When Ita Buttrose walks through the Channel 10 studios, heads turn. Journalists and TV types accustomed to stars in their midst, stop what they’re doing and crane their necks for a glimpse of one of the country’s most loved media personalities. Journalist Hugh Riminton stops for a chat with Buttrose and before long, asks her for a selfie. He tweets it later saying: “Bugger Pippa Middleton – I’ve got real royalty!”
Buttrose earned her regal status thanks to her career as a print journalist, television presenter and author. She has also worked relentlessly over the decades to advocate for a long list of charities and significant causes.
However, Buttrose is best known for her work as founding editor of Cleo magazine in the early 1970s, work immortalised by Asher Keddie in television mini-series Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo. Her success at Cleo led to Buttrose becoming the youngest person to be appointed editor of The Australian Women’s Weekly. She went on to become editor-in-chief of both magazines before being appointed publisher of Australian Consolidated Press Women’s Division.
When Buttrose left that posting in 1981, she went back to work in newspapers where she was appointed editor in chief of The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph. This role made her the first woman to edit a major metropolitan newspaper in Australia.
Buttrose achieved all this and more thanks to her gritty determination which manifested itself at an early age. She knew at just 11 that she wanted to be a journalist.
“I grew up with a father who was a journalist, and an editor, and an author and all my parents’ friends, they were journalists and artists and photographers,” Buttrose says.
“We were the most well-informed children in the neighbourhood.”
When Buttrose left school at 15, she enrolled in a business school to learn shorthand and typing and got her first job as a copygirl on The Australian Women’s Weekly before becoming secretary to the editor of the women’s pages at The Daily Telegraph and The Sunday Telegraph.
“Then I sort of badgered the women’s editor, I wrote little paragraphs about events and went on assignments with senior journalists on the weekends without pay,” Buttrose says.
“I think in the end she just thought: `I just have to give this girl a cadetship, she’s going to drive me nuts.’ By the time I was 16 I had my cadetship.”
Buttrose’s early career would be an awe-inspiring achievement for a young woman today. But it is gobsmacking when you consider the context in which she was establishing her career.
“You’ve got to realise what Australia was like,” Buttrose says. “When we started Cleo there were no women in the Federal House of Representatives. Women were not allowed in bars – not that that is the most important thing in the world, but we weren’t. There was a parlour out back where women were permitted to sit.
“There was no no-fault divorce, no maternity leave. Pay equality – which still has a fair way to go – had only just been introduced.
“There was a time when doctors wouldn’t give single women the pill. If you weren’t married, doctors wouldn’t prescribe it.
“Australia in the ‘60s and ‘70s was a very different Australia from the one many women today take for granted and think has been always the norm. It wasn’t the norm back then.”
It was in this era that Buttrose founded Cleo which embraced the benefits of women’s liberation in the areas of work, law, education and welfare, the right to have ambition and aim for the top, to be married and still have a career, plus women’s health and sexual needs, which were rarely discussed.
First of all it would be helpful if we could get over the sensitivity in admitting, ‘I’m a feminist’.
“Cleo was like a breath of fresh air in the Australia of those times,” she says.
“We encouraged girls to study mathematics, economics and science, we encouraged women to have a go. Women were entering a whole new world and it was exciting.”
Despite the progress made by women in intervening decades, Buttrose says there are still battles for women to fight on many fronts, including the use of the ‘F’ word.
“First of all it would be helpful if we could get over the sensitivity in admitting, 'I’m a feminist’,” she says.
Buttrose in 1975 as the editor of The Australian Women's Weekly
“There is nothing wrong with being a feminist. No woman should be ashamed to admit she is one. It means you support equality and equal opportunity not just for privileged women, but also the underprivileged women in Australia, as well as the underprivileged women in other countries that do not have our rights and freedoms.
“I’d like to see more women embrace the feminist cause to help achieve political and social rights for all women as well as educational and professional opportunities that are on par with those offered to men.”
Buttrose takes this inclusive view when discussing other challenges women face in the workplace.
“We still haven’t got childcare sorted out and it’s time we did. Childcare is not just a female issue, it’s a male issue too and a matter of concern to all parents,” she says. “We still don’t have an equal playing field for girls, we have much better educated girls and women, but they’re still being blocked in their advancement to the upper echelon of decision-making in Australian businesses and institutions.
“No wonder so many women are opting to start their own businesses and run them their way rather than the accepted male way. Men and women do approach tasks differently because we are different, there’s no doubt about that. We bring diverse skills to the table. I believe that it’s by embracing both sets of skills that organisations get robust synergy from their employees and consequently good bottom-line results.”
Buttrose eventually left newspapers and started her own publishing company, Capricorn Publishing, which produced ITA magazine for six years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. There are many stories and issues Buttrose recalls with pride from her long journalism career, including health awareness campaigns for heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, HIV/AIDS, safe sex, macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease and other dementias.
“ITA magazine drew to the world’s attention the babies being left to starve to death in Chinese orphanages because they were unwanted by their families,” she says. “We published photographs of babies in cots – one showed three babies, two were dead and in the middle of their bodies was an alive baby. It was horrific. Horrific.
“We ran a concerted campaign in the magazine. The federal government tut-tutted at us at the time – we were upsetting the Chinese. But over in the UK, where the story was syndicated, some concerned British citizens started a fund to help support the at-risk babies in the orphanages. I was very proud of that particular crusade of ours.
“We wrote about elder abuse in ITA magazine and granny dumping. These stories were groundbreaking and sadly, even today, there’s a lot of elder abuse going on in Australia.”
Unfortunately, Buttrose was forced to fold ITA magazine after six years. As a businesswoman during the recession, she says she agonised over the decision.
“The ‘recession we had to have’ according to former Prime Minister Paul Keating, was tough and relentless. Everyone was struggling, even the major publishers who were offering deals and discounts to advertisers,” she says. “It’s difficult, and just about impossible, for a small publisher to compete against the big guys. In the end I ran out of puff. There were other things I wanted to do but it wouldn’t be possible unless I let go of ITA magazine.
I thought, well, you better pick yourself up and get going because no one else is going to do it for you
“I had a dream, but dreams don’t have to last forever. This particular dream lasted for six years and it was a chapter of my life.
“After I closed my company, I went and grieved a bit and then I thought, well, you better pick yourself up and get going because no one else is going to do it for you.”
Whether it was as a young jobseeker, a newly-minted editor, a young mother, or a businesswoman, it was Buttrose’s no-nonsense attitude that helped her continue to achieve in her career. She continued to reach her goals even as young mother at a time when women were routinely forced out of their jobs when they married or fell pregnant.
“I always operated on the belief that there is always a way,” she said.
“And if you want something strongly enough, you will find a way.”
However she acknowledges her good fortune to be working for the Packer family when she had her second child, a few months after the launch of Cleo.
“When I was about to return to work the Packers told me they would give me a MotherCraft nurse,” she says.
“It was completely their idea. They realised that a woman establishing a new magazine, who also had with two children, one of whom was a baby, had a lot of juggling to do. They didn’t want to lose me, because Cleo was a significant investment. Having help at home with the children made an enormous difference to my life. The arrangement worked well for us.”
Today she encourages other women to negotiate a nanny into their salary package.
“Companies often say it can’t be done, but of course it can,” she says.
“It’s just a question of them deciding that they don’t want to lose you. Once they make that decision they’ll find a way to keep you. A nanny package is the ideal solution for a great many younger women who are at certain levels of their career.”
Illustration by Claire Foxton
Buttrose admits there were times as a working mother that she succumbed to feelings of guilt, a topic she made the subject of her 2005 best-selling book, Mother Guilt, which she co-authored with Dr Penny Adams.
“All too often mothers feel guilty,” she says. “However guilt means you’ve done something wrong and in reality a woman has done nothing wrong at all. And that’s the important message women need to remember.
“If you have to work you make arrangements for some kind of childcare with a nanny, with grandparents, at a daycare centre. That’s fine and you’ve organised the best possible care possible. Your child might cry when you leave but as a rule it’s never for long.
“My son used to squawk like hell when I left to go to work. I’d feel so awful. I’d ring from the office to see is he was alright and Mrs Radcliffe, who looked after him, would say: `Oh yes, he stopped the moment you walked out the door.’
“Children are masters at wringing all of their mother’s emotions. No woman has to be a perfect mother, a good enough mother is more than adequate. Accept that you will never have time for yourself, safe in the knowledge that the children will one day leave home (they do eventually) and you will finally be able to enjoy some ‘me’ time.”
There’s no need to try to be superwoman either, she says.
“You don’t have to have the cleanest house in the neighbourhood,” she says.
“We used to have a saying at The Women’s Weekly: A tidy house is a sign of a wasted mind.
“It’s much better to enjoy the company of your children who don’t stay little for long. I can still remember the joy of taking my daughter to what we used to call the dragonfly pond in the park near where we lived.
“My daughter loved dragonflies and she would clap her hands as we watched them skimming around over the top of the water. It’s a very precious memory, and one I’ll always have. When I’m a very old woman I doubt I’ll be sitting in my rocking chair thinking about some success I had in the boardroom but rather those special memories of time with my children that have made my life so much richer and worthwhile.”
We used to have a saying at The Women’s Weekly: A tidy house is a sign of a wasted mind.
In 2015, Buttrose received a Doctor of Letters from the University of Wollongong for her work in mental health and ageing.
“Although I left school at 15 and consider myself a graduate of the University of Life, I’m thrilled and honoured to be a doctor of letters of a qualified university like the University of Wollongong.”
Buttrose has received many honours and awards including being made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1979 for her services to journalism, an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1988 for her public health work especially in the areas of HIV/AIDS, and a Centenary Medal for business leadership. She was named Australian of the Year in 2013.
At 75, Buttrose gets up very early to co-host Studio 10 on weekday mornings. After years spent harbouring an unfulfilled ambition to host a TV show, she had given up on the dream becoming a reality.
“I accepted that hosting a show just wasn’t going to happen, that it wasn’t part of fate’s plan for me. You can’t always have what you want,” she says. “I got on with doing other things like hosting prime-time radio shows, writing books and advising clients on brand marketing. And then four years ago, completely out of the blue, I got a call from a top producer who said: `We’re starting a new morning show and would like you to be one of the hosts.
“I couldn’t believe my ears at first. A job offer – which I was never going to refuse – at this point of my life. It was incredible. Finally I was going to achieve that long-held dream of mine. Clearly if you wait long enough you can achieve your goals. You just have to be patient.”
Don’t think Buttrose is ready to dim her career ambitions just yet. She would still like to host her own show and she is about to start work on another fiction book.
“You have to make the most of every moment you’ve got and live life to the fullest.”
Ita Buttrose AO OBE
Honorary Doctor of Letters, 2015