For everyone Standing with Zelda

  • By Louise Swinn
  • This article was published more than 8 months ago.
  • 26 Jul 2023
Bronze statue of Zelda D’Aprano in the sculptor's workshop. Photo: Mitzi McKenzie-King

If you caught Brazen Hussies on ABC TV, you would have seen excerpts from an interview with Zelda D’Aprano, a feminist activist who died in 2018 at the age of 90. Zelda grew up in Carlton, left school to work in factories to support her family from age 14, married at 16 and had her daughter at 17. While working in factories, she noted the inequalities women faced, and worked hard for the rest of her life to improve conditions for female workers.

Last year, the Victorian government announced the $1 million Victorian Women’s Public Art Program to increase the number of permanent public art monuments celebrating women, and one of the successful applicants was the Victorian Trades Hall Council’s proposal for Honouring Zelda D’Aprano.

“It’s official! After almost three years of campaigning, we are thrilled to announce that a statue of equal pay activist Zelda D’Aprano WILL be built!” Professor Clare Wright tweeted upon the announcement. Clare is co-convenor of A Monument of One’s Own, a lobby group fighting for greater gender equality among our public monuments. She is particularly concerned about the “respect gap” reinforced by the under-representation of women.

“Currently, less than 4% of Australia’s statues represent historical female figures,” says Clare. “We have more statues of animals than of women! That sends a very problematic, culturally coded, message to young girls and women about what they might be capable of achieving.”

“It’s important that people understand that all the rights we enjoy today had to be fought for, tooth and nail, by activists.”

Edwina Byrne, VTHC

The AEU is proud to be a gold sponsor of the statue, which stands on the front lawn of the Trades Hall building in Carlton, unveiled in May by the Minister for Women, Natalie Hutchins and former prime minister Julia Gillard.

Among those attending was Alva Geikie – a teacher who, along with Zelda, chained herself to the railings of the Commonwealth Building in 1969 when the Arbitration Commission ruled that the minimum wage would continue to be set at lower rates for women.

Jennifer Mann is the internationally renowned Victorian sculptor of the bronze monument, Chain Reaction, which stands at just over two metres high. “The work will be situated to allow visitors to view the work up close and literally stand ‘with’ Zelda in the struggle for women’s equality,” Jennifer says.

For Trades Hall, the statue is part of a long-term strategy. “It’s really important to communicate union history to unionists but also to the general public,” says Edwina Byrne, VTHC communications manager. “It’s important that people understand that all the rights we enjoy today had to be fought for, tooth and nail, by activists.”

Zelda D’Aprano chained to the railings of the Commonwealth Building in 1969. Photo: The Age

This extends to learning about the history of workplace rights as part of the school curriculum. “We want kids to know that change is made by people who decide that they’ve had enough, getting together with comrades and deciding to make change,” says Edwina.

In fact, Victoria’s first strike was staged by women in 1882, when the Tailoresses’ Association of Melbourne stopped work after a clothing manufacturer tried to reduce piece-rate wages.

To commemorate the fight for equality, Edwina says Zelda was an obvious choice. “For us, Zelda is a standout figure. She embodies that radical activist history and has such a great story that we can tell.”

Watch the statue of Zelda being unveiled here: ‘Honouring Zelda D’Aprano’ on YouTube.

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