Doris Blackburn

Doris Amelia Blackburn (1889-1970), civil rights activist, peace campaigner and politician was born on 18 September 1889 in Auburn, Victoria, daughter of Louisa Dewson (born Smith) and Lebbeus Hordern. Her mother was liberal, tolerant and attracted to theosophy, but her experience of the effects of the Boer War and alcoholism on her husband and family led her to the Woman's Christian Temperance Union and the Sisterhood of Peace, thus providing a model of social activism to her daughters. Doris was educated at Hessle school but quickly embarked on a career of political activism as Vida Goldstein's campaign secretary and in the Women's Political Association. However, compassion for the underprivileged and concern for social justice rather than women's rights formed the core of her personal political philosophy, and this was strengthened after her marriage in December 1914 to Maurice Blackburn, lawyer and Labour Party Member for Essendon. Their marriage, a political as well as a personal partnership, began with vigorous campaigning against conscription, and opposition to war assumed a central place in all her subsequent public activity.

Notwithstanding the birth of two sons and a daughter and her commitment to promoting Maurice's career, she was involved in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom from 1918 (as president from 1928-30), the Citizen's Education Fellowship, editing its monthly magazine, and the Free Kindergarten Movement. A fourth child, a daughter born in 1930, died at thirteen months, which greatly distressed her. She turned to writing, contributing in 1935 'The Child Today' to the Herald and writing for Woman Today. Her work for social and economic justice was tempered by a conviction that war wasted resources and undermined the freedoms it was supposed to defend. As the threat of war grew stronger she concentrated her energies as an executive member of the International Peace Campaign on full-time, high profile activity to promote peace. This brought her into conflict with the ALP from which she resigned in 1939. She was not a pacifist: believing fascism a greater evil than war, she reluctantly accepted the necessity of war and directed her energies to the defence of civil liberties and pressure for a negotiated settlement.

In 1946 a radical breakaway group of the ALP in Bourke suggested she stand for the seat formerly occupied by her husband who had died in 1944. She quickly established her credibility as an independent Labor candidate and an intelligent and vocal federal politician. Considerably more than a political widow, Blackburn revealed a well-developed and individual political identity and a coherent program centred on women's rights, family support, child care, education, housing, welfare, civil rights and opposition to the testing and use of guided missiles.

After her defeat in l949 in the general swing against Labor (and disadvantaged by a redistribution), she placed the skills and confidence acquired in parliament at the service of small organisations. A mistress of the telephone 'round up' of supporters, finance, and workers, and an expert chairperson, her skill lay in designing practical measures to implement policy decisions. She continued her peace advocacy through the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. Her social justice aims were pursued in the Council for Civil Liberties, the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Women's Prison Council and the Save the Children Fund. She maintained an active and practical interest in the promotion of preschool education. Having observed at close hand the plight of Aborigines at the Woomera rocket range, she helped establish the Aboriginal Advancement League which in 1958 joined with similar organisations to form the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement, later Federal Council for Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI). She remained closely associated with its work. She died on 12 December 1970.

Doris Blackburn was a woman of great energy, commitment and organisational flair who sought to correct the injustices she saw around her but was uncomfortable with programmatic solutions. She valued individual effort highly and her great contribution to Australian public life derives from a sustained involvement in activities designed to arouse public awareness of the necessity for reform. Carolyn Rasmussen

Double Time edited by Marilyn Lake and Farley Kelly 1985 ch 39.