27 September 2023

The Blackburns: Private Lives, Public Ambition

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Reviewed by Rama Gaind.

By Carolyn Rasmussen, Melbourne University Press, $44.99.

Maurice and Doris Blackburn were Melbourne’s ‘power couple’ dedicated to understanding each other’s commitment to activist and revolutionary politics from the time they first met in February 1913.

Together they ‘shook’ Australia!

When Australian politician and socialist barrister Maurice Blackburn met Doris Hordern, ardent feminist and campaign secretary to Vida Goldstein, neither had marriage in their imagined futures. However, they fell in love with each other as much as with their specific ambitions to change the world for the better. After an 18-month engagement, they married in 1914 and spent their honeymoon organising anti-war and anti-conscription campaigns.

Theirs was an “exciting partnership” because they held one another to the highest ideals. They worked as elected members of parliament and community activists influencing conscription laws, benefits for working men and women, atomic bomb tests, civil rights and Indigenous recognition. They were among the leading figures in the history of the Australian labour movement.

The Blackburns took up multiple causes during five decades of campaigning, influencing everything from conscription laws and atomic bomb tests to workers’ compensation and civil rights.

Maurice’s name lives on in the national law firm he founded in 1919.

Writing a joint biography is daunting at the best of times, but Carolyn Rasmussen says it took personal conversations over a long time with the couple that “brought them alive in a way documents cannot”.

“I am not sure if this is the story Doris had in mind, but the benefit of living so long with it allows a distillation and interpretation of all the material about Maurice and Doris Blackburn that I have absorbed from many sources.”

Rasmussen has sincerely researched this engaging biography about The Blackburns. Where possible, the historian says, “I have let them speak for themselves, and I have tried to be measured and balanced in situations where the sources were often partisan, or fragmentary.”

She has also well “balanced the space accorded to each of them”.

If you can correctly tell us the maiden name of Doris Blackburn, you could win one of two books titled The Blackburns.
Entries should be sent to [email protected] by next Monday, 20 May 2019. Names of the winners will be announced in Frank Cassidy’s PS-sssst…! column next week.

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