International Peace Day is a fitting date for the launch of Lisa Milner’s insightful biography of Freda Brown. Freda was a political activist in many arenas including women’s rights, peace, and anti-apartheid movements, both in Australia and overseas, from as early as the 1930’s. “Her legacy underlines the lives of many of us in the 21st century” says Lisa, and yet her achievements have remained hitherto largely uncelebrated. Lisa, a senior lecturer in the School of Arts and Social Sciences at Southern Cross University Coffs Harbour Campus, has laboured tirelessly for six years to produce “Swimming Against The Tide” a biography of Freda Brown. We decided to interview Lisa about this great achievement.
Why were you drawn to this project?
I first learnt about Freda through watching her 1995 episode of the SBS documentary series ‘Australian Biography’. I was fascinated by this women’s achievements, and looked for more information. However Freda had never found the time, or had the inclination, to write her memoirs, unlike some other prominent Australian activists, and although her political career is mentioned in some histories, no detailed biography exists. With the approval of Freda’s daughter, Federal Senator Lee Rhiannon, I decided to research Freda’s life, in order to better understand this distinctive woman who stood apart from her times.
Freda was a passionate believer in equality, she occupied her busy life with action and organisation. Whilst some of her greatest achievements can be seen in her work in helping to establish and lead pioneering women’s organisations, she also worked and travelled widely in the service of political, peace and anti-racism causes. She was a widely respected activist and led an absorbing and very busy life with her political work both in Australia and overseas. She also worked as a journalist, political party organiser and theatre director.
She organised and attended conferences at the United Nations and around the world in the causes of peace and human rights, working in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Nicaragua at the height of those country’s conflicts, Cuba, Brazil and Mexico, and just about every country in Europe and Asia. She worked with Indira Gandhi, Fidel and Raoul Castro, Hortensia Allende, Angela Davis, and many other world leaders and activists.
Freda was instrumental in lobbying the United Nations on women’s issues, in particular to get the UN to proclaim 1975 as International Women’s Year. She was Vice-President of the World Peace Council. She was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize (the Soviet Union’s equivalent to the Nobel Peace Prize), the Clara Zutkin Medal from the GDR, the Anna Betancourt Medal for work in women’s rights, given to her by Fidel Castro, and many other accolades.
As a labour historian and a political activist two generations after Freda’s, I was drawn to investigating Freda’s story, which is fascinating. I wrote this biography to honour Freda’s life as a feminist organiser and activist, as well as wife and mother: around her political activity, she raised a daughter, cared for grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Can you give some insight into Freda Brown’s motivations?
When I first saw that documentary, I was amazed at how much one person could fit into one life. Starting at the tender age of 17, Freda spent her lifetime building networks of national and international connections. Her work and travels allowed her to tap into existing networks of women’s, peace and left wing organisations in every country through diverse sets of activities, friendships, and collaborations, as well as to build these up and help to establish new ones. The networks of people in these groups were at the core of Freda’s activism throughout her life, and allowed and inspired her to mobilise other people, particularly women, to secure better human rights and living standards.
Alongside her dedication to her work and her unswerving adherence to the broader principles of communism, Freda was a devoted wife and mother. She spent her life balancing her two passions, as a politically astute global activist completely dedicated to her causes, and a loving wife, mother and grandmother whose life partner supported her unconditionally in her work. Her story highlights the work that Freda did to promote equality and human rights for women all over the world. It shows the importance of networking within political and activist organisations; of being true to yourself; and of staying grounded within your family.
This biography is a long-overdue acknowledgement of the pioneering role Freda played at a time when second-generation feminism was decades away. She was a leading member of the Communist Party long after many had left it, and remained a socialist all her life, swimming against the tide, preferring to hold her personal values rather than be fashionable. Behind Freda’s story lies much bigger cultural, social, political ones: the flowering of alternative political ideas, the development of second-wave feminism, the sexual revolution and the changing nature of reproductive rights, and the blossoming of decolonisation and globalisation.
As a communist, and in particular as an Australian feminist working before the second wave of more well-known women like Germaine Greer, Freda has been written out of history. I hope my biography goes some way to redressing that.
How difficult was it to research Freda Brown’s achievements, considering her effective marginalisation from mainstream historical accounts?
Whilst history has overlooked Freda, one group she had a lot of attention from was the security arm of the Australian government. Freda’s ASIO file has 38 volumes (so far – more are released each year), tens of thousands of pages of documents, photographs, and film footage. Operatives spent a lot of time working alongside Freda in various groups; they went to her classes and attended meetings with her, including at her home. They made copies of her speeches, letters and notes, and intercepted her phone calls both at home and her offices. A lot of her travel arrangements, flight bookings, visa applications are in her files. ASIO operatives often made ‘pen portraits’ of their subjects. One commented on Freda’s ‘steadying diplomacy’. Another noted that ‘she is a very good speaker who can size-up a situation in a split second. She can be very diplomatic when necessary. She is a very astute person who can read a person’s character in one meeting’.
‘Swimming Against The Tide’, published by independent Adelaide-based Ginninderra Press, will be launched on International Peace Day. Freda Brown’s daughter, Federal Senator Lee Rhiannon, and granddaughter Kilty O’Brien (also politically active), will be guests of honour; and the MC will be Dr Grant Cairncross, Acting Head of the Coffs Harbour SCU Campus. “We’ll celebrate Freda’s life and the values she worked for,” says Lisa.
It’s a free event and everyone is welcome. The Jetty Memorial Theatre at Coffs Harbour, noon on Thursday 21st September.