A demonstration in the 1970s featuring a group of women holding posters and placards demanding equal pay.

International Women's Day 2021

International Women's Day 2021

 Mel Bondfield

WARNING: this article contains names, images and voices of deceased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

The theme for International Women's Day in 2021 is #ChoosetoChallenge

The NFSA is marking the day by celebrating three trailblazing Australian women who refused to accept the status quo and stood up to challenge inequality.

The women highlighted below come from vastly different backgrounds, but all three have a compelling life story and, through their activism, have left an indelible mark on our nation's social and cultural history.

These women are profiled in our Australian Biography: Women curated collection, which features a group of remarkable women who have significantly impacted the Australian way of life.

ZELDA D'APRANO: Challenging Women's Working Conditions

Zelda D'Aprano (1928–2018) spent much of her life as a working-class crusader for women's rights and equal pay. 

Born in Melbourne to poor Jewish migrant parents in the late 1920s, D'Aprano's memories of working-class poverty and her mother's passionate sense of justice fuelled her later activism. 

She held a number of factory jobs after leaving school where she witnessed firsthand the inequality suffered by women workers.

D'Aprano was married at age 16, and at 17 she became a mother. She lived on a housing commission estate and struggled to make ends meet. 

Her first foray into activism was to form a women's group, which in turn led her to be invited to join the Communist Party.

D'Aprano became an active and outspoken unionist and Communist Party member, but often found herself clashing with the men over women's working conditions.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, D'Aprano held jobs in a psychiatric hospital as a dental nurse where she was a union activist, and then for the Meatworkers' Union where, once again, she observed unequal conditions for female workers. 

In 1969, the meat industry was being used as a test case for equal pay. When the case mostly failed, D'Aprano – tired of watching men argue about a woman's worth – took matters in her own hands and chained herself to the doors of the court building. 

Soon afterwards she co-founded the militant Women's Action Committee, whose members refused to pay full fare on Melbourne's trams until such time as women were granted equal pay.

For her outspokenness, D'Aprano was dismissed from the union, the memory of which still causes her deep pain. She became intensely involved in the early years of the women's liberation movement and in 1977 wrote an autobiography, Zelda: The Becoming of a Woman.

Here is an excerpt from D'Aprano's interview in 1996 for Film Australia's Australian Biography series:

Zelda D'Aprano interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series, 1996. NFSA title: 402635.

FAITH BANDLER: Challenging Racism

Faith Bandler (1920–2015) was a civil rights activist and writer, born in Tumbulgum, New South Wales, and raised in Murwillumbah. Her father was a South Sea Islander and her mother was of Scottish-Indian heritage.

Throughout the Second World War years, Bandler worked on farms for the Australian Women's Land Army – an organisation that called on women to replace male farm workers who had gone to war. At this time she experienced first hand how Indigenous workers were paid less money than their white counterparts, which prompted her to campaign for equal pay.

In the 1950s, Bandler became involved in the peace movement, and in 1956 was instrumental in setting up the Australian Aboriginal Fellowship. Her relentless activism was key in bringing about the constitutional referendum of 1967.

Although she was only five years old when he died, Bandler cites her father's story as a motivating factor for her own activism. Stolen from his home in Ambrym, Vanuatu at the age of 13 and forced to work on a Queensland sugar cane plantation, he eventually escaped to New South Wales where he met Bandler's mother. 

In 1974, Faith decided to direct her energies to the 16,000 descendants of South Sea Islanders and, in 1975, made her first emotional journey to her father's birthplace on Ambrym.

Bandler was also a member of the NSW branch of the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) in the 1970s. The feminist lobbying organisation campaigned on equal pay, abortion, child care, domestic violence and sex discrimination, and helped to engineer significant law reform and legislation around these issues.

Bandler's writing included historical accounts of the 1967 referendum as well as stories about the lives of her father and brother. She has been awarded many honours and accolades, including an Order of Australia, and an honorary doctorate from Macquarie University.

Bandler was interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1995. Here is a brief excerpt: 

Faith Bandler interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series, 1993. NFSA title: 403180.

VERONICA BRADY: Challenging Bias in the Church

Sister Veronica Brady (1929–2015) was one of the first Australian nuns to teach in a university, broadcast on radio and join in public socio-political debate.

Brady was born in Melbourne and finished school at the age of 15, before attending Melbourne University. She was a highly accomplished academic who completed her PhD in Australian Literature. Her teaching, writing and essays covered Patrick White, Tom Keneally, David Malouf and many others.

She taught for the Sisters of Loreto in Kirribilli, New South Wales and was a controversial figure within the Catholic Church. Brady spoke out publicly against the Vatican for their stance on abortion, homosexuality and contraception and was also an advocate for the ordination of female priests.

In the 1970s she moved to Perth and eventually become an Associate Professor at the University of Western Australia in 1991. 

Brady was also involved in the Aboriginal rights movement and campaigned against uranium mining. She was a member of many humanitarian, cultural and social organisations including Amnesty International, the Campaign against Nuclear Energy and the Campaign against Racial Exploitation. In the 1980s she also held a position on the ABC board.

Brady authored several books including The Future People (1971), The Mystics (1974) and A Crucible of Prophets (1981).

Here is an excerpt from Brady's interview for Film Australia's Australian Biography series in 1993:

Veronica Brady interviewed for Film Australia's Australian Biography series, 1993. NFSA title: 403290.

How will you be marking International Women's Day on 8 March 2021? Tell us on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with the hashtags #ChoosetoChallenge and #IWD2021.