Labour History

Zelda D’Aprano, Leadership and the Politics of Gender in the Australian Labour Movement, 1945-75

Labour History (2013), 104, (1), 101–118.


Zelda D’Aprano was influential in different phases of her life as a factory worker, union official, member of the Communist Party of Australia and feminist activist. This paper engages with a theoretical perspective in which the key to understanding leadership is an assessment of an individual’s capacity to influence others. Relying on D’Aprano’s writing, recorded interviews and documents in her archives, it considers her emergence as “a woman of influence.” The paper examines her engagements with employers and unions from 1950 to 1968 during her membership first of the Clothing Workers Union and subsequently the Hospital Employees Federation No. 2 Branch, where she gained the position of shop steward. Second, it considers her experiences in post-war Melbourne of leadership of the Communist Party of Australia, in which she served as a branch secretary, and with her experiences as a worker at the time of the 1969 equal pay hearing for a communist-led union, the Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union. Finally the paper explores her reconsideration of the meaning of “leadership” in the early 1970s, drawing on her experiences in the women’s liberation movement as co-founder of the Womens Action Committee and her early hopes of combining socialism and feminism in a search for equity and social justice in Australia. As late as 2011, D’Aprano was still called upon to speak at commemoration events, marches and protests, a telling recognition of her place as a leader in the history of the Australian labour movement.

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*I thank Rosemary Francis for research assistance for this paper and several people who read and commented on it: Stuart Macintyre, Jackie Dickenson, Sean Scalmer, Chips Sowerwine, Noah Riseman, and the two anonymousLabour Historyreferees. Above all I thank Zelda D’Aprano. Google Scholar

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11.An interview with Zelda D’Aprano conducted by Robin Hughes on 19 August 1996 is held in Australian Biography, accessed March 2013, Rosemary Francis conducted an interview with D’Aprano on 29 August 2011, Oral History and Folklore Collection, bib. id. 5747263, National Library of Australia. Google Scholar

13.For the early years of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), seeStuart Macintyre, The Reds: From Origins to Illegality(:Allen and Unwin, 1999). Google Scholar

14.D’Aprano, Zelda, 49. Google Scholar

15.Ibid., 50. Google Scholar

16.Damousi, Women Come Rally. Google Scholar

17.D’Aprano, Zelda, 42–43. Google Scholar

18.Ibid., 43. Google Scholar

19.Ibid., 53. Google Scholar

20.Ibid., 401. Google Scholar

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22.For a comprehensive study of the unions, seeBradon Ellem, In Women’s Hands? A History of Clothing Trades Unionism in Australia(:UNSW Press, 1989). Google Scholar

23.D’Aprano, Zelda, 56. Google Scholar

24.Ibid. Google Scholar

25.Ibid. Google Scholar

26.Ibid., 10. Google Scholar

27.Ibid., 59. Google Scholar

28.Ibid., 63–64. Google Scholar

29.Ibid., 82. Google Scholar

30.Ibid., 91. Google Scholar

31.Ibid., 53. Google Scholar

32.Ibid., 88. Google Scholar

33.Damousi, Women Come Rally, 134. Google Scholar

34.D’Aprano, Zelda, 75. Google Scholar

35.Ibid. Google Scholar

36.Ibid., 136. Google Scholar

37.See “Seelaf, George (1914-1988)”, Australian Trade Union Archives, accessed March 2013, Google Scholar

38.Chris Healy, ed., The Lifeblood of Footscray: Working Lives at the Angliss Meatworks(:Melbourne’s Living Museum of the West, 1986). Google Scholar

39.Ryan and Conlon, Gentle Invaders, 140–43. Google Scholar

40.See Healy, The Lifeblood of Footscray. Google Scholar

41.Zelda D’Aprano, Kath Williams: The Unions and the Fight for Equal Pay(:Spinifex Press, 2001). See also Ryan and Conlon, Gentle Invaders, ch. 6. Google Scholar

42.Lake, Getting Equal. Google Scholar

43.D’Aprano, Zelda, 116. Google Scholar

44.Ibid., 117. Google Scholar

45.Ibid., 118. Google Scholar

46.Ibid., 119. Google Scholar

48.D’Aprano, Zelda, 148. In the preface to the second edition of the autobiography published by Spinifex in 1995, D’Aprano acknowledged her trepidation in1977about the likely reception of her book by certain male office holders. Google Scholar

49.On women’s liberation, see Lake, Getting Equal;Marian Sawer, Making Women Count: A History of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia(:UNSW Press, 2008); Gisela Kaplan, The Meagre Harvest: The Australian Women’s Movement 1950s-1990s(Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1996); Natasha Campo, From Superwomen to Domestic Goddesses: The Rise and Fall of Feminism(Bern: Peter Lang, 2009). On leadership, see also Marian Sawer and Merrindahl Andrew, “Collectivism, Consensus and Concepts of Shared Leadership in Movements for Social Change,” inWomen, Democracy and Leadership, ed., Joy Damousi, Kim Rubenstein and Mary Tomsic (forthcoming, ANU Press). Google Scholar

50.Sunday Observer, June 21, 1970, clipping in Zelda D’Aprano Papers, 1971-1987, SLV; D’Aprano, interview with Hughes, 19 August 1996. Google Scholar

51.See“Annual Report of the Women’s Action Committee, 1 March 1971,”D’Aprano, Zelda, VWLLFA, no. 67, UMA; see also D’Aprano, Zelda, 133. Google Scholar

52.D’Aprano, Zelda, 133. Google Scholar

53.Ibid., 154. Google Scholar

54.Ibid., 134. Google Scholar

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56.D’Aprano, Zelda, 135–36. Google Scholar

57.Ibid., 136. Google Scholar

58.Ibid., 135. Google Scholar

59.Ibid., 140. Google Scholar

62.Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex(:Knopf, 1952[1949]). Google Scholar

63.Alison Thorne, “Zelda urges women to finish the fight for equal pay!” The Organizer: The Australian Voice of Revolutionary Feminism, no. 7 (October2011), accessed March 2013, Google Scholar

64.D’Aprano spoke at the combined ACTU and the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s commemoration of the centenary of International Womens Day on 8 March 2011; “News,” We Fight For Fair, Maurice Blackburn, accessed 12 February 2012, Google Scholar

65.“ASU Equal Pay Rally and March: 8 June 2011,” MelbourneProtests 2007-2011, accessed March 2013, Google Scholar

66.D’Aprano, Zelda, 89. Google Scholar

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Author details

Grimshaw, Patricia