There is a fine art to dying on the wrong day. The passing of Aldous Huxley, writer, visionary, ’60s inspiration, would have been more marked had he been visionary enough not to go around November 22, 1963, date of a slight unpleasantness in Dallas. The evangelist Billy Graham’s passing a week or so ago threw a long shadow over someone who was in the same trade of raising people up, though from somewhat different inspiration. Zelda D’Aprano, whose death at the grand old age of 90 was announced the same day as Graham’s.
Graham really did one thing (roiling cheering crowds in their hundreds of thousands), and was famous for many things. D’Aprano did many things, but was famous for one. In 1969, when the Australian Council of Trade Unions refused to support a case for equal wages for women in the Arbitration Court, Zelda chained herself to the railings of the Commonwealth Building in protest. Soon she was joined by two other women, then it became a mass cause. Three years later, legal wage equality was instituted.
It is likely necessary, for some readers, to specify that this was not a protest against structural inequality, but against the fact that it was actually legal — not only possible, but obligatory — to pay women less than men. The Labor Party, the ACTU, the unions were all firmly behind this law, on behalf of the “working man and his family”. Paul Keating’s maiden speech to parliament was about the iniquity of women being sent out to work by the wicked Coalition, something the spiv’s latter-day fans are very, very quiet about. But of course the system was accepted not only by many men, but women too. It was a society where the male-headed family was seen as the unit of life — especially of working-class life, even if it was, for many women, a fiction.
The struggle against such situations is not only a struggle against a clear enemy — it is a struggle to separate yourself from the particular assumptions of the day, in the name of its more general spirit, of universal equality of citizenship. It’s in that respect that many of the obituaries missed out on crucial aspect of D’Aprano’s life. She wasn’t per se a feminist, at the time, because the term had barely been revived from the early 20th century. Zelda was a Communist, a party member, and it was only from such a position and a tradition that the absolute refusal, the absolute demand of her protest could be made.
Nothing from within the “moderate” mainstream of the labour movement would have given a position from which to do that; the Shoppies union was then, as now, an enemy of social-cultural progress. Chaining herself to the railings was not terribly hazardous, but it involved overcoming one enemy of protest: the deep reluctance to look ridiculous, to court futility. Zelda’s life — she was a socialist-feminist activist for decades after, the two sides of the hyphen equally weighted — is a measure of another truth.
If you wanted something done in post-war Australia, it was very often Communists and their Trotskyist offshoots either starting it, or lending crucial weight. This included black-banning shipping supplies to imperialist powers such as the Dutch in Indonesia; the “freedom rides” to desegregate NSW and Queensland towns in the 1960s; support (indeed fomentation) of the Wave Hill walk-off in 1967 at the start of the Black Power movement; the vast, encompassing Green Bans movement sparked by the Communist-led NSW BLF in the 1970s; and decades of urban struggles powered by Trotskyist groups.
The secret history of much Australian progress was that Communism and Trotskyism are at its centre, because only those who come from the perspective that reality can be transformed, and that the demand for citizenship equality (quite different to empowering the state to control behaviour) is absolute, can swing the fulcrum to move the Earth. For decades this truth has been underplayed, for strategic reasons.
It’s high time it was told, and that protests like Zelda D’Aprano’s be seen in their full context: inspired by a great humanist movement, and in turn, moving it forward. She was right, almost everyone else around her was wrong. The take-home payout from that is to ask in one’s own life what clear wrong you are not seeing; what struggle you are avoiding, not because of threat of the taser or the phone-book, but out of fear that instead of crowds and cheering, there will be only laughter, then silence.
As Zelda showed, once you’ve surmounted that, not just anything, but everything is possible.