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Today is #EqualPayDay, and while there is work still to be done, progress began with a migrant named Zelda.
For working women in Australia, especially those who were also married, the 1960s were a frustrating decade. Yes, there were more and more of them, especially after a flood of migrant women came into the country who wanted, and needed, to work. By 1966, married working women made up about one-third of the working population, the highest it had ever been. Nevertheless, there were problems. First of all, once you became pregnant you had to resign, and with access to the newly invented birth control Pill and other contraceptives very limited, this was an issue. For female public servants, a temporary job was the highest they could aim for, and once hired, they had to adhere to a manual that told them how to behave: “Make the most of your face and figure…good grooming, graciousness and charm play an important part in your success”. There were “women’s occupations”, that were paid much less, and because women were not considered heads of their household, the gender pay gap was enormous.
In June of 1969, the Meat Workers Union in Melbourne decided to bring a test case in front of the Arbitration Commission, to see if they could get equal pay a little closer. Hopes were high, because Australia had always been a forerunner in workers’ rights. It was Bob Hawke who pleaded the case to the tribunal, but he got nowhere. Despite recognising that there was a problem with “logic and justice”, the Commission did not think women deserved the same pay for the same work. In the audience was a woman called Zelda D’Aprano. She worked for the union as a clerk and this was the first time she had ever been confronted with the workings of power. She didn’t like it one bit. In her 1977 autobiography, Zelda (Spinifex Press), she wrote: “There we were, the poor women, all sitting in Court like a lot of cows in the sale yards, while all the men out front presented arguments as to how much we were worth. I felt humiliated, belittled and degraded, not only for myself, but for all women”.
Within a year, there were dozens of women’s liberation groups all over the country. Zelda was sacked from the union for her trouble, and even her comrades in the Communist Party were more embarrassed than proud.
Back at work, Zelda realised that the union considered this case closed. They had tried and failed: bummer. That was not enough for Zelda, though. A few months later, she went to a friend who worked at the dockers’ union and “donated” a chain. Then she bought a lock and made a few phone calls to journalists who were friendly to the unions. Next, on 21 October 1969, she chained herself to the doors of the Commonwealth Building, taking inspiration from the suffragettes in Britain whose favourite action method this had been at the turn of the century. Of course, the police came with bolt cutters, but by that time half the Australian media had already taken pictures, making Zelda into scandalous, headline news the next day. When this did not change the Commission’s mind, Zelda decided that she had to take her protests a little closer to the Court itself. So ten days later, joined by friends Thelma Solomon and Alva Geikie, Zelda was shackled again, this time to the entrance of the Arbitration Commission itself. Unfortunately, now the newspapers were a lot less impressed, with the Melbourne Herald wondering what these women were complaining about, since “they have never had it so good.”
Zelda must have a good laugh about that. She had never had it good. Not now, not in the past. Born as the daughter of Ukrainian Jews who had migrated to Australia in 1923, Zelda had grown up in abject poverty in Melbourne, where her father tried to make ends meet by building and mending the wheels of the horse-drawn coaches of the Carlton and United Breweries. Her mother was illiterate but as staunch a Communist as she had been an Orthodox Jew: she considered justice the most important value in the world and this is how she raised her daughter. Zelda was smart, but there was no money for high school, so when she was 14 years old, she started work in a shortbread factory where it was her job to put fake jam between two biscuits. Two years later she was married and at age 17 she had a daughter and lived in a housing commission house without heating. She was “isolated and depressed” and spent most of her time trying to prevent getting pregnant again. Often this did not work, forcing Zelda into backyard abortions without any pain relief. There were a dozen dead-end factory jobs until she became a dental nurse in a psychiatric hospital. By this time, Zelda had realised that her mother’s choice for the Communist Party had been a smart move. Especially women needed all the agitation they could muster, she thought, and she became a member in her early twenties, organising women’s groups and trying to change their positions in the workplace. She also helped her husband through his university degree, a sacrifice he paid back by leaving her as soon as their daughter was old enough.
“There we were, the poor women, all sitting in Court like a lot of cows in the sale yards, while all the men out front presented arguments as to how much we were worth. I felt humiliated, belittled and degraded, not only for myself, but for all women”.
So Zelda knew what she was talking about when she decided to shake up the status quo. After her two experiences in shackles, she also knew that she had to keep the momentum going. Early in 1970, she organised a group of women to ride the Melbourne trams with her, paying only 75% of the fee. A reasonable amount, Zelda thought, seeing that women were only paid 75% of men’s wages. She also led a group of women on a pub crawl, demanding to be let in and served, something that was illegal at that time. In March 1970, Zelda and fourteen friends formed the first Women’s Action Committee, advocating for equal pay and job opportunities for women, a change in the law that would allow women to take out a bank loan without a male guarantor, and no-fault divorce. Even more controversially, they promoted maternity leave, sex education and legal and safe abortions. Within a year, there were dozens of women’s liberation groups all over the country. Zelda was sacked from the union for her trouble, and even her comrades in the Communist Party were more embarrassed than proud.
Nevertheless, Zelda had the last laugh. The principle of equal pay was agreed in 1972 and enshrined in the Equal Opportunity Act of 1999. There is still a pay gap of about 16% though, so not all is won, but it is much better than before Zelda chained herself to those first doors.