Jean Blackburn, atwentieth century feminist:A journey fromyouth and public service employment in the 1930s and 1940sthroughtosuburban housewifery,the Schools Commission and beyond

Year: 2019

Author: Campbell, Craig, Hayes, Debra

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

Jean Blackburn knew as a teenager that something was wrong with the way she and her mother were treated within her family. She understood it better on reading in the 1940s, Ray Strachey’sThe Cause, a history of the women’s movement in England. She had contact during the 1940s with women such as Nettie Palmer, Doris Blackburn,Kathleen Fitzpatrick,Jessie Street and Katherine Susannah Pritchard. These women were activein the decades followingfirst wave of feminism. Their contributions to thewomen’s movementwere influentialbeyond their most active years. Despite these influences the galvanising force in the development of Jean Blackburn’s feminism was her personal ‘great confinement’, brought about by marriage, young children and suburban isolationin the late 1940s and1950s. At the same time it was through her membership of the AustralianCommunist Party that she began to engage politically withwomen’s issues. She held leadership positions withinAdelaide’s International Women’s Day organisation, and the New Housewives Association. The latter forciblyconnected her to at least two injusticesderiving from the gender order:

(1)Working class women confided in her aboutthe desperation they felt as unwanted pregnancies overwhelmed their lives, and

(2)Jean and her New Housewives co-leader Winifred Mitchell,experienced the dismissive authority of themen who ran theCommunistPartyin South Australia.

Both experiences helpedmake Jean an active feminist.She authored a significantpublication,Australian Wives Today(1963),in the periodimmediately before the advent of‘second wave’feminism. In the Schools Commission years Jeanoversawthe production of theground-breakingGirls, School and Society(1976).Jean’s feminism may be described as ‘liberal’, her thinking dependent on strong ‘evidence’. Her training was in economics, herrelevantreading in socialist and social science literature.Publicly and privately she battledmany aspects of radical feminism as they emerged in the 1980s.Her last great contribution to the women’s movement, chairing on behalf of the South Australian government thecommitteepreparing the celebration of the centenary of women’s suffrage,ended inturmoil, and perhaps tragedy. This paper derives from the biography of Jean Blackburn that the presenters are preparing, and is offered as a contribution to the idea that the history of feminism is enriched by the individual stories of women who negotiated their way through families, public service,progressive politicsand in Jean Blackburn’s case, theeducational institutions and policy reforms that occupied her public life from the 1970s.