Australian Biography: Zelda D'Aprano
Zelda D'Aprano (1928–2018) spent much of her life as a working-class crusader for women's rights.
A series of factory jobs after leaving school introduced her to the harsh inequities of women's working lives.
Joining the Communist Party, she worked as a dental nurse, devoting 15 years to union activism on behalf of hospital workers.
In 1969 she went to work for the Meatworkers' Union, just as the meat industry was being used as a test case for equal pay for women workers.
When the case failed, D'Aprano took direct action, chaining herself to the doors of the Arbitration Court.
Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: August 19, 1996
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project.
Both my parents were born in the Ukraine. And my father, at the age of five with his parents, migrated to Palestine as it was then, and my mother, who was orphaned at the age of six, eventually too was sent across to Palestine, to relations, so she arrived there when she was eight. And they grew up there and met, married, and came to Australia in 1923 as migrants.
Well my father, too, at an early age was orphaned. He had three younger brothers that he was responsible for at the age of 14, and my father had an aunt and an uncle already in Melbourne. And he felt that this was a better place, better country, to come to for more opportunity. Not only for his own family, but for his orphaned brothers as well.
Yes, they were originally. Well, they didn't know the language. In fact, they only knew how to speak Hebrew and didn't know how to speak Jewish. And when they came here they found that Jewish people only spoke Jewish and not Hebrew, so then they had to learn Jewish. But they did — because of their lack of English — associate with the Jewish community.
They lived in Carlton. This was the Jewish area at the time and they settled there.
Well, I don't know where they originally lived, but I can only remember growing up in this little cottage in Fenwick Street. And it was a two-bedroom cottage. So with my father's brothers and us eventuating, it soon got to a stage where someone had to go. So the brothers had to leave there. And we grew up in this two-bedroom cottage.
Not originally, no. No, when they came here, they were Orthodox Jews. And Mum was very religious and so was Dad. But I don't know what it was that prompted my mother to start questioning religion, and she did with a tremendous fervour. And she finished up adopting communism. And it was very dogmatic communism I must say. But her belief system hadn't changed whatsoever, as far as concern about human beings, justice, honesty, truth. This is what she was when she was religious, and this is what she was, the same person, when she became a communist. Mum was illiterate. She only spent six months of her life at school in Palestine. And so she couldn't read or write English. And very poorly could she read Jewish. And so, she relied mainly on her own human experience, the experience of what she saw and other people were having, and her common-sense. And so she just sort of changed from one allegiance to another, without changing herself at all.
Now, she was a woman in a situation where she was looking after a household with a husband, his brothers, her children, and she was doing this without much in the way of resources. Do you think she was a good mother to you?
Oh, when we were very young Mum was a wonderful mother. In fact, she went out of her way to make sure that we had the basic necessities, and that's what it was in those days. We weren't talking about luxuries. And she was very loving and very warm and extremely affectionate. Unfortunately, because of her own background and poverty, she reached the stage where she lived for us only. And as we got older and wanted to make decisions of our own, and she felt she was losing us, this threatened her terribly and she just didn't want to let go. On the one hand she realised we had to live our own life, but on the other hand she really didn't want to let go. And she could be very difficult at times.
That's when we were growing up and wanting to make our own decisions, yes, yes.
Well, Dad was a coach-builder and wheelwright. He was a very hard worker and worked for others, and during the war he went into what they called a Labour Company , because he was stateless. And enemy aliens and stateless [people], even though they volunteered for service in the army, they wouldn't put them in the fighting army, but they put them in what they called Labour Companies. And so they worked on unloading one train onto another train at Albury and Tocumwal, because of the different gauges in Victoria and New South Wales. They used all these men to do all that work and they got the same pay as the army did, which was I think five shillings a day. And that's what he did when the war started. But see, prior to that, during the Depression, he was put on three days work a week. And we really knew what it was to struggle, and we knew what it was to be poor.
Could you describe that to me, this poverty of a worker's family, living in Carlton in Melbourne during the Depression? Could you describe to me what it was like — what you mean by being poor? Give me a picture of the detail of what it meant for everyday life, what you had and what you didn't have. Were you hungry? Were you cold? Those sorts of things.
Well, this is very difficult to describe, because you don't really know you're poor if you don't know what rich is. And this was prior to TV and we didn't even have radio. And we lived in Carlton, which was a poor area. So there was nobody rich around us. So you didn't know what rich was. And it was only when — as a little girl — I started to go and see films, and I saw Shirley Temple films, and they lived in big houses, that you realised that this — well, I thought anyway — this is what Mum must mean when she talks about rich people. Because otherwise how do you know what rich is? And it was only through these films that I saw alternative living. Also, too, I remember once my parents went to a social evening, and I'll never forget — I don't know how old I was — but the house was in Fairfield, and today it would be considered just a normal house, but in those days, for me, knowing this little cottage and only little cottages, it was a grandiose house. And the man, the host, was an artist, and he had these big paintings on the wall. And they had nice furniture. And I can remember as a little girl being so impressed by what I saw around me. I've never forgotten it. And that was the only house, as a child, that I saw, that I thought, they must be rich. And of course, when you see the other side, then I realised we were poor, when Mum talks about poverty and why so many people are poor. And others are so wealthy, you know. And so I began to look and question and I realised that we were poor. I mean, if we had to have a new pencil for school, we had to show Dad our old pencil and how short it was before we could afford a pencil. And when you got a hole in your shoe, only one shoe could go to the boot repairers and get a patch on it, not a whole sole. But it would get a little patch over the hole. And you had to stay home, because you only had one shoe. So you had to wait until the other shoe returned. So all these things. And knowing that we were clothed in hand-downs, and yet there was a family, a friend of mine, who I went to school with. They were even poorer than we were. And I knew the difference, because I could see what happened in their house, and we gave them our cast-offs. And so I knew that they were poorer still. And I think most poor children know what it is to be poor.
No, I cannot remember ever being hungry. We didn't have luxurious food like desserts. I think the only dessert we ever had was stewed apples or stewed fruit. In the main we ate good food, but not luxuriously. We used to buy all our groceries on tick — that's putting it on the account and then sort of paying for it when you've got money. And we did the same with the meat and we did the same with the fruit and vegetables and everything else. But no, I cannot say we ever went hungry.
Yes, they were. And in the main they did the Carlton & United Breweries wagons. And they were only a stone's throw, where he worked, from the brewery. And I can remember as a child going there and the brewery wagons. But there were many horse-and-carts. All the vegetable growers, the Chinese vegetable growers, used to always have horse-and-carts. And it wasn't unusual. I remember as a child, horse-and-carts in the street. And people going around collecting the droppings of the horses and putting on their gardens. [laughs] But next door to where Dad worked was the farrier. And so while Dad was working on the carts and fixing those, the farrier was shoeing the horses. And I used to be fascinated as a child to go round and watch Dad work and then go round and see this man whose name was Bill, I used to remember, shoeing the horses. And I used to feel sad because I used to think it must hurt the horses when they knock the shoes on. And the smell. I can even remember the smells that came from it when the hot metal went onto the hoof of the horse.
Well, that's a whole change of life took place there for Dad, because this was after the war, and the vehicles, motor vehicles, took over. And so he went into house repairing. People were interested at that stage in repairing their homes, because for the first time there was full employment. And so he started working on people's homes and, again, it was very hard work, because he did it himself.
In the main, I played with my brother's peer group. And I was happy being alone too. I could be on my own for hours and I'd sew and I had one doll. I only ever had one doll. And I would sew and make clothes for this doll. I made an eiderdown for my doll. And I could remember I was doing all these things, I was quite happy alone, and being creative. I loved making things. Also too, I'd play with my brother a lot. He was two years younger than I was. And I can remember trying to get the cat and putting it into a box to sleep or in a little pram trying to wheel it around. And I can remember my brother and I dragging all Mum's groceries and what have you out of the cupboards and playing shops. And somehow or other we'd always finish having an argument and running off and leaving all this stuff around. And Mum used to get very upset when we did that. She didn't mind us taking all the stuff out, but she'd say, 'As long as you put it all back again.' But of course in most cases I don't think we did.
Yes. In the main, yes.
Well, there was no money of course, so we used to play a game called Chuck the Tin, and Tic Tac. And these were all games we made ourselves. And Chuck the Tin was — I don't know how they flatten them, but they used to get little tobacco tins and flatten them. And there were techniques developed, you know, how you had to throw them. And there were four lamp posts arranged in our street. And when you chucked the tin you had to run from one lamp post to another, and you had to get there before someone got the tin. And if you didn't, of course, you were out. You were the one who had to chuck the tin. Ah — and so you'd go from lamp post to lamp post. There was another one, Tic Tac, and I remember we cut the end off Mum's broom to make the Tic Tac, because you had to get a little piece of wood and whittle the two ends. And then you'd put that down and you'd hit one end with a stick, and as it flew up then you had to hit it. And hit it as far as you could. And again, it was the distance and how far and which one won the game. And we had all these sorts of games and we'd play for hours. Also, where we lived, we used to go walking. We used to walk great distances, and we used to walk round the back of Carlton, round the back of the cemetery and across to the Melbourne Zoo, all round that area. And then we'd walk all the way back. And there was never any money involved and yet we were never bored, never bored for a moment.
Well, that's interesting. I think they accepted me. I can't ever remember being the captain of a pirate ship or any of the leading characters in the games. Perhaps I was, I can't recall. But the fact that I was even amongst them, they did accept me. Yes.
I have a sister who was four-and-a-half years older. But that gap sort of separated her from us. And she had her own friends. I can remember being very affectionate towards my brother. I thought he was beautiful. And I always used to hug him and kiss him until he started to cry and run to Mum for help. Mum used to make me leave him alone. But he was such a dear little boy.
Apart from learning the piano accordion, which I did, there were none. There was no such thing as going on, as far as education was concerned. That was never discussed, it wasn't a choice. We were workers, and there was never any discussion about further education. Dad was a book reader but, of course, Mum being illiterate didn't read. But Dad used to read to Mum. But we weren't book readers. I loved comics, I loved reading comics. And I can't remember ever reading anything else, like any of Dickens' works. There was nothing like that at all.
In the main it didn't happen to the Jewish children in the Depression years either. They just couldn't afford it. I, in the fifth grade, became part of what they called a special tutorial class. And they picked the most gifted, talented …
Bright kids in the fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth and put them all in the one room. And we each had our own row. And I can only remember one girl ever going to university from that group, and possibly one boy. And I'm not sure about the boy but people just didn't have the money. In those days you had to pay for education at university. And there — working-class people just accepted their lot. You accepted that this was your station in life, sort of thing, and that you just have to go on doing that, and that's how I felt. I knew at a very early age that I was an economic burden on my parents. And I was very anxious to get out and go to work so that I would relieve them of this financial burden.
Well, I left that school, I didn't like the teacher; he was very sarcastic. I remember at one stage there, I had the measles and, after coming back, I think it was three weeks you had to stay away, and when I came back and walked into the room, he made some very sarcastic comments and he really upset me. Of course, I disagreed with him politically at that stage. I already had political views.
Yes. And this was a teacher's way of getting back at me. So I pleaded with Mum to let me leave there. And so she let me leave there and I went across to what was called the Brunswick Girls' School (Domestic Arts). And that's the sort of school that trained young girls to be good housewives. And when I got there, to an extent I was considered to be brilliant, but I knew I wasn't. It was just that the standard was lower, and I was well aware of that. But it didn't worry me, because I didn't intend doing anything anyway. And I can remember, you know, we had to learn to cook and we had to learn to sew and laundry and even, I was reminded recently, about how to bathe a baby. And I can remember we had this doll and we had to sort of bathe the doll and all this sort of thing. And this was all in training to be a good housewife-mother. And I left school before I was even 14 years of age, just before I turned 14, and I went straight to work.
I think it was about the war, and Russia not being in the war. And so I stood up and defended the Soviet Union against what I considered at that stage were this teacher's ignorant comments. [laughs] Yes. Because I think it was Russia and Germany signed a non-aggression pact at the time. And so I was very loyal, as a child can be.
I think it possibly was. And that's why I've never forgotten it. [laughs] Yes, I think it possibly was, yes.
I had no doubts whatsoever because I didn't know if, that, there was an alternative. And I recall one of my teachers at the domestic school, a Mrs Campbell, and she pleaded with me to stay at school. And she asked me to go home — she said, 'Now, I want you to go home and tell your parents that I think you should go on to further education and do science.' And I knew it was an absolute and utter waste of time. But she more or less ordered me to go home and do this. I mean it was just like, you know, asking me to be the Queen. It was impossible. But anyway, I went and I thought I'll have to do it. And so I went home and I told Mum what Mrs Campbell said. And Mum just laughed and she just said, 'Oh, be an absent-minded professor' and that was the end of the whole thing. It just didn't go any further. The whole thing wasn't treated in any serious way whatsoever. And I knew. I mean, I myself didn't even take it seriously, because it just wasn't a part of my experience, my environment or anything. And so off to work I went.
I went to work round the corner [from] where we were living, and it was a little shortbread factory. And I'll never forget this experience, because it was my first experience of full-time employment, and one of the things I had to do was put this jam in between two little biscuits, or one and press the other one to it, and they sort of came in a pair, stuck together with this jam. And I was horrified to see this man open up this four-gallon drum one day, and there was this sickly green concoction in it that I didn't know what it was. And he poured this red liquid into it and then stirred it with a stick, and it all became red. And this was the jam that I was using to stick the shortbreads together. And it was cheap melon jam and they put this red dye in it so it looked like raspberry jam or something like that. And these were the sort of methods that were used. It was a pretty sleazy little place. And they used to distribute these shortbreads all over Melbourne but it came to an end. I wasn't there very long when the army took this place over and used it as a 'hot box kitchen', that's what they called it, for food for troops around — I don't know where — but I had to supply food for the army. And so I was out of a job, and then I went into another grocery, what was known as a grocery packing firm, and finished up puddling around with flour and, goodness, custard powder. It was all packaged by hand at that time, you know. These terrible, boring, dead-end jobs. And even though I was glad to get the money, I very rapidly found myself getting very, very, bored and discontented with that work environment.
You knew that you couldn't go to university, although that had been suggested, but why was factory work the only option for you? You didn't think about working in an office or a shop or in some other environment?
I felt that — I had such a low self-image —I suppose looking back I didn't even feel that I was high enough in the status (or whatever your situation) that was necessary to go and work as a clerk; I never thought that I ever had those capabilities. It just wasn't there for me. You know, that's why I see so many of the kids today, I know exactly where they're at. And the work was terrible. I didn't see any other position as being something that I could do.
[Laughs] The reason why I'm laughing is because my reading material at that stage were love yarns. And …
Oh no, no. Oh, no, that was too expensive and too sophisticated. I went for two little cheap magazines. One was called The Oracle and one was called The Miracle. And I used to just lose myself totally in these cheap little tawdry romance magazines. And it was a great escape. That was my escape. And if I went to see any films at all, they were always that very romantic — and at that time, you know, the war was on — very patriotic, romantic types. I didn't like the violent, killing-type films. And that's where I lost myself. Absolutely lost myself. And because life there was pleasant and everything was lovely and romances always finish up at the stage where they never marry. I don't know what they do today, but they never married there, so it was just total romance. And this to me was a far more pleasant world than the world that I knew.
I don't think I fantasised to that degree. And see, I never read a book, a real book, until I was 21. So it was all this romance and later on it just sort of became women's magazines. But I didn't see any prince on a white horse, and so I started to get depressed. And I found at 15and-a-half, I just didn't feel that there was sort of much for me in life. And I can understand the suicide rate. Not that at that stage I ever contemplated suicide, but looking back it was a very, very, bleak feeling that I had. It's as if you haven't got a future. And I suppose what mattered more than anything, too, was to get a job with the most money possible. And so I used to put my age up. And I was able to get away with it until we had to have identification cards. And then everyone had to have an identification card during the war. And luckily Mum and Dad, because of their lack of English, our birthdays were all wrong and when I put in for an identification card they didn't know [how old] I was, because the date that I said was my birthday, turned out it wasn't at all. So it was quite some time before I got an identification card. In the meantime, I put my age up. And was able to earn a little more than I was. And buying things was another compensation, a tremendous compensation. If you could buy yourself what I would have called 'nice things', having nice things was very important. And trying to look as nice as you can was also very important.
… So there you were, a young girl, working in a factory, thinking about what nice things you could buy and dreaming of romance, and your mother was involved with the Communist Party. What did you think of your mother's political activity at that time?
I wasn't very happy about my mother's adoption of communism, only in as much as she forced it down our throats. I never questioned her on the terrible injustices that existed, because apart from experiencing them ourselves, we could see it all around us. So I couldn't deny that, the injustice around us. It was just that Mum was so dogmatic, and it didn't matter if we brought our friends in or anything, they all had to have this compulsory lecture, which was very embarrassing. And [laughs], and I also felt that it led to a lot of dissention in the house, and [when] friends would call in, Mum would give them — think that she had to enlighten them all. It was sort of like a real religious fervour. And so from that point of view, there was two sides to it. On one was the injustice that I was aware of and I could see, and the other was the dogmatism that I didn't like.
No, no, Dad wasn't a communist, but he was sympathetic to people. He understood and he could see the injustice all around, and recognised and acknowledged all that. But he wasn't interested or involved in the Communist Party.
And you were reading these romance books. What was actually happening in your relationship with boys at this time? As you reached puberty and started to develop, did you find that your relationship with boys changed?
Well, my relationship with boys, I found very rapidly, it wasn't like those in the romance novels. And [laughs] it was quite a shock to me because nearly every boy that I knew, and there weren't many, I always seemed to finish up in a wresting match. And so that wasn't very pleasant at all.
Oh yes, you'd be asked out on a date. And then the groping and all the — their insistence, sort of, on having sex. I mean it wasn't just on. And added to that was the fact that there was no contraception, there was no anything. And the only reason I learnt about all these things was because I was 'all ears' at work. My mother told us nothing. But at work, whenever the older women would talk about anything, I was all ears, because this was the only way I was going to learn anything. All told, boys [behaved] in a manner that didn't sort of fit in with the romance stories of the time. I don't know what they're like today, but at the time they certainly didn't fit in. And the only thing left was having enough to buy nice things. And how long can you just sort of be satisfied with that. But then I was to meet my future husband when I was 15. And I fell madly in love, as only a 15-year-older can. And then I was in a situation where I wanted to have sex, and I wanted to do these things, and I was too afraid. And so, Mum gave permission for me to get married, and I found myself married — just six weeks after I turned 16 years of age.
Magistrate's consent. And so I applied, or we applied; I don't remember exactly the routine that you had to go through. And we had to face the magistrate. And without me being present, the magistrate asked Mum, 'Why are you allowing your daughter ...' Oh, first he said, 'Is your daughter pregnant?' and I wasn't and Mum said, 'No.' And he said then, 'Why are you allowing your daughter to get married at such a young age?' And this is where Mum's common-sense came in and she said [laughs], I can just imagine her saying this, 'If I don't let her' — in her broken English — 'they're going to do it anyway. It. And if they do it, then all sorts of troubles could come.' And she said, 'So I thought let them get married: if it works it works, and if it doesn't, it doesn't.' And so he said, 'Well, you're taking a pretty intelligent attitude towards it' and that was it. And so permission was given. And that was her attitude.
Well, I married a man called Charlie D'Aprano. And he was Italian-born. And it was a wonderful romance. It really was. And I could then express myself emotionally and sexually and physically, and no holds barred. And it was just wonderful to be in that situation without being frightened. But, at the same time, being aware that I didn't want to conceive too quickly, I had to concern myself about contraception. And — because I approached Mum for advice, and Mum said I just don't know what to tell you, go and talk to a doctor — and this is where, you know, the real worries came in. And I did conceive after seven months of marriage. And all the time, up until that seven months, I was always worried about it. And so we used different methods, which were pretty primitive in those days.
Well, the doctor that I went to advised me to get a man-sized handkerchief, soak it in oil and insert it. And he said, 'Nothing will pass that oil.'
Yes. Yes. And I ultimately used a little cap, the Stopes, Marie Stopes cap, but it obviously didn't work as it should have, because I conceived. But at that stage I was happy to go ahead with the pregnancy, and even though it was an unplanned pregnancy, it was a wanted pregnancy after it happened.
I was 17-and-a-half when Leonie was born, yes.
Well, it was quite interesting, because my mother was terrified for Leonie. She came up to bathe her, because she didn't think I'd be capable of bathing her. And she did this for two or three days and then I don't know what happened, but Mum couldn't come. She missed a couple of days and so I did the bathing of her. And when Mum did arrive: 'How is she? How is she?' I said, 'She's fine, why shouldn't she be?' 'Did you bathe her?' 'Of course I bathed her.' And I think that I was quite a responsible mother in looking after the physical needs of her. I wouldn't say, at that age, that I was a hundred per cent as a mother, on the psychological side of it. I doubt whether anyone as young as that can be. And because of my youth, I was impatient for her to grow. I thought, 'Oh, won't it be wonderful when she can sit up' and 'Won't it be wonderful when she can walk' and 'Won't it be wonderful when she can read so I don't have to read to her.' And so, to a degree I was wishing her life away, because I was impatient in that regard. I was very loving and caring and warm and affectionate, but I missed out, I think, when looking back, on watching her development, because I was too ignorant and unaware of those sort of things, and when I saw how my daughter was with her daughter, it even more so came to me how much I missed out through being too immature.
Well, we had just what all other working people had. He was in uniform at the time, like he was in the same Labour Company as my father was, at the time. And so, that was what, five shillings a day or whatever it was. But after Leonie was born, the war came to an end, and then he had to go out into the world and he had no trade. One of the chaps in the army, he came out, opened up a little case factory, and Charlie went to work for him in his case factory. And luckily, after five years, we got a housing commission house, which was an absolute joy. I could have kissed every floorboard in that house, because up until the time we moved in there we were living with relatives and in rooms, and it was very, very, unpleasant at times. And so getting this house was just so wonderful. And so I was a housewife, stayed at home with my daughter. I didn't have any choice anyway, because there was no child care, it was only half a day a week. And I wouldn't give her to anyone else to look after. I mean, I suppose I could have chosen that as an alternative and go to work, but I wouldn't do that.
No — not a great lot. But there was still terrible hardships there. And living in a commission area, everyone that came in, came in with children. And there was poverty there. And very few of the women went to work. But as soon as she was reaching school age I had it all planned that I was off to work. And the day she started school, I started working in another factory. And in the clothing trade. And I used to have to travel all the way from West Heidelberg to Fitzroy by public transport. And in those days it meant changing from a bus to a tram and the same coming home. And it was a long distance. And I did it, and those days, because of the full employment and the desperate need to get people to work, they needed people so badly in the factories, I was able to work part time. But it was still a tremendous effort to do that.
Now, could you describe what life was life in a housing commission development at that period, just post-war, with working-class people who'd moved out into the housing commission, with children, and so on. Could you just describe what life was like and what their aspirations were, what it was like for the women, what it was like for the men, and what they were focused on as the things that they valued and hoped for from life?
Well firstly, for the men, there were very few cars. People didn't have cars in those days. And they lived a long distance away from factories and workplace and it meant a lot of travelling. And that could be a damn nuisance, because so much of your time was spent travelling to get to work, and then travelling all the way home. And my husband was in that situation. And he used to have to catch public transport to work and it was a long way, and then all the way back. So it wasn't easy for them. On the other hand, the wives were stuck at home with no money, no cars; isolated. As far as aspirations were concerned, there were almost nil. Very few women had any aspirations in those days. They just, sort of, lived day by day and did the best they could under the circumstances. There was a lot, I think, of depression. And I can remember feeling so cold, and we couldn't afford to have any heating on. And I used to wrap myself in a blanket and sit and knit or do needlework. I embroidered so many doilies, I think that there'll be enough for the next 10 generations, you know. I gave some to my daughter. I've still got them. I mean, no-one uses them these days anyway. But I had all these doilies of all sorts and even made aprons, totally covered in hand-work. I mean, you know, what a waste, for an apron, for goodness sake, you know. But these are the things, you know, that I did to fill in time. And feeling terribly isolated and depressed, just, you know, sitting there — wrapped in a blanket.
No, I didn't. And I went straight to work and I got a job as a waitress part-time. But I had to seek part-time work because I wanted to do the right thing as a wife and prepare my husband's tea and all that sort of thing when he got home. And I did. And I still went from job to job, because I was very dissatisfied with the different types of jobs that I had. And I went to work in a factory because I wanted to learn to sew. And it was when I went to work in this particular factory that I became pregnant. And so I worked until I was seven-and-a-half months, and by the time I finished there, I was sewing some of their best dresses, which was good because I had learnt a good skill. And so I was happy as far as that was concerned. After the baby was born and then eventually when we lived in the commission area — well, I think we moved there when Leonie was three-and-a-half, and I had to sort of travel out to work — and the jobs were just as frustrating. And even though, I mean, I could sew and I could make ladies' overcoats and blouses and dresses and all that type of thing, it becomes very mundane and routine. And I was beginning to get discontented because I found myself feeling I could have done, could be doing, something more interesting, something better. And so I'd get very bored with the jobs and I'd leave them. And then within two months I was so bored of being home, then I'd go back and get another job. And in those days, there were plenty of jobs available, so I could do it. But what was interesting is that on the one hand while I got bored with them, on the other hand it was good to have the money, because we had a home, and we needed things for the home. So I was flat out buying stuff. The first thing I can remember we had to get was a refrigerator, because we had an ice chest. And because we were both busy and forget to empty the drip tray underneath there'd be a flood all over the floor. So the very first thing we had to buy was a refrigerator. So it was the first refrigerator we had. And because we had to pay it off, everything was on hire purchase. But going to work had some meaning then, because I was helping to get things for the home. But even with that, I'd become discontented and I'd leave and then start somewhere else a few months later. And this was a pattern that was set in, you know, until eventually, through joining and being in the Communist Party I was beginning to talk to educated people and professionals and all that sort of thing, whom I'd never mixed with socially before or in any other capacity; here I was in that environment. And they encouraged me to try and get work somewhere else. And so I applied for a job as a dental nurse in a psychiatric hospital. And I was just so eager to get this job. And I actually got an interview, and I was so nervous and I still remember the superintendant interviewed me. And he did say that they preferred to have a single woman, because they wanted someone to be more or less there permanently. And I assured him that, you know, I wanted to have a permanent position. And I got the job. And I didn't find out until later, the only reason I got it was because I was the only applicant. But I was so thrilled that I landed the job. And it meant so much to me. And I was anxious to learn, and eager to work. And I can recall the day when I had to go and get my white uniform. And I put it on, because I had already been measured up for it — no, I picked it up and I raced back to the surgery and I had a wardrobe with a mirror on the door. And so I opened it up and put it on and I just felt as if I had become a human being. Even having that white uniform added something to my sense of self-worth and confidence. And I felt, at last, you know, I was going to be something, and I was going to do work that was important and valuable. And it brought around a whole sort of new change in my life. Not that that was to last for very long.
But when you were working in a factory you were conscious, even though you didn't socialise with people who might have looked down on factory workers, you still knew that you weren't in a position that was respected? How did you know that?
This seems to come right from your beginning, not even in the factory. It goes well before that, you know, your family environment, the poverty, the insignificance that your parents even feel. I mean they were migrants without English, and migrants were only brought here to do the dirty work. And they very rapidly learn that. And it's something that sort of passes to the next generation, depending of course on your parents' backgrounds and social standing, education, everything else. And of course my parents were just working people, and so they brought that with them, and it gets passed on to you, unless they themselves push you because they want you to be in a different situation, which has happened a lot in more recent years. I mean, the migrants have been anxious for their children to be educated and improve their lot, you know, so they don't have to work in the type of jobs that they've had to do. But that didn't happen because my parents were in the Depression era.
Well, that was very interesting, really, because at that stage my husband was also in it too. And I started to organise a group of women in the locality, over the increased prices. I was so annoyed because we were struggling, everyone around in the commission area was struggling, to make ends meet. And the price of gas and electricity were both going up. And people just didn't know how they were going to cope. So I went round and door-knocking, you know, to try and get a group of women together to see if we couldn't do something about it. And we started to meet and we started writing letters— to the gas board and the electricity board and all these places — protesting about this increase in prices. And sooner or later, you know, we got a doctor to come and talk to us on the health scheme, different people to come and talk to us. And then eventually we ran out of ideas and so the whole thing faded away. But in the meantime, looking back, I think the local branch of the Communist Party felt that here was something going on that they didn't have any control over or knew nothing about. [laughs] And so two men from the local branch came and paid a visit and talked to me, and asked me if I'd like to join the Communist Party. And I said, oh yes, all right, and I signed a little paper and there and then I was a member, and that was as easy as that. And of course, when my husband came home I told him. And he said, 'Why didn't you let me join you up?' and I said, 'Because you never asked.' But it wasn't difficult, there was nothing secret about it. It was very simple really. So there I found myself a communist.
But with your husband a communist and your mother a communist, it wasn't really an unfamiliar scene to you. You make it sound quite casual that you joined. You must have known what you were doing. Did you?
Well no, not really. I hadn't given it any deep thought or anything. And — but it was a different scene where I was, because nearly all the people there were educated. And whereas in Mother's day they were all working people in Carlton, there was no educated people there, university graduates or professionals. And yet, in this branch there were. And perhaps if I'd known I wouldn't have joined. And yet going there, I felt so ignorant when I used to go to the meetings. I felt so terribly ignorant. And then, when one woman told my husband that he should teach me to speak English, I mean that really set me off, and I really went berserk. I was quite emotional about it. I mean, because I thought communism was supposed to benefit the working class, and you know, here I am a worker, and they tell my husband, who was a migrant, who didn't come here til he was 14, that he should teach me how to speak English. I was devastated. I was terribly hurt. But there were, I suppose, a handful of working-class people there but in the main they were middle class and educated people.
… better myself.
Oh, there was a lot of things that were contradictory. I mean, there were communists who were in business and here they are exploiting workers in their factories and going to meetings and being great theoreticians, you know. It's like all these isms and religious organisations, it doesn't matter what the adherence and members do, as long as they say the right things and hand in the money. And it doesn't matter what they do out in the world.
Oh, very much so. I really believed, you know, that it would solve all the problems of economic disasters, it would give everybody a good life, that it would prevent wars, that people would stop killing each other and live peacefully together and I mean it was the answer to everything, and I genuinely believed it, yes, very much so. In fact, what was the alternative? I mean, you know, what was the alternative?
I didn't very well. It was only after some years, because I was in the Communist Party 21 years — it was only when I started to think about women's position in society and at that stage I was beginning to get crapped off with the Party …
… Can I go back, though, to when you first joined and you were going to your local branch and they were telling you that you'd have to learn to speak better English and this sort of thing. I mean, could you describe what that was like for a working person to be in that situation, and how you dealt with it. Did it make you seek education? What did that do? So could I ask you that question again?
Well, it didn't make me seek education, but they had great libraries of books. And I was forced to look at myself, and recognise that I was ignorant. And there was so much I didn't know and that I had to learn. And so I started to borrow books from these comrades, from their extensive collections. And I started off with books like Charles Dickens and Scott [Sir Walter] and they were all novels. But they were novels, they were a full book. Even to read a full book requires discipline and it's a process that you have to learn to develop because I was only used to short little articles in magazines, and prolonged reading takes — it's a new form that you have to learn. And so, I started to do that, and I started to lose myself into these books, just like I had done with the romance books earlier. And I'd start reading one after another. I wanted to know desperately; I wanted to learn so much. And I went to classes in the Communist Party too, and learnt about economics, and what was happening in the world and how capitalism worked and how socialism was going to work. And all these things. I can remember on one occasion, when I disagreed with someone, and they said in a very cultured voice, 'Zelda, how can you disagree with Marx?' I didn't even know I was but anyway [laughs], I can remember being upset when she said that. And I said something to the effect that I disagree with Stalin too, if I don't agree with him. Why shouldn't I? Or something like that. And the tutor was very good. And he immediately came in and said, 'Look, it's important to say if you don't — what you really feel and think and it's important to disagree if that's what you believe. We don't want yes people in the Communist Party.' And I don't think he ever knew what he did for me, because saying what he did made me feel so much better because at the time when she said that, you know, I felt like crawling under the mat on the floor. And so this is the sort of thing that I had to put up with, but I think I stayed there despite that, because I felt I had so much to learn, and that I could learn from these people. And that's one of the reasons I think I stayed there.
Well, that was interesting, because I had all these great hopes and I thought, 'Oh, this is something.' I was really going to do something important here. I mean, you know, I'll be doing something to help people. And the dentist that was employed at this hospital was a man who'd only come there to work out his retirement. He only had a few years before he was going to retire. And so I didn't mix a filling in the six years, five or six years, he was there.
Of course they did, but if it was too bad he extracted. And of course what happened was that the nursing staff used to hop into me, and tell me how they felt about this. But I used to say to them, you know, I'm only the nurse. I have nothing to do with this, you know. If you've got any complaints, you take them elsewhere. And I became very disillusioned with the whole scene, because no-one said anything to him, and he stayed there til he retired. And then, fortunately, they got a young dentist in. He was wonderful. And so he encouraged me to go and do a nursing training course, dental nursing training course, which they had just started for part-time nurses, took place at night at the Dental Hospital. And so, I immediately went there and did a dental nurses' course, and learnt the skills that a dental nurse required, and what's more they were practiced at the hospital and it was really great.
Yes, I did get involved in union matters and that was an education of my life because I believed in the trade union movement, and I still do, despite the problems, I approached — I made inquiries and found out who the shop steward was, and told him I wanted to join the union. And would he please let me know when the next meeting was on, general meeting. And I waited and waited and waited and waited. And I kept sort of asking him, you know, 'You haven't forgotten to tell me when the next meeting is on?' Oh, no, no. And ultimately he told me about this meeting that was on. And it was the first meeting that the union had had for 18 months. And it was called because there were three vacancies on the executive of the union and they needed to be filled. And so they called this meeting to fill these vacancies. I didn't know it at the time but I found out later that there wasn't even a quorum there. And to add insult to injury, we had to elect three people to go on the executive. Now, I'd never been to a meeting before, and it covers the whole state of Victoria. And here I was, I had to vote for three people. How could I vote for people I didn't even know? And I told them this, you know — I found out in the meantime they were supposed to have quarterly meetings -- and I explained that I've come here to this meeting, and I've got to vote for three people, but I don't even know you, except for the shop steward from my hospital was the only one I knew. And it just wasn't good enough, that the rules say that you have to have quarterly meetings and you should start doing this. Of course, they began to realise that they had someone in their midst who was going to push them. And I did this. And the battle was on. And it sort of was like they saw me as the enemy, and they ultimately brought busloads of people to the meetings from all over the place to attend the meetings, and [when] we finished up it wasn't unusual to have sort of hundreds at a meeting. But what happened was, at that stage there was the big problems in Victoria with the DLP and Catholic Action and all that type of thing was going on at the time. And they controlled the union.
Oh, I'm sure I was, even though I never said anything and I never said I was a communist. But I remember this shop steward saying to me, 'But you want the members to control the union.' And I said, 'Yes. It's their organisation.' He said, 'But that's communism.' And I just sort of looked at him and I said, Well, it's their organisation. Surely they must have a control of what happens there.' 'Oh, no,' he said, 'it's the executive that has to control it.' And so they used all their skills to retain power over the union. And they did nothing. And we had to force them to do everything even when, for example, the nursing staff were entitled to so many uniforms a year. And you would think that would be routine in government-run institutions. I mean, it was written down in laws and rules but you had to fight to even get the uniforms that they were supposed to be entitled to. You had to fight all the way. And that was something I was shocked at. I'd always worked for sort of small, private enterprise before and you know you've always got to hassle with the boss. But when I started to work for the government I really thought it would be straight down the line and they would always do the right thing. That shows you how naive I was. But I soon learnt. And the battle was on and so you're fighting the government on the one hand, because they won't do anything, and then you were fighting the union because they wouldn't do anything either. And so the battle was really on.
It was the Hospital Employees' Union, number two branch. Number one branch was general hospitals and number two branch was the psychiatric hospitals.
Oh yes, as far — I wasn't [an] infiltrator because I wasn't in the union and they wouldn't let me get in. Not that I had any ambitions. That's — see that's another interesting factor. I wasn't interested in getting on the executive or holding a position in the union because I really felt that I was incapable of holding such a responsible position, which is very interesting. And yet, when I looked at some of these people, they were such dumbos, you know — a blind elephant could have done a better job. And yet, I still didn't have the confidence. So I always fought them and made them work on behalf of the members. Mind you, I couldn't have done this if there wasn't any discontent on the job, because there was tremendous discontent on the job, and with the union. And it's only because the people who were discontented came to the union meetings that made the changes possible. I mean, I gave them every assistance and there were others who came in and started fighting as well. So I just didn't do this alone. No-one can do anything alone. And so the members got more interested in their own organisation and started to play a more active role. And it was only when someone criticised me for always being an attacker, 'you never stand for a position', that forced me then to nominate, knowing full well they wouldn't let me there anyway. But at least I had taken that step. And I did, I nominated for a position and they — of course they defeated me. And so I never, ever got on the executive. And I knew they wouldn't allow that.
There were two women and they were both DLP Catholic Action. One of them knew so little about unions she asked at a general meeting how you went about getting I think it was toilet rolls in a ward or something to that effect. I mean, you know, that's how ignorant she was. But she did what they wanted her to do and that's all — the only reason she was there for.
I can't remember the exact number on the executive, but I would have thought there would have been about 11.
Oh, no. It was about 50/50, because all psychiatric hospitals at that stage were half male, half female. And so you had the nursing staff on both sides dealing with their particular area. And in my hospital, I became the shop steward for all the female staff. And that was all the female staff apart from the administration. Because it was what they call an industrial union. In other words, the union covered the whole industry apart from the administration.
I worked there for 15 years.
Well, I saw the union come from nothing to an active organisation. And the staff were at a point where they were prepared to fight for what they wanted. And this was the most important step of all. I never at any stage took up equal pay as I should have. In fact, I never saw myself at that stage as having any individual problems as a woman. And when I think back, I think 'oh my god', you know. But at that stage I fought totally for conditions irrespective. I can remember — and rightly so — standing up and saying that men should be able to retire at 60, the same as women did. Because I saw a definite deterioration in the last five years in the health of men on that job. I was very aware of it. And I was pushing for men to have the choice to retire at 60 as well as women. But I never saw women's individuals problems as something to fight for. And that sort of came later.
Well, Charlie never prevented me from doing anything I wanted to do in that regard — my involvement, whether it was political or social or industrial. And he always was supportive. And he was active in the union himself because at that stage he was working in one of the hospitals as a painter. And so he had been very active in it too until I encouraged him to go on and be educated, which he did, and finished up leaving the hospital and becoming a teacher. But while there he was always supportive.
Part of my duty was to go two days a week to a retarded children's centre. I spent three days at an adult psychiatric hospital and two days at a retarded children's centre. And of course, I'd been going there 15 years. And I reached a stage where I was beginning to lose patience with these children. Now, some of these children were twice my weight but, of course, they were retarded. And I had to fight with them in the chair, and some of the littlies would wet and I'd have to clean it all up. And I was just beginning to get tired of this. And I thought, oh, this is no good. Also, added to that, is my marriage had broken up. As a single woman again — this happened when I was 37 —living alone out in suburbia wasn't in any way positive for me. I needed to be closer to the city where there was more life and more things happening that I could go to as a single woman. I had to change my whole way of life. So between my personal situation, living situation, and losing patience with these children, I thought it would be better for me to undertake a total change and that meant going back to live in Carlton if possible, and changing my job and getting a job elsewhere.
I think there were many factors to this. We were both married very young and a relationship developed like as if we grew up together. And what happened was we sort of became like a sister and a brother. And I personally, anyway, reached a stage where I felt as if we'd given each other all there was to give and there didn't seem to be anything else left. And we drifted apart. In fact, the whole thing became very boring. We were polite and respectful, but it became boring and there was no sort of life or vivacity or anything left in it. And whereas I would have found it more difficult to go because of insecurity, Charlie wasn't. And so he left.
No, no. He didn't talk about leaving, no. I just found a note on the table to say he'd gone. And I was extremely devastated. And I was frightened. I was very, very, frightened as to how I was going to manage. I had never, ever, been on my own. I'd gone straight from sort of childhood into marriage, and so I never knew what it was to be alone.
I don't really know looking back. I think, possibly, it's because I didn't know how I was going to cope. Now 'cope' covers a big sphere — in which area I'm not sure. But I was frightened, I suppose basically, of being alone. And yet looking back I was such a strong person anyway; in a sense sort of contradictory. But this is what happens to people, you know, human beings. And that's the situation I was in. And luckily at the hospital there was only one psychiatrist that I could approach. And he was a little deformed man who had been in a concentration camp in Germany, and by all accounts of Hollywood standards, he would have been considered a very ugly little man. And he was the one that I could approach and he was really lovely in being supportive to me. And he started telling me about his marriages. [laughs] And he really bucked me up and made me laugh, and he was really wonderful. But all I wanted, really, and all I went to him for was because I wanted some sleeping tablets, because I was so distressed I just couldn't sleep. For several nights I hadn't slept at all, and I knew I couldn't keep going if I didn't sleep. And he wouldn't give me the sleeping tablets of course until he found out what the problem was, which is understandable. And then he, having spoken to me, knew I wasn't going to sort of do away with myself or anything like that. So he gave me the tablets. But he said, quite clearly, 'You won't need them for long. You'll be right.' But he was really wonderful.
Well he, like me, and like most working people, was very dissatisfied with his job, and unhappy. And he had far more capability than the job that he was doing. But having come here at 14 and never having gone to school in Australia, he felt very inadequate to the task. And so I was very supportive in encouraging him to go. And at that stage it was possible to do your studies at night, which he did; he started. But there were about three other men we knew who were working-class men who also were doing the same thing at the time. And so they were supportive to each other as well. And they all finished up becoming teachers, the three of them. And Charlie was one of them.
He first went and got his matriculation, which we call HSC now. And then he went on to do an arts degree, part-time at Melbourne University. And at that time, after he completed about two years they were so desperate for school teachers at the time that they employed him as a secondary school teacher on the condition, of course, that he went ahead and completed his BA, which he did. And I think he'd been studying altogether about seven years when the marriage broke up.
Not at all — I couldn't see myself doing a university course. But after completing that dental nurses' course I went and did a chiropody course at night school for two years. And I did extremely well in that. But never practiced it — that didn't worry me, I love learning and I enjoyed going. But I didn't practice it.
Well, there was talk in the hospital sphere that there was going to be another position created for a chiropodist in one of the hospitals. And I thought, well, having worked there for so long and with qualifications, if I was to get them, that I'd be in the box seat to get the position. So I got the qualifications but the position was never created. And the type of person that I am, it wasn't really suitable for me anyway because in the main, chiropody is a disease of the aged. And I live for the future; even though I'll be 70 in a couple of years, I still live for the future. That's my temperament. And what happens when you treat elderly people, who are free to talk while you operate on their feet— in the main, they live in the past — and temperamentally it didn't suit me.
Formal education, no, no.
No. I often thought about going, you know, to university.
Oh yes, I did.
Yes, actually, what was happening at that time, when my marriage was still intact, [was that] Charlie was studying and Leonie was studying for her Leaving Certificate. And I happened to be looking at her books, and I just looked at them and I said, 'Oh, I could do this.' And she said, 'Of course you could. Why don't you?' And I thought, 'Oh well, will I?' And I thought, 'Yeah, I'll give it a go.' So I enrolled for one subject and I'm not sure now whether it was Modern History or British History, it was one of those at the time. And so I put in an application and I read her material three weeks before the exam. And I went in and I sat in the Exhibition Buildings with thousands of kids, and looked around me and I thought oh hell, you know. I thought well, bugger it, here I go. And so I just went off. And I passed. And I was just staggered. So I thought, oh maybe it was a fluke. So the following year I applied to do the other history. And I went and did the same thing again and I passed again. So I realised then that it wasn't a fluke, that I could do it.
Yeah, I just read the notes three weeks before the exam, and went and did it. And I suppose as an adult, and being involved in the world and politics and being interested in everything, you have a totally different attitude, and so reading the notes just brought everything that they wanted me to say in an exam forward. And I had a pretty good memory, and so I was able to do it. But I realised then that doing the subjects this way wouldn't get me the Leaving Certificate, because you had to do a certain amount of subjects within a certain time-span. So the following year I had to do three subjects to get my Leaving. And so I was working of course as a dental nurse full-time, and that's when I gave up on the union work, because I couldn't do that as well. And so, while working full-time, I went to night school and I did needlework, which of course I had done, worked in the factories for years so there was no problem. And I had to do that at the local tech, and I did English and commercial principles, I think it was; at the time they called it that. And English was the thing that worried me more than anything.
I passed, always passed, when I was at school. But I missed the boat somewhere in fully understanding all these terms of grammar. I mean, I knew the simple things like adjectives and verbs and nouns and pronouns, but when it came to all the other names that I can't even remember now off the top of my head, I was lost. And I had a real thing about it. I mean, I passed the grammar, but I didn't know why I passed, if you know what I mean. And so I had a tremendous fear. And going to night school and having to do the English, because we had to do essays. And the one good thing about this teacher, who was a teacher by day — he was an older man — and taught in his garage in Melbourne during the winter and all, and you'd sit there in his garage and he'd take this class, but the wonderful thing about him is he didn't correct your work and tell you where you'd gone wrong. He'd put a circle around one of my sentences once and he said, 'This is not a sentence.' And he didn't say why. And I went home and I just looked at it. Why isn't it a sentence? Why? Why? Why? And I knew a sentence had to have a verb and a noun, subject and adjective and all this sort of stuff, and I didn't go and just ask anyone. I realised I had to work it out for myself. And I realised it didn't have a verb — but even so I still lacked the confidence. I suppose I didn't think my vocabulary was good enough. Speaking English to non-English speaking parents, you're forced to reduce your vocabulary so that your parents can understand your English. And it can become habit forming, and what's more you don't develop a more extensive vocabulary. And so all these things played a part. But of course I did pass. And so I got my Leaving Certificate. I got all those three subjects, and so I had my Leaving Certificate.
Well, I would have had to, at that stage, go and do my HSC. Now one young woman I knew, who was about my age, went ahead and did it. And I didn't. I didn't. And of course there were stages I could have gone to university easily if I'd wanted to. But I chose not to. And there were many reasons why I chose not to. Many.
One of the main reasons — and it might seem idealistic and crazy — was I saw a lot of intelligent working-class people, who understood the situation that workers were in and all that sort of thing, go to university, get qualifications, some of them genuinely believing that they'd be able to give more back by doing this. But they got sucked into the system and became very middle class and were doing very well for themselves and that was the end of it. And I felt that the working people lacked any form of leadership — or had very little leadership — particularly from working-class people, who were capable. So what I had, and what abilities I had, I felt that I wanted to be there with them. And if I did a university course I know that they wouldn't accept me any more, because they would — and justifiably so — feel, well, what's she doing here with us when she can go out and get 40,000 bucks a year, sort of thing, you know. They'd immediately feel suspicious about you. And even though they always knew I was different, they still accepted me. But if I had done a university course, they wouldn't have. That was one reason, not the only one.
During the period of your marriage and living out there in the suburbs, and travelling in to work, working in the union, attending Communist Party meetings, did this affect at all the way in which you looked after Leonie?
Making all my clothes, making all her clothes, knitting all her jumpers, knitting my husband's jumpers and being very particular in the house, I don't think so. I mean, you'd have to ask her that. But I feel that only having the one child — and this is, was, important — I mean if I'd had two or three I couldn't have done it. But only having the one child, I felt able to do that. And Charlie was very co-operative and very helpful too. And the emergency when we both — which was on odd occasions — had to go out then Mum would always come up and babysit, which she just delighted in doing. But as far as parenting, I have asked Leonie, honestly and genuinely, how she saw her childhood and did she consider she had e a happy childhood? And she said, yes she did. And — not because she just wanted to please me, because we have talked about it —we didn't indulge her in material things, but we did take her to theatre, to concerts, to see overseas artists, and encourage — to opera. We took her to all these things, spending money on that sort of thing we felt was worthwhile. But I didn't indulge her in fancy clothes and things like that. That was of secondary importance. But I mean we were always dressed well. But I felt culturally that so many working-class kids miss out. It's not as if they get a choice, but they should be able to have the choice of all sorts of culture so they can decide themselves what they're going to like and what they're going to appreciate in later life.
Well, I went from the hospital to work in the Meat Industry Union [Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union] office in Melbourne. At this stage I was still in the Communist Party and the union had a communist secretary. And I always admired these people and felt they were so intelligent and had so much to offer, and I always felt that I had so much to learn. I never, ever, considered I had anything to offer. And so I went to work there in the office, which was a big change for me. And, in the meantime, I sold the house in West Heidelberg which we had bought from the housing commission, and I bought a unit in Carlton. So I was back in the inner city, I was close to my work situation. But at that stage, when I went to work in the union office, I had my house on the market and I wanted to buy this flat. But neither transaction had gone through at that stage. I was happy to be working there, but I still had to travel all the way back to West Heidelberg every day to the commission house and anxiously waiting for the house to be sold and, you know, buying this flat. And so, that was a big change. When I decided to leave the hospital I was terrified again. It was a big step to take. I knew I was qualified in the job I was doing. I didn't know what was going to happen to me, taking on a totally different sphere of work, and at that stage I was what — about 41 — and so I was nervous, very nervous.
No, no, I just decided as a single woman, living in suburbia was no good. I was getting impatient with the kids at Janefield Colony and so I had to make this change. I discussed it with different friends but ultimately I had to make the decision myself and wear it and so I did.
Now, you began work in the union movement, which had been a very, very, important part of your life, and you really moved to the centre of it, didn't you? Where was the union actually situated? … [INTERRUPTION]
You'd been very involved as an activist in the union movement, and you were now moving into where the unions were organised. Where was the office situated and what sort of a change did this bring in your relationship with union activity?
Well, the union office itself was right in the Trades Hall building in Melbourne, and that meant going there to work. And here I was going there with all my ideals and expectations of all these wonderful knowledgeable people and how I was going to learn so much from them. And it was very, very, strange because I went in there feeling that I — even apart from all the aspects of trade unionism that I had to learn —also had to learn the work that I had to do in the office. Well, I am a very capable person and I very rapidly learnt all the responsibilities that I was given to do in the office and even extended those responsibilities beyond what I was supposed to do. And I had been told by the young woman who had worked in that same office some years previously, I asked her, 'What is the routine in offices?' because I was unaware of this. How long do you have to wait before you seek an increase in salary? What are the procedures you go through, especially in a union office? And she told me, rightly or wrongly that when you've worked in an office for six months, by that stage you should have proved yourself, and if you think you're doing the job capably then you ask for an increase in salary. So I kept that in mind. But what I found was, amongst the staff there was quite a bit of discontent. And the building itself, because it's right in almost the city area, the windows were double-glazed to prevent the noise from coming in. The only fresh air that came into that entire building where the union was situated was from the front door that led [to] the corridor of the building. And so it was pretty stuffy. Also too, they didn't have a cleaner to come in or anything like that. And I went from a dental surgery in all its cleanliness to this. I found it very hard to cope, and so Friday afternoons I'd just stop an hour before knock-off time and clean all around me and clean up, so that when I came in on Monday morning I came into a clean office. And so they used to sort of sling off and call me 'Sadie the Cleaning Lady', and all those sorts of stuff. But the things that you normally expect in any work situation, and the conditions that you're entitled to have, just didn't exist there.
That's correct. When I had been there for a while and heard the staff complaining to each other about what was wrong and what was needed, I couldn't understand why they just complained to each other and I said, 'Look, why don't you go and tell them what you want?' And they said, 'Oh, it's not as easy as that.' And I said, 'What do you mean, it's not as easy as that? If there's something wrong and it's obviously so wrong, then you have to be able to go and tell George [Seelaf].' He was the secretary. And they said, 'No, you can't.' I said, 'Well, tell the executive.' They said, 'You can't do that either'. And I was saying, 'Well, look, I don't understand what's going on here.' And everyone was quiet, including me. I just didn't know what to do. And I thought, if only the people at the hospital could see me now, the great agitator and fighter, sitting in this union office with so much that's wrong and not doing anything, you know, it just seemed so strange. And when the six months were up and I put in for an increase in salary, I was surprised at the hostility of the staff there towards me, you know, two of whom were my comrades in the Communist Party.
Yeah, that I shouldn't have put in for it.
Probably. They didn't say that but — I mean that goes without saying, doesn't it? The other woman there, who wasn't a communist, said to me in the presence of a communist, 'What makes you think you should get the same salary that we do?' And the tone of voice was terrible. And I was shocked, and I just looked at her and I said, 'I didn't say I should get the same salary that you're getting. All I said is — asked was for an increase.' And then I got sarcastic, and I said, 'But I'm sorry I didn't realise that you were paying my salary' and I walked off. I didn't get the increase.
George was an extremely capable man who had a background like me. He grew up in poverty. He — I believe — in the meatworks drove a horse and cart, going round picking up the offal or something. That's what he was fit for. That's all he was fit for with this mind that he had. And I feel personally that he so desperately wanted acceptance, recognition, praise, from the people in society who had made it. And he'd been in the union position for so long that, like quite a few union leaders, they ultimately finish up feeling contempt for the working-class because [of] the old saying, 'No-one respects the slave.' And so he chose to hobnob with successful people and some of them were the people who owned the meatworks, and by rubbing shoulders with these sort of people, he felt that he was somebody. And I feel that all that was very sad, because he was a man with tremendous capabilities.
I felt it had got to that stage, yes. Put it this way, he sought the approval of the owners of the meatworks more than he was interested in what the workers thought or felt.
Yes ... and he was still at that stage a member of the state committee of the Communist Party.
Well, I was there, and stayed there under the circumstances. And I felt that there wasn't much else I could do. And what happened then was that because of this — the union being involved in the equal pay case — George would come in with thousands of leaflets and just plonk them on the table and say, I want you to distribute these. And myself and one of the other women, a comrade, would go out and hand out these — in our own time of course, not in George's time — and at that stage handing out leaflets in the city was an offence. So you had to watch out for the police, to see that they weren't around and catch you in the act. And in the main, I went out on my own. I tried to get women working in the other offices of the unions, even in so-called left-wing unions, and I got very little help or support in distributing these leaflets.
Well, at that stage, I mean, I was all for the equal pay of course. But I hadn't been involved in anything in any depth. And this industry was being used as a test case, and there was a lot of optimism, tremendous amount of optimism. And the organisers were all very optimistic and they spoke as if it was just, you know, definitely going to come in; there wasn't going to be any problem there. But just in case it didn't come off, my god, there was going to be big trouble, big trouble. But everyone was very optimistic and at that stage Bob Hawke was the advocate for the ACTU, and with me handing out leaflets all the time, and being involved, I was asked on the day that the case was being heard, to go into the [then] Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission building, be there, and they were booking off women shop stewards and different women from the meatworks and paying them to come in that day, not only to attend and see what happens, but also to demonstrate outside. And so we did and I was with them in the demonstration outside the Arbitration Commission and then we went in altogether and sat to hear the case presented.
Now this was a first for me. I had never, ever, been to a commission hearing of any sort; I'd never been in the building. And so it was quite an education. What happened was, of course, all the women were sitting there in the body of the commission and then there were all men at the top, all the commissioners were male. All the ones arguing for the increase were male, and all the ones arguing against were male. And Bob Hawke, as I say, presented the case. And I just couldn't believe this, and I thought, here are all the women, here we are, all sitting here as if we haven't got a brain in our bloody heads, as if we're incapable of speaking for ourselves on how much we think we're worth. And here are all these men arguing about how much we're worth and all men are going to make the decision. And I found the whole experience to be humiliating and very demeaning and I came away feeling terribly angry and frustrated about that whole set up. And the result of the case was very disappointing because, I think, there was about six per cent of women already got equal pay for equal work in the plan, and I think only another six per cent got it or so. So, all told, there was 12 per cent of the women in the industry that got equal pay.
It was about 75 per cent, but of course men got bonuses and over-Award payments and all this sort of thing, which makes it, you know, makes it different. But also they gave equal pay for equal work, but women weren't always doing the same work as men. But the work they were doing was just as valuable, but because it's women doing it, they get less. And so the whole result of the case was extremely disappointing.
Well, I was expecting these big things to happen like the organisers were all saying, you know — if we don't get it, there'll be a big thing — and nothing happened, absolutely nothing happened. And I can't remember exactly how long it took, but I got a phone call from a woman, Dianne Ronberg, who was then the secretary of the Insurance Staffs Federation, and she asked me would I be interested in coming to a meeting of an organisation called VEWOC (Victorian Employed Women's Organisation Council), made up of representatives from all unions who had women members, female members. And they were going to discuss the question of equal pay and what could be done, and all this. So she asked me to come along if I was interested. So I said, yes, sure I will come. And so I went along. And there was only her and I that turned up, only the two of us, no-one else came. And at that stage, of course, the only ones who came to the meetings she told me were the men from these unions anyway. They never sent female representatives. And so we just started discussing things together and there was an election coming up — I think it was an election — and so they wanted some activity happening, you see, around the question of equal pay. And so suggestions were coming out that perhaps VEWOC could have a public meeting at the City Square. Now the City Square in Melbourne is right in the middle of the city and has two tram lines crossing each other beside it, trams, cars, people, everything.
And the idea was to speak there with megaphones on the question of equal pay. And we both decided it was an absolute and utter waste of time and that that wasn't going to do anything, I mean, but what they thought was, you see, they'd get a few politicians or people who were seeking a future in politics to come and speak and do their little act and be satisfied with that. But we weren't satisfied with that. We wanted some action. And Dianne said, what a pity we can't chain ourselves up. And then we just laughed and went on to talk. But in the meantime I thought about it and I thought, well something's got to happen. Someone's got to do something. So I told her I was prepared to chain myself up.
Like the suffragettes. And she was a bit staggered, wanted to know if I was serious, and I assured her I was. But I said, I would like to do it under the auspices of VEWOC, with their support. And she said, right, I'll ring. And so she rang the secretary of the Garment Workers' Union at the time, who was a man — and put it to him — and he just stammered and stuttered and she told me he almost had a fit. Oh no, no, no. Can't do anything like that, you know. Oh, no. And why not?, she said. But oh no, no. You don't have to do anything like that. That's not necessary. So she realised nothing was going to come of that and she told me what took place. So I just said I will do it without their support, but I want some women to come and give me some moral support. So I approached the Union of Australian Women (UAW) and two of the women from there came along, and one was a woman who worked with me in the union office, and another woman came from the Metal Trades Union office, and we also got a woman, Justice of the Peace, to be on hand there in case I was arrested. And so, I did this in my lunch hour. And I had to go and case the joint out first and see where the handles were on the doors and all that type of thing, and I also had to get the chain. And I was able to get that as a donation from the dockers' union — I forget what they're called now ... [INTERRUPTION]
Well, I had to go and case the joint and look to see where the handles were on the doors. Then I was able to get the chain donated from the Painters & Dockers Union. And I had to buy the locks myself. And I had it all arranged, and I was very nervous, and the day came and we notified the press and the television stations, and I went ahead and I chained myself across the door of the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne over the injustice done to women over salaries. And I had the women there to give me moral support. And the Commonwealth Police came, and — eventually —cut me off the chains. And so then I just walked back to the union and I had sandwiches there, which I had to eat while I worked, because I'd used up my lunch hour on the chains. And I shook for several hours afterwards. But of course, one of the things I had to remember beforehand, before the chain-up, was that I couldn't eat or drink for several hours because it would have been most embarrassing to be on the chain and find that I had to pay a visit to the toilet. So these were all the things I had to go into before I did it.
Ah, one television station, Channel 7, took footage of it, which disappeared from Channel 7 very early in the piece. And to my knowledge none of it was ever used. But the press featured it, yes, yes.
And when you were planning to do this, when you said, I think this is what I should do, was it something that you felt you wanted to do out of a feeling of anger about the lack of activity and a statement you wanted to make, or was it calculated to draw public attention to this event? In other words, were you a bit of a marketing genius to have thought of doing this, to get the attention to the matter?
I think it's a bit of both. I was just desperately frustrated with nothing happening, and angry that nothing was happening. But I also realised that — because the media is what the media is —nothing was going to happen, nothing was going to stir, unless drastic action was taken of some sort. And I was prepared to do that to draw attention to the plight of women.
Well, following this chain-up, I got a call from a woman I didn't know who wanted to be in one if I was going to do it again. And so she and another woman friend and myself got together, and three weeks later I think it was, or four weeks later, we chained ourselves up across the doors of the Arbitration Commission, because this was the institution that failed to give women justice. And then of course, from there on, we realised that we had to do something. Nothing was going to change unless we developed an organisation that was going to fight and fight hard and not be worrying about a ladylike image. And so that's what we did, and we called it the Women's Action Committee. We went into the press and we got publicity about it. We formed an organisation and we were off on to the trams and paying 75 per cent of the fare, because we only got 75 per cent of the wages. We went into the pubs and did pub crawls, because at that stage, women weren't allowed into public bars. We were forced into lounges. And with seventy-five per cent of the wages, and we had to pay more for drinks in the lounge, which was quite funny because most of us weren't even drinkers, but we did it because of the principle of it. And it's all part of exposing what happens to women.
And we undertook all these different types of activities, and we helped arrange the first pro-abortion rally in Melbourne, and abortion at that stage was a word that was never mentioned. In fact, in the Melbourne Herald, there were three words never mentioned — one was sex, one was abortion and one was contraception. And that was only about 27 years ago. That shows you how things have changed. And so we had the first abortion, pro-abortion rally, and 500 women marched, and we didn't know how many women were going to come out, because this was a very, very, private matter. As I said, even sister never told a sister and mother never told daughter, and daughter never told mother. And here we were expecting women to come out and march. And 500 came out and we were just so delighted. And I think it got three or four lines in a little column in a back page of the paper. I mean, 500 dogs would have attracted more attention.
Yes, yes. And what happened after we were, I suppose, about 12 months old — up until that stage, women's liberation didn't mean anything to us, because we saw all this terrible propaganda about them in the press, about the women's liberation, women in America. We didn't know what they were on about anyway, because everything was distorted in our press. And Cathy Gleeson, who ran Amnesty International Bookshop in Melbourne, got some publications, women's liberation publications, from America, which we bought and our minds just blew when we read the material, because we realised we had just so much in common. And we realised what they were really on about. And so from then on we started running what they called 'consciousness raising groups'. And for the first time women were starting to speak to each other in small groups, and very honestly, about things they'd never spoken about to anyone whether it would be abortions, whether it'd be incest, whether it would be experiences in a broken marriage or with lovers or whatever. And it just poured out, because for the first time women had a supportive environment with no-one being judgemental and all being given support. And it just poured out. And the whole thing started to explode to such an extent that two women, Bon Hull and myself, were taking all the phone calls and trying to deal with everyone ringing up and sort of pouring out their hearts hour after hour, night after night. I mean it was just impossible to cope with.
And eventually of course one or two small groups of left-wing women formed groups, but I think they called themselves women's liberationists, I'm not quite sure. But anyway we finished up realising we were women's liberationists. And at that stage we established a centre in the city, we opened up our centre in 1972, I think it was February or March, and the whole thing just went; it became larger and larger and larger, because for the first time, women had somewhere they could come to. I mean, it's hard for women now to understand what it was like, but there wasn't a doctor that you could recommend to talk to, there was no therapists, there was no women there who were supportive. There was just nothing. Psychiatry was all, you know, every woman is a hypochondriac or a depressive and fill her up with Valium or whatever the current tablet was of the time, and there was nowhere, nowhere you could go. And this was the very beginning of it all.
Well, what happened was, after my chain-up — that was, you know, at October — and when Christmas came and the holidays came, the building closed down, I think it was for eight days. Now normally, wherever I worked, whatever circumstances, usually the staff would go and have a drink together or you might have a dinner together or the boss might shout you to a nice lunch or whatever; something would happen even if it's a token gesture. But it [never] happened. And this was an experience I have never, ever, had before. George just disappeared. The organisers just flitted off one after another. The president came out and said, thanks very much girls, and went off. And the three women and one man just stood there — oh no, one woman I think was already on holidays, that's right, she'd gone off. There was only two women and a man there in the staff, three of us were left there, all just feeling like, like old bits that had been cast off and we just looked at each other and said, well, maybe we should go over the pub and have a drink. Yes, fine. So we just went over the road to the hotel and just had a drink, and we each went home. And when I came home, it was just such a terrible anti-climax, terrible. I'd never been treated like this.
So I got down and wrote a letter to George, telling him. I didn't abuse him or anything but just told him how I felt about the way he ignored the efforts of the staff, that in no way did he recognise the work that we did, and that he couldn't bring himself to even, whether hypocritically or not, wish us a Happy New Year or kiss my foot or drop dead, sort of thing. Nothing. And I felt that he was just treating us with sheer and utter contempt. And I didn't know his address because he had a silent phone. He wouldn't be disturbed after hours. So I had to ring the assistant secretary at the time to get his address. And I posted him that letter. Oh, and I did mention that the dentist that I'd worked with, who was a public school boy, and who was so warm and human and kind, and here he is the communist, you know, treating his staff like that. Anyway, when I got back after the Trades Hall opened again and everything was fine, nothing was said as if nothing happened, and so the work just went on and that was okay.
And I was interviewed for an article, by Michael Costigan I think his name was, about this women's movement we were going to start at the time, because this was all at the beginning when we were going to start this Women's Action Committee. And I came back from that interview with Mike Costigan, and went back — this is in the lunch hour I had this thing with him —to work and the [union] executive were meeting and I had to take an urgent message in to Geo. And I knocked on the door and walked in and George was on his feet and he was beside himself emotionally, you know. And he stopped and of course I gave him the message and then left. And when it was all over later on, the assistant secretary called me into his office and he informed me that ... [Zelda crying] ... that I was sacked from that minute.
Oh yes. I mean, I had so much faith in these people, in communism, all that stuff. And when I think of all the fighting that I'd done in the unions, in the hospital for other people — everything that I had done — and he a communist sacked me because I dared criticise him, justifiably I felt, and I still feel, and I was sacked on the spot. And the interesting thing is that no other union would employ me either. All the communists who were in the other unions, no-one would employ me. They made excuses as to why they wouldn't employ me. But they wouldn't employ me. And this was the — I couldn't put it down to anything else because not all the unions were lefties, and yet they still wouldn't employ me. And I think it is — you know there's that song, like male camaraderie thing.
Well — I lost — oh yes, that was a real crushing thing, because I knew then that, you know, there was no way I could belong to a Communist Party like that. And he was on the state committee.
I went to them, of course, and one of the leaders there said I couldn't do anything about it. 'We can't tell the unions what to do,' and everything. I mean, I know that's absolute bullshit because although they don't tell unions what to do, they would put pressure on communist trade unionists to do certain things, which they thought was right. And which may have been right at the time, I don't know. But I knew that they would, at times, exert this pressure on individuals. But they couldn't do anything, oh no, they couldn't do anything. And they wouldn't do anything because I was a woman and I was a nobody. And that's what it amounted to. I was a woman.
You mean the Communist Party?
I don't know what they thought of me. All I know is, as far as they're concerned, the structure comes first.
I think they were caught, caught in a bog of their own making. They create these type of structures. What happened was that they held an inquest —this is a bit of a convoluted story — but I remember going to a meeting in the city after this and George said he was going to speak on workers' control. And he stood up and he started talking about workers' control. And Max Ogden got to his feet and said, 'I don't believe this. Here we are listening to George Seelaf going on about workers' control when he sacked Zelda from the office for daring to criticism him. What sort of workers' control are we on about?' And I was absolutely stunned. The place just went silent. I had never heard anything like this happen in all the years I was in the Communist Party. And nobody said anything, and everything was just silent, and I felt that I had to get up and say something. And I was in a — I wasn't expecting anything like this — totally emotional state and I got up on my feet. I can't even remember a word that I said. Can't remember anything. But in the meantime the executive of the party were forced to have a [whispers] whisper together. And so they made a decision and they said there would be an inquiry held into the whole matter. And so that was the end of it. And so I actually was going to resign from the party straight away. I mean, I didn't want to bother any more with it. But Cathy Gleeson said, 'Look, give them a go, Zelda. Stay put and just see what happens.' And I said, 'Nothing, nothing will happen, Cath.' 'Oh, give them a go,' she said 'So all right,' I said, because we were great friends. So I waited.
Now, they did have an inquest and who was there? One man who was a union bureaucrat, a man who worked in the union office who depended on George for his livelihood and another woman who worked for a strong union bureaucrat (communist). And these were the three people. Now they asked me what happened. That's all they did. I don't know who else they asked anything. They must have asked George; I presume they asked him. And so I was waiting for the results of this finding. I'm so sorry I never hung on to them, you know, I sort of, you know, didn't think any of this is history of course. But what they ultimately said was that I was sacked from the union because I felt that I could do whatever I liked in their time. Whatever I liked. I mean, whenever I went and handed out those equal pay leaflets it was in my time. And when I chained myself up, it was in my time. I mean, perhaps I had 15 minutes over, I don't remember. But I made sure it was in my lunch hour. I couldn't understand what they meant about doing my business in their time. What business did I have to do anyway? Didn't have any business.
Do you think the image of you all over the newspapers, chained up, and your stand in relation to women's affairs did you a certain amount of harm with the communist men who were in charge of the union movement at that time?
Well, what all this did, of course, to me was make me far more aware of women's position in the whole set up. I remember while I was still at the union, in my Easter, I went to a conference in Sydney of all the left. And I counted all the men that spoke and I counted all the women that spoke. And so few women spoke. And when I got up I told everyone there what I was doing. In the meantime, before I did that, I went round and asked different women, 'Do you intend speaking here?' No. 'Why not?' 'Oh, I couldn't. I'd make a fool of myself.' 'Are you going to speak here?' 'No.' And then they'd give me some reason. So I eventually got up on the platform and I told them exactly the statistics up to that point in the conference when it was three-quarters over, of how many men had spoken and how many women had spoken. But right from the beginning, before it started, I objected to the all-males on the platform. So they brought one woman on. The token woman. But then later on, as I was just saying, I gave them all the statistics. And the replies from the women as to why they weren't going to speak. And just told them, you know, what's happening. What's happening in the left. So I was already watching and thinking about this. But anyway of course, as far as the communist men were concerned and what they thought of me, I think some of them would have thought I an untrustworthy maverick. Once a very nice fellow said to me, 'Zelda, you're naïve.' And I went away and thought about what he said, and I thought, 'Well, I don't think I am really. I expect people to live by their beliefs; otherwise what's the point.' And that's the same with people saying they're a Christian and they rob you left, right and centre. If you say you're something as far as I'm concerned, practice it, and if you don't practice it, well then don't pretend. And that's the way it was.
Well, now, when I look back, and I've asked different communists, in fact, how would they see a socialist society, and I asked about a dozen. After they gave me their replies there wasn't one I would have liked to have lived in. Nobody really thinks about what they do want. In the main, all they're thinking about is what they don't want and that's one of the problems of the whole — the world, the society we live in, generally speaking. They don't think enough about how it should be and how we can make that nice world happen. And so that's the same with the Communist Party. There wasn't just enough thought goes into it at all. And so you got 57 varieties. It's like old Heinz products. There's nothing to say what sort of a human being you have to be. Or what you should believe in really.
I suppose because that particular event was one that I had based my life on. And it pulled the rug right from underneath my feet. I mean it — and looking back, it's like, I suppose, a very religious person who finds that all these years they've been hoodwinked. And it wasn't just a hobby to me, which it was to a lot of communists. It was a way of life and I tried as best I could to live by those principles. But I realise now, of course, that with most of them it's just an interesting pastime or a nice theory, just like believing in a religion. Something that you do on Sunday sort of thing.
A lot of people left the Communist Party in 1956. Some people left as various revelations relating to what was going on in Europe came through. You didn't leave at any of those points. What do you think in the end made you decide to go?
No, it's what happened to me as a human being. Because you don't believe everything that others tell you [about] what happens overseas. We didn't believe it. And, in fact, we weren't told the truth. The truth was hidden from us. Oh, when I think of it, it's horrifying that people must have known what was really happening but we were never told.
But you could read in the papers for example about Hungary. I mean it came out what was happening with Stalin, even out of Russia itself, and yet you were still in the Communist Party by the late '60s. How did you deal with it?
No, well, the truth about Hungary wasn't told totally. Because one of the things we always knew, it's a fact, that America has always tried to interfere and tried to bring these systems undone. And has done everything they possibly can to cause them economically to be unstable and all these other things. And we know that happened. And so we didn't believe everything that they said about Hungary even though I can remember being shocked, terribly shocked. The truth about Stalin at that time hadn't as yet come out. And even then it was questionable. [INTERRUPTION]
Well, what I did initially, I went and worked in several industries and undertook with Mike Costigan to publish them if I wrote about them and they would take photographs as well of the industries where I worked. So I selected numerous industries and went to work in them and wrote quite extensively on them. However ...
Do you mean you wrote first-person accounts of what it was like? Could you tell me that, because it wasn't clear? So there was a series of articles and things. I'll ask you that question again. [Zelda coughing] ... When you left the union, what kind of work did you find?
Well, what I did originally — I mean after trying unsuccessfully to get a job in other unions — I undertook with Michael Costigan to write a series of articles of what it was like working in different industries for a woman. So I went into several different industries, one in a small meatworks, another in a factory where they made ladies' sweaters. And I went into another factory where they — goodness, it was terribly boring — put fuses together, industrial fuses. And there were others too that I can't quite recall at the moment. But I wrote articles on each one — what it was like doing the work, what the relationships between the women there were like, and I went into it fairly extensively. Even the difference in the canteens where people who did the work had to sit as distinct from the administration section. And they had much nicer tables and chairs and salt and pepper shakers and everything and the workers had laminated tops and benches to sit on. And after having written all this, they decided to reduce the articles and then put them all into a double spread page, and I was paid for that ... [INTERRUPTION]
No, and it's not for the want of trying, but they wouldn't employ me. And so I didn't know what to do. And I approached Michael Costigan and we came to an agreement that he would publish — in I think it was the Weekend Observer — articles, if I would write, go to work in different industries and write of my impressions in those industries. And so I did. I went into several different industries and worked there with the women. And observed what was happening and the relationships between staff and employers, etc, and the conditions. And I wrote extensively of my impressions in those various places.
Well, one was a factory where they made sweaters, ladies' clothing. Another was a little meatworks, and another was a — oh terrible — it was a terrible job. I think it was the worst job I'd ever undertaken in my life. And that was assembling these fuses and there were seven movements I had to make with my hands and feet. And this is what I had to do all day. And it wasn't the sort of job that you could turn your mind on to other things. Otherwise you put the wrong thing in the wrong place. So it's not as if you could do something automatically and think your own thoughts, because it wasn't possible. It was the most mind-numbing job that I've ever undertaken. And I couldn't imagine that anyone would have to do something like that for all their lives. I think it would drive you out — off your head.
As long as I could tolerate it.
Oh, I suppose usually around about two weeks. And in the meatworks it was terrible because it was a real grotty little place, and they were putting stuff together for supermarkets. And I was thinking, you know, oh, oh yuck. But having worked in the union, I knew what the laws and rules were as far as the employment was concerned. And this fellow was just employing casual labour and sacking you at a price that he was paying you. And when he put myself and another woman off, because he didn't need us any more — and paid us — I knew he was underpaying us. So I immediately went and complained. So that created quite a to-do and both of us had to get backpay. But we had to go to the Arbitration Commission and everything before it was settled. And having written extensively about it, they went and took photographs of the places. They had a bit of trouble on one of the places. But eventually they decided to reduce the articles and put them all into the one paper in a double spread. And I got paid for that. And then I had nothing again. And I went to an employment agency and they weren't able to do anything for me. And I was getting really worried. I really was.
And what kept me going was I was successful in selling my house, so I was able to buy the unit. And I borrowed money and that was another story, because women couldn't borrow money to purchase a house or flat at the time [in 1971]. So that was another fight that I had to go through, together with the Women's Action Committee. And I eventually got the loan and it was — I applied for a little more than I actually needed, and so there was this excess loan money that was keeping me while I was unemployed. And I never dreamt of going on the dole because I felt sure that I would get something. And then I was interviewed by a woman for a job, and she had it all lined up for me to start in three weeks' time, because the end of the financial year came into it. So she wanted me to start at the beginning of the following financial year. And in the meantime, a huge article appeared in the Herald with me on the chains I think it was, or in the trams refusing to pay full fare. And so I was sacked before I started. And I never started on that job. And ultimately I got a job in the Mail Exchange in Melbourne as a mail sorter.
I was unemployed for nine months. And of course with the difficulty of getting jobs I was really worried because I had bought this flat and I had to pay the loan back and I didn't have a job.
This would have been, I think, 1971.
It was a big crossover year for you, wasn't it? Your marriage was over, you had been rejected by the union movement and the Communist Party, and you'd found yourself unemployed, moving back into the city; lots happened. What was it that sustained you through that year?
I don't know, to be quite honest. At that stage, of course, we were just kicking off with the Women's Action Committee, and I suppose that's what sustained me. Because all the injustices that I had experienced were all coming out for the first time, women had somewhere to go when they were treated badly. And so these women, apart from sustaining me, you know, we were all active together in trying to change the situation. And added to that of course, my daughter was a tremendous support to me, tremendous support.
So this was a year in which you lost your affiliations that you'd had before, but discovered new ones. I have a sort of feeling that possibly the women's liberation movement came along at just the right time for you. It gave you a direction at a time when a lot of other things that you'd had before that were lost, and it gave a whole meaning to everything that was happening to you. And I wonder if I ask you a question, whether you can sort of put that together for me ... I see a pattern that it sort of came in just at the right moment for you. So I'd like to ask you that question again. That year in which you lost your job, you were unemployed and there were huge changes in your personal life, must have been a bit of a crossover year for you, wasn't it? What was it that you think saved you at that time?
I think it was the early development of the women's movement saved me. Because this was the only place, the only space, where women who were suffering injustices could go to, who would listen, who would be supportive and who would act on those injustices. And I'm quite convinced that the Women's Action Committee went from being the action committee into being the women's liberation movement. And I know that it was this movement that saved my life.
I feel so, yes, I feel so. Because it wasn't only the [women] being supportive of me at the time, but through being involved in the women's movement and reading the women's liberation material that was coming through, and questioning all those things that I had believed in the past, and wondering why it all went wrong, I started to understand why these things happened, and what led to these things happening. And what do we have to do to change it all so that people don't have to suffer this way. And the movement brought all this to me. And this is very important to me because someone once said, 'Zelda, I would have expected you to be very bitter about these things that happened to you.' And it was the women's movement, the knowledge that I gained from there, that prevented me from being bitter, because for the first time I came to understand why these things happen to people. It's not only me, it's happening to people all the time.
Well, I felt first that there was the hierarchies that you're up against, the structures. And they're all patriarchal structures. I mean you've got the trade unions and you've got business, you've got the whole society. Everything. The trade unions as a structure are no different to all the other structures in society. And they are led from the top. And as you come down, like a pyramid, you've got the mass of people underneath that are the ones that are oppressed, the most helpless, the ones who have no voice, and it doesn't matter what the ones up top do to the ones down below, there's no-one there to care. And whilst the trade union movement is there to concern itself with the interests of the working people, as a structure in itself, I discovered that it's no different to any of the others. And this was all by being in the women's movement. And the one thing we were determined, [to do] in the women's movement, [was] that we would have no hierarchy. We didn't even have a committee. There was no such thing as secretaries, and when people would ask us what is our membership, we'd just say thousands, you know. But how many have you got on the books? We didn't have books. We just didn't want to repeat that pattern. And I think that's what it's all about. I don't think that a healthy society can develop at all if we retain these structures.
I was a mail sorter, m-a-i-l. And this was a fascinating part of my life. I enjoyed the job. To me, at that stage, it was very, very, vital. We had to go to school, I think it was six weeks, to learn all the main places in Victoria and southern New South Wales, which was for sorting. And you went through a school with men and women. In fact, it was an industry, I think there were about 800 men and about 400 women. And the nature of the job was that depending on the volume of mail given in any certain direction which needed attention, then they'd have all these groups moving from one task to another, depending on where the pressure was. And so when you moved from one job to another, you might be sitting with someone totally different. Well, you got to know the different people, so if you felt like having a laugh then you'd sit next to the person you knew you could have a laugh with. If you felt like a serious conversation, then you'd go and sit next to someone who you could have a serious conversation [with]. But at the same time it was a job that as long as your hands were moving, they didn't object to you talking or relating to people around you. And because it was the sort of job, as long as your hands were moving you were right, in other words you were sorting, that was at the beginning of the women's movement and I needed my brain, I needed to think a lot about what was happening, what needed to be done, how we were going to do it. And it gave me that mental space to think and contemplate and work at what was required.
And being shiftwork it also enabled me to attend the numerous occasions where we had to send speakers out, and I'd have to go out and speak all over Melbourne. And then be able to come back to work, or do it after work — sort of move the shifts around to accommodate these needs. And it was just a wonderful job for that time. And it was equal pay.
Oh yes, I can assure you it was, yes.
Oh, I would always join the union. I think it's of the utmost importance. I mean, as far as I'm concerned, the union is the organisation that gets the increase in pay, it gets the conditions and people were fighting there — I mean, I was enjoying the benefits that others had fought for and so it was up to me to improve, do my bit, not only for myself, but for the next generation. And so, I think it's absolutely vital to belong to your union. The women's movement had my first priority and my energy, but even so I still went along to the union meetings. I was not going to get involved in the workplace, because I wasn't interested in doing that any more. And so I didn't. But it was all very interesting. I had people on the job urging me to stand, but I resisted that, I wouldn't do it. For the first four months I was there, I was terribly worried, I didn't want them to know anything about me, because I was so desperate and I was so happy to have this job. And then of course the newspapers featured me on the trams paying my 75 per cent of the fare. And there I was again. And it happened in a weekend paper, and when I came into work on the Monday, I looked around and I thought, 'Oh dear, what's going to happen?' And nobody said anything, but they all knew. Only one person eventually commented, but they all knew then who I was. And then I was on television, and then The Mike Walsh Show, and Bob Hawke was there and Gerald Lyons, and so everyone knew who I was. And I had people going and telling tales to the bosses there about me that weren't true.
The conditions were appalling. [laughs] As a matter of fact, I had to go out and speak at Glenn College, I think it was, at La Trobe University, one of my speaking engagements. And I went out there and there was the lush carpet on the floor and the beautiful seats and the beautiful tables and chairs; everything was just so sweet and lovely. And after speaking there I thought, isn't it amazing, the students who haven't done, as yet, a thing for society, and in fact are being subsidised by society, have all this luxurious atmosphere, and here I am, working in this condition. This is after I returned back to work with no air-conditioning and the windows that — I mean it was an enormous place — and the few windows that were open, you couldn't have them all open because the wind would blow in and the letters would blow all over the place. So here we were, the people who were doing everything and making society work, working in such appalling conditions.
I would bring these things up at the union meetings, but I wouldn't push or insist. We had a shop steward who, in my opinion, was just absolutely hopeless. One thing the union did agree is when the temperatures rose, I think it was to a hundred ...
… on the old scale, that we stopped work. And for several days we'd gone over it, and he had done nothing. And I approached him and I asked him, why is this, why are we still here? 'Oh,' he'd say, 'Zelda, you wouldn't believe it. The union wouldn't even buy me a thermometer.' I mean, you could buy them in Coles for 20 cents, and he used that as an excuse, because he didn't want to do anything. And I can recall, I was in a particular job where the supervisors couldn't see me. I can remember getting a dish of water and putting it on the floor and standing in it while I worked. And on another occasion both myself and another woman — because we had uniforms provided by the job — went and tipped water all over ourselves and went back in and worked. I mean these were the conditions.
I was there four years.
They tried to promote me out of existence, but I only found that out after coming back from a holiday. I had three months off without pay, and also I used some of my own holiday. And I found out that while I was away an ASIO document had been leaked about me and it was all in the press. And what it said in that document, when it referred to me, was did the department know I who I was, that I could cause a lot of damage at the Mail Exchange, and to consider promotion, even if it meant, you know, to somewhere else. And I could just imagine, you know, promotion and I'd been sent out to Woop-Woop North in some little post office where they could get rid of me. And so that was the only promotion they had in mind.
Well I did. I got a terrible shock. I wasn't the only person on the document. There were several others. I was the only woman. But the reference to me was, in my opinion, why that document was leaked. One, because they had other names on it, but they just sort of said, you know, Joe Blow, he's still in the Party or he's Jack Smith, a member, question mark. And what do you know about Freddie Smith or something. And when it came to me it had this entire paragraph. What was happening at the time was, there was a big dispute about the role of ASIO and it was said that ASIO is interfering in people's job situations. I mean, they were there, supposed to be looking after spies, and it was ASIO was accused of interfering in people's job situations, which they had no right to do.
And because there and then this document's leaked, which indicated they were interfering in my job situation, and I thought there must have been many people whose job situations were being interfered with, but why would they pick on me? And I came to the conclusion it was because I was a woman, I was at the lowest level of the rung, I wasn't in any senior position in the service, and so I was an easy bunny. And that's why it was done. And I realised how vulnerable I was, because I knew the union wouldn't do a thing to protect me.
No, well, actually at that particular time I was having some health problems and I think all that added to it of course. I was — I felt, I felt, terribly depressed, because I knew no-one would help me, and even if they wanted to promote me and decided to promote me, the union wouldn't have raised a finger. And I thought of all the fighting I had done for other people and everything that I had done all my life, and they wouldn't do a thing to help me. I knew of incidents where they helped blokes who were drunk and god knows what, but I was a female and they just wouldn't bother. But at the same time I was having some women's problems, health-wise, and I'm sure, as I said, that this even helped to make it worse. And then I finished up, I had to go into hospital, have an operation and there were complications after that. And I went to one doctor and he wanted me to sue ASIO. And, there were two actually that wanted me to sue ASIO, and I just couldn't. I couldn't undertake — I mean I'd fought all my life and I knew that I was so vulnerable, and I thought why should I be the one to go and sue ASIO. And I told the doctor, I don't feel well enough, you know.
I don't know. I really don't know. I think I stood for a position once, because everyone was pushing me, but this — I think — I can't remember what position it was. I knew they wouldn't let me go in anyway. And of course, they didn't.
Ah, I'm not sure now whether it was the executive or whether it was in the branch itself or what, but I did, because I knew they wouldn't accept me. And they didn't. For example, there was a women's conference within the union. I must say this union had another great left-wing leader. And — George Slater I think his name was, yeah — oh, he was a great, great, leftie revolutionary. And there was some conference on for women. And all this only happened because of women's liberation. And a woman was sent, selected and sent. I didn't even know about it. Knew nothing about it. I wasn't even told. So they were so frightened of me. Don't ask me why, but they were terrified.
The only thing I can put it down to is that I'm a maverick. After my experience in the Communist Party there's no way that I'd feel any allegiance to anything or anyone unless I was convinced that they were doing the right thing. Just because they were in the same club or the same football team or the same political party, or the same institution, that didn't mean anything to me. I wasn't going to stand by and see anyone do anything that I considered to be dishonest or fraudulent or betraying the people who trust them, or anything — this code of behaviour. And so they couldn't fully — how can I say — depend on me to do the right thing by them. I think that's the crux of it. I'm not sure, but this is the only thing that I could come up with.
I suppose you could say that, yes.
No, the only thing [was] a few women at that stage, and women had no power, no power.
Well, I finished up after the operation, you know, a few months. There was all sorts of complications and I was really ill. And at one stage I nearly died. And I gradually came together again. But I was very depressed. I felt that I couldn't go back to the Mail Exchange. There were some people there, certain nationalities, that — what can I say — were anti-woman, were anti-Jew ... [INTERRUPTION]
At that stage I wasn't doing anything, I was too ill. And depressed. And I, of course, had to go to the doctors and all that business— in the end the doctors said, 'Well, you can't go back there to work.' I was fearful of going back there to work because there were people there of certain nationalities that hated Jews, hated women, hated anyone left-wing, and being a shiftworker I had to park my car two blocks away from where I was working which was in Spencer Street, and it was very dark. And I'd knock off about 11 o'clock at night and have to walk alone, back those two blocks to the car, and I was really fearful because I knew these men were full of hatred, really full of hatred. And I was scared, and I knew that with the ASIO document being leaked that they would say that I was a spy. I mean that sounds fanciful, but one of the women who worked there told me that was precisely what they were saying. And it was all just too much for me to go back and face that situation. I mean it was — someone said you can laugh it off, but it was something you couldn't laugh off, not with these people so full of hatred. And so the doctors just said I wasn't suitable to go back to work there. And eventually I was superannuated. So they got rid of me, they got rid of me.
Well, to start with I couldn't.
I had a condition called adenomyosis , and if you want me to go into detail, I can explain.
It was a gynaecological problem, yes.
You'd had a history of some really quite, what seems to people now, extraordinarily unpleasant gynaecological encounters in the course of your life, and yet they were fairly typical of working-class women at the time, it's now emerged. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the history of that for you, the abortions and the problems that you'd had in trying to get proper gynaecological advice and help for your whole reproductive history.
Well, that's a thing that women had to endure, all women had to endure. The whole system was very unsatisfactory, possibly a mixture of the attitudes of the men doctors, the lack of research and knowledge, and a dismissal of women as being neurotic, which was the trend in those times. And when women did have problems, they were sort of shunted aside until situations got very serious. I had several abortions, which were all illegal, which were all carried out under terrible circumstances, all by doctors. I wouldn't go to any backyard people, but even the fact that they were carried out by doctors, they were really dreadful.
Well, the first one was when I was 18. I was put on a table, I had a towel put over my head, so I wouldn't even see the doctor. He spoke to me but I never saw his face. And there was no general anaesthetic and the whole D & C [dilation and curette], as they referred to it, and the whole scraping of the uterus was done without any anaesthetic whatsoever. And that was when I was 18 years of age.
No, I just endured it. Just endured it. I must say that in each instance, when I conceived, they were all contraceptive failures. It wasn't as if I wasn't doing anything. We were trying and I was trying to prevent conception, but what we were using failed us. And the next one was what was referred to at the time as a Dutch Cap. I think they have some other name for it these days. And I used the Orthogynol cream on it and did all the right things and I know I had it in the right position. And it didn't work and I conceived again. And that abortion was done by a communist doctor and his method of doing that for me was to insert a catheter into the cervix and leave it there for — I can't remember exactly now how long it was — and then take it away and say to me, 'Well you can go home now and everything will be right.' And of course I went through labour — it aborted — and I was infected. So then I had to get a doctor to come in and give me antibiotics and I couldn't say what happened, I just said that I had douched, and unfortunately I caused a miscarriage.
That's right. So the infection was cleared up and then — I can't recall how long it was, but I think it might have been about 12 or 18 months later — I found myself pregnant again. And this time it was through a broken condom. And got out of bed immediately and douched. And felt so secure that everything was fine but, no, I was pregnant again. And this time I went to a good doctor but he refused to do it because of the previous infection and he said it could recur. So I had no choice and I went to another doctor and I was put on a table and while the instruments were boiling in an open tray on the gas stove — and it was the sleaziest looking place I'd ever seen — they conducted an abortion with what they call an open-face mask, very primitive. Put the mask on and spray the ether on you, which is considered to be very dangerous these days. But at least I did go to sleep — oh, when I went to him originally, what I had tried to do first was induce an abortion, a miscarriage, and I was told to insert a sponge that had dissolved Life Buoy soap on it. And I did all this and I put it all inside and of course when I went to this doctor to do the abortion he said he wouldn't touch me with a 40-foot pole; that was his very words. He said, 'You are all inflamed inside. What on earth have you done?' So I told him. And he said, 'I couldn't possibly touch you.' So I went and got that treated and then went back to him after about two or three weeks and then he did it. But he knew exactly what he was dealing with and of course, when I woke up, I was just on fire, absolutely on fire. I was just burning, my whole inside was burning. And he told me that because of the infection he had used iodine to make sure that I didn't become infected again. And the iodine — if you've had iodine on a raw cut you'll know what it was like — and he had used this inside my body and it was just one big flame. And they were the conditions that I had my abortions. And from what I've heard from other women, they even had worse to put up with. And this is what poor women had to endure, I must say, because the wealthy women could afford to go to the gynaecologists and have abortions done under proper conditions; what I put up with was what poor women had to put up with.
Desperation, absolute desperation. I jumped off tables, I did everything, all the stories. I had lain in hot baths and I had to be lifted out because I was so weak I couldn't get out. Because we had no money, see, we had no money to go to the gynaecologists that the rich women went to. And so we endeavoured to induce an abortion whichever way we could. And any story that you heard you hoped that this would work and so you were willing to try.
I suppose there was several reasons. One, I knew that for working-class people, every child they had puts them further into the bog of poverty. And so that was one reason. Another reason was that I, temperamentally, realised that I wasn't suited to being a housewife/mother. And that with one child, and I loved her dearly, I was fine. But any more children I would have lost patience and the children would have suffered. It wouldn't be fair to the children. And so all in all, I just didn't want to have them. I didn't think it was fair to have them. And so I made that decision and I was determined that that was the way it was going to be.
Yes, he did.
No, no, oh no. Well, I mean it was what I wanted and as long as I was happy not having more children, then he was happy too. I mean, he didn't particularly want a large family, no.
And in relation to this life, you know, as a woman, another aspect of it that a lot of people these days perhaps need to be reminded of, was the whole relationship with men. Zelda, I wonder if you could go back to when you were a child and put in perspective how you'd seen men and what your relationships were with them in the sexual sense, through the course of your life.
Well, when I was a little girl, I remember I played with my brother's peer group and we all went out to the park one day, in Princes Park. And you know children give what we call lip, in those times, a bit of cheek. And there was a young man there with a pushbike, teenager. And of course the kids say, 'Have you got a penny? Got a penny mister?' All that sort of nonsense. And so he gave the boys pennies and told them to go away and buy an ice-cream, and I had to stay there and wait. And I instinctively felt — I can remember, I'll never forget it — that I didn't want to be left alone. Don't know why, but I didn't want to be left alone with him. And I didn't want the boys to run away, and I didn't know what to say to them, not to run away and leave me. And they went off. And of course, he undid his fly and tried to put my hand inside. And I just took off, and ran and ran and ran all the way home. And [laughs] by the time Morrie and the boys got home, Morrie said, 'What happened to you? We ate your ice-cream. It was all melting.' And I never told him why.
No. I never said a word. And on another occasion, there used to be — because Mum and Dad were kind to people — a lot of people were hungry in those days and there was always a cup of tea and bread and butter and jam, if not a bowl of soup. And this man who had left his family in Poland and migrated here like a lot did, with the intention of working and bringing their families over, used to come in and Mum would give him a bowl of soup. And there was no-one around this day and I was running through the dining room on the way out. And he called me over and he tried to put my hand on his fly, but on top of his trousers down there, and I ran away. And I never told my parents about that either. And yet somehow or other you know from a very early age that if you want peace and you don't want troubles, then you have to keep quiet, because you're going to cause trouble. I knew there'd be trouble. I don't know why, but I knew because I suppose I reacted to that because my parents were extremely strict and we never, ever, saw a naked body, let alone touch someone else's body in any way. We never saw each other sort of get undressed. I mean, everything was absolutely hidden. But that was my first encounter in that regard. In the peer group, never had any problems whatsoever, none whatsoever. When we were out playing together there was no problems there. I mean, that's where I learnt how babies came, from one of the little boys in the peer group who informed us.
[laughs] It was quite funny because we made a pact that we weren't allowed to go and ask our parents and, of course, Mum would never answer these types of questions and she'd always have a little giggle and always say, 'Look if I tell you everything now, you'll have nothing left to learn when you grow up.' That was her way of dismissing us. And when we made this pact, Morrie and I raced in and asked Mum, and Mum just laughed and fobbed us off and I knew it wouldn't be any good. But anyway, this little boy, Don his name was, let us know that he knew. So we all gathered at the special time and he just said, 'Women have got a hole underneath and men put their dick in it. And that's how babies come.' And that was the sum total of the important lesson in your life. [laughs] And Morrie and I just walked off, because he was — I suppose at the time, it's hard to judge, I don't know how old I was at the time, about nine perhaps, not sure, maybe a little older — and Morrie said, 'Do you believe that?' I said, 'I don't know.' And he said, 'Oh, I don't.' And he sort of walked off. But of course, I was two years older than him and I started to think, you know, well, why is it that men and women are allowed to sleep in bed together and we're not even allowed to undress or see each other's bodies, anything, nothing, you know. And I thought, maybe. But that's as far as it got, maybe.
When I look back, no, not really. I think the thing that worried me more than anything else was … and I asked Mum, the only question I ever asked her, was should you let your husband see your naked body. [laughs]
Yes, yes. That was the thing that worried me more than anything. Should you let your husband see your naked body.
She just — Mum just laughed and said, 'Oh, that all depends on your husband. If he's a gentleman sort of thing, it's all right, and if he's not, well it's up to you.' But you know, poor Mum, she had three of us, she had a twin that died, and she'd had two abortions. And yet she was totally ignorant about how women's bodies functioned.
Well, being married at 16, I didn't have much experience. As I said — when I first started going with boys it all finished up in wrestling matches. And that, you know, I was very displeased about that. But most of all was the lack of seeing any future before you. I mean, you had these rotten jobs that you hated. And I can fully understand why girls — some girls today — go ahead and just have babies. Because they feel it's — they're producing something. It's something of theirs. And they feel that that is an achievement. I mean it's terrible to think that that's the only way that they feel that they can achieve anything, produce anything, do something. And when I look at them I think about my own situation, you know, I got married. I got married. Luckily I married a man who wasn't cruel to me, wasn't physically cruel or a drunkard or anything like that. And we sort of grew up together and struggled along as best we could.
Oh, well, this was a worrying thing because I found I got attracted to others and so did my husband. And — but you never said anything about it. But it always worried you because you felt this shouldn't be. So, I mean, you never talked about relationships. No-one spoke, no-one knew anything. And so you felt you were being treacherous, even if it was only in your thoughts, that someone else could touch you, sort of, you know, and you'd get that feeling. And so you dismissed it. And it was something you were always afraid of. And both of us struggled through this sort of thing, without having discussions with each other about it of course. And then when Charlie went overseas for several months, we discussed this possibility of what may happen, and because he was going away with a group of people, and men and women, we knew there was always that possibility. I didn't think so much that it would happen to me. But it did. And when he returned, both of us — it wasn't long before both of us talked and admitted sort of that we'd both had an affair outside of our marriage relationship. And mine was traumatic because I really became strongly attracted to this man. And I was very hurt by it. And somehow or other, later, looking back, I felt that this experience somehow or other turned me into a woman, rather than a girl. I felt I was no longer a girl. It was as if it took this experience to destroy my innocence and trust.
Well, I believed he felt towards me like I felt towards him. And it wasn't long after that I found that he'd been away to Sydney with another woman, who wasn't his wife. And that really shattered me. So then I realised I was just one more of his conquests.
Oh yes, I endured rape on two occasions, yes. And one was while I was married. And that was an interesting — looking back — experience, because my husband — I was always very friendly to everyone and this fellow was in the Communist Party. And my husband didn't like him. And was quite obvious in his behaviour of his dislike towards this person. And I was taking a day off from work for some reason or other, I can't remember what, and I bumped into him down in the street. And he came back to my place. And so I just let him in, cup of tea, he was a comrade. And of course, the next thing I was raped. And I could never really understand this until the women's movement. Why? And then I realised it was to get back at my husband, because he knew by my husband's whole attitude that he disliked him. So he took it out on me.
No, I didn't do anything because my friendship could have been seen as that I'd encouraged him, you see. I was very trusting and friendly. And my husband used to say to me, 'Zelda, you're too friendly to people.' But I used to say, 'But how else do you behave with other human beings?' I mean, I don't make friends of everybody, but I'm friendly to people.
Yes, I thought he might think that I had encouraged it.
I felt a total infringement of my body. This is an interesting thing because in my book that I wrote, my autobiography, the most difficult thing to write about with all the pain that I've gone through in my life, the most difficult things to write about were my, the, rapes. And I put that off right to the very end, and I knew that I was going to have to put them in. They were very traumatic experiences that I had. So I had to put them in. But I couldn't write about them until the very end and that was really difficult, really difficult, to write about. And I've asked myself why. And basically it's because of this terrible invasion of your very inner self. And it's having this outside thing being put into your body and it's a total infringement.
Oh, yes, I just didn't have the strength that he had.
Yes. Both situations, and that was again a strange occurrence because at this time I was involved in the women's movement, earlier in the piece when I had a lot of publicity. And a group of us were out and finished up coming back to my home. And this man and his wife stayed overnight, and he'd been drinking. And during the night when I was asleep, he came into my bed and I wasn't able to scream. His wife, this was her second marriage, and I knew if I screamed it would be breaking up her second marriage. When I look back now, I could say, well, I should have done it anyway because she was only married to a monster. But somehow I just couldn't do it to her. And I fought him but I was silent fighting him, because I didn't want to wake her and let her know what was happening.
That I was Zelda, the great feminist, great liberationist, and this was his way of getting at me. This was his way. They didn't stay in Australia very long after that, they left. I don't think he could face me, but I think that's what it was. I can't think of anything else. [INTERRUPTION]
Your involvement in the trade union movement, and also in the Communist Party, was that part of an attitude you had to society and to the position of working people? Did that reflect a general value that you had about the world? And what did you feel you were doing by being involved in these workers' movements?
I was aware that under the capitalist system the owners of the means of production — and it was the owners of business and wealth — exploit the working people. We actually produce everything and yet we are the poorest on the ladder. They cannot do without us. And yet, we suffer through poor wages and lack of hospitals and everything else. And so, I was aware that this system is unjust. And I was convinced by everything I heard that socialism was going to produce a better society where there was more equity and shared with the people. And added to that, because of this sense of justice that I felt, and that people weren't getting what they should to live a life of quality, that one had to be active in the trade union movement and it was through the trade unions that our interests would be, not only safeguarded, but improved and that life would improve for working people— the ones who were making everything — and I genuinely believed that. And that's why I got so involved.
I still believe that it's up to the people to be involved, to change things. And without participation by the people, nothing will alter. And I still believe that whilst we have the system that we have, then it's vitally important for the trade unions to be there to safeguard the interests of the underdog. And of course, now even the middle class are affected, and so they're going to have to start fighting for their own interests, too.
Well, due to the current situation, it's here. And in view of the fact that it is here and we've got to deal with it, I feel that the unions must have the right to be involved in all enterprise bargaining. I think the whole single one-to-one contract is very dangerous. It's all very well to say that people don't have to draw up a contract and they can be in the union. Today, employers want to know if you're in the union and if you say yes they don't employ you. And this is turning the clock back. We're not talking about reform — to reform anything is to improve it. They're twisting the meaning of words. They keep referring to these new things that they're introducing as reforms. But they're — in fact they're turning the clock back. And women are in the worst situation for enterprise bargaining because far from this attitude that Reith and the present Federal Government adopt — it's just up to the employee to negotiate with the employer. This is assuming that they're equal. I mean, here you've got women who have never been in a situation where they've had to negotiate. There are skills that are required to do this. And besides that, there are others outside the door to be used against you. In other words, if you say you're entitled to an increase of 10 dollars a week, you might put up all the arguments in the world, in trying to negotiate. But if the employer knows he can get someone from outside for less, then you've lost your job. And this is exactly what is happening today. It's only in the big industries where you've got great numbers of people employed, that enterprise bargaining can actually bring results to them. Because not only do they have the numbers, but they have the strong unions there with them as well. And women, in the main, don't work in big industries. They work in more isolated and small industries.
During all the years that you worked in different industries, as a worker who was involved in union activity, and there in the workplace, did you feel that the union addressed itself to the real problems of the workers?
Well, as I said previously …
Not in every case, no. And I feel a lot of them are learning these deep lessons today, a bit late, but they are learning. But in my experience, I unfortunately was involved in unions that were predominantly female. So therefore they were never strong unions. And in fact, they were very weak unions and in the main they rode on the backs of the bigger unions; the big unions fought for the increases, cost of living adjustments, because that's the way the system worked then and the smaller unions and less militant just rode on their backs. And I couldn't say that in the union that I was involved in, in the psych hospital, that they did any great things. I mean, they had to be pushed nearly all the way, nearly all the way.
Now, when you were working in the psychiatric hospital, people used to come and talk to you about their problems, didn't they? The union seemed to be focusing very much on material things like the uniforms, the wages and so on. But a lot of people brought to you problems that were more personal. Was there any way in which a union could ever deal with those sorts of things?
Not within the present structures, no. Because they were only interested in conditions and wages within that — within the hours that the person was on the job. And I have always felt that this was a very narrow view for the trade unions to adopt because you're not only selling your labour, you're selling your whole self in my opinion. Because you're there, you're nowhere else, you're forced to be there. So as well as giving them the labour, you're giving them your self. And all sorts of things are happening to you as a human being that need to be addressed. For example, I would go off in my lunch hour to the doctor to have a contraceptive device inserted, called the Grafenberg Ring. I couldn't take time off work and say, 'Look, I have to have whatever time necessary to go to the doctor's to have a contraceptive device inserted.' Why shouldn't I? I mean, everyone's doing these things. But you couldn't, so I'd have to go in my lunch hour, or if I took time off, I'd have to say I had a cold or I had a migraine head or I had a pain in the back or god knows what not. So, if you wanted contraceptive advice, if you wanted any sort of thing that affected you as a human being, you couldn't say that was what you wanted. Your whole being is denied. And to me that's not good enough. It really isn't good enough. And so everything that affects human beings has to be taken into consideration. I mean, why do we have industries? Why do we have these things? I mean, what comes first, us or money? And if we are what is important, then industries have to take that into consideration, and work in with people. They have to be people-friendly. Every work situation has to be worker-friendly, has to be people-friendly.
Well, one of course was that problem. They would never say why they really had to have time off. And they'd tell lies to cover up, lies that were acceptable by the management. With the hierarchies, one of the problems when I was working in the hospital was the shortage of staff. And in my opinion, much of this shortage of staff was due to the attitude of those in control, those in power. They used to make the life of the women on the staff unendurable. Now these women, in the main, who came to work in psychiatric hospitals, were married women because it's not the sort of a job that young women would be attracted to. And so here are these married women being spoken to as if they were total idiots or trash. And they wouldn't endure that. They'd come to me, distressed, and tell me about what happened. And when I used to say, 'Look I'll go and speak to the matron about it.' 'Oh no, no, no, no, no. Oh no, I don't want any trouble.' They didn't want any trouble. And this is the woman, the peacemaker, wanting peace all the time, won't fight, terrified of upsetting and causing any ripples. And so they'd leave. They'd constantly leave. And this could go on, this attitude could go on, because of the power that some people hold. And they could get away with it, get away with it. And this happens all through our type of structures because of the pyramid structure.
Do you think that the women's movement gave you some answers to these sorts of problems, that communism and the trade union movement hadn't been able to provide you with when you were dealing with it? Do you think that might have been one of the reasons why you were so attracted to the women's movement, that these difficulties were part of what it was trying to deal with?
Oh, I think it was — the women's movement, it wasn't only the Communist Party, which I'd already given away. What the women's movement gave us was a feeling of a total appreciation of ourself. And that we as women were worthy beings. And we were alive, we were vital and we were important. And it gave you a reason for living. And this is why these thousands of young women who had come to the women's liberation movement were so inspired, it gave them the confidence to do what they wanted to do. And they went out into the world and they did it. And that's why in so many places today you have women doing things they never did before. Just like yourself.
Could I ask you to look back on the history of your life as a communist, the whole period of your life in which you were a communist, and with hindsight sum up why you became a communist and why you stopped being one?
I became a communist because of — not what I was told, even by my mother — my own observations of the injustice around me. And I think this is what all people have to do, not worry about what they read in the paper or what they are told. But look and see for themselves and see what's happening around them. And I did that. And so it was an inevitable progression that I went into the Communist Party because I genuinely believed that they were going to rectify all the injustices. And in doing so, I learnt to read, I learnt to discuss issues in far more depth, I started to learn about all sorts of aspects of society that I had no knowledge. And so it forced me to use my mind in many areas. And for this I can be grateful. However, on the other hand, had I not gone to work for the butchers' union and stayed in suburbia, I may have remained an ignorant idealist. But by going and working in the butchers' union office, and experiencing first-hand what happens in a structure at the top, and the way I was dealt with by the communist secretary, and the Communist Party following this incident, I had to then question everything, absolutely everything. Because the disappointment was so severe, because my whole life was based on it. And I anguished, I anguished …
What disillusioned me with the Communist Party was many things. One, being in the women's movement and the vitality of it was so great and we discussed everything in depth. And in the Communist Party branch meetings that I went to, it became an insult to your intelligence to even be there. And everything was skimmed over and someone would give a report on what was happening in Timbuktu or whatever, and oh yes, and the end of that, and the finance report, and the end of that. And it was just ludicrous, it really was. I mean, the fact that people would feel threatened by this is just a joke. And that I even had to spend time there when my time was becoming so precious. And so I stopped going. And also, with this whole business of being dismissed and the party attitude towards it, and blaming me. And in other words I was responsible for my behaviour on the job, you know, [and this] warranted being dismissed and they were prepared to sacrifice me. And the attitude of communists themselves because one of the things in the women's movement, we realised that we are responsible for our actions. And here in the party people could do anything they liked as human beings as long as you adhered to the party philosophy and gave donations and said the right things, that was fine. And all these things became so wrong, so terribly wrong. And then the fact that they were prepared to sacrifice me for George Seelaf, when in my estimation he had become corrupt and didn't deserve the recognition of anything, or the position that he even held. But they stood by him. And this was in … [INTERRUPTION]
Oh, I think everything about it, the whole structure of it, the way it worked. The branch meetings were an insult to your intelligence. And this came after my involvement with the women in the women's liberation movement because we really discussed things in real depth, because we had to learn, we had to know, we had to understand. And in the Communist Party there was none of that. And I think there was a terrible lot of ego tripping in the Communist Party. And the women's movement gave me strength. And I think one of the last branch meetings I ever went to, a fellow spoke to me in what I considered to be a very rude manner. And one time I wouldn't have said anything. And I just asked him why he spoke to me like that. And put it right on him, and he was a bit shocked. And his reply was, 'Oh, I thought you could take it.' So I just told him straight out I was sick and tired of taking it. And there was even a patronising attitude to working-class people. And even though a lot of the professionals had dropped out by this time, there was still middle class people there who still looked down upon working-class people. And I was beginning to realise that I did have intelligence now because of this strength that I was developing from the women's movement. And I thought, I can't put up with this, and then in view of [how], you know, the Party dealt with the whole business of George and my dismissal, and then foisting all the blame onto me … After, I was told, that at an executive meeting of the Communist Party he had stood on his feet and roared that they weren't going to get rid of him, and he would stay there until he retired. And so they let him stay there. And all this happening and I was the sacrificial bunny. And this is in a capitalist country. And I thought, my god, what would have happened to me if I was in Russia. I mean I would have been in Siberia. I mean I knew this. And I thought how could I couldn't possibly stay in a party like that. No way. And so I left, but it was such a traumatic experience because it wasn't just like leaving a club. I believed in it and I lived it and I did my utmost to help people and I did my utmost to fight injustice. And so it wasn't just a hobby. And so my whole philosophy of life was involved with that.
It sounds very much like some people feel when they decide to leave their religion, where they find the gap between the belief and the practice has just got too much for them. In that case, though, sometimes they keep the belief system even though they reject entirely the structure. Did you keep the belief system that you'd had?
I did for some time cling to it, because I still thought socialism was the answer. And I tried to marry socialism and feminism, and even more than feminism — women's liberationism. I tried to marry the two. And I tried desperately to do that. And in the end I had to come to the conclusion it couldn't be — they couldn't be wed, because it was patriarchy that was the problem; as long as socialism was going to be controlled by men who are ego tripping, who want power, who want centralised control, who want all these things, then it's not going to work for anyone, men or women. And so I realised that this patriarchy had to go. And that was the end of the wedding, the marriage. I just couldn't combine the two. Things have to change and there has to be real, real, changes, but not the way that the communists and, in my opinion, the socialists envisage. They can possibly make some improvements, but basically it'll go on the way it's going now. One parliament will come in and destroy everything that a previous government has built and you struggle on for years and improve and another one comes in destroys it all, and it'll go up and down. To me, this is patriarchy.
Well, I think you can only surmise and try and experiment, but fundamentally it all comes back to the people have to have control in their industries and everywhere else. They have to be involved, it's their say what happens. They have to decide how the money is distributed, where it goes. And there are people experimenting with these situations today, bringing this about in a small way. And I feel that economically this is the way things are going to have to be. I also feel that people do things because they want to, and not solely for the remuneration. I mean no-one can tell me that a man who's a brain surgeon is not going to be a brain surgeon if he doesn't get paid any more than a carpenter. If he really wants to be a brain surgeon, then he's going to be a brain surgeon, even if he gets the same salary as a carpenter. And it's because you've got the ability and it's a challenge to you, that you want to do it. And I know this sounds like pie in the sky. But ultimately I think these sort of changes are what's going to have to come if we want to preserve the planet and everything around us, and life.
Now, switching a little bit and going back. When you worked for 15 years at the psychiatric hospital, when you left and you'd decided to move on to something different, were they very sorry to see you go?
[laughs] Oh, that's quite funny. I can laugh about it now. Because this is very interesting, because I was a fighter there all these years in the union, as my book explains [Zelda, Spinifex Press, 1995]. And I had clashes with those in power at the hospital as well as the union. And even though the State Government, which was my employer, wouldn't make me a permanent employee of the state service (even though I was the only qualified dental nurse in the department) others who weren't qualified were permanent, but they would not make me permanent.
Oh yes, yes. But they wouldn't sack me. I think underneath it all they admired my guts and pluck, that I stood up for what I believed in. And there were many socials held at the hospital over 15 years, and also farewells when members of staff went and resigned. And I always went to the farewells. I mean I love socialising, I love dancing and I love being at parties and I love being with people, and enjoying myself. So I always went and had a lot of fun. And always contributed to their farewell gifts. And when I resigned after 15 years— there was no farewell. And I think I was the only one at that stage who never had a farewell. And I was amused because I thought these men were unable to be hypocrites because every time you go to a farewell, you know, they always come out with these speeches and with great regret, you know, that you're leaving and da, da, da. And we hope, you know, that you'll be happy in your next employment, or whatever it is. But they couldn't bring themselves to say how they regretted my departure. And I thought, well I admire them for that, because at least they weren't going to stand up and make hypocrites of themselves. And I think I was the only one, certainly the only one who put so much, so many years in, 15 years, and didn't get a farewell. I think that should be history at the hospital, at Larundel Hospital.
You've really made some quite formidable enemies in your life, haven't you? And that's unusual for women. Women usually avoid very much, and dislike, being disliked. Why do you think it didn't bother you?
I suppose because I also had a lot of wonderful friends and relationships with people. And a lot of fun, and a lot of pleasure. And I suppose this balanced it all. It didn't worry me, didn't worry me. And I was always very uninhibited and I could dance and gleefully perform if necessary and, for example, at a social at the hospital I was sitting in a situation where they had these long tables and long benches to sit on and my back was against the wall. And I was asked to dance. And it meant everyone, either side of me, would have had to get up and breathe in and all that business, so I could get out and get around the table to go with my partner. So what I did, I said oh well, I just stepped up, climbed on to the table, got across and stepped down and on to the floor, wearing my very dignified clothes and everything else of course. And off I went. And this is the sort of thing I would do. And I just loved life. And although I've gone through life and had some very traumatic experiences, I think the fact that I could also enjoy it compensated and balanced it out.
Oh yes, yes I did. I went there until I finished working at the Mail Exchange. When I stopped working there I never went back there. I just didn't feel — well I felt sort of that they'd all betrayed me. They'd all betrayed me.
But even though they'd done that, you did keep going there, didn't you, for a while afterward … [INTERRUPTION] … Could you explain that to me, that the trade union leaders that hadn't given you work, you continued to go and drink with them and meet with them for a period after that?
Well, it wasn't so much with them, because I'd introduced women to that hotel. I was the first woman that ever walked into that hotel, to the public bar. Mind you, it was because I'd never been in hotels in my life and I didn't know that women weren't supposed to be there. See, this is the sort of thing that happened to me. In fact, at a conference once, a union conference, when the men all retired to the pub for lunch, for counter lunch, and they asked me what I wanted to drink, I said white tea. And they all rolled around in laughter. I didn't even know that you were supposed to drink the beer there, and that's why they put the counter lunches on. And so all these years after, when I started to go to the John Curtin Hotel, I didn't know women weren't allowed to go to public bars. And although no-one told me I wasn't allowed to go there, when I was told that you don't drink in a public bar, I made it my business to invite other women there. And so women started to congregate there and we'd always meet at that pub. And of course, it was handy too to find out things I wanted to know, what was going on.
I don't really know. I think basically it's just because I can't bear to see injustice. It really, really, does something to me. And I'm not a whinger. I mean, I know people who'll talk for hours and hours and days and nights and weeks and months and years about everything that's wrong. But they'll never do a thing, not even write a letter. And that's not me. If I see something's wrong then I have to do something, try to do something about it. Where it comes from? I don't know. I don't know how this sense of feeling for humanity — because basically that's what it's all about — you know, because I care, I care. [INTERRUPTION]
rruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
Well, I didn't do anything for a while. I wasn't terribly well. And I did what I could in the women's movement, but it had to be in an area where it wasn't very demanding of me. And, for example, International Women's Year had come upon us. And all national organisations elected a representative on to this central committee. And the women's liberation movement were asked for such a representative. And I filled that role. I was able to do that. It didn't make any large demands upon me. So wherever I could, I did what I could. So I was still involved and still interested and still going to things, but I wasn't doing a great deal, because at that stage I wasn't able to.
I would say a lot of it was, and misinformation, and lack of research, because I discovered, all those years back, that so many of the complaints that the women suffered from, the medical profession didn't even know why it happened. And for example, adenomyosis, endometriosis, and even fibroids. I mean, so many women get fibroids. They still don't know why and how they develop. And so a lot of it's experimentation, a lot of it's hit and miss. And their attitude is, well, if it all goes wrong, we can always do a hysterectomy. And in my case, that's what they did. And they removed the ovaries as well, without me having any idea that that's what they were going to do, because I hadn't been told that that's what they were going to do. And in my case, it was a disaster, absolute disaster.
Because most women — or I presume most women, I don't know, but I think — it's quite normal for them to produce oestrogen from other areas. But in my case that didn't happen. And after tests were taken, because I volunteered in desperation as a guinea pig for some tests and trials and things, on certain hormone tablets and what have you, and they discovered that I was in a permanent pre-menstrual situation. And so I had to go on to hormone replacement therapy, and I've been on it ever since, and that's about 22 years. I have tried at different occasions to go off, and it's disaster, really bad.
Well, I think, looking back, I suffered burn-out, absolute and total burn-out. And I never felt capable of going back into full-time work. It was impossible, absolutely impossible.
Well, I suppose, I have done what I could where I felt I could, and I would write at least, I think, one letter a fortnight, sometimes once a week, wherever I think pressure needs to be applied for whatever reason. I write articles for the women's liberation paper. I do speaking to whatever groups invite me.
Well, it's interesting because when people know, or have heard, of my past, which is almost always the case, they want me to speak of my experiences and what led me to do what I did, like the chain-up and things like that, and how do I feel about things now, and do I think things are different? Do I think things have changed? And what changes have come about? And because a lot of women don't even realise why the changes happened, you know, I don't know whether they think these things happen through God. But over the years I have noticed a tremendous change in women's attitude, tremendous change. And so, as well as giving them knowledge about what it was all about, I receive tremendous satisfaction out of seeing these women opening up and speaking. And they're women from all walks of life and rural areas, and in almost all cases have had absolutely no physical connection with the women's movement in any way, and yet their attitudes are so much different to what they were years ago.
Well, firstly, they will come out and say what they think and feel or even talk about their own personal experiences and in front of sometimes women they know locally and sometimes amongst strangers. And last International Women's Day, through the Adult Education here, we had a whole day on a Sunday and we invited women, local women, from all walks of life to come and speak for 10 minutes on their lives and what they had done, or felt that they had achieved. And so we had all these local women coming and speaking on topics — one woman on her involvement in sport, another one was studying for the ministry, another one spoke on her experience with cancer of the breasts. And another woman, who was very highly qualified, a university-trained woman (I think it was in political economy or economy/politics or geography or something) and is now a builder in the local area. And so we had about 130 women in attendance. And women who only came for half a day, not knowing what it was going to be like, were so disappointed afterwards. Because they thought, 'Oh, if I'd thought it was just so interesting I would have been here this morning.' And it was just wonderful to see these women doing their thing. And I mean, this would never have happened years ago. One woman spoke about how she didn't start her university training until she was 40 years of age and she is now one of our councillors, local councillors. And there they were speaking of experiences.
Oh, I was petrified, petrified. Now this is another thing about being all those years in the Communist Party. I could fight at union meetings because it was issue based. But when it came to having the floor and speaking, I was terrified. I'd never done it, and there I was, the women's movement was off and running, we had requests for speakers, and none of us were speakers at the time. And I suppose I was the one that — I don't know, what could I say — someone had to do it. And I wrote everything down in longhand that I was going to say. And I read it, depending on the type of group that it was that I was addressing. And I thought, well if I write down what I'm going to say, at least I know what I'm saying. I was terrified. What was going to happen when question time came and they asked me questions that I didn't know? And I thought, well I'll just have to be honest. And that's what I did when they asked me questions I didn't know the answers to, I just said, 'Well, I just don't know, but all these things are just going to have to be researched and this information is going to have to come.' Because at that time we had to start doing research. And I wanted to know why so few women could get into the main apprenticeships. And I went to the Apprenticeship Commission in Melbourne and asked them how many apprenticeships are open to women [and] why can't they get into the rest of them. And there were about 130-odd apprenticeships in all, and only four were open to women. And so I found out that some of the women in these industries were locked out because the terminology used in the whole award system and contract or whatever it was, covering them, was he, he, he: 'he shall' and 'he will' and 'he does'. So the wording cut the 'she' out. In others it was more specific, like there were numerous trades within the printing industry. The women were locked out of a lot of those because of the lead poisoning. They thought this was dangerous for women, but as far as I'm concerned it was dangerous to men too. Nobody should have been working in those hazardous industries. And also, the main bulk of women were locked out because industrial drawing was required. It was a compulsory subject for many of the apprenticeships and girls just didn't do that at schools. They did cookery and needlework and didn't do industrial drawing. So they were automatically locked out.
So then of course we realised the inequality in the whole education system and so that had to be remedied. But when I went looking for figures, whether it was to the employers or whether it was to the trade unions, and [asked] 'How many women do you have in your industry?', they didn't know. They only had employees. They had no figures on women at all. There were no statistics on women at all. We just did not exist. I mean, it's hard to believe that, because things have changed so much and women are the most researched human beings now. But at that stage we just worked in the blind. And I would have to go and speak, and I didn't have the answers to so many of these questions. But we spoke on the areas that we did know about and that was very important. Eventually I got to the stage where I had enough confidence and enough knowledge to be able to speak without reading the notes. But it was a trial. And all those years in the Communist Party did nothing to help me become a public speaker, nothing.
Months. And at first I was reluctant to go out alone and I'd like another woman to come out with me. And of course, I was and others were invited to go to the universities and speak to the students. And this happened on numerous occasions. And so when I got the job at the Mail Exchange, I was able to slot this all in with my shift work.
I'm always nervous, even today. I'm still nervous when I go out. I think the thought before and the anticipation of it is always sort of the worst part of it. Once I get firing I'm fine, but I'm always nervous.
Well, I was always pressed, because I spoke so much of what happened in my own life. People always, women always, said to me, 'Zelda, you should write. You should write about what happened to you.' And I never ever thought that my life was of any significance, I really didn't. Because I know all women have a story to tell. It's just that they remain silent about it. And so it wasn't until the ASIO document was leaked, and I saw they saw me as this dangerous woman, and I knew I had an ASIO document, a dossier. I had never seen it but I know I have one. And at that time I was told it was twice the size of John Halfpenny's [one of Victoria's most militant and powerful union leaders]. And so I thought well, if they feel they know about me, then I'm going to tell the world about myself. Added to that of course was that it was necessary for a working-class woman to write about what working-class women go through. It was necessary to write down what had happened to us because of the younger generations coming up, and not knowing that they have a past. Because if you never have a past, you don't have a future. So you have to have something to build, so it was important for the young people to know. And I felt that, as a woman, I also wanted other women to write about their lives. Because I think until the world knows more about our pain as individuals, things are not going to change. And we have to let them know that our pain is political and needs to be dealt with.
I think it has. Yes, I think it has. And I was recently told that a woman said it was the first book about a woman in the women's liberation movement that wasn't written for academia. And I think from that point of view it's a very important book.
I'm always working. I suppose it depends on what you define as work. I'm not doing any paid work, no. And I haven't done any paid work since I left the Mail Exchange. But I'm working all the time, all the time.
Well, now I'm the President of the local Adult Education Centre, and I find that extremely satisfying in as much as I'm helping to provide a wonderful service in the local community. And we have a wonderful committee made up of women and men, all very intelligent and capable people. And it's a pleasure to be working with them and our meetings are joyous, as well as effective of course.
Well, there were a few things that came into that. I had been told by two doctors that I had to change my whole way of life. And I developed high, uncontrollable blood pressure. And also I was beginning to question the whole existence of cities and why they're there for. They're not created for people, they're created for commerce. And I began to feel that cities are anti-people. And there's one thing in believing something and another thing in changing it. And so I felt that we have to live it — being me, I have to live it. So we went to an alternative commune up there [in northern New South Wales]. We joined a commune. And my only experience for some years had been with women. I didn't belong to any other organisation, and I had only worked with women. And here I was living in a community with women and men. And we weren't warned about the problems that existed in this community before we came here.
My friend and my partner, Ron. And we went there; no-one had warned us about all the hostility that existed there. And so it was very traumatic for me. Here I was, not only working with men, I was living among men. And there were tremendous problems there. Really, really traumatic. I went away after about 12 months and wrote a paper on what I thought about the place. As a community it collapsed two years after we joined. From then on, we each did our own thing. And it took another two years before we left the place and got out. But it was a very good experience for me because as a city person I didn't know there was such a thing as soil. [laughs] Soil, to me, was dirt. I grew up with a tiny little backyard that was all concrete. The three-foot-wide verandah was all paved. There was no soil whatsoever. And even though we lived in the commission house and we had the big garden, I was working and it was a chore. And even when I wasn't working we had no money and the whole thing was very depressing and miserable. And here I was in a community where we grew our own vegetables and we had our own cattle. And I learnt to get my hands in the soil and I was responsible for the herb garden. And from that point of view it was wonderful. And I grew to love the animals and the little calves, and the cows, and watching the behaviour of the cattle and observing their different temperaments. All this was new to me and it brought me to nature. And so for the first time in my life, I made contact with nature and began to understand it and began to learn about it and began to love it. And this changed my whole life around again and brought new dimensions into my life which was very, very satisfying. And, I think for the first time, this contact with the nature brought to me a spirituality. And I'm not talking about religion here. But I'm talking about a connection with nature as a spiritual thing. And that was wonderful, really, really, wonderful. And very, very important.
I think happiness is always something that's very short-lived. I'd use — 'content' perhaps would be a better term. Because happiness sort of comes in bursts. But I am content, yes, very content, yes.
Well, I have been content for some time, for some years. I suppose it's when you're young you have a desperate need to prove yourself. You feel you've got so much to give, and quite often you feel that you're not getting the opportunity to give that of yourself. You want to develop yourself. You feel you've got all this potential and so there's all this dynamic that's going on that tears you one way and another and one way and another. But I feel now I don't have to prove myself any more. I feel good with myself. And for years I was a frustrated intellectual. There were times when I would have loved to have gone to university. And that was a real thing. But now I acknowledge my intelligence, I'm aware I'm an intelligent person. I'm aware I've got some very strange idiosyncrasies too. But I like the person I am. I am happy being in my own company, because I'm happy being with me. And when you get over that stage where you don't have to feel you've got to impress people that you are good or that you are knowledgeable or you are intelligent, when you get to the stage where you don't care what they think, it's a very good feeling.
I've got a short fuse. [laughs] I suppose to some degree I don't suffer fools gladly. I can tolerate that in short bursts, but not for long periods. I'm — what else? I'm a very emotional person. And I feel I'm a very affectionate one. I'm happy about that, although at times I suppose my emotionalism can be irritating, particularly if I flare up. I don't normally hold grudges, and I come down to earth again reasonably quickly. But when I blow I can blow. I can sit on it for a while, but eventually, if it blows, I can really blow. And that can be very trying for the person who's copping it. [laughs]
Clearly, during those years that you were a worker and criticising the bosses, you must have been a right old pain in the bum for them at times, mustn't you? I mean, do you feel you've really, really got up their noses during those years?
Well, I don't think any employer likes any opposition. And particularly from the lowlings. And I never, ever did my block with employers. I mean I'm not stupid and I never wanted to lose my job. If I went to an employer, I went as a human being and spoke to him and presented the case to him as to why I thought something was wrong, and what should be done about it, but a lot of them weren't used to this. They'd never experienced this. And I must say, that with nearly all the employers I had, even though I might have got up their nose and demanded, you know, toilet paper in the toilets and a cleaner to clean and sweep the floors, they respected me, because I had the guts to come to them and tell them what I felt and thought. They wouldn't like it and they'd get stuck into me and all that type of thing, but they did respect me.
Well, sewing was something to me that saved me a lot of money. And when you haven't got money, you're seeking to do things that will make it possible to get clothing without having to pay such high amounts of money for it. And so, I learnt to sew. Now when I was sewing — as I've said, I've made my daughter's clothes and my clothes and all that and I was very particular — it was a chore. Because when I was working and I was in politics and I was in the unions and I was in everything else, making things was a chore. And I never had that much time and being a perfectionist it was irritating if it didn't work out the way I wanted to. Now, I have a totally different attitude towards it entirely, because I have the time and I'm not stressed and I'm not pushed for time. So now I can do it and enjoy it and I can fiddle around with it and I have the radio on and I can listen to Radio National while they interview all the interesting people and have these interesting discussions, while I sew. And I enjoy the finished product and I enjoy seeing the things that I've created. I mean, the same with knitting, I still knit and knit jumpers, and I love to see the finished work.
Well I, at a very early stage, went on to piece work production, and I was a fast machinist, and I worked flat out. I mean, working in those sort of jobs, you're only there for one purpose and that's to get money. There's nothing else that's great about them, so you're only there to get the money. And so I worked as hard as I could. And you'd build up tension and you'd want to go to the toilet and you'd wait and wait and wait. You'd say I'll wait til I've finished all these sleeves, or I'll wait til I've put all these sleeves in, and so you're putting it off and putting it off and you're tensing your whole body until you'd done it all. And then you race out the back like crazy. And some of the factories I worked in, the conditions were deplorable. The only positive thing in hindsight, about the factories— compared to today — is it was one long bench. And the women sat sort of diagonally across from each other. And so you could talk to each other while you were working. But today they have separate units and they have them placed like a school class, where you've got the back of the woman in front of you. And so, the ones at the side are too far away to speak to, and in the front, a woman's got her back to you. So people can't talk any more while they work in the factories. This is the way they prevent people from interrelating. Like they do in the classrooms.
Yes, that was another good thing and that's why you were able to learn the trade, because you had to make the whole garments, in the ladies' clothing anyway. In the men's it could be different. But in ladies' clothing you made the whole garments. See today, that's another difference. You've got women who can just make sleeves and collars, and that's all they ever do. And you've got other women who put the pockets in or do something else. And they can't — they don't even know how to sew, because the only thing they know how to do is sew up the side seam in a sleeve or put pockets in, or collars in or something. A lot of them just don't know how to sew, and this is very cruel, very cruel. What they're doing is they're de-skilling the women so they have no bargaining power.
I tried part-time waitressing. I gave that away, that was terrible. And the reason I gave it away was because every complaint people had [laughs], a waitress copped it. And I could see very quickly that I was there for them to take out all their complaints on. And even when you said, 'Look, I'm sorry, sir or madam, I didn't cook this meal or prepare it. I mean I'm only here to serve it to you', you still copped it. And I very quickly got fed up with that set up. I don't know whether it's any different today. I couldn't imagine that it would be. But added to that — oh, another job I had was an usherette. Oh, that was a beauty. That was during the war. I was really pleased because I'd lied about my age, and so I got — I think it was 30 shillings a week, and oh, that was big deal. And we had to wear high heel shoes, full make-up and you had to run up and down the stairs for every person that came in and gave you a ticket, with the high heel shoes on. And you were working in the dark all day. I worked in a theatre called the Liberty. It was on the opposite side to Myer's, a little further up towards Swanston Street, and they didn't have air-conditioning, and they used to spray it with sort of anti-flea spray. And there you were in the darkness all day, with no fresh air, running up and down stairs at the whim of everybody. It wasn't a very nice job really. It was terrible. And my feet began to ache and I developed corns and all sorts of things. And you always had to look glamorous and you always had to look beautiful and smile and do all this sort of thing. So it wasn't such a great job. But the money was the thing that kept me there. [INTERRUPTION]
My first experience with a trade union, when seeking help, was when I belonged to the clothing trades union and I was working in a factory in Fitzroy. And this factory was filthy. Huge factory, but it was terribly dirty. And I asked the employers were they going to clean it over the Christmas period and they just laughed. And when I came back to work after the Christmas was over, and the place was just as filthy, I got quite annoyed about it and I approached them about cleaning the place and they just laughed and didn't do anything. So I rang the trade union and explained the situation, and asked could an organiser please come to the factory and see about having toilet paper in the toilet and a receptacle for the sanitary pads, and that the floors were swept and so forth. I don't think those demands were unreasonable. And so I didn't hear a thing. And the next minute, one of the bosses came up to me and he said, 'What do you mean by ringing the union?' And I denied of course that I had rung the union. And he just said straight out, 'Oh, don't give me that bullshit. Mr Bradley is a friend of ours and he came here and saw us. And told us what you complained about.' And then I realised of course there was no point in lying any more to defend myself. So I just went on the attack and told him straight out that the conditions in there were deplorable, they were filthy and they ought to be ashamed to have a factory in such a state, because they laughed and said their great-grandfather or someone had opened the factory and they'd never, ever had a cleaner there. And were sort of proud of it. So anyway, we had quite a blue. And we just agreed to sort of separate and he went one way and I went the other. And so he came back a few hours later and he said, 'We'll supply bum fodder' — that's what he called it, the toilet paper — 'We'll supply bum fodder and we'll have a receptacle for you so the women don't have to throw the pads in the toilet basins any more. We'll have someone sweep up.' He said, 'Does that satisfy you?' And I just looked at him and said, 'Yes, it does, thanks very much.' But this was my first approach to a union and the organiser didn't even come and speak to me and talk about anything. He went and spoke to his friend, the boss. I never, ever, saw that Mr Bradley, ever. And I thought, well that's a lovely set up that is. And this was my first experience with the union.
You've seen enormous changes, both with the unions and with the women's movement and the things that you've fought for and argued for and achieved. How do you feel when you see that all change, where you see the same old arguments coming up and having to be re-fought, the same old battles done?
Well, this is why I feel the whole of society has to change, because what happens with the present set-up is that you do fight and you get some changes and improvements and it's great. And a government comes in, like we've just got at the moment, and they go swish, swish, swish; they cut all the funding off, they close this down, and they can put you right back to base one. And this will continue to happen as long as you've got this type of patriarchal society. So the whole basis of society has to change. It has to become people-caring, people-friendly, and I think the time's going to come very soon, because of the whole world situation, that big changes are going to have to be made. I hope that the changes, big changes, won't be for the worse. I hope that they will see that have to really change the whole way we're heading. Because the pollution, the destruction of our environment, all this comes into it. And this is so we don't have to keep on reinventing the wheel, that these big changes need to be made. People should be discussing more about how this should be done.
Well, my involvement with the Meat Industry Union which, during my presence there, was being used as a test case in the equal pay campaign, and big things were mooted. You know, they were very sure that they were going to get this equal pay. Bob Hawke was the advocate at the time for the ACTU and the union, being the test case, I got very involved in distributing leaflets, time and time again, in my time, for equal pay. I used to go into the city and hand them out after work and in my lunch hour and I think I got caught up in the enthusiasm of everyone else in the union about this — what was going to be the achievement of equal pay. Part of that campaign that I got involved in, was being with the women from the meatworks to go to the Arbitration Court and be with them there demonstrating and to go into the Arbitration Commission and sit and listen to the case. And there I was with all the women from the meatworks sitting there. I'd never been in this situation before. And what I saw was men arguing for, men arguing against and men, all the commissioners, sitting up the top, who were going to decide what we were worth. And I found this whole situation very demeaning, and hard, very hard to accept, but nevertheless, the result of the case was devastating, because only 12 per cent of the women in the industry finished up with equal pay. And then there was silence. Nothing happened, absolutely nothing. And I was invited by a woman, Dianne Ronberg, who was secretary of the Insurance Staffs Federation, to come to a meeting, where representatives from the trade union movement that had women membership would be there, to see what we do next. And so I came along and Dianne came along and there was no-one else there. And we got annoyed, the two of us. And we just sort of talked to each other about things and Dianne said, 'Oh, it's terrible. What a pity, you know, we don't chain ourselves up like the suffragettes did' and we both had a giggle. And we went on talking. At the back of my mind I thought about it and I realised something drastic had to happen. We had to do something outlandish and very unladylike. And so I said to Dianne that I was prepared to chain myself up and she was a bit startled. And so we went ahead and tried to get the approval of VEWOC, which was this organisation that represented women trade unionists. And the secretary of the clothing trades union nearly flipped and no way should we do such a thing. And so I went ahead and decided I would do it on my own with no support from anyone (organisational support) but I would want some women to be there to give me some moral support. And so two women came from the UAW, a woman from the engineers' union and we had a woman Justice of the Peace standing by just in case I was arrested. And I managed to get the chain donated through the painters and dockers' union. And so, I bought the chains, I surveyed the place to see where the chains had to go, I bought the locks. And I didn't go to the toilet or eat or drink or anything — I knew I wasn't allowed to go to the toilet because it just couldn't happen. And so I had to be prepared, so I didn't eat or drink for hours beforehand. And I went in my lunch hour and chained myself up across the doors of the Commonwealth Building. And then eventually when I was cut off the chains by the Commonwealth Police, I went back to work, ate my lunch during my work and shook for several hours.
You made a terrific splash in the papers with all of that. It was a terrific photo opportunity for them all to have you chained there and it really did have the effect of drawing a lot of attention to the case. But it also drew attention to you. Do you think that all that publicity that you had, and the notoriety you gained through that, might have something to do with the real resentment that the unions — who'd asked you not to do it and you'd defied them — [had and] might have something to do with their not coming to your aid later when you were in trouble with your boss?
No, I don't think so at all. No, it was the boys' club. It's just a question of the boys' club and your utmost loyalty to the boys' club. The fact that they offered me the opportunity to resign, you see, and I wouldn't take it. And so I was sacked. And the fact I even went and spoke about it, you see. No, the boys' club closed up, you know, that's what it was.
Well, we did have a great social life and we had a lot of parties and music and singing and dancing. And you had a feeling as if you belonged somewhere. It's like people who join up a religious grouping, it's the sense of belonging. It's sort of like the tribal thing. And it did give you that, that sense of belonging. But really speaking, overall, it was a pretty artificial sort of a sense of belonging, because in the 21 years I was there, I can really say, of all the party members, that I only had one close friend, and that was this woman that leant me the money to have one of my abortions, because I just didn't have any at the time. And she was a working-class woman. And I can honestly say she was the only real friend. And for 21 years, I mean, who are you belonging too? You have to ask yourself, what are you belonging to? But, as I said, during those years there were fun times and we did have a lot of fun. I mean, we used to go out pasting up and painting up slogans and things like that. And you'd have to run like billy-o and I know one couple — this is really funny because you have to know the couple involved to realise how funny it was — they were married, but not to each other. And they were in a situation where the police were coming by and so they just sort of hid their paste and got into a clinch. And sort of hugging as if they were cuddling, you know, under the bushes or something. And I think she had her husband's running shoes on and they were dressed in the most incongruous clothing, and there they were having a cuddle. So I mean all these sort of things. And there was a lot of funny incidents that we could laugh about. And it wasn't, certainly wasn't all bad, but I mean, otherwise you wouldn't stay there. There has to be some compensatory factors.
In relation to your abortions, they took a terrific physical toll on you. A lot of people talk about the very bad emotional effect of an abortion. What kind of emotional effect did your abortions have on you?
Well, this is very interesting, because years ago — it was always silent, nothing was said. So people were greatly relieved. You could jump for joy, despite the pain you endured. But since society and the churches, particularly, and the Fred Niles, have made such a big thing and the Right to Lifers, they have made women feel more guilty in recent years, you know. It staggers me to hear about the guilts and everything these women have. And it's only because of all the pressure that's been put on women to feel guilty, because in our day — I mean, you know, the ones of my generation who ultimately revealed their abortions to each other — all spoke of tremendous relief. And so that's the difference between then and now. I mean, now they have their abortions under much better circumstances. But so many women are filled with guilt.
None whatsoever. None. None of us did. Because we knew it wasn't a baby. It was a little bit of jelly about the size of your thumbnail. I mean if you were talking about babies, then you have to say right, here, take this thumbnail and you rear it. And that's the way I look at it.
Joy, absolute joy. Relief, tremendous relief. Absolute, yes. And I mean, to me, the people who claim to be concerned with life are not really concerned with life. They don't care about boys getting killed in the wars, they don't care about any of that killing and taking of life. In my opinion what they are is friends of the foetus.
[end of interview]