Lisa Milner: Swimming Against the Tide: a Biography of Freda Brown

Linda Carruthers

Freda Brown was a remarkable woman whose radical political life is not widely known, despite her pioneering role in national and international women’s organisations. These organisations and Freda’s work for and on their behalf did much to make possible the social and political gains made by women over the past fifty years.

Lisa Milner’s invaluable biography does much to extend our understanding of feminist contributions to contemporary Australian politics and the role that Freda Brown played in the many struggles which still influence progressive and feminist politics. Freda’s story is also the story of the broader Left and progressive movements of which she was an important part, and illustrates the changes that women brought to political understandings and activism around women’s politics in the post-World War II era.

Freda was born in 1919 in Erskineville to Benjamin and Florence Lewis. Benjamin was an organiser for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and his radical political activism greatly influenced Freda’s life trajectory, although it is clear that she developed her own approach to political change and emancipation at an early age. Despite her father’s skepticism, she joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1936, and engaged in political agitation and organisation around the politics of the ’popular front’ anti-fascism work that engaged the Australian Left during the 1930s.

Freda’s early involvement in Sydney’s New Theatre developed her capacity for public speaking and organising capacities which were well exercised in her work in support of the many campaigns and issues that comprised Left and progressive politics of the late 1930s and ‘40s.

The widespread mobilisation occasioned by the second world war and the CPA politics of the ‘united front’ saw CPA membership grow from under 4,000 to over 30,000 during this time. Women’s membership increased rapidly and the opportunity for broad-based political work among women gave rise to women’s organisations which focused on equal pay for women newly drawn into industry, price control, child care and issues of post war planning, particularly around housing and full employment.

At the end of the war, Freda joined the New Housewives Association which aimed to mobilise and organise women around demands for a post-war world that was better than the one that gave rise to armed conflict and depression. 

When the New Housewives Association was banned by the Menzies government’s Communist Party Dissolution Act, it was succeeded by the Union of Australian Women (UAW), which was involved in campaigns for equal pay, indigenous rights and the rights of children, and against war and conscription. These campaigns not only provided politically active and radical women with opportunities for campaigning and political work; the broad-based and politically-inclusive work of the UAW ensured that women with various political views could find an otherwise unavailable place for involvement and political activity.

Freda quickly rose to prominence as an organiser and leader in the many campaigns that the UAW initiated and supported. The skills and talents she displayed in her UAW work saw her nominated as one of 14 vice-presidents of the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) in 1963, and she rose to President in 1975. 

Much of the book is devoted to the work and travel demanded by Freda’s WIDF leadership role. The WIDF was founded in Paris in 1945 and, following its expulsion from France, was later set up in East Berlin where it continued with the support of the East German government. It was a significant women’s organisation that gained both status and power in relation to the international organisation of women’s political and social interests, enjoying consultative status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations. WIDF initiated and worked for the ultimately successful UN Declaration of International Women’s Year in 1975.

Freda’s work (and that of her women comrades) in the WIDF clearly had an enormous influence on the trajectory of international and national developments in women’s social and political status, to the great benefit of women and children to this day. Milner is to be congratulated on her work in drawing out information about the organisation, particularly given the difficulty of accessing relevant records. 

From today’s perspective, it is hard to comprehend how limited and constrained women were in developing their own collective and individual political life and personality in the immediate post-war period.

The era during which Freda commenced her work was characterised by the Cold War and the politics of reflexive anti-communism. The broader political and social effects of this period and its passions meant that movements for social and political emancipation and change were fiercely fought, not on the real basis as reactionary opposition to demands for change from below, but often under arguments based on dishonest and spurious ‘national security’ grounds as opposition to the ‘Soviets’. Notwithstanding this, the 1960s and 1970s saw the growth of emancipatory movements on a far wider social basis than had been possible in the 1950s.

Freda’s organisational base, the CPA and organisations such as the UAW which were supported (although not controlled) by the communist movement in Australia, shaped both her work and later political conflicts between herself and the Party. These arose from differing concepts of the possibilities of movements such as the Women’s Liberation Movement, as it developed through the late 1960s and into the 1970s.

The CPA’s move to an independent and more directly ‘domestic’ politics, particularly after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, saw CPA women activists spearheading and supporting radical and confrontational politics for change, particularly in relation to women’s liberation. The careful and often conservative approach to social and political change, adopted as much by the necessity of the Cold War as by conviction by many on the Left, was challenged by the growth of new voices and demands for change. Freda’s work had developed and shaped the possibilities for transformation within a social political environment

Freda’s achievements, both personal and political, would be considered major triumphs in 2019. Given the times and circumstances in which she worked, they should be seen as quite remarkable, and as a testament to her talents, drive and absolute commitment to the issues.

Lisa Milner’s prodigious research and the assistance she received from Freda’s family (including, in particular, Freda’s daughter Lee Rhiannon), has resulted in a book which is a must read for students of both the post-war Left and the changes wrought on the organised Left by broader social movements such as the Women’s Liberation Movement.