Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History

Lisa Milner, Swimming Against the Tide: A Biography of Freda Brown (Adelaide: Ginnindera Press, 2017). pp. 282. AU $35 paper

Labour History: A Journal of Labour and Social History (2018), 115, (1), 195–196.


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195 Book Reviews commentators are examining the hostile public reaction they aroused, understanding this as creating division and alienation that laid the ground for Trump and his not so silent minority. Fox and his fellow editors have no such qualms; they look to the protests of the past in order to “chart a history that can educate, inspire and exemplify the possibility of radical change” (xiv). Monash University MARIAN QUARTLY Lisa Milner, Swimming Against the Tide: A Biography of Freda Brown (Adelaide: Ginnindera Press, 2017). pp. 282. AU $35 paper. Freda Brown is a fascinating and deserving subject for a biography, as labour and feminist historian Lisa Milner well recognises. Across her long and incredibly active life – Brown was born into a working-class family in Sydney’s inner west in 1919 and died in the same city two weeks short of her 90th birthday in 2009 – the political activist had been an influential figure in a whole raft of left-wing organisations and movements, nationally and internationally, including at the very highest levels. From 1936, when aged 17 and named Freda Lewis, she threw herself into all aspects of the New Theatre, Brown rose through the ranks of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA); became a founding figure and eventual leader of the Union of Australian Women (UAW) and in various capacities travelled all over the world, including to the Soviet Union, China and Cuba. Her peak achievement, however, was becoming leader of what was once the largest international women’s organisation in the world, the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) in 1975 – in International Women’s Year, which she had helped put on the United Nations’ agenda. Brown held this role until 1989, that historic year in which the communism began its collapse in the Eastern Bloc. Now, it was hard enough compressing the most salient examples of Brown’s activism into a single paragraph without descending into a check-list so I can only imagine the challenge Milner faced in shaping such a rich twentieth-century life into a reader-friendly biography. Given the sometimes competing imperatives of adding to or correcting the historical record; acknowledging the contributions of comrades, and capturing the spirit of the times, the biographies or memoirs of political activists can take on an itemised feel. Fortunately, Milner manages to mostly avoid this by focussing on Freda Brown as both an exceptional woman of the Left, and as a wife (to Bill Brown, himself a major figure in the CPA from the late 1930s through to the late 1960s), mother (to Rhiannon Brown, who would go on to become a long-serving federal Senator for the Greens), grandmother and friend. With a novelist’s sensibility, Milner’s account of Brown’s life is littered with illuminating details and vignettes. We learn, for instance, that during Brown’s first pregnancy, writer Dorothy Hewett introduced her to Lamaze exercises, “an approach to labour which was not then widespread in Australia”; that she loved to swim – a passion shared with Bill – but was not fond of wearing make-up; and that on the way back from her 1969 visit to North Vietnam, Brown managed to smuggle into the country photographs that otherwise would have been confiscated by hiding them in a distracting packet of Moddess sanitary towels. The Freda Brown that emerges is at once down-to-earth and cosmopolitan.

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Simic, Zora