Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Breen, Dame Marie Freda (1902–1993)

by Judith Smart

This article was published online in 2017

Marie Breen, by Henry Talbot, 1964

Marie Breen, by Henry Talbot, 1964

59214956

Dame Marie Freda Breen (1902–1993), politician, community welfare worker, and women’s activist, was born on 3 November 1902 at St Kilda, Melbourne, second child of English-born Frederick William Chamberlin, town clerk, and his Australian-born wife Jane Maud, née Conquest. Marie was educated to matriculation standard at nearby St Michael’s Church of England Girls’ Grammar School. Employed as a law clerk, she met Robert Breen, a solicitor; they married on 12 December 1928 at All Saint’s Church of England, St Kilda, and soon moved to Brighton. Her husband, who in 1935 stood unsuccessfully as a United Australia Party candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Collingwood, introduced her to party politics. She joined the Brighton branch of the Australian Women’s National League, was mentored by the long-term AWNL president, Elizabeth Couchman, and later honed her speaking and organisational skills when her husband was mayor (1941–42) of Brighton. She described it as ‘good training for life in politics’ (Breen 1983).

As the mayor’s wife Breen became chairman of the Brighton Baby Health Centre and its delegate to the National Council of Women of Victoria. In 1947 she was elected to the committee of the NCWV, later serving as State president (1954–58). She was a State delegate to the National Council of Women of Australia Federal conferences (1948, 1954, and 1957), and served as international secretary (1949–52). She later became convenor of a new NCWV standing committee on family welfare and presided (1958–78) over the Victorian Family Council. In 1958 she was appointed OBE. A founding member and vice-president (1957–71) of the Marriage Guidance Council of Victoria, she was also involved in the Victorian Association of Citizens’ Advice Bureaux (1970–78). Although never a radical feminist, women’s and family interests were at the forefront of her activities.

Breen had joined the newly established Liberal Party of Australia in 1945, gradually working her way through the Victorian hierarchy from her position as president of the influential Brighton branch. As chairman of the women’s section of the Victorian division of the party, she served a term as president (1952) of the Federal women’s committee and was a State party vice-president (1955–62). Persuaded by her husband to enter parliament, she was elected to the Senate in 1961 after being defeated for preselection to contest the House of Representatives seat of Balaclava. She served on a number of parliamentary committees inquiring into housing, education, immigration, disability, and rehabilitation, and the needs of civilian widows; she was the first woman to chair a committee when she headed (1965­–68) the printing committee. Sometimes in opposition to majority opinion in her party on social welfare issues, she favoured increases in family welfare payments, arguing that a stable family life was the key to individual, social, and national progress. 

With interests in South-East Asia as well as social welfare, Breen became involved in the Australia-Asian Association, a largely philanthropic organisation established in 1957. As its vice-president she founded a women’s group that focused on caring for people coming to Australia for medical treatment. She was also drawn into the overseas students coordinating committee that cared for Colombo Plan students, becoming its president after her election to the Senate. Involved in setting up its family scheme, she hosted two young men while they were studying in Australia. An outspoken supporter of Australia’s participation in Vietnam, she was active in the Asian People’s Anti-Communist League (after 1990 the Asian Pacific League for Freedom and Democracy), representing Australia at the league’s conference in Seoul in 1966. She retired from the Senate at the end of her term in June 1968 to care for her husband, who had been seriously injured in a car accident; he died in July.

In retirement Breen raised money for the United Nations Children’s Fund, joined the Victorian Consultative Committee on Social Development, and the Australian Advisory Council of Elders. In recognition of her service to the community, she was appointed DBE on 16 June 1979. Having learned the piano in her youth, she enjoyed opera, ballet, and choral singing all her life, and was a member of the Lyceum and Australian Women’s Liberal clubs. Dame Marie died at Elsternwick on 17 June 1993 and was buried in Brighton cemetery. She was survived by her three daughters, one of whom, Jeannette Patrick, was the Liberal member for Brighton (1976–85) in the Legislative Assembly, and another, Prudence Griffiths, was active in local government.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Breen, Marie. Interview by Amy McGrath, 27 August 1980. Sound recording. National Library of Australia

  • Breen, Marie. Interview by Bernadette Schedvin, 18 June 1983. Transcript. National Library of Australia

  • Fitzherbert, Margaret. So Many Firsts: Liberal Women from Enid Lyons to the Turnbull Era. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press, 2009

  • Kent, Hilary. ‘Breen, Dame Marie Freda (1902–1993).’ In The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate. Vol. 3 1962–1983, edited by Ann Millar and Geoffrey Browne, 59–62. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press Ltd, 2010

  • Quartly, Marian, and Judith Smart. Respectable Radicals: A History of the National Council of Women Australia, 1896–2006. Clayton, Vic.: Monash University Publishing, 2015

Additional Resources

Citation details

Judith Smart, 'Breen, Dame Marie Freda (1902–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/breen-dame-marie-freda-25807/text33986, published online 2017, accessed online 17 November 2018.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018