The trailblazing Melbourne Jewish feminist you’ve probably never heard of.
It is a reflection of the gender inequality that is so deeply entrenched in our society that many of us can recall the names and contributions of innumerable male leaders with ease – yet their female counterparts are comparatively little-known.
Take British Jewish scientist Rosalind Franklin, for instance. Every Year 10 biology student has heard the names of Watson and Crick, who won the Nobel Prize for identifying of the structure of DNA – yet their colleague Franklin, whose work in obtaining images of DNA using X-ray crystallography was crucial to the discovery, received no credit for her role until after her death.
Or Dr Gisella Perl, the Hungarian gynaecologist, who in Auschwitz saved the lives of thousands of women; pregnant as a result of rape, they would surely have been killed if it weren’t for Perl, who performed abortions in the dead of night without even the most basic of medical supplies.
And then there’s our own Zelda D’Aprano: one of Australia’s most influential feminist activists, and the woman myself and every one of my fellow colleagues have to thank for the – it must be said, still insufficient – rights we enjoy at work today.
Born in 1928 to Shimshon and Rachel Orloff, Zelda grew up in a working-class Orthodox Jewish household in Carlton. Though she was a gifted student, Zelda left school before the age of fourteen to help support her family. It was through her work at various factories that she was first exposed to the inequities faced by female workers, and her outrage at this injustice prompted what would ultimately become a lifelong mission to fight for the rights of women.
Zelda was a fierce agitator. Married at 16 and a mother at 17, she later qualified as a dental nurse, completing her high school education at the same time as her daughter. A committed leftist, she joined a women’s political discussion group and in 1950 joined the Communist Party – though she eventually resigned two decades later, frustrated by the movement’s treatment of women. Zelda went on to take a role at the Australasian Meat Industry Employees’ Union, however was sacked for that most insolent of female crimes – speaking her mind – when she criticised the Union Secretary. Zelda would go on to be fired from several roles for attempting to improve working conditions for women.
In perhaps her most infamous moment, in 1969 Zelda chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth Building during her lunch break. An equal pay test case had been brought before the court, and Zelda became increasingly incensed throughout the hearings as she “watched men arguing with other men about what women were worth”. Furious at the outcome of the case, she chained herself to the building in protest, eventually being cut free by police. Ten days later she returned, this time joined by fellow activists Thelma Solomon and Alva Geikie.
The following year they co-founded the Women’s Action Committee, sparking the growth of the women’s liberation movement in Melbourne. Zelda and her compatriots urged other women to join them; together they launched the equal pay tram ride, paying just 75% of the transport fare to reflect women’s lesser pay rates, and led pub crawls across Melbourne to protest women’s exclusion from bars. The movement would go on to agitate for various issues including abortion law reform, childcare, gay rights and an end to workplace discrimination. In 1977 Zelda self-published her autobiography, giving voice to the struggles of countless women, and in the years that followed was a sought-after speaker at public meetings, demonstrations, schools and in media.
“We had passed the stage of caring about a ladylike image, because women had for too long been polite and ladylike and were still being ignored.”
Though she was reluctant to call herself a leader, Zelda’s influence is undeniable. In her later years she mentored and encouraged young feminists, and those who were lucky enough to know her recall walking away from their conversations “feeling like I could do anything”. It is through them – and us – that her fight lives on. Characterised by her trademark approach of ‘fighting inequality and injustice: by speaking out, naming problems and working hard’, she leaves an enduring impact for Australian women, and an inspirational legacy for today’s Jewish girls. Together we stand on the shoulders of the women who marched before us.
Inducted in to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in 2001, Zelda remained a staunch activist until her death in 2018 at the age of 90. On the day she passed away, the flag at Trades Hall was lowered to half-mast in her honour.
“Oh sisters, you’ve done me proud,” she said – but we must not rest. There is still such a long way to go – in our community, in Australia, and around the world. Women continue to be underrepresented in politics and leadership; the gender pay gap persists; girls are locked out of education; and we die by male violence at unfathomable rates. The playing field is not yet equal, and we must continue to fight: for our sisters; for our daughters; for ourselves; and for Zelda.
May her memory be for a revolution.
In honour of International Women’s Day (8 March), Jewish Care has launched Women of Valour, a poster campaign and conversation toolkit celebrating the achievements of Jewish women throughout history. To download the resources, visit www.jewishcare.org.au To order hard copies, contact firstname.lastname@example.org