Australian Biography

Zelda D'Aprano - full interview transcript

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Once you were superannuated out of the postal service, what did you do then?

Well, I didn't do anything for a while. I wasn't terribly well. And I did what I could in the women's movement, but it had to be in an area where it wasn't very demanding of me. And, for example, International Women's Year had come upon us. And all national organisations elected a representative on to this central committee. And the women's liberation movement were asked for such a representative. And I filled that role. I was able to do that. It didn't make any large demands upon me. So wherever I could, I did what I could. So I was still involved and still interested and still going to things, but I wasn't doing a great deal, because at that stage I wasn't able to.

Was your gynaecological illness in any way a product of all the ways in which you'd been mistreated by gynaecologists and the medical profession in the past?

I would say a lot of it was, and misinformation, and lack of research, because I discovered, all those years back, that so many of the complaints that the women suffered from, the medical profession didn't even know why it happened. And for example, adenomyosis, endometriosis, and even fibroids. I mean, so many women get fibroids. They still don't know why and how they develop. And so a lot of it's experimentation, a lot of it's hit and miss. And their attitude is, well, if it all goes wrong, we can always do a hysterectomy. And in my case, that's what they did. And they removed the ovaries as well, without me having any idea that that's what they were going to do, because I hadn't been told that that's what they were going to do. And in my case, it was a disaster, absolute disaster.


Because most women — or I presume most women, I don't know, but I think — it's quite normal for them to produce oestrogen from other areas. But in my case that didn't happen. And after tests were taken, because I volunteered in desperation as a guinea pig for some tests and trials and things, on certain hormone tablets and what have you, and they discovered that I was in a permanent pre-menstrual situation. And so I had to go on to hormone replacement therapy, and I've been on it ever since, and that's about 22 years. I have tried at different occasions to go off, and it's disaster, really bad.

And what did you do in relation to the work situation? Did you consider working again, or did you stay on your superannuation then continually?

Well, I think, looking back, I suffered burn-out, absolute and total burn-out. And I never felt capable of going back into full-time work. It was impossible, absolutely impossible.

So what did you do? What have you done with the rest of your life, Zelda, since that time?

Well, I suppose, I have done what I could where I felt I could, and I would write at least, I think, one letter a fortnight, sometimes once a week, wherever I think pressure needs to be applied for whatever reason. I write articles for the women's liberation paper. I do speaking to whatever groups invite me.

What kind of things do you speak about when you go to speak, and what sorts of groups do you speak to?

Well, it's interesting because when people know, or have heard, of my past, which is almost always the case, they want me to speak of my experiences and what led me to do what I did, like the chain-up and things like that, and how do I feel about things now, and do I think things are different? Do I think things have changed? And what changes have come about? And because a lot of women don't even realise why the changes happened, you know, I don't know whether they think these things happen through God. But over the years I have noticed a tremendous change in women's attitude, tremendous change. And so, as well as giving them knowledge about what it was all about, I receive tremendous satisfaction out of seeing these women opening up and speaking. And they're women from all walks of life and rural areas, and in almost all cases have had absolutely no physical connection with the women's movement in any way, and yet their attitudes are so much different to what they were years ago.

In what ways have women's attitudes changed, that please you most?

Well, firstly, they will come out and say what they think and feel or even talk about their own personal experiences and in front of sometimes women they know locally and sometimes amongst strangers. And last International Women's Day, through the Adult Education here, we had a whole day on a Sunday and we invited women, local women, from all walks of life to come and speak for 10 minutes on their lives and what they had done, or felt that they had achieved. And so we had all these local women coming and speaking on topics — one woman on her involvement in sport, another one was studying for the ministry, another one spoke on her experience with cancer of the breasts. And another woman, who was very highly qualified, a university-trained woman (I think it was in political economy or economy/politics or geography or something) and is now a builder in the local area. And so we had about 130 women in attendance. And women who only came for half a day, not knowing what it was going to be like, were so disappointed afterwards. Because they thought, 'Oh, if I'd thought it was just so interesting I would have been here this morning.' And it was just wonderful to see these women doing their thing. And I mean, this would never have happened years ago. One woman spoke about how she didn't start her university training until she was 40 years of age and she is now one of our councillors, local councillors. And there they were speaking of experiences.

When you started having to speak in public, did you find that easy?

Oh, I was petrified, petrified. Now this is another thing about being all those years in the Communist Party. I could fight at union meetings because it was issue based. But when it came to having the floor and speaking, I was terrified. I'd never done it, and there I was, the women's movement was off and running, we had requests for speakers, and none of us were speakers at the time. And I suppose I was the one that — I don't know, what could I say — someone had to do it. And I wrote everything down in longhand that I was going to say. And I read it, depending on the type of group that it was that I was addressing. And I thought, well if I write down what I'm going to say, at least I know what I'm saying. I was terrified. What was going to happen when question time came and they asked me questions that I didn't know? And I thought, well I'll just have to be honest. And that's what I did when they asked me questions I didn't know the answers to, I just said, 'Well, I just don't know, but all these things are just going to have to be researched and this information is going to have to come.' Because at that time we had to start doing research. And I wanted to know why so few women could get into the main apprenticeships. And I went to the Apprenticeship Commission in Melbourne and asked them how many apprenticeships are open to women [and] why can't they get into the rest of them. And there were about 130-odd apprenticeships in all, and only four were open to women. And so I found out that some of the women in these industries were locked out because the terminology used in the whole award system and contract or whatever it was, covering them, was he, he, he: 'he shall' and 'he will' and 'he does'. So the wording cut the 'she' out. In others it was more specific, like there were numerous trades within the printing industry. The women were locked out of a lot of those because of the lead poisoning. They thought this was dangerous for women, but as far as I'm concerned it was dangerous to men too. Nobody should have been working in those hazardous industries. And also, the main bulk of women were locked out because industrial drawing was required. It was a compulsory subject for many of the apprenticeships and girls just didn't do that at schools. They did cookery and needlework and didn't do industrial drawing. So they were automatically locked out.

So then of course we realised the inequality in the whole education system and so that had to be remedied. But when I went looking for figures, whether it was to the employers or whether it was to the trade unions, and [asked] 'How many women do you have in your industry?', they didn't know. They only had employees. They had no figures on women at all. There were no statistics on women at all. We just did not exist. I mean, it's hard to believe that, because things have changed so much and women are the most researched human beings now. But at that stage we just worked in the blind. And I would have to go and speak, and I didn't have the answers to so many of these questions. But we spoke on the areas that we did know about and that was very important. Eventually I got to the stage where I had enough confidence and enough knowledge to be able to speak without reading the notes. But it was a trial. And all those years in the Communist Party did nothing to help me become a public speaker, nothing.

How long did it take you to get to feel more comfortable with it?

Months. And at first I was reluctant to go out alone and I'd like another woman to come out with me. And of course, I was and others were invited to go to the universities and speak to the students. And this happened on numerous occasions. And so when I got the job at the Mail Exchange, I was able to slot this all in with my shift work.

Do you enjoy public speaking now?

I'm always nervous, even today. I'm still nervous when I go out. I think the thought before and the anticipation of it is always sort of the worst part of it. Once I get firing I'm fine, but I'm always nervous.

What made you decide to write your autobiography?

Well, I was always pressed, because I spoke so much of what happened in my own life. People always, women always, said to me, 'Zelda, you should write. You should write about what happened to you.' And I never ever thought that my life was of any significance, I really didn't. Because I know all women have a story to tell. It's just that they remain silent about it. And so it wasn't until the ASIO document was leaked, and I saw they saw me as this dangerous woman, and I knew I had an ASIO document, a dossier. I had never seen it but I know I have one. And at that time I was told it was twice the size of John Halfpenny's [one of Victoria's most militant and powerful union leaders]. And so I thought well, if they feel they know about me, then I'm going to tell the world about myself. Added to that of course was that it was necessary for a working-class woman to write about what working-class women go through. It was necessary to write down what had happened to us because of the younger generations coming up, and not knowing that they have a past. Because if you never have a past, you don't have a future. So you have to have something to build, so it was important for the young people to know. And I felt that, as a woman, I also wanted other women to write about their lives. Because I think until the world knows more about our pain as individuals, things are not going to change. And we have to let them know that our pain is political and needs to be dealt with.

And has the book had the impact you'd hoped for?

I think it has. Yes, I think it has. And I was recently told that a woman said it was the first book about a woman in the women's liberation movement that wasn't written for academia. And I think from that point of view it's a very important book.

Do you do any work now?

I'm always working. I suppose it depends on what you define as work. I'm not doing any paid work, no. And I haven't done any paid work since I left the Mail Exchange. But I'm working all the time, all the time.

What at?

Well, now I'm the President of the local Adult Education Centre, and I find that extremely satisfying in as much as I'm helping to provide a wonderful service in the local community. And we have a wonderful committee made up of women and men, all very intelligent and capable people. And it's a pleasure to be working with them and our meetings are joyous, as well as effective of course.

What made you decide to leave Melbourne and travel north?

Well, there were a few things that came into that. I had been told by two doctors that I had to change my whole way of life. And I developed high, uncontrollable blood pressure. And also I was beginning to question the whole existence of cities and why they're there for. They're not created for people, they're created for commerce. And I began to feel that cities are anti-people. And there's one thing in believing something and another thing in changing it. And so I felt that we have to live it — being me, I have to live it. So we went to an alternative commune up there [in northern New South Wales]. We joined a commune. And my only experience for some years had been with women. I didn't belong to any other organisation, and I had only worked with women. And here I was living in a community with women and men. And we weren't warned about the problems that existed in this community before we came here.

Who was 'we'?

My friend and my partner, Ron. And we went there; no-one had warned us about all the hostility that existed there. And so it was very traumatic for me. Here I was, not only working with men, I was living among men. And there were tremendous problems there. Really, really traumatic. I went away after about 12 months and wrote a paper on what I thought about the place. As a community it collapsed two years after we joined. From then on, we each did our own thing. And it took another two years before we left the place and got out. But it was a very good experience for me because as a city person I didn't know there was such a thing as soil. [laughs] Soil, to me, was dirt. I grew up with a tiny little backyard that was all concrete. The three-foot-wide verandah was all paved. There was no soil whatsoever. And even though we lived in the commission house and we had the big garden, I was working and it was a chore. And even when I wasn't working we had no money and the whole thing was very depressing and miserable. And here I was in a community where we grew our own vegetables and we had our own cattle. And I learnt to get my hands in the soil and I was responsible for the herb garden. And from that point of view it was wonderful. And I grew to love the animals and the little calves, and the cows, and watching the behaviour of the cattle and observing their different temperaments. All this was new to me and it brought me to nature. And so for the first time in my life, I made contact with nature and began to understand it and began to learn about it and began to love it. And this changed my whole life around again and brought new dimensions into my life which was very, very satisfying. And, I think for the first time, this contact with the nature brought to me a spirituality. And I'm not talking about religion here. But I'm talking about a connection with nature as a spiritual thing. And that was wonderful, really, really, wonderful. And very, very important.

Would you describe yourself as happy now?

I think happiness is always something that's very short-lived. I'd use — 'content' perhaps would be a better term. Because happiness sort of comes in bursts. But I am content, yes, very content, yes.

And why is that?

Well, I have been content for some time, for some years. I suppose it's when you're young you have a desperate need to prove yourself. You feel you've got so much to give, and quite often you feel that you're not getting the opportunity to give that of yourself. You want to develop yourself. You feel you've got all this potential and so there's all this dynamic that's going on that tears you one way and another and one way and another. But I feel now I don't have to prove myself any more. I feel good with myself. And for years I was a frustrated intellectual. There were times when I would have loved to have gone to university. And that was a real thing. But now I acknowledge my intelligence, I'm aware I'm an intelligent person. I'm aware I've got some very strange idiosyncrasies too. But I like the person I am. I am happy being in my own company, because I'm happy being with me. And when you get over that stage where you don't have to feel you've got to impress people that you are good or that you are knowledgeable or you are intelligent, when you get to the stage where you don't care what they think, it's a very good feeling.

What are some of the idiosyncrasies that you're most aware of?

I've got a short fuse. [laughs] I suppose to some degree I don't suffer fools gladly. I can tolerate that in short bursts, but not for long periods. I'm — what else? I'm a very emotional person. And I feel I'm a very affectionate one. I'm happy about that, although at times I suppose my emotionalism can be irritating, particularly if I flare up. I don't normally hold grudges, and I come down to earth again reasonably quickly. But when I blow I can blow. I can sit on it for a while, but eventually, if it blows, I can really blow. And that can be very trying for the person who's copping it. [laughs]

Clearly, during those years that you were a worker and criticising the bosses, you must have been a right old pain in the bum for them at times, mustn't you? I mean, do you feel you've really, really got up their noses during those years?

Well, I don't think any employer likes any opposition. And particularly from the lowlings. And I never, ever did my block with employers. I mean I'm not stupid and I never wanted to lose my job. If I went to an employer, I went as a human being and spoke to him and presented the case to him as to why I thought something was wrong, and what should be done about it, but a lot of them weren't used to this. They'd never experienced this. And I must say, that with nearly all the employers I had, even though I might have got up their nose and demanded, you know, toilet paper in the toilets and a cleaner to clean and sweep the floors, they respected me, because I had the guts to come to them and tell them what I felt and thought. They wouldn't like it and they'd get stuck into me and all that type of thing, but they did respect me.

Like a lot of women, you started your work in industry, in the garment industry, making clothing and sewing. Can you tell me about sewing in your life?

Well, sewing was something to me that saved me a lot of money. And when you haven't got money, you're seeking to do things that will make it possible to get clothing without having to pay such high amounts of money for it. And so, I learnt to sew. Now when I was sewing — as I've said, I've made my daughter's clothes and my clothes and all that and I was very particular — it was a chore. Because when I was working and I was in politics and I was in the unions and I was in everything else, making things was a chore. And I never had that much time and being a perfectionist it was irritating if it didn't work out the way I wanted to. Now, I have a totally different attitude towards it entirely, because I have the time and I'm not stressed and I'm not pushed for time. So now I can do it and enjoy it and I can fiddle around with it and I have the radio on and I can listen to Radio National while they interview all the interesting people and have these interesting discussions, while I sew. And I enjoy the finished product and I enjoy seeing the things that I've created. I mean, the same with knitting, I still knit and knit jumpers, and I love to see the finished work.

When you were first married, you worked in factories where sewing was part of it. Was that very different? Could you tell me what it was like in those factories, sewing?

Well I, at a very early stage, went on to piece work production, and I was a fast machinist, and I worked flat out. I mean, working in those sort of jobs, you're only there for one purpose and that's to get money. There's nothing else that's great about them, so you're only there to get the money. And so I worked as hard as I could. And you'd build up tension and you'd want to go to the toilet and you'd wait and wait and wait. You'd say I'll wait til I've finished all these sleeves, or I'll wait til I've put all these sleeves in, and so you're putting it off and putting it off and you're tensing your whole body until you'd done it all. And then you race out the back like crazy. And some of the factories I worked in, the conditions were deplorable. The only positive thing in hindsight, about the factories— compared to today — is it was one long bench. And the women sat sort of diagonally across from each other. And so you could talk to each other while you were working. But today they have separate units and they have them placed like a school class, where you've got the back of the woman in front of you. And so, the ones at the side are too far away to speak to, and in the front, a woman's got her back to you. So people can't talk any more while they work in the factories. This is the way they prevent people from interrelating. Like they do in the classrooms.

Did you get to sew whole garments when you were learning to sew in the factories?

Yes, that was another good thing and that's why you were able to learn the trade, because you had to make the whole garments, in the ladies' clothing anyway. In the men's it could be different. But in ladies' clothing you made the whole garments. See today, that's another difference. You've got women who can just make sleeves and collars, and that's all they ever do. And you've got other women who put the pockets in or do something else. And they can't — they don't even know how to sew, because the only thing they know how to do is sew up the side seam in a sleeve or put pockets in, or collars in or something. A lot of them just don't know how to sew, and this is very cruel, very cruel. What they're doing is they're de-skilling the women so they have no bargaining power.

In those very early years, did you ever have a job that wasn't in a factory?

I tried part-time waitressing. I gave that away, that was terrible. And the reason I gave it away was because every complaint people had [laughs], a waitress copped it. And I could see very quickly that I was there for them to take out all their complaints on. And even when you said, 'Look, I'm sorry, sir or madam, I didn't cook this meal or prepare it. I mean I'm only here to serve it to you', you still copped it. And I very quickly got fed up with that set up. I don't know whether it's any different today. I couldn't imagine that it would be. But added to that — oh, another job I had was an usherette. Oh, that was a beauty. That was during the war. I was really pleased because I'd lied about my age, and so I got — I think it was 30 shillings a week, and oh, that was big deal. And we had to wear high heel shoes, full make-up and you had to run up and down the stairs for every person that came in and gave you a ticket, with the high heel shoes on. And you were working in the dark all day. I worked in a theatre called the Liberty. It was on the opposite side to Myer's, a little further up towards Swanston Street, and they didn't have air-conditioning, and they used to spray it with sort of anti-flea spray. And there you were in the darkness all day, with no fresh air, running up and down stairs at the whim of everybody. It wasn't a very nice job really. It was terrible. And my feet began to ache and I developed corns and all sorts of things. And you always had to look glamorous and you always had to look beautiful and smile and do all this sort of thing. So it wasn't such a great job. But the money was the thing that kept me there. [INTERRUPTION]

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