We had so much fun. We felt alive, so alive. It was a wonderful experience being part of the Women’s Liberation Movement at that time.
I was born in Carlton in 1928, one year before the massive collapse of the economic system – the great depression. So I grew up in poverty.
My mother, particularly my mother, started to develop left wing political ideas and even though she was illiterate, she thought of these ideas in relation to what she saw around her. I constantly heard discussion on wealth and poverty.
The poor were rapidly increasing in numbers. Next door to where we lived there was an empty block with a tin fence around. I can’t remember how often but men used to arrive there of a morning, go in and get a big broom then go around Carlton sweeping the gutters. They were called ‘susso’ men. I think they used to get five shillings a week. I remember their gaunt faces and depressed demeanour.
At a very early age I realised that we were poor. But I had no idea of what being rich was. There was no television in those days and I remember going to a couple of matinee films where Shirley Temple appeared and the houses she was in were very, very swish compared to our place. They were mansions. I thought “that must be what wealth is”.
My mother always used to say that anyone working with their own two hands would never be wealthy. You need other people’s two hands working for you to be wealthy. I used to look at my father. He worked hard as a blacksmith and wheelwright but we were poor. I remember as a child walking to his place of work to take Dad his lunch and I would watch – very hard physical work. Of course he was on part-time, three days a week.
At a very early age I learned what class was all about. We were working class. Mum was a real evangelist, hammering everyone who came to our house about politics. I very rapidly got sick of it. As a teenager I decided I would never be interested in politics. I thought politics was all about problems and trouble.
When the war started my father made me read the Herald to him every night. I read about the horrors of violence and death and hated it. I became cunning and skipped bits in the article but he woke up to what I was doing and roused at me. That ruse had come to an end.
This experience brought out the horrible side of life to me when I was so young, and throughout my life I have always been horrified and terrified of violence.
I knew I was a financial burden on my parents. Even though my teacher, Mrs Campbell, pleaded with me to stay at school and do science, mum just laughed and said “what! Be an absent minded professor?” Getting a new pencil was a real drama in our house and I knew there was no hope for further education. I didn’t even know what further education was, or meant. Children of the poor had no expectations.
So, I started work just before I turned fourteen. I became rapidly disillusioned with my jobs. They were boring and mind numbing. They were horrible and when I think of the young people today in these jobs I fully understand why they don’t want to spend the best years of their lives in this way.
Then I fell madly in love. Even though I was too young to marry, my mother gave me permission. She didn’t tell my father – we were Jewish and my fiancée was Italian and she knew my father would not approve.
We went to the magistrate, who asked her if I was pregnant. Not being pregnant, he then asked her why she was giving permission for me to marry when being so young. Mum was very, very modest and she replied “well, if I don’t they might do something so if they want to get married, let them. If it doesn’t work they can divorce”. So that was it.
He was twenty one and I was sixteen.
I was concerned about getting pregnant and asked Mum but she just said ‘get a book’. I did, but couldn’t understand most of it. But I was lucky, I didn’t conceive for seven months. Then, much to my mother’s horror, I decided I would have the child.
Things were difficult. There were no houses built during the war, and together with our daughter we had to live in rooms. We went from one room to another. We lived at my mother’s place which was very inconvenient and was beginning to affect the marriage.
However, after five years we got a Housing Commission house out at West Heidelberg; it was like a dream come true.
My mother had always drummed into us that every child a working family has, the family is plunged into greater poverty. I was afraid of poverty and I knew I would have to go to work. The day my daughter started school I started work.
At the time, prices of food continually increased and life became a real struggle even though the rents at the Commission houses were low. When the gas prices rose, I was really annoyed so I went around door knocking asking women to join a group to protest against price rises.
A few women came around and we discussed the problems we faced and what we could do about it. The local Communist Party branch heard about my activities and two men came around one day when my husband was absent and asked me to join the Party.
I said “O.K.” and joined up. When my husband arrived home, I told him of my joining the party and he said “why didn’t you ask me to join you up?” He was in the Party and I didn’t know it would have been a feather in his cap to join me up. I replied “you never asked me”. So I became a member of the Communist Party.
This branch was a rather middle class group of people. I had never associated with people like this before. I was very sensitive and very conscious of my own ignorance.
On one occasion when I didn’t go to the meeting, as it was my turn to stay home and mind our daughter, my husband went. When he arrived home he told me that a woman had suggested that he should teach me how to speak English.
My husband had never been to school in Australia, he arrived here from Italy when he was fourteen and went straight to work. Yet he was told to teach me how to speak English!
I really let fly! I said “who is this Communist Party for? I thought it was for the workers – revolution for the workers to change the world! Is it important to speak English properly?” I was very hurt.
But that wasn’t the end of it. I spoke to another woman in the Branch about this incident and she said “well, that is right, Zelda.” She took the other woman’s side. She said “my mother took elocution lessons so she could speak correctly.”
They were also conventional about sexual morality. When I had an unplanned pregnancy and was doing things to myself to induce an abortion – jumping off tables, drinking hot gin lying in boiling baths etc., and was really depressed, one of the doctors from the Party came to see me. He asked what the problem was and I couldn’t lie. I told him. He said he couldn’t help me and related the news back to those who were concerned about my health.
Sex and abortion were two words never mentioned in the Communist Party.
This same working class woman who had the elocution lessons came to visit me. She just put the money for an abortion on the bed and said “pay me back when you can but don’t worry about it.” It was the factory worker, not the middle class, who helped me when I needed it.
My marriage became boring. My husband wasn’t a bad man. He was an egotist, but then most men are. It was as if we had given each other all we had to give and there was nothing left. He was very frustrated with his painting job and I encouraged him to take up studies. This he did and eventually became a school teacher.
I felt I had more to offer than working as a machinist in the clothing trade. One of the doctors in my branch said “why don’t you apply for a decent job?” I said “I don’t know anything”
He said that didn’t matter so I applied for a job as a dental nurse at Larundel Psychiatric Hospital and got it. It was only later I found out that I was the only applicant. I was so excited in obtaining this job.
They told me to go down to the sewing room to be measured up for a uniform. I remember putting on this white uniform and I just felt I was now somebody of importance. I remember how proud I was to feel I had some sort of value, feeling that I was of value to society. I thought “well, here I am, helping people. It will be of value to humanity”.
The old dentist wasn’t concerned with that. He was just working out his retirement. I only ever saw him do one filling in the five years I worked with him. That was on a woman whose family he was friendly with. Anyone else; he just waited until he could extract the tooth. The nursing staff would complain to me but I couldn’t do anything. I had no power.
Eventually he retired and the younger man who was appointed had an entirely different attitude. It is interesting because he had been to a private school; he used to address his father as “Sir”, and had a totally different background. Yet he was so kind, so caring. He was a real softy.
This was an eye-opener to me. He encouraged me to do a night course and I went and got my dental nurse qualification.
After working in the hospital for several months I joined the union and had to wait for many months before a meeting was held. At the first meeting I attended, there were three vacancies on the executive. I had to vote. I said “how do I know who to vote for? How do you get to know anyone without meetings?”
That was the beginning of my trade union activism. According to the rules they were supposed to have regular meetings and I made sure they had them. Then, of course, it got around that I was a Commo and all that sort of thing. The union was controlled by the Right Wing and was very weak.
I really got the pot stirring. It was the Hospital Employees Union No. 2 Branch. Busloads of members were brought to meetings from country and outlying areas and this was the beginning of their education.
I became a shop steward for all the female nursing staff at Larundel Hospital, and also included, were the kitchen and staff. The only ones I had no jurisdiction over were administrative.
That was when I learned that you had to fight. Initially I was very naïve and I thought that the government would do the right thing by you because it was the government. In fact, we even had to fight for the annual provision of uniforms which were mandatory apparel.
Psychiatric nursing is different from normal nursing. In normal nursing the nurse goes to the patient but in psychiatric nursing the patient comes to you – and the demands made are constant.
The two on, two off shifts were important to the staff and they valued the break after two days. However, the government wanted to change the work arrangements and this battle went on for years.
Whenever the members at union meetings moved for action to be taken, the union executive would almost always avoid this by saying “leave it to the executive”. Leaving anything to the executive meant instant death. You always had to fight for anything to happen.
There were a lot of migrants working in the psychiatric hospitals and they were mainly referred to as “Bolts” - women from the Baltic countries. They were very anti-communist, but it got to the stage they were supporting me because they could see I was fighting for them.
I was in a terrible position. I had the union that wanted to get rid of me and I had my bosses at the hospital, the bureaucrats, wanting to get rid of me because I was active in the union. At times I became extremely stresses and even developed ulcers.
After fifteen years working at the hospital I decided to leave. I was the only person who worked at Larundel for any length of time who never had a farewell. I had always contributed towards a gift for every farewell yet I was given none. They were glad to get rid of me and I was pleased to acknowledge that I had done my job well, hence no farewell.
I applied for a job in the office of the meatworkers’ union where there were a staff of four, one man and three women – three of whom were Communists. I was appalled at the working conditions existing in the offices. Being situated in the Trades Hall, at the corner of Lygon and Victoria Streets, the pollution and noise from the traffic was horrendous. You couldn’t even open the windows.
I asked the staff why they didn’t do something about it. “Oh”, they said. “You can’t.”
“What do you mean ‘you can’t” I said, “just go and tell them” – them being the executive of the union.
”Oh, it’s not like that here”, they said.
Here I was a trade unionist who was used to fighting for decent working conditions and here I was working for Communists and Lefties at Trades Hall being told “you can’t even talk to the executive”.
A friend of mine who had previously worked for this union advised me that once I had worked at the union for six months and proved myself, I could ask for a pay rise. I put in for an increase and was shocked at the response from my fellow workers. They obviously wouldn’t support me, and I didn’t get it. I was learning a lot about office politics.
The 1969 Equal Pay case was approaching and the union secretary arrived with thousands of leaflets and instructed us to distribute them around the city in our own time. Even though it was illegal to distribute leaflets, I was very conscientious and went into the city during lunch time and after work distributing the leaflets, while watching out for the police.
When the time came for the court case I was asked to accompany women from the meatworks for photo opportunities, protests outside the court. We all entered the Arbitration Commission and waited for proceedings to take place. This was all new to me.
It was amazing to see it: five men sitting up at the top as judges, men on the right side - the union blokes fighting for equal pay, and men on the other side fighting against it.
It was extremely demeaning to sit there with the men all arguing about our worth while we women sat silent. In the main, tasks performed by women are paid less, and are different to tasks performed by men. However, Bob Hawke made a splendid presentation for one rate of pay for the job, which in theory only works in favour of women if both sexes do the same tasks.
But everyone was optimistic. It finished up, though, that only 12% of the women in the meat industry got equal pay because they weren’t doing the same jobs as men.
Then nothing happened. Zilch!
I got a phone call from the secretary of the Insurance Staff Federation, Diane Sonnenberg. She asked me if I would come to a meeting of an organization called VEWOC, which stood for Victorian Employed Women’s Organisations’ Council. It was made up of the trade unions with female members.
I went to the meeting. She was there but no-one else turned up. Not one other person. We started talking and she said that maybe we needed to chain ourselves up like the Suffragettes did.
We laughed, but I thought about it and said I was prepared to do it. I wanted to do it as part of VEWOC, but the secretary of the Clothing Trades Union almost had a fit over the phone.
I decided to chain myself up as an individual woman fed up with the continuation of women being deprived of pay justice, and we chose the Commonwealth Government Building because we felt the Federal Government should set the example. Private industry won’t do anything if the government won’t.
I said I would like some moral support from a few women so three women came with their banners.
This was our lunch hour and I asked Val Ogden if she would nip down to the shop and get me something to eat and drink - I couldn’t drink all morning in case I needed a toilet while I was chained up.
She was absent when the Federal police came and ordered me to unlock the chain. I wouldn’t have done so, even if Val was present but Val had the key. Eventually they got big bolt cutters and snipped through the as if it was paper. I also had a woman Justice of the Peace in the background in case I was charged, but I wasn’t.
I received a phone call from Alva Geike congratulating me on my courage and she said that if I did another chain up she and a friend of hers, Thelma Solomon, would like to be in it too.
She wanted to know when we could carry this out. I suggested this could be a problem for them as they were both teachers. Alva thought this could be overcome and when I said “what about the press?” Alva suggested that we ask the press not to take any photos. She was a novice.
I heard there was to be a teacher’s strike and suggested we could then take action. If they were on strike, there was no reason they should be at school.
That is exactly what happened. We decided to chain ourselves up at the Arbitration Commission.
In the meantime a young girl who worked in the office of the liquor trade union said she would like to be in it, too. So when we heard the teachers were going on strike I rang her.
I got onto the secretary, Jimmie Munro. I knew him from the Communist Party. I told him there was a young woman who wanted to join us in her lunch hour. “Oh, no “, he said “we couldn’t have that. The members of the union might want to know why she was doing that”.
Then I rang the Metal Trades Union, my other comrade Laurie Carmichael. I asked if it would be alright for Val Ogden to come. “Oh, no” he said. “We like to have notice for things like this”. I told him we didn’t have any a time for notice and that it had to be the next day when the teachers’ strike was on. He said it was still no.
So, that was another Communist who bit the dust in my opinion.
The next day Thelma, Alva and I chained ourselves up. Alma Morton attended, too, though she didn’t chain herself up. The same Federal police came. They warned me if ever I did this again serious action would be taken.
Christmas was coming. At Larundel Hospital it was customary for the clerical staff to have a few drinks to farewell the year, and the staff received recognition for their year’s work from the management. I always attended these festivities.
We worked very hard in the union office and the President and one organiser thanked us and wished us Season’s Greetings but the remaining organisers and the Secretary didn’t even appear. We were just underlings from the office.
It was such an anti-climax. I was furious. I felt like writing the Secretary a letter. I didn’t know his address for he was unlisted in the phone book. I rang one of the officials to get his address knowing that in the Communist Party we were always told we should have criticism and self criticism so we could grow and develop.
It was a polite letter, but I told him he gave his staff no recognition for the work they performed over the past year, and that a short get together over a few drinks with the staff would have been appropriate.
I told him about the dentist I worked with at the hospital who had been a private school boy yet was such a kind and generous human being. I said that was the type of behaviour I expected from Communists. I finished the letter by wishing and his family all the best for the coming year.
What I didn’t know was it was opened by his wife who took offence at the way I spoke to her husband, and rang around demanding that I be sacked!
I came back to work in the New Year. A journalist contacted me and asked to do an interview with me about the equal pay case. I had to get the facts right, so I checked them with the Secretary – George was quite polite and gave me the information I required.
That same afternoon when I had to deliver a message to the Secretary’s office he was on his feet full of anger. It was obvious he was upset and I wondered if my letter had anything to do with it.
After the meeting the Assistant Secretary called me in and I was sacked on the spot.
I was absolutely traumatised. I genuinely believed in a Socialist society and I genuinely believed in the Communist Party. I went home and went to bed and howled for four days. My whole life had been dedicated to and devoted to fighting against injustice, yet this was done to me by a Communist and the Party.
I rang up one of the doctors I knew and said I needed help. He came to my home and I told him what happened. He said “I thought you might have had a broken love affair but this is more serious.” He said “Zelda, you can never really trust leaders. You have to always ask yourself why they sought that power.”
It took a lot of time for me to overcome this problem. I told Kathy Gleeson, who was my friend and on the State Committee, that I was going to resign. She asked me not to.
There was a meeting of comrades to be held in the City and George - the man who had me sacked - was going to speak on Workers’ Control.
I went to the meeting. My daughters’ partner, Max, interrupted the speech. He stood up and said, in effect, “I can’t listen to this anymore. What is this workers’ control you are talking about when you sacked Zelda?”
I was so embarrassed. Everything went quiet. Nothing was happening. All the members present were silent. I had never experienced anything like this.
Some of the leaders began talking with each other and they made an announcement that there would be an enquiry into this. I told Kath and she persuaded me not to leave the party until the results of the enquiry. I didn’t expect much. I thought the boys would stick together but I waited.
The end result was that I was told that the Secretary had the impression that I could do anything in the boss’s time. He was alluding to my chain ups, when I had been about a half an hour late back from lunch. He didn’t mention the fact that as editor of the children’s page of the union journal, and not having time to do this at work in the office, meant I had to do this at home. They owed me. But the Party accepted what the Secretary said.
I resigned from the Communist Party, telling them I could no longer belong to a Party that placed expediency before truth.
None of my comrades would employ me after that. One trade union official said that in his opinion, if I had been a man I would have been made Secretary long ago – not sacked.
Alva, Thelma and I realized that the time for being a lady was over and we had to develop an organisation for ourselves – an organisation that was prepared to fight.
We called a meeting and that was where we met Bon Hull. We called our organisation The Women’s Action Committee.
We started action immediately. We went on the trams and paid 75% of the fare because we received 75% of men’s wages.
Prior to this action, I went to the Communist leader of the tramways union. He was a man who had spent time in jail because of his union activities. I told him what we were going to do on the trams. I said that our argument was not with the staff and I asked him to let them know.
“You can’t do that!” he said. He was another Communist for whom, when it came to women, it was a different ball-game.
We went ahead and did it anyway. We did a pub crawl over women not allowed in public bars. Women were only allowed in the lounge, preferably with a male partner, and had to pay more for their drinks.
We had some wonderful times. Women had been worried about their ‘reputations’ for so long that men were stamping all over them.
We decided to be the type of woman that doesn’t worry about that sort of thing and we were!
I recall one night after a meeting when we went to Lygon Street for a coffee. When I left the coffee shop and waited for the women, a car crawled into the gutter – a gutter crawler.
Just then one of the other women came out. I grabbed her and said distinctly “I saw him first, he is mine. You had first go last time.” The other women came out and joined in the pretence of fighting over him. Well, the bloke just shot off like a bat out of hell.
Another time when I was out with Molly Hadfied a bloke tried to do a line with me. I said to him “oh, darling, this is my beat”. He also shot off like a bat out of hell.
We had so much fun. We felt alive, so alive. It was a wonderful experience being part of the Women’s Liberation Movement at that time.
The media sneered and scoffed at us at first but later they realized we weren’t going to go away so they took us more seriously.