How The Weekly’s trailblazing 90-year journey has championed women and changed Australia

A voice, a force, and a friend.

Since 1933, The Weekly has championed women – and changed the face of Australia along the way. From rallying for equal rights to revealing the recipe for the perfect sponge, we revisit a trailblazing 90-year journey

In 1947, The Australian Women’s Weekly correspondent Anne Matheson was crossing the grassy plains of South Africa on the King’s train; her tape recorder clutched in her white-gloved hand. Despite the oppressive heat, she and her press corps peers maintained an impeccable standard  of dress. Anne’s dispatches included the only press interview the Queen consort ever gave, but Anne had discretly omitted spotting Princess Elizabeth sneaking out each morning to take a secret call from her beau, Philip Mountbatten.

“There we were by the Zambezi River, with crocodiles nibbling our toes and the Queen in champagne georgette and frills,” Anne recalled in 1976. Africa was the first of dozens of royal tours Anne covered after proving her mettle in World War II. Female war correspondents were rare, unless you read The Weekly, who sent Adele Shelton Smith to Malaya in 1941, and Dorothy Drain to cover the war crimes trials in Tokyo in 1946. Dorothy was later deployed to Korea and Vietnam. These journalists blazed a trail for female war correspondents today. Despite the war office’s orders that female correspondents write from a woman’s perspective, Anne insisted on covering all aspects of conflict.

Her report on the capture of German Vice-chancellor Hermann Göring in 1945 was syndicated across the world. “When he crossed his legs, I could see Hermann was wearing grey silk socks nearly as long as a woman’s stockings. They wrinkled around his fat ankles,” she observed of the Nazi who created the Gestapo. Anne’s expectation she be treated no differently to her male colleagues was emblematic of The Australian Women’s Weekly. From the start the publication regarded readers with respect, speaking directly to them in  a way newspapers of the day did not. It gave Australian women what they wanted: Fashion, romance, news and advice. It was a homemaker’s bible,  but also a connection to the outside world, particularly for those in rural areas. It contextualised world events.

In 1933, it offered career advice to a generation raised to remain in the home. Working women, The Weekly said, had choices beyond secretarial work – they could be engineers too. When deciding what issues to cover, “we ask ourselves whether it interests us,” said Esme Fenston, who worked at The Weekly from 1938 to 1972. “By this I mean, nobody here says: ‘I don’t like it, but “they” will.’ We don’t know any ‘theys’.” Her guiding principle was: “Women are not fools”. The debut front page in 1933 was unequivocal. “Equal Social Rights for Sexes,” reported on resolutions passed by the Women’s Voters Federation. Next to this? Photos of fashionable socialites.

The mix of frivolity and information worked; the first edition completely sold out. As the 1930s rolled on, reports on price-gouging (“Bread profiteers grab housewives’ pennies!”) sat next to pictures of a young Princess Elizabeth. Six months after King Edward’s abdication, The Weekly published the cooking secrets of Wallis Simpson, who had  “a first hand knowledge of this ‘way to a man’s heart’.” It was a touch salacious, but also instructional. The Weekly was a trusted friend who knew the secret to a perfect sponge.

When World War II broke out, The Weekly found its purpose, rallying the women of Australia and creating real change. Initially it called women to action in “their own battleground” by keeping the home safe. As more women joined the services, The Weekly celebrated and supported them. In September 1942, editor Alice Jackson saw The Weekly take three levels of the David Jones building on George Street, Sydney, as a hostel for servicewomen. Accessed via a private elevator, the home-away-from-home included sleeping quarters with bed covers in blue, green and pink, a large dance floor with a piano, and a dining room run by The Weekly’s then-home economist, Mrs Olwen Francis, who had been hired in 1942 to solve the problem of creating meals with rations (bananastuffed roast rabbit!).

The hostel was to be “a tribute to the splendid women of the services”. Letters from readers poured in with offers  to volunteer at the hostel. The war highlighted the inequalities between men  and women, a situation The Weekly did not accept. An editorial in 1942 railed against service women being excluded from benefits their male comrades received. “This is not good enough,” it read. “Thousands of women have rallied to the services in a real spirit  of sacrifice. The nation in accepting their services should assume responsibility, not only for their welfare during the war years but for their re-establishment when peace comes again.”

The Weekly championed equal pay for equal work, and encouraged readers to join the Women’s Land Army. In 1942 Dorothy Drain wrote  as to how effective and happy the recruits were: “Pretty Mrs Kathleen Hamilton is quick at orange picking,” she said. The Weekly also rescued orange farmers with a special collection of orange recipes to encourage women to buy up the fruit during a glut that was threatening farmers’ livelihoods. In postwar years the publication sponsored fashion shows, bringing collections from Dior to our shores.

The Weekly combined a commitment to fashion with support for the local wool industry, with extensive coverage of the Australian Wool Bureau’s Fashion Awards. The 1961 awards were particularly successful. The winning designs were published and also toured Australia, from Sydney’s Trocadero nightclub to the Broken Hill RSL. Historian Dr Lorinda Cramer noted, “Demand for the clothes featured was so strong manufacturers couldn’t keep up with orders.” The age of the nuclear family was also the age of the nuclear threat.

Through the 1950s and into the ’60s, the Cold War and the nuclear arms race featured heavily. A 1957 editorial declared, “The atom race must end”. Invoking the end of humanity and the planet, The Weekly said the cessation of nuclear testing was imperative. “Women, the realists in this man-led world, recognise this peril better than men.”  Its plea for disarmament unheeded, in 1961 The Weekly provided an illustrated guide  to surviving a nuclear attack, offering practical tips such as: “Nail blankets or coverings over broken doors or windows” to keep radioactive dust out. It messaged that if the men failed to avert disaster, it would be up to women to protect their families.

But while some were making preparations against the nuclear bomb, another bomb was about to drop on conservative society: The Pill. The oral contraceptive was available in Australia from 1961, but it took years for it to become mainstream. “Doctors were cautious about prescribing it, even to married women,” Anne Summers later said  in The Sydney Morning Herald. “Contraceptives could not be advertised, nor were they written about, so it took time for women to learn of the existence of this miracle.” The academic and author further pointed out that The Herald did not print the word “pregnant” until 1970. But six years earlier, in July 1964, The Weekly led the coverage of the Pill with a matter-of-fact report on how it worked. It quoted Britain’s Family Planning Association: “There is now no doubt at all that the Pill is the  most efficient form of birth control  yet devised.” That issue sold 864,000 copies, the best seller of the year.

Conscious contraception was still taboo for many, and Editor Esme Fenston said the ground-breaking story did not “set out to give opinions on moral or religious attitudes towards birth control”. Nonetheless it was censured by The Canberra Times, which declared the article was “favourable on other than medical grounds”. But the sexual revolution could not be ignored. A 1968 feature titled ‘Sex and Marriage’ was a frank appraisal of sex education. Reader letters revealed a shocking level of naivety. “I was never told about periods,” one 26-year-old wrote. When hers arrived, she thought she was bleeding to death. Young women reported being told babies were found under cabbages. The letters from younger mothers showed attitudes to sex education were changing. The editors heeded their words, and articles about sex and sexuality became  more common.

By 1974, The Weekly ran stories like ‘Sex and the Working Woman’, opining that women had never been freer to enjoy their sex lives, but “there is a growing suspicion that the working woman is giving more and more time and effort to the call of duty and less and less to the joys of sex.”  The magazine’s youngest-ever editor, Ita Buttrose, was charged with bringing the title into a new era. Knitting patterns and diets remained a staple, but practical advice extended beyond the home and social graces, with headlines such as ‘Childcare: What working mothers should know’. “It was part of the national fabric,” Ita wrote in her memoir, A Passionate Life.

“The Weekly was strong and authoritative, held in high esteem throughout Australia. It had the ability to sway people’s minds and often did.” As editor Ita campaigned for better trading hours so that busy, working mothers could get to the butcher, green-grocer and bakery before trade stopped at noon on a Saturday.  The Weekly, she said, existed to make women’s lives better.  Throughout these years of change, one thing remained constant: The Weekly’s unparalleled royal coverage.

The 1980s was the age of Diana. The special edition commemorating the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana sold 1.1 million copies. So quickly did it disappear that  he magazine published a statement asking those who bought more than one copy to pass one to a reader who missed out. It marked the beginning of a worldwide obsession, with Diana gracing endless covers.

The Weekly, as a formidable force in local media, was trusted by Australians to tell their stories. Lindy Chamberlain and Stuart Diver broke their silences through The Weekly. When Mary Donaldson married the heir to the Danish throne, The Weekly was there. The magazine featured interviews with Australia’s first female Governor-General, Quentin Bryce, and Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. Amplifying strong female voices and campaigning on issues important to women was always in The Weekly’s DNA, and is equally apparent in recent years. Covers are often dedicated to women spreading  an important message.

Turia Pitt appeared on the cover in 2014 after surviving a firestorm to speak about courage, fortitude and beauty. In 2015, domestic violence warrior Rosie Batty was placed front and centre. It’s hard to believe that a little over a decade ago news reporters shied away from reporting on family violence, and it took a grieving mother to change that. The Weekly played a large role in Rosie’s voice forcing the issue. The legacy of change-making continues to  this day, with The Weekly’s high-profile campaigns against the tampon tax, coercive  control and homelessness among women.

The Weekly has fought for change since it first appeared  on newsstands in 1933 with its pro-equality front page. As the first female Governor of NSW, Dame Marie Bashir, recalled in her interview with the magazine, it brought women all across the country together and gave them authority in a male-dominated world. “The Women’s Weekly legitimised the fact that women had an enormous role to play, as has always been the case in Australia. It’s very much an Australian identity,” she said. “Its most significant achievement still  is being a thread that binds people across the whole land.”

The Weekly’s core message has changed a lot over the decades, but its purpose is the same. After 90 years, it remains what it has always been to Australian women: A voice, a force, and a friend.

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