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Julia Rachel Rapke (1886–1959)

by Judith Smart

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Julia Rachel Rapke (1886-1959), feminist and civil rights activist, was born on 11 February 1886 at Christchurch, New Zealand, daughter of Ralph Levoi, an insurance agent from London, and his Melbourne-born wife Miriam, née Levy. Julia attended Wellington Girls' High School before moving with the family to Melbourne. On 28 November 1906 at the Synagogue, St Kilda, she married Abraham Bernard Rapke, a 28-year-old tobacconist from Poland; they were to have two sons and a daughter.

In the mid-1920s Mrs Rapke entered public life, initially in charity work as secretary of the Maternity Patients' Convalescent Home. From 1927 she was active politically as secretary of the Victorian Women Citizens' Movement, the State affiliate of the Australian Federation of Women Voters. She also became a delegate to the National Council of Women of Victoria and convenor (1931) of its standing committee for suffrage and rights of citizenship. In 1929 she was appointed a special magistrate at the Children's Court, St Kilda, and a justice of the peace. As founding president (1938-40) of the Women Justices' Association of Victoria, she brought together influential and public-spirited women to lobby for the welfare of women, adolescents and children.

Although she was committed to non-party political organization for women, Rapke was a conservative in State and national politics. She joined the Brighton Beach branch of the Australian Women's National League, spoke in support of the All for Australia League during the Depression and campaigned periodically for the United Australia Party. In 1937 she considered standing for the Victorian legislature as a party candidate, rather than an Independent feminist, on the grounds that 'parliament legislates for the community as a whole'. She took part in the Constitutional Club's model parliament in the 1930s (one of only three women admitted) and rose to the posts of prime minister and governor-general. Convinced of the value of this organization as a political training ground, she formed the widely publicized women's model parliament in May 1946 and took a leading role in tutoring the participants in public speaking, parliamentary procedure and debate.

Rapke had resigned as secretary of the Victorian Women Citizens' Movement in mid-1931, but continued on the executive as international corresponding secretary and represented the movement on the board of the Australian Federation of Women Voters. As an A.F.W.V. delegate, she served as secretary of the Australian Pan-Pacific Women's Committee, and as secretary and treasurer of the Australian Joint Standing Committee of Women's Federal Organizations (later the Australian Liaison Committee).

The A.P.P.W.C. and the A.L.C. co-ordinated the participation of Australian women in international conferences. In addition, the A.L.C. advised the Commonwealth government on the appointment of appropriate women to international bodies—particularly the League of Nations—and provided ministers with information for reports on the position of women in Australia. Drawing on her experience in these organizations, Rapke broadcast a series of addresses entitled 'Women in Affairs, National and International' on radio-station 3LO in 1936 and delivered a paper, 'Women's Work for World Peace', in 1937. Both the A.P.P.W.C. and the A.L.C. were to be disbanded on her recommendation in 1946, owing to their inactivity during World War II.

Elected president of the V.W.C.M. in 1936, Rapke also became a vice-president of the A.F.W.V. She retained the latter post until 1957. Two speeches she gave to the A.F.W.V. conference in 1936, 'Women and Household Employment—Economic Aspects of Women's Rights and Equalities' and 'Legal Domicile of Married Women', indicated the range of her interests in women's issues. Her extensive contact with the nation's leading women, and a strong sense of the significance of their efforts, stimulated her to interview and to write short sketches on eighteen of them in 1938-40. Held as the Julia Rapke papers at the National Library of Australia, they provide valuable insights into Rapke herself as well as her subjects. Among the women, Ruby Rich (who was Jewish) had a major influence on Rapke and was the recipient of her confidences.

Widowed in 1940, Julia found consolation in an expanded public role. She served as vice-president of the Council for Women in War Work and as a member of the Co-ordinating Committee for Child Welfare in Wartime. Yet, more of her energy was devoted to the Victorian International Refugee Emergency Council and the Australian Open Door Council. She also assumed the federal secretarial responsibilities of the Women's International Zionist Organization, thereby extending her internationalism. Maintaining her abhorrence of war and violence, in 1946 she led a broadly based women's protest movement against the atomic bomb.

While she was deeply committed to assisting Jewish refugees and internees, Rapke remained determinedly integrationist and occasionally came into conflict with Ida Wynn, president of the W.I.Z.O. Federation of Australia. Wynn lamented that Rapke was unable to 'steep herself in W.I.Z.O.', that she was interested in Zionism 'only in the most impersonal way' and that she devoted too much time to other organizations. Rapke, for her part, believed that Jewish women needed to be encouraged to play a larger part in national affairs.

In the months before World War II ended, Rapke had concentrated on strengthening feminist organization in Victoria in order to enlarge women's influence on postwar reconstruction. Between March and June 1945 she convened meetings with representatives of the V.W.C.M., the Women for Canberra Movement and the League of Women Electors. The three bodies merged to form the League of Women Voters of Victoria. It held its inaugural meeting in August and elected Rapke president. Resuming the presidency of the Women Justices' Association in the same month, she reached the pinnacle of her career in the women's movement in the four years that followed.

They were not easy years for Rapke. Both the L.W.V. and A.F.W.V. experienced internal conflict over the content and provenance of Jessie Street's Australian Woman's Charter. In a vulnerable position as a result of the demise of the Australian Liaison Committee, the A.F.W.V. found itself outmanoeuvred by the Charter group during 1947 when it tried to reconstitute the A.L.C. in opposition to the Charter movement's Co-operating Organization. Rapke joined Rich and Bessie Rischbieth against Street in this Cold War battle for leadership of the women's movement in Australia, but her ability to determine the position of the L.W.V. had been undermined by the presence of Chartists on the league's executive. 'I hate not knowing who I can trust', she wrote to Rich.

Although Rapke continued on the board of the L.W.V. after her term as president ended in 1949, the weight of her public activity began to shift. In 1947 she had organized W.I.Z.O's second national conference. Following a period as Victorian president (1952-54) of this body, she was elevated to the federal presidency in 1954, a position she held until her death. Rapke brought to both offices a wealth of experience in organization, public speaking, leadership and lobbying. W.I.Z.O. 'rose to its greatness' under her. In 1954 Rapke's daughter Betty died. Julia left on a ten-month trip to Europe and Israel: the journey had special poignancy and served to affirm her faith. While in Israel, she was invited to join the world executive of W.I.Z.O. and later served on the executive of the Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand. She narrowly failed, however, to gain the franchise for women in her own St Kilda Synagogue.

In 1957 Rapke was appointed O.B.E., particularly for 'raising the status of women' and for improving 'the care and treatment of underprivileged children and delinquent youth'. Survived by her sons, she died on 9 October 1959 at Windsor and was buried in Springvale cemetery. A wing of the Ida Wynn Children's Centre at Mount Carmel, Haifa, Israel, was named after her.

The Rapkes' second son Trevor George (1909-1978) was born on 2 September 1909 at Prahran, Melbourne, and raised at St Kilda, home of the city's Anglo-Jewry. Trevor attended Wesley College and entered the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1931; LL.B., 1933). He also went to the St Kilda Hebrew School: Sabbath afternoon services, followed by higher Hebrew classes, formed the basis of his continuing interest and expertise in orthodox learning and culture. A senior member of the Judaean League, he and Maurice Ashkanasy extended 'its tentacles of dissent into the knitted world of St Kilda and Toorak Road', but he remained committed to traditional Judaism and occasionally gave sermons to his orthodox congregation. He passed on the Jewish faith through the children's services, which he helped to originate in 1924, and through the 3rd St Kilda Scout Group, which he formed to enable Jewish boys to engage in scouting in an appropriate religious context.

While adamantly opposed to a secularism that would submerge Jewish identity, Rapke was a leader in replacing the Victorian Jewish Advisory Board with the lay Board of Deputies, of which he was president (1956-58). He disagreed with many of the beliefs of the liberal congregation, but kept in touch with its members and sometimes acted as a mediator in the interests of communal harmony. In 1957 he was appointed Australia's representative on the Jewish Congress's world executive and elected president of the World Israel Movement. He was also a long-term executive-member of the Zionist Federation of Australia and New Zealand.

Accepting Jacob Danglow's advice against joining the rabbinate, Rapke had been admitted to the Bar on 1 March 1935. He was appointed paymaster sub lieutenant, Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve, on 19 January 1941 and promoted lieutenant in April. While serving (1942-43) in H.M.A.S. Australia, he saw action in the battle of the Coral Sea and acted as secretary to Commodore H. B. Farncomb. His naval appointment terminated on 22 April 1944. At the Synagogue, St Kilda, on 17 June 1947 he married 19-year-old Betty Ellinson.

On 22 April 1958 Rapke took silk. It was claimed that he was the first Jew to become a judge in Victoria when he was elevated to the bench of the County Court on 3 November. As a judge, he was outspoken and earthy, showing the same concern as his mother for community welfare, civil liberties and just sentencing. The sharp distinction he drew between offences against property and those involving violence brought him into conflict with government ministers. He publicly condemned illegal discipline at Pentridge prison, procedures in trials for rape, and the practice of keeping juveniles in custody for long periods while awaiting trial. Prepared to make his views known to the press, he antagonized some members of the judiciary by criticizing their remoteness from society.

In 1964 Rapke was appointed judge advocate-general, Australian Naval Forces. The Commonwealth government chose him in 1971 to investigate allegations of 'bastardisation' at the naval training establishment H.M.A.S. Leeuwin, Fremantle, Western Australia. Some believed that his close links with the R.A.N. would compromise his impartiality, but his report was characteristically judicious and his recommendations were consistent with the humane principles he employed on the bench.

Rapke was a Freemason, president (1956-57) of the Athenaeum Club and honorary professor of law (1965) at the United States Naval Justice School, Rhode Island. Late in 1977 he was notified that he was to be appointed A.O. in the Australia Day honours list. He died of complications arising from a coronary occlusion on 21 January 1978 at Templestowe and was buried in Springvale cemetery; his wife, and their four sons and two daughters survived him. D. P. Whelan, chief judge of the County Court, eulogized him as 'colourful, strong, fair and fearless'.

Select Bibliography

  • Principal Women of the Empire (Lond, 1940)
  • H. L. Rubinstein, The Jews in Victoria 1835-1985 (Syd, 1986)
  • W. D. Rubinstein, The Jews in Australia, vol 2 (Melb, 1991)
  • WIZO Review, Dec 1959, Mar 1960
  • Herald (Melbourne), 31 Jan 1978
  • Bessie Rischbieth papers, series 4 and 5 (National Library of Australia)
  • Ruby Rich papers, boxes 1, 9 and 43 (National Library of Australia)
  • Australian Federation of Women Voters papers, boxes 3, 6-7, 9-10 and 15 (National Library of Australia)
  • League of Women Voters of Victoria papers, boxes 872-73 (State Library of Victoria)
  • Women Justices' Assn of Victoria papers, boxes 1-2 (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Judith Smart, 'Rapke, Julia Rachel (1886–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Levoi, Julia Rachel

11 February, 1886
Christchurch, New Zealand


9 October, 1959 (aged 73)
Windsor, Melbourne, 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.