Quentin Bryce on work, family and ditching the Superwoman cape

Quentin Bryce on work, family and ditching the Superwoman cape

It’s safe to say the Honourable Dame Quentin Bryce has had an extraordinary career filled with firsts for women. Here, she talks work, family and hanging up her Superwoman cape.

BY Rebecca Bodman, September 2, 2017

Quentin Bryce is a real girl’s girl. Most of the roles she’s held during her illustrious career have served women in some way; it seems to be her thing. Her career is one dreams are made of and filled with many firsts. She was the first woman to be appointed to the University of Queensland law faculty, one of the first women to be accepted to the Bar Association of Queensland, the first director of the Queensland Women’s Information Service, the Queensland director of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and in 1988 became the Federal Sex Discrimination Commissioner. In 1993 she became the founding Chair and CEO of the National Childcare Accreditation Council and then in 1997 went on to be the principal and CEO of The Women’s College at University of Sydney. She was appointed Governor of Queensland in 2003 and then of course, became our first female Governor-General in 2008. She spent five and a half years at Government House and brought more colour to the role than many did before her – and that wasn’t just through her cheerfully elegant wardrobe she became known for. She attended more events, presented more awards, hosted more meetings, travelled to more isolated areas and became patron of more organisations (325 of them in fact!), than any previous Australian governor-general. She also delivered 830 speeches – a schedule that would wear out the best of us.

On top of all that she is mum of five children, but learnt early on you just can’t do everything. “I did that Superwoman thing. That was big in the ’60s,” she tells me as we settle into what I know is going to be a conversation that creeps way over schedule.

“I tried that – being the perfect hostess, wife, mother, doing postgrad studies, having overseas experiences, writing a book, community work … it’s totally ridiculous. And in the days of the big dinner parties, you had to rinse your crystal in blue water. Days and days of preparation. Can you imagine?!” she scoffs.

Quentin, now 74, tells me the exact moment she realised she needed to hang up her cape. She’d spent the best part of the afternoon preparing for a dinner party, including making a cassata from scratch. “I sat there and watched a woman pick out all the bits I had painstakingly included … that was when I ditched the Superwoman thing! Attempting to be the perfect wife, worker, host and mother is just not sustainable.

“I see a lot of that again now,” Quentin says. “I really worry about it. I’m always saying to the young ones that they mustn’t ever fall for that, it’s actually easier to be a workaholic than it is to have a life that’s enriching and rewarding and where you are enjoying each stage of your life.” Who knows if she or Oprah said it first (I know who my bets are on), but Quentin has always lived by the mantra that “you can have it all, but not all at the same time.”

She’s quick to warn that you will miss out.

“I had years where I could never get to symphony concert and things that I loved. But you need to remember that we live long, healthy lives now and you can do some of these things later. I don’t underestimate the pressures on younger women and I like to encourage and support them and there’s still struggles with childcare and maternity leave and the thinking, that ‘if I don’t do this now, I’ll miss out on this opportunity’. You need support to feel confident in your decisions and your own judgement about how you want to live your life.”


Support act

Quentin’s support has often come from the women she’s surrounded herself with. “Female friendships are enormously important,” she stresses. “My women’s friendships have been crucial in my life; these wonderful friendships in different contexts. But the wonderfully, supportive friends in your life are the ones you make when you most need them. The friends that are very, very dear to me are the ones who were there for me when I really needed them when I was a young mother.” While serving on then-Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser’s National Women’s Advisory Council in 1978, Quentin met Wendy McCarthy who went on to become one of her dearest friends – a girl gang I’d certainly like to be part of. “Wendy’s children and my children now have children of their own and they’re all friends. The friendship is steeped in trust and honesty and integrity and loyalty and those very important qualities. They’re very important for tossing around ideas and personal and professional support. It’s also important that they’re fun, but they need time and valuing because they are very precious for you in every aspect of your life.”

As well as her female friendships, also integral to Quentin’s success has been the support of her family, especially from her husband, Michael. Quentin was just 11 when she first met Michael who was then 15. She was his little sister’s friend so no, they weren’t childhood sweethearts. But when their paths crossed again at university, where Michael was an architecture student and Quentin an arts graduate on her way to study law, it was a different story. They married in 1964 and had their first child, Jack, in 1966. She and Michael never saw family as an obstacle to their career success. She told The Women’s Weekly in a recent interview that, “I just assumed it would all happen. There were other women who had careers and children. When you’re 22 and having your first baby, you don’t sit down and think these things through.”

Picking the right partner though, is essential Quentin tells me. “You need a lot of encouragement and understanding. I’m very grateful to my family, to my husband and to my children for understanding how important my work was to me. How important it was to be engaged in social and legal reform, to be engaged in the community and I think that means that they missed out on some things and I did too.”

She didn’t get off scot-free though. “They were very good at pressing the guilty working mother syndrome,” she now laughs. “I wasn’t at this and I wasn’t at that!” But there are advantages and disadvantages Quentin says. “The big decision for me was to move to Sydney to be the sex discrimination commissioner. Michael and I talked about it a lot and we decided to just give it a go and see how it worked.” Quentin commuted between Sydney and Brisbane, leaving Michael with the kids. It is a decision Quentin still thinks about. “I look back and think about the things I didn’t do as a mother,” she told The Women’s Weekly. “You never stop thinking about your children and your mothering and grandmothering, things you compromised on.” She’s adamant that no matter what, you’ve got to have an equal partnership for anything to work. “There’s two parents and there’s children and I think we’ve still got a long way to go. You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing. And you’ve got to sit down and say that this is how I feel.”

One thing Quentin didn’t seem to struggle with was imposter syndrome; well, not really. “In a way, I was probably ready for some of the roles I held more than others, but on the whole, I probably wasn’t ready. You know, you go into a new job to take the next step, to be stretched, to be challenged and I think that they’re very interesting times in your life too, that probably bring out the best in you.” Quentin’s emotional investment in each of the positions she’s held has also played a part in her feeling up for the job. “I’ve had the huge privilege and advantage of working in jobs where I had a deep, deep, personal, professional and political commitment. I’ve always been in a job that was very important to me. So, I wanted to give them my best and my work’s been, all my life, enormously important. Also, in all of the positions I’ve had, I’ve worked with marvellous people and I’m still in touch with most them. And in terms of being ready or not – if you’re building and developing a career, you’ve got to be taking some risks. It’s important to keep doing that I think, growing and developing and changing and learning. Sometimes we all need a bit of a shove in between our shoulder blades, you know, go on and get in there. Give it a go.”

In March 2014, after more than half a decade of service (and three Prime Ministers) as Australia’s governor-general, Quentin stepped down. Months before her term ended she delivered the annual ABC Boyer Lecture stating she’d like to see an Australia where, “People are free to love and marry whom they choose … And where perhaps, my friends, one day, one young girl or boy may even grow up to be our nation’s first head of state,” which of course, got some people upset. As she left Canberra for a sunnier Queensland, retirement was certainly not on the cards, though she tells me she was ready to come home. Quentin was appointed Chair of a Special Taskforce on Domestic Violence in Queensland and took on the role as ambassador for the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute. Earlier this year, Quentin launched her book, Dear Quentin – Letters of a Governor-General, to raise money for the Murdoch Institute. The beautiful hardcover is a collection of the letters she wrote and received in her time as governor-general, where she was perhaps the country’s most disciplined letter writer, penning around 50 each week. “Letters are so much a part of my life and they always have been,” Quentin says fondly. Now, she still writes a few letters a day, but says she doesn’t have the block of quiet time like she used to as governor-general, as she’s often busy being ‘Grandma Dee Dee’.


With 11 grandchildren, eight granddaughters and three grandsons and another surprise on the way, Quentin is cherishing her time back in Brisbane close to most of her family. “I used to joke to my husband about being seated next to the woman talking about her grandchildren at a dinner party, and then one day you turn into that person. Your first grandchild just pierces your heart. It’s a lovely time and a renewal of interest and conversation and friendship,” she says. Quentin is determined she’ll pass on her love of letters to her grandchildren. “What you learn through the practice of writing letters is about sharing thoughts and feelings and about things that you might not talk to each other about. It would be a terrible thing if we lost that. Even if it’s just a letter written in a beautiful card.” Like all grandmothers, Quentin often thinks about the future for her grandchildren. “I can’t imagine what their lives will be even in five years. I want to do everything I can to help them build stores of resilience, so that they can handle the challenges that will come along and that they’ll need to call on in the tough times,” she says. “I want to do that through the lovely things in life like books, art, science, music and dance. And learning to have quietness, reflection and thinking. Finding the beauty of glorious paintings in the gallery and the wonder of science at the dinosaur museum. It’s bringing those things to them.”

Perhaps her love of quietness and reflection comes from her own childhood in the Queensland countryside where she grew up, the second eldest of four girls. “One of the things I have very happy memories of from my childhood is being on a swing. Wherever we lived we always had a wonderful swing. Always on the same milled wood seat with ropes. My sisters and I played a lot together. There was more time for using your imagination and quietness,” Quentin says and then goes on to recite the poem, The Swing, By Robert Louis Stevenson, “How do you like to go up in a swing, Up in the air so blue?” …

What she wants for her grandchildren is what she wants for women everywhere too. “It’s really about taking good care of yourself and leaving the time for quietness and reflection and refreshment of your mind, body and spirit. Sitting quietly, looking at the magnificence of the landscape, like the rainforest or the beach. And especially through music and art and taking the time for those things, so that you can build these stores of resilience. It’s not always just rush, rush, rush and doing everything in a superficial way, doing too many things and always being hooked up. It’s about making time for your spirit and leaving time to look at the clouds and read poetry.”

But there can’t be too much time to look up at the clouds, because as we wrap up our conversation and photoshoot, Quentin rushes off to a speaking engagement – today she’s barely stopped to have a bite to eat – she still feels incredibly privileged to continue to make a contribution. Clementine Ford wrote for Daily Life, “What does it mean to be a Girl’s Girl? Perhaps it’s as simple as wanting to not be a hero, but wanting girls and women to be courageous enough to ‘put their skates on’ and become their own heroes.” And that’s Quentin; whether she’s on stage in front of 800 Business Chicks or spending an afternoon with three women in a tiny photo studio, she just leaves you wanting to be a better person, and for no one but yourself.

Photography credit: PRUE AJA

Quentin Bryce will join us on the Business Chicks stage again in Brisbane and Perth in September. Details and tickets here. All Premium members will receive a copy of Quentin’s book, ‘Dear Quentin’.


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