Vale Lynn Beaton 1946 — 2016

Women's rights activist and historian Lynn Beaton
Friday, July 8, 2016

Working women have lost their finest advocate. Lynn Beaton was one of the first of her generation to take up the fight for women's rights within the Australian trade union movement. Throughout her life Lynn was an active campaigner for the rights of women at work, as well as a researcher, strategist and historian of the labour movement.

Lynn was born in Victoria, but in 1960 the family moved to London. Lynn spent her teenage years in swinging London, returning to Melbourne in 1966.

Lynn and her husband Gerry joined the local left-leaning branch of the ALP, supporting Whitlam's first federal election campaign in 1969. But they left when Lynn spoke out against the federal intervention against the Victorian Left and discovered she was no longer welcome in the ALP.

Meanwhile, Lynn became deeply involved in the opposition to the Vietnam War. She joined the Maoist Worker Student Alliance (WSA) at Monash University, and with Gerry set up a branch of the WSA in Montrose. But she was repelled by the pro-China Stalinist rhetoric that led to the naming of the Soviet Union, not the US, as the “number one enemy”.

She joined the Tocsin group and attended the founding conference in Sydney of the group, which would go on to found the Socialist Labor League (SLL). The SLL seemed to offer the strength she was looking for in a Marxist opposition.

But at every point she found herself disappointed and alienated by the ineffectual, blokey and sexist culture of all these organisations. Lynn was in and out of the SLL over the next decade, increasingly despairing of the ability of the left to provide the kind of leadership the working class needed.

Lynn's children Lucy and Chloe attended the Helen Street Primary School, which had a very progressive language program. Lynn joined the school council to make sure the school stayed progressive. When the Hamer government cut teacher numbers in 1976, Lynn led a parent occupation of the school to secure the reinstatement of a sacked teacher.

In 1978, Lynn started work at the Working Women's Centre as a researcher and project manager while editing Women at Work. Lynn's role at the Working Women's Centre would define the struggle of working women in Australia for decades to come.

During this time, Lynn published The importance of women's paid labour: Women at work in World War II, in which she debunked the myth that after the war, women had left paid employment and returned to the domestic sphere — Lynn showed that by 1948 more women were in paid work than at the peak of war-time employment. Equal access to paid work, Lynn argued, had to be the central aim of women's liberation.

Lynn wrote the first draft of the Working Women's Charter which was followed by two Implementation Manuals. The first was Lynn's 1983 monograph Sexual Harassment, which would contribute to the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission Act 1986.

She then wrote the first draft of the Equal Pay Manual, later published in amended form by Jenny Acton, which formed the basis for the nurses pay claim in their 1986 strike. Here Lynn introduced the concept of comparable worth, to further the equal pay struggle for women in spite of the gender division of labour. This concept has underpinned federal awards and is crucial in overcoming the gender division of labour.

In 1984, she was sent to Britain in the midst of the British miners' strike. Lynn went to Blidworth in Nottinghamshire, where she immersed herself for a year in the struggles of the miners' wives.

The story of Blidworth was published in her book Shifting Horizons. It not only documented the key role played by women in workers' struggle, but communicated the transformative effect of participation in the labour movement on women's lives.

The experience of Blidworth settled once and for all Lynn's political orientation: in solidarity with the struggles of working people, especially women.

While in Britain, Lynn worked with the Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP) after the expulsion of its cult-like leader Gerry Healy. On returning to Melbourne, she joined a group that was supporting the WRP, but this grouping soon disintegrated. Lynn then joined forces with Bill Deller and others in Communist Intervention (CI).

CI won control of the Victorian branch of the State Public Service Federation, but it did not last long. It did, however, pioneer the kind of approach she had looked forward to: not to solve problems among ourselves and then deliver a solution to the working class, but to tackle problems together with the people who were experiencing them.

For a while she joined Militant as part of a strategy to build a Progressive Labour Party, but this turned out to be contrary to Militant's international line, and Lynn resigned.

In the years following, she published Part of the Furniture, an account of the 150-year history of the Federated Furnishing Trades Association, a history of the asbestos plant at Railton in Tasmania and a history of UniSuper.

Her history of the asbestos plant in Tasmania showed that public information is not in itself enough to change people's minds. But workers dependent on asbestos use for their livelihood could be won over and their exploitation ended when their unions collaborated with medical science, the law and media.

In 2013, Lynn published A Reflection on Feminism, in which she debunked the fallacy that a majority of women had supported feminism in the 1960s and '70s. She said the feminists were a small, but very noisy minority. Lynn pointed out that women have made more gains in the '80s, '90s and '00s, and won the support of far more young women and men than ever before.

At the time of her death, Lynn was working on a history of the Ballarat Trades and Labour Council, tracing the origins of the eight-hour movement from the Eureka Stockade.

Lynn had a soaring intellect, was passionate, compassionate and fiercely committed to working class and feminist politics, and most of all, to her family.

Lynn celebrated her 70th birthday surrounded by friends and family. She died suddenly and unexpectedly not long afterwards.

A celebration of the life and works of Lynn Beaton was held at Brunswick Town Hall, on July 9.

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