Woman D'Aprano, Zelda (1928 - )

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Dental nurse, Factory worker, Feminist, Mail worker, Seamstress and Trade unionist

Written by Rosemary Francis, The University of Melbourne

Zelda D'Aprano was born in 1928 in Melbourne, the daughter, and the second of three surviving children, of European migrants. Her father, who was born in the Ukraine, worked as a wheelwright and her mother, who was born in Belorussia, was a finisher in a clothing factory. Her mother was interested in left-wing politics and joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

D'Aprano attended the local primary school in Carlton but left before her fourteenth birthday, at the end of 1941. She worked in a variety of jobs in factories, as an usherette and a seamstress. Quick to identify unsatisfactory working conditions she made attempts to rectify them, often losing her job as a result of her actions. Married at age 16 she had a daughter a year later. She subsequently worked as a dental assistant, gaining qualifications as a dental nurse at Larundel Psychiatric hospital and joined the Hospital Employees Federation No.2 Branch. She was eventually elected shop steward, but received little support in a particularly inactive union. When she left the job in 1968 she took a position in the office of the Australasian Meat Industry Employees' Union (AMIEU), commencing in January 1969. However, she was sacked when she criticized the attitude of the Union's secretary, to his own staff and found employment as a mail sorter in the Mail Exchange in Melbourne.

In 1951 D'Aprano joined the Heidelberg branch of the CPA and was elected secretary in 1956. Both here and in the unions she experienced difficulties in exercising leadership; her attempts to improve members' working conditions were thwarted, especially when she challenged the power blocks within the organisations and other female workers did not support her. Undeterred she became famous for chaining herself to the Commonwealth building in Melbourne on 21 October 1969 to draw attention to the disappointing result of the equal pay application to the Industrial Court in June of that year.

D'Aprano was central to the formation of the women's liberation movement in Melbourne with the establishment of the Women's Action Committee (WAC) in 1970. She eventually identified as a feminist, understanding that as long as men dominated the socialist movement, the new, fairer world would never be realized. Reluctant to call herself a leader, she accepted the notion of 'giving leadership.'

In 1977, the publication of her autobiography, Zelda: The Becoming of a Woman, struck a chord with many of its readers as they felt she was describing their own lives. Patricia Grimshaw claimed that it 'offered a rare insight into a woman who sustained a place as a leader when women had scant legitimate space in either the industrial or the political wings of the labour movement'. Her class perspective 'brought a vital contribution to a movement based primarily on gender' (Grimshaw, p. 116). D'Aprano's leadership was exercised by 'fighting inequality and injustice through confronting employers, fellow male unionists and CPA office holders by speaking out, naming problems and working hard'.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Zelda D'Aprano interviewed by Rosemary Francis in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, 29 August 2011, ORAL TRC 6290/20; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources


  • D'Aprano, Zelda, Zelda: The Becoming Of A Woman, North Carlton, Victoria, 1977. Details

Journal Articles

Online Resources