Labour Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Zelda D'Aprano (1928–2018)

by Marilyn Lake

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

A large and admiring crowd assembled in Brunswick Town Hall to celebrate and pay tribute to the life of Zelda D'Aprano, who died in February aged 90. She was perhaps most famous as the courageous women's liberationist who chained herself across the doors of the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne in 1969, in protest against the limited nature of the recent decision on equal pay in the Commonwealth Arbitration Court.

Over the next several decades she became an earnest and fierce – but always good-humored – supporter of the many causes she deemed necessary to overthrow the patriarchy.

Zelda was a working-class woman, a mother, a trade unionist and a Communist, who would leave the party in 1971 in protest against its sexism. Her action in chaining herself to the doors of the Commonwealth Building, in the tradition of the English suffragettes, was Zelda's best-known protest in a long life of activism dedicated to achieving social justice and improving the lives of women.

She was joined in the equal pay campaign by other Melbourne activists, many of them fellow members of the Communist Party and all active in the burgeoning women's liberation movement.

Zelda worked in many jobs – as biscuit maker, usherette, seamstress, dental nurse and office worker – and was an active trade unionist. She also became a writer, peace activist, member of the Union of Australian Women, grandmother and great-grandmother. As the speakers at the Brunswick Town Hall agreed, hers was an engaged life well-lived.

Zelda was born in Melbourne on January 24, 1928 to working-class migrant parents, Shimshon Orloff (later known as Sam), who had worked as a wheelwright until coach-building collapsed, and Rachel Orloff (nee Tourkenitz), who was employed in the clothing industry.

Born in the Ukraine and Russia, where their families suffered anti-Semitic persecution, Shimshon and Rachel were taken as children to Palestine, where they met and married. After migrating to Melbourne in 1923, they made their home in the Jewish community of Carlton, where Rachel, dismayed by the poverty and slum conditions of Melbourne's inner suburbs, joined the Communist Party in a bid to make the world a fairer place. As Zelda noted, her mother swapped her religion for left-wing politics.

Rachel gave birth to three children: Clare (who died aged 91), Zelda and the youngest, a boy, Morry, who is still alive, aged 88.

Zelda was educated at Lee Street Primary and Brunswick Domestic Arts, but keen to relieve her parents of the burden of her upkeep, left school just before she turned 14. She soon met Charlie D'Aprano and after "a wonderful romance", as she recalled, she received her mother's permission to marry at 16. Their daughter Leonie was born a year later in 1945 and the family made their new home in West Heidelberg, where Zelda formed important early friendships and political commitments.

She had a special gift for friendship, as the gathering at Brunswick Town Hall amply testified. She was an enthusiast and idealist and as a young working mother, joined the Heidelberg branch of the Communist Party (CPA) when she was 21. Though later disillusioned, for two decades Zelda and Charlie found in the CPA a vital social network and valuable education.

In the 1950s, Zelda qualified as a dental nurse, but after working for 15 years in the clinic at Larundel Psychiatric Hospital, where she was also a shop steward, she was refused permanency of employment, so resigned.

A more exciting position opened up in the office of the Communist-led Australian Meat Industry Employees Union, which was taking a test case for equal pay to the Arbitration Court in 1969. Attending court hearings, Zelda was appalled to find that all the key players were men, including the union advocate, future President of the ACTU and Prime Minister R. J. Hawke.

The court granted equal pay for equal work, but as so few women did exactly the same work as men, its application was strictly limited. Frustrated and disappointed, Zelda protested by chaining herself across the entrance of the Commonwealth Building during her lunch hour to draw attention to the cause. Her action became a media event and a second chain-up soon followed, when Zelda was joined by teachers Alva Giekie and Thelma Solomon at the entrance to the Arbitration Court.

Armed with the new insights generated by the emergent women's liberation movement, women activists around the world began to form consciousness-raising groups and plan action on numerous fronts to end women's treatment as exploited workers, as sex objects and victims of discrimination and violence, and more generally to overthrow what came to be called "sexism".

In Melbourne, in August 1970, Alva, Thelma and Zelda met at Bon Hull's place to form the Women's Action Committee. Fired up by the energy of a worldwide movement, they called on their sisters to "join the women of England and America to protest against exploitation and discrimination [against] women".

In the Melbourne CBD, they took a tram ride and insisted on paying just 75 per cent of the fare, to highlight the unfairness of women's lesser pay rates; they protested against Miss Teenage contests and joined a national conference on women and work and "female conditioning" organised at the University of Melbourne.

In 1972, as preparations began for the next equal pay case (for "work of equal value"), Zelda was on the coordinating committee of the newly opened Women's Centre at 16 Little La Trobe Street, which became a meeting place for numerous campaigns relating to discrimination at work, discrimination against lesbians, sexist advertising, abortion law reform, rape culture, childcare and children's books.

During the next decade Zelda was in demand as a feisty speaker at public meetings, demonstrations, marches and at schools and was frequently interviewed on radio and TV. She also wrote about her political journey in her self-published autobiography Zelda: The Becoming of a Woman (1977), which was re-published in an expanded form by Spinifex Press in 1995.

In 2001, the centenary of federation, Zelda published a second book, Kath Williams: the Unions and the Fight for Equal Pay, to record the contribution of an earlier campaigner. Women had been fighting for pay justice in Australia since the early 20th century and Zelda was determined to educate us about their long struggle.

In 1972, the Arbitration Court had granted "equal pay for work of equal value", while 1974 saw the more significant judgment in favour of an adult minimum wage for all workers regardless of sex. Zelda recorded the history of the struggle for pay justice and was herself an active participant. Still, equal pay remains an elusive goal for Australian women as the continuing pay gap and recent action by childcare workers make clear.

Zelda's life of activism was recognised in the numerous honours bestowed on her. In 1995, she received a special mention for her "Outstanding Contribution to Australian Culture" from the Director of the Centre for Australian Cultural Studies in Canberra. In 2000, Macquarie University awarded her the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws; in 2001 she was among the first 100 women admitted to the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.

Trades Hall Council introduced special awards in her name for women trade unionists. In 2004, she was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) and last year La Trobe University awarded her an honorary DLitt degree.

Zelda and Charlie D'Aprano separated in 1965. With her second partner, former Communist Ron Tilley, Zelda moved to New South Wales to live on a beautiful rural commune at John's River, where she became deeply attached to communal principles and country life. She only returned to live in Melbourne when her health declined during the past decade.

Despite her illness Zelda readily reconnected with old friends and made many new ones. And she found much joy in her growing family, now extended across four generations with the birth of Leonie's daughter and Zelda's granddaughter, Seona, and great-granddaughter, Persephone.

Zelda wanted to be remembered above all as a woman activist. Certainly her long commitment to justice for working women that began in the trade union movement more than 60 years ago reminds us of the key role played by working-class women in the long feminist struggle for equality and economic justice.

Original Publication

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Marilyn Lake, 'D'Aprano, Zelda (1928–2018)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Orloff, Zelda

24 January, 1928
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


21 February, 2018 (aged 90)
Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Organisations
Political Activism