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Doris Amelia Blackburn (1889–1970)

by Carolyn Rasmussen

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Doris Amelia Blackburn (1889-1970), by unknown photographer, 1940s

Doris Amelia Blackburn (1889-1970), by unknown photographer, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23193553

Doris Amelia Blackburn (1889-1970), politician, peace campaigner and civil rights activist, was born on 18 September 1889 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, daughter of Lebbeus Hordern, estate agent, and his wife Louisa Dewson, née Smith, both Victorian born. Encouraged by several of her teachers at the progressive school, Hessle College, Camberwell, Doris began her political career in the Women's Political Association and in 1913 acted as campaign secretary for Vida Goldstein. Doris's driving impulses were compassion for the underprivileged and concern for social justice in general rather than for women's rights alone. On 10 December 1914 in Melbourne she was married by Frederick Sinclaire to Maurice McCrae Blackburn. Impressed by his principled and intellectual approach to politics, she shared with Maurice a marriage that was as much a political as a personal partnership. He drew her into the labour movement and together they campaigned vigorously against conscription in 1916-17.

While her children were young, Mrs Blackburn was content to play a supporting role, but found time to be president (1928-30) of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom and to work for the Woman's Christian Temperance Union. She also took up informally the study of psychology and modern educational theories. Believing that 'a child when born was the expression of a good idea and when given the opportunity for self expression would grow into a good citizen', she became involved in such groups as the free kindergarten movement, the Victorian Playgrounds Association, and the Citizens' Education Fellowship whose monthly magazine she edited in the 1920s.

The experience of the Depression heightened Blackburn's sense of urgency about the need for reform, but it was the growing threat of war that brought her back into full-time public activity. Her opposition to war sprang initially from a conviction that it wasted human and material resources and undermined the freedoms it was supposed to defend, but by the late 1930s she came to see fascism as an even greater threat. She transferred her energies from the pacifist W.I.L.P.F. to lead the women's commission of the International Peace Campaign which aimed to strengthen support for the League of Nations and the idea of collective security. Clashing with the Australian Labor Party, she resigned her membership of that organization in 1938. Characteristically, she stressed education as the best means to avert armed conflict, but, once World War II began, directed her attention to defending civil liberties and to pressing for a negotiated settlement.

Supported by a radical breakaway group of the A.L.P., in 1946 Blackburn won the Federal seat of Bourke, formerly held (1934-43) by her husband who had died in 1944. Although she was isolated on the cross-benches, she quickly established her credibility as an Independent Labor member and as an intelligent, vocal politician with a coherent programme centred on women's rights, family support, child care, education, housing welfare, civil rights, and opposition to the testing and use of guided missiles. Unimpressed by broad theoretical solutions, she was generally content with 'chipping away' at the worst aspects of problems and with remaining in personal contact with her constituents.

In 1949 Blackburn was defeated for the new seat of Wills and again in 1951. She then placed at the service of voluntary organizations the skills she had acquired in parliament, which included the ability to design practical measures to implement policy decisions. Blackburn continued her peace advocacy in the W.C.T.U., and in W.I.L.P.F. for which she travelled to Europe in 1952. Through the Council for Civil Liberties (president 1948), the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Women's Prison Council and the Save the Children Fund, she pursued her concern for social justice; she also promoted pre-school education. Her attention was drawn to the plight of Aborigines when she visited the Woomera Rocket Range in South Australia, and in the 1950s she co-founded the Aborigines Advancement League and the Federal Council for Aboriginal Advancement.

Slender and shortish, Blackburn was a forceful woman with a flair for organization who responded purposefully to the wrongs, injustices and wasted lives she saw around her. She valued individual effort and devoted herself to arousing in the public—and in women in particular—a keen sense of the need for and the possibility of reform. Survived by her two sons and one of her two daughters, she died on 12 December 1970 at Coburg, Melbourne, and was buried in Box Hill cemetery with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Lake and F. Kelly (eds), Double Time, Women in Victoria, 150 Years (Melb, 1985)
  • M. Geddes, A Great Idea (Melb, 1987)
  • M. and D. Blackburn papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Blackburn, Doris Amelia (1889–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Doris Amelia Blackburn (1889-1970), by unknown photographer, 1940s

Doris Amelia Blackburn (1889-1970), by unknown photographer, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23193553

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Horden, Doris Amelia

18 September, 1889
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


12 December, 1970 (aged 81)
Coburg, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.