Inside Story

Rescued from the footnotes

Books | Maurice and Doris Blackburn resisted the pull of the mainstream

Sylvia Martin 25 June 2019 1034 words

Nonconformist: detail from a portrait of Doris Blackburn (right) with her secretary, c. 1940s. Jack Gallagher/National Library of Australia

The Blackburns: Private Lives, Public Ambitions
By Carolyn Rasmussen | Melbourne University Press | $44.99 | 400 pages

At the top of the website of Maurice Blackburn Lawyers is the catchphrase “100 years of fair.” The firm was set up in 1919 by the lawyer and Labor MP who was dubbed an “honest socialist” after he lost the seat of Essendon that year. His defeat was largely a result of his decision to campaign against prime minister Billy Hughes’s two wartime referendums on conscription.

At thirty-nine, with a wife, two children, a mother and a sister dependent on his income, Maurice Blackburn’s move back to the law was a necessity. But it didn’t mark the end of his political career, and after he moved into federal politics in 1934 he held the Melbourne seat of Bourke for nine years. A politician at heart, he was always more interested in “participating in the framing of law” than in “practising it.”

An intellectual who could read four or five books a day in several languages, Blackburn was something of an odd figure among the working-class, trade unionist party men. Committed to working for social justice on a number of fronts, he only “reluctantly inhabited” the party system and would follow his own path if he thought it was right. So much so that he was twice expelled from the Labor Party, first in 1935 after he defied Labor’s ban on membership of the Victorian Council Against War and Fascism, considered to be a Communist Party subsidiary, and again in 1941 because of his affiliation with the Australian-Soviet Friendship League. Like many “pink” intellectuals, his position in relation to communism was constantly under suspicion.

Carolyn Rasmussen’s biography is the result of years of researching labour history and a long personal connection with the Blackburn family. Her decision to write a joint biography of Maurice and Doris Blackburn was an inspired one, a little reminiscent of John Rickard’s A Family Romance: The Deakins at Home, though combining both their private and political lives.

From the time Maurice Blackburn and Doris Hordern met in 1913, their relationship was one of mutual love and shared activism towards achieving a fairer society. Rasmussen cleverly interweaves the couple’s public and private lives, separately and together, within the chronological chapters, thus achieving a richer dynamic than is customary in political biographies. The forensic detailing of Maurice Blackburn’s contributions to and conflicts with the labour movement (which could easily leave the reader lost in a forest of acronyms) is offset by a sympathetic account of the couple’s life together and their different personalities. Doris, a woman with “bounding physical exuberance,” loved the beach and the outdoors, while the more introverted Maurice was plagued by hidden anxieties and frequent headaches, the latter possibly a precursor of the brain tumour that would cause his death.

Doris Hordern had begun her political life in the Women’s Political Association, or WPA, becoming joint campaign secretary to the pioneering parliamentary candidate Vida Goldstein in 1912–13. Young and idealistic, she learned a lot about the political process and also about the prejudice against female candidates. As war approached, though, she found the growing “sex antagonism” of the WPA and its offshoot, the Women’s Peace Army, confrontational. Rasmussen notes, a little cryptically, that Doris also became “uncomfortable” about the role the dynamic feminist and pacifist Cecilia John played both in the WPA and in Goldstein’s life. Doris and Maurice, who was also a member, split from the WPA soon after war was declared.

The couple became involved in the Free Religious Fellowship, a progressive church led by socialist intellectual Fred Sinclaire that attracted many of the small band of Melbourne left-wing intellectuals. Its ranks included Vance and Nettie Palmer (a couple whose relationship was also defined by their combined love and work ambitions), poet Bernard O’Dowd and playwright Louis Esson. Maurice and Doris were married by Sinclaire in a low-key ceremony in the Fellowship’s rooms in December 1914.

Doris’s political life was restricted while she was bringing up their three children (a fourth died in infancy), but she remained active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. She was at her best with preschool-aged children and worked within the kindergarten movement for many years, but was less comfortable in her mothering role as her children grew older.

When Maurice Blackburn died at sixty-three in 1944, he was eulogised by the party as “an intellectual who was also a man of the people.” It was noted that “his simple, friendly, unaffected manner made him easy to approach,” and his commitment to principles was a major theme. But when Doris was approached at the funeral by prime minister John Curtin, with whom Maurice had endured a difficult relationship, she turned away.

Doris had never been comfortable with the essentially masculine, working-class world of the Labor Party. She had felt the condescension of university-educated women too. As a young woman she had held literary ambitions and she continued to write throughout her life. Several of her poems are included by Rasmussen, most of them sweet occasional verses but some revealing her private feelings. One begins, “Don’t look down your nose at me.”

Widowed at only fifty-five, she appears to have blossomed after Maurice’s death. She stood successfully as an Independent Labor candidate in her husband’s former seat of Bourke in 1946, holding it for three years and working for women’s and civil rights, family support and childcare. She did not want to be styled a feminist, saying that her concerns were with humanity as a whole. Active until her death in 1970, she became president of the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, which Maurice had helped co-found with Brian Fitzpatrick, and was also involved in Aboriginal rights.

Rasmussen says that she did not want to write the life of “Saint Maurice,” who was in danger of being canonised after his early death. Now, with his “disciples” also dying, she wished to retrieve him, and Doris, from the footnotes of labour history. She has achieved more than this, writing a fine and fair biography of the couple that not only illuminates labour history but also reveals the still-present dangers of not toeing the party line. •