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Brodney, Maria May (1894–1973)

by Raelene Frances

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Maria May Brodney (1894-1973), labour activist, was born on 13 April 1894 at Malvern, Melbourne, daughter of John Francis, labourer, and his wife Julia, née Roonan, both Irish Fenians who migrated separately to Australia in 1888. Educated at Catholic and state schools, in 1910 May took a job as an apprentice underwear-machinist with Craig Williamson Pty Ltd. She rejected Catholicism in her teens and began a lifelong campaign against social and economic inequality.

May was initially attracted to the socialist-feminism of Vida Goldstein and the Women's Political Association. With others from the W.P.A., in 1914 she founded the Women's Industrial and Social Union. Frustrated by its lack of success, she turned in 1915 to the craft-based Federated Clothing Trades' Union, hoping to organize women workers in the shirtmaking, whitework and dressmaking sections of the clothing trades. She rapidly rose to positions of responsibility on the union executive and represented fellow workers on the Underclothing Board, the Court of Industrial Appeals and the Trades Hall Council.

In 1916-17 May was involved in the anti-conscription campaigns, primarily as secretary of the Militant Propogandists of the Labor Movement. Her association with radical, left-wing politics continued after the war. Inspired by the Bolshevik victory in Russia, she was a foundation member (1920) of the Melbourne branch of the Communist Party of Australia.

On 12 March 1924 May married Alfred Tennyson ('Bob') Brodney (1896-1984) at the registry office, Collins Street, Melbourne; although Jewish, he was an atheist. Born on 3 May 1896 in Melbourne, son of Maurice Brodzky, journalist, and his wife Florence, née Leon, Bob had travelled widely with his family in childhood and spent years in the United States of America to avoid conscription during World War I. Returning to Australia in 1918, he Anglicized his surname, moved from Brisbane to Sydney and joined the Australian Socialist Party; in October 1920 he helped to found the C.P.A. He moved to Melbourne in 1923 and next year, with May, assisted in re-establishing the defunct Melbourne branch. Disillusioned with the party's increasingly doctrinaire stance and tactics, they resigned their membership in 1925.

Throughout the 1920s May contributed her earnings and domestic labour to support her husband, father and two brothers, all of whom were in and out of work. Employed as a clerk with Maurice Blackburn & Co., Bob studied law at the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1939). After graduating, he began a long career in labour litigation, and became a senior partner in Blackburn's firm and later a solicitor to the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

May continued as a clothing-industry delegate until 1929. Thereafter, she was increasingly involved in the Victorian Labor College, of which she was a founding member, trustee (1923) and secretary (1937-56); she also set up and ran its bookstall at Flinders Street railway station. During the Depression she was a representative on the Shop Assistants' Wages Board, and was active in campaigns to support striking timberworkers, unemployed women and girls, and those convicted in the Greek Club bombing case of 1929. She returned to industry in World War II, first in the clothing trades and next in the metal trades. In both cases, as in her ongoing work in the V.L.C., she was active in combating communist influence.

A small woman, with heavy brows and intense eyes, Mrs Brodney was widely known for her quick temper, sharp wit and outspoken views. Following Hitler's non-aggression pact with Stalin in August 1939 and the C.P.A.'s refusal to support the war effort, she joined the Labor Party in 1940. Vilified as a Trotskyist by the C.P.A., she remained an independent Marxist. She died, childless, on 21 August 1973 at Mount Evelyn, Victoria, and was cremated. Bob Brodney died on 17 May 1984 at Elsternwick, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • B. L. Ellem, In Women's Hands? (Syd, 1989)
  • Australian Society for the Study of Labour History (Melbourne branch), Recorder, 66, Oct 1973
  • Labour History, 40, May 1981, p 95
  • A. T. and M. M. Brodney papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • S. Merrifield collection (State Library of Victoria).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Raelene Frances, 'Brodney, Maria May (1894–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brodney-maria-may-9587/text16897, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 11 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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