Ita Buttrose’s latest edition of her book A Passionate Life is a fascinating account of her life and career in the Australian media that moves like a time-travel through the decades that brought incredible changes for women in Australia. In 2013, it is hard to imagine a time when women were addressed by their husband’s name or ceased to work after marriage but the fact is these times are not long ago. It was only in the 1970s that the Australian woman was beginning to gain her voice and emerge into the public arena and Buttrose shows how her creation of the now iconic women’s magazine Cleo was at the foundation of these changes. In Australia 1972, the mere mention of the words ‘women’s liberation’ was shocking and the discussion of sex taboo; but Cleo gate-crashed prudery; talked about sex like it was just discovered; and enabled women to discuss their ambitions, their emotions, desires, bodies, health and sex on their own terms.
Buttrose’s media journey began with a cadetship at Australian Consolidated Press at the age of 16. Her enthusiasm and evident capabilities as a journalist positioned her solidly onto a path that would indelibly mark her into the Australian media’s Hall of Fame. Very few can claim such solid praise from media mogul greats like Kerry Packer and Rupert Murdoch, but Buttrose’s editing of the pioneering Cleo magazine and her overhaul of the beloved yet flagging Australian Women’s Weekly made millions of dollars for ACP, earning her the nickname ‘jewell beyond price’ by the enigmatic Packer. When she was wooed with the lure of new challenges at News Ltd by Murdoch, Buttrose became the first female Editor in Chief of a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia, The Daily and The Sunday Telegraph.
‘First’ is a word that is almost synonymous with Buttrose. At 33, she was the youngest ever editor appointed at the Weekly. When she joined News Ltd, she became the first woman appointed as a director for the world-wide media group and in 1985 she was the only woman on the Top 100 Senior Executive list. These achievements typify the extraordinary times for women when they began to break through the glass ceiling and join the men in the corporate boardrooms around Australia but as Buttrose explains, by the end of the 1980s such progress came to a standstill with no one knowing what to do next. Buttrose believes there is still a gender bias operating against women when they hold only 13.7 per cent of directorships of Australia’s top 200 companies – not good enough she expounds when women represent 70 per cent of the nation’s buying power.
Reading through Buttrose’s life and her commitment to important causes, notably her achievements as Chair of the National Advisory Committee for AIDS in the 1980s, is a busy read. Stories of her children, friends and work colleagues coincide with the unravelling of her career exploits, revealing how her life has been nothing less than exhausting at times. This, however, has not hindered her business standards and communication skills that sound so exemplary that they almost appear like a dying artform. It may feel a touch ‘old fashioned’ for some but who can argue with her when she says ‘good manners … have all to do with being kind and thoughtful to others, making allowances for people’s shortcoming and considering their feelings’.