Last week in Brisbane the family and many, many friends of Clarice Brown gathered to celebrate her life. Clarice was almost 90 when we lost her on 7 October. I first met Clarice in the early 1990s. She was an amazing woman: small, impeccably groomed and made up. She often wore chiffon cardigans to rallies and she carried her parasol. I truly believe that if there was a public rally of any kind in Brisbane and Clarice Brown was not there, it did not have cred.
It is fascinating to learn about a person you met and respected when people gather to tell their stories about that person. I deeply want to thank her son Kevin who put together a wonderful list of memories of Clarice. She was born in Longreach in 1922. Her dad, Curley-his real name was Marcus but no-one called him that-and her mum lived in that area and Curley was a genuine activist, a shearer, a union member and his politics were inbred in Clarice, her brother and her sister. Clarice went to primary school and high school in Longreach. These were the days of the Depression. She grew up doing it tough in regional Queensland-and those memories stayed with her all her life. Her mum and dad moved to Brisbane but Clarice stayed in Longreach to continue at school. Finally, she did give in and moved to Brisbane with her family.
Clarice worked as a stenographer/secretary for many years. She worked with parliamentarians as a secretary. A wonderful group got together in Trades Hall where Clarice worked during the war. Like many young women in Brisbane at that time, she had a good time and enjoyed herself and was known as a party girl. She said of that period:
With my father's early working class influence there was no escape for me. People used to continually ask me when I was going to join the communist party or the Eureka Youth League. It wasn't long before I decided to join them both.
Clarice embraced the activity. It was very much a social time but she was involved in politics at that time as well.
In 1945 Clarice met and married very quickly Ron Brown. They met at a Clerks Union meeting and within three months they were married at the Albert Street Methodist Church-an icon church in the centre of Brisbane. Immediately Clarice came upon the sexism that operated not just in the wider community but also in the union movement. The Storemen and Packers Union, for which Clarice worked-and she loved her job-had a policy that when women married they left the workforce. So Clarice lost her job. That was the experience of many women at that time and for many years later. Clarice went back to work in Trades Hall, where both her husband Ron and her father Curley were employed. They were working in research and they were known across the movement as 'The Three Musketeers'.
There were a number of major industrial actions at that time in Brisbane. There was the major meat strike in 1946, about which Clarice wrote:
Many people like ourselves were forced onto a diet of rabbit. In that period we ate rabbit cooked in every way it could be cooked-and sometimes in ways that it really shouldn't have been. On one occasion we bought a rabbit which proved to be bad. Luckily for us the meat strike finished the next day.
The 13-week Queensland rail strike began in early 1948. The Eureka Youth League was very active in the strike and members like Clarice distributed thousands of leaflets and sold copies of the Communist Party newspaper the Guardian. That was a very special memory for Clarice, and she told me almost 40 years later about being on the streets of Brisbane selling the Guardianand 'maintaining the rage'.
At that time there was evidence of particularly vicious police attacks. The police were called 'the demons'. They seemed to particularly focus on women. It was as though women were an easy target at that time. There were stories about particularly verbal abuse and also the 'speciality' of kicking the women on the picket lines just on their ankles. This happened many times to Clarice when she was on the picket line outside the Milton Railway workshop. Many years later she showed me her ankles and exactly how this was done and said, 'You have not felt pain until you have experienced that for the cause.'
The Queensland rail strike dragged on and became more violent-this was a famous time in Brisbane, Queensland-and led to the bashing of Fred Paterson, to this day our only Communist member of parliament elected in any parliament in Australia. This very famous incident happened on St Patricks Day 1948 during that strike. Clarice talked about it many times for the rest of her life.
For a short time in 1949, Clarice and Ron moved to Darwin, where Ron became the editor of the North Australian Workers Union journal, the Northern Standard. At that time Clarice joined the Housewives' Association, which later became the Union of Australian Women. This wonderful group of women were involved in many, many effective campaigns about, for example, rationing and child care. There is a wonderful story in Brisbane about a large action they took about the quality of stockings. Women in those days wore stockings as a matter of course, but the stockings were not of high value and were quite expensive. The women got together through the Housewives Union-just before it was called the Union of Australian Women-and had an effective campaign about the importance of quality in nylon stockings. I think that is a great example of responding to the need, taking action and having success.
Clarice and Ron moved back to Brisbane and they continued their work and raised their sons. They lived around Fortitude Valley-where Clarice lived for most of her life. She always loved that part of Brisbane, which is very close to where I live and where my office is now. She continued her campaigning and stayed in tune with the activities of the day.
In 1968, Clarice lost her dad Curley. Ron gave the oration. Ron was a great speaker and at many times was used in this way. At our meeting when we were celebrating Clarice's life, his son talked about the fact that he had learned from his dad how to make these kinds of speeches and when he was talking about his mum he was talking for his dad as well. I thought that was a particularly moving comment.
Clarice and her family were involved in the Bjelke-Petersen years in Queensland-which most of us survived-and were involved in all the activity at that time, including the Springboks Rugby League activity in 1971.
In 1984 Clarice and her family were out in the SEQEB strike-again, handing out leaflets and being involved and always working to ensure that people were comfortable. Clarice was known for her endless servings of tea, scones and sandwiches and her smile and warmth-just making sure that people were secure and that they were being looked after. My favourite memories of Clarice, after many, many marches in Brisbane around the antinuclear movement or feminism issues, was coming back to where we had started and having Clarice standing there surrounded by her teapots and making sure that we were all okay and that we had all got back to the right spot. As you know, Mr Acting Deputy President Cameron, keeping workers together in a march is sometimes a tough thing. We were known to lose a few along the way, taking different routes. Clarice was there waiting to welcome us back, to ensure that everybody was there, that they had a way home, and that they understood what they were doing and the importance of campaigning.
She was a true nurturer and a mentor to young activists. She was particularly proud of her friends in the Revolutionary Socialist Student Alliance at UQ and the Students for a Democratic Society. She was always willing to help, to have a story, to work with us to make sure that we felt important.
In 1980, she lost her husband, Ron, after 35 years of a wonderful partnership. She continued to live around the valley; she had a new partner for a number of years, Ted Williams. They remained together for 30 years. Ted passed away in December 2010, and two years later Clarice followed.
At her funeral, Clarice's son Kevin said: 'Clarice was a loving and nurturing mother to my brother Ray and myself, and she was very special. But, without contradicting myself, I believe there are many Clarice Browns in this world. Many of them, male and female alike, have been mentioned by Clarice herself in her writings.' She kept strong diaries. Her life reflected the life of struggle, the life of activism and the life of humour and love in Queensland. We miss you, Clarice, but we will always remember you.