miss her. 

Freda was appreciated in the 'autumn and winter' of her life in the Penrith area and the dignity, values and faith, which never faltered at PLC, remained with her.

Thank you, Dr Burgis and PLC Sydney ex-students, for organising this gathering. Many of us deeply appreciate the chance to honour Miss Whitlam who cared about us and our education, gave us a broader outlook and enriched our lives.

Thank you, Miss Whitlam.


'Remembering Freda Whitlam', address by Jane Smyth (nee Daly) at PLC Sydney, on 1 September, 2018.