Q&A with Dame Quentin Bryce

From Governor General to adoring grandmother, Dame Quentin Bryce shares with us her pearls of wisdom for Australian women.

As a young girl in rural Queensland did you ever dream that one day you would become the first female Governor General of Australia?

Oh goodness me, no!  The Governor General was a remote figure for us, usually a distinguished soldier, in full dress uniform, perhaps a member of the Royal family, always a man.  Our heroines, the women we loved from afar and wanted to be like were the nurses who served in the Pacific in World War II and the track and field stars of the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, like Shirley Strickland, Betty Cuthbert, Marlene Matthews.  They won just about everything!

What advice can you give women juggling their career, family and community commitments?

Remember each enhances the other in building skills and experiences that will stand you in great stead.  Don’t see them in conflict with each other, in your struggle for ‘the balanced life’.  It’s all about organisation, organisation, organisation, asking for and accepting help and a big whiteboard in the kitchen for the family program for the week.

You have 11 grandchildren. What do you love most about being a grandmother?

I love everything about it, but especially one to one time.  Oh the joys of tucking up with a little one on the bed with a book, big soft pillows and a cuddly blanket.  Oh the thrill of setting off for a musical or the ballet at the theatre with time for lime and soda and chips at interval.  Oh diving into the waves at the beach at Christmas time with ice cream afterwards.  Oh the anticipation setting off for Japan to follow the peach blossoms.

You are an ambassador for the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, can you explain why this is so dear to your heart?

Across my life I have watched the development of extraordinary advances in treatment of life threatening diseases in children, magic problem solving, brilliant minds at work in research to keep children well and strong.  My youngest son Tom suffered with a blood disease when he was little.  There is nothing as scary as having a little child frail and listless. 

I have never forgotten the anxiety of those months or the fantastic team of doctors and nurses who worked so hard to care for Tom and our family. 

I feel privileged to have the opportunity to encourage and support the MCRI’s internationally acclaimed research discovering new treatments, giving children and their families hope with professional skill and dedicated care.

 You recently published the book, Dear Quentin, featuring the letters you wrote and received during your six years as Governor General. In a time of heightened technology, what is it about the written letter that you value so much?

There’s an intimacy and an immediacy about hand written letters.  I think carefully about what I want to say and I think about the person I’m writing to with warmth, respect and affection.  It’s the best way to responde often sharing innermost thoughts, but also a witty observation or two perhaps.

You coined the phrase, “you can have it all, but not all at the same time.” Can you further elaborate on how you arrived at this conclusion?

I learnt it the hard way! It came out of my attempts to be superwoman in the early 70’s, the perfect ‘everything’ – wife, mother, hostess, gardener, paid and unpaid worker, postgraduate study, Impossible.  I urge young women to remember they have a long enriching life ahead, filled with choices and opportunities.  It is important for them to take time for themselves, for the lovely things in life, beauty, art, music, walks on the beach, in the rainforest….to build the stores of resilience we need in the tough gullies.  Time for quietness, for true relaxation and refreshment.  It takes discipline and determination.  The days of the ‘burnt chop’ syndrome are over.  When a mother is well and fit, her family is too. 

Through the passage of time what are the main changes you have noticed in regards the role of Australian women?

Definitely the most important changes have been in women’s education.  We all stand on the shoulders of those who fought for equality of opportunity for us.  Education is the key to a fulfilling life, to reaching potential to independence, security, to choice… It makes my heart sing to see so many girls and women in education and employment in every field, achieving, contributing, leading.

How do you see the role of women evolving over the next 20 years?

Over the next 20years women’s leadership will become critical to the future of our world.  Women’s talents, skills, experience, intellects, imaginations can no longer be wasted or ignored as technological change advances at an even faster rate than it is now. Our contributions to civil society, the workplace, the economy and the family home must be valued equally with men’s.  I am optimistic that this will happen. Our hopes and aspirations for a safe secure world where the dignity and worth of every citizen is respected will be realised.