Elizabeth Reid was at the forefront of women's rights policies in a revolutionary time in Australia's history, paving the way for gender equality as then prime minister Gough Whitlam's first advisor for women's affairs.
It was these three years that led to her acclaimed career working in development across the world, and her very personal experience with the HIV epidemic.
Ms Reid was on Tuesday night awarded the Mitchell Humanitarian Award at a dinner at ANU for a lifetime of achievements.
Her career in development started by accident when she was selected by Mr Whitlam to go to New York as Australia's representative at a United Nations Forum on the Role of Women in Population and Development in 1974.
Here she worked with women from West Africa, Asia, and all around the developing world.
"With the diversity of voices and concerns, you realised you could share something with these women no matter how different your points of view," Ms Reid said.
It was a personal tragedy that began her lifelong involvement in the management of the HIV epidemic.
In 1983 - just a year after the virus was first detected - her husband Bill contracted HIV while they were living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
A test for the infection was created in 1985, confirming their suspicions he had the virus, and he died the next year.
Ms Reid said she saw the world through a different lens after her husband contracted the virus.
"I'd been walking through the world looking at relationships with men and women, but now I was seeing people infected with HIV and how they were being treated," she said.
She did not escape the deep stigma associated with HIV, even as head of the United Nations Development Program.
"The World Health Organisation had a feeling of ownership over the HIV epidemic, they saw it as a health issue and when we in the UNDP started talking about HIV as a development issue it became territorial and also became very nasty," she said.
"You had the head of the HIV program in WHO travelling around the world saying you 'can't trust her judgement, her husband was infected, she's emotionally involved'.
"It was very brutal, he attempted to absolutely discredit me."
Ms Reid said her work in HIV gave her greater insight into the strength of the patriarchy.
"When I went into HIV work I thought because women were as affected by it as men, this would force changes in the way men and women related," she said.
"It took me years to understand that no, patriarchy was so strong that not even the HIV epidemic could change it."
She saw women were powerless from getting infected and rejected from society. They did not have the autonomy to control their reproductive organs, were getting pregnant and dying early.
Women were also struggling to get on treatment programs and little of the research was women centred.
Ms Reid has been involved in HIV prevention and management in Papua New Guinea since 1998, working with the Sisters of Notre Dame.
She said nuns were overlooked and under appreciated as resources in the development sector.
As part of the award she was able to choose one organisation to receive $10,000 and chose the Sisters of Notre Dame.
She said the development sector was rapidly changing and she feared people were no longer able to get out in the field and get mud between their toes.
"There are ways of working in the field which respect the people you work with," she said.
"You go out there to listen and think things through, it's an immense privilege to be able to do that."