Woman Arena, Franca (1937 - )


Genoa, Italy
Parliamentarian and Women's rights activist

Written by Alexandra Dellios, The University of Melbourne

Franca Arena was born in Genoa, Italy in 1937. In 1959, at twenty-two years old, she migrated to Australia as a single woman. Upon arrival, she was sent to the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre in north-east Victoria. Although her language-skills and confidence earned her a job as secretary and translator to the Department of Immigration within a few weeks (Women's Day, 31 August 1982), she attributes the awakening of her social conscience to her time spent at Bonegilla: 'The suffering and powerlessness I saw at Bonegilla - I realised that I wanted to participate in the struggle for social reform and do something really useful with my life. In Bonegilla I learnt exactly what it meant socially, emotionally and physically to be an immigrant' (Arena, My Story, 2002, 42).

Arena always voiced pride in her Italian heritage and became a prominent figure in Sydney's Italian community, working as a journalist on the Italian-language newspaper La Fiamma, and a broadcaster on ethnic community radio. She was also involved in the early formation of SBS. In 1972 she joined the Labor Party, and in 1981, when she was elected to the NSW Legislative Council, became the first woman from a Non-English Speaking Background to be elected to an Australian parliament. In 1980, she was made a member of the order of Australia (AM).

A founding member of the Australian Republican Movement Arena dedicated herself to many advocacy causes. In 1984 Arena founded the Women's Network and the National Italian - Australian Women's Association in the following year. The Women's Network aimed to facilitate interaction between ethnic women who share key concerns over access and equity. A number of controversies plagued Arena in the 1990s. She was criticised in the media and by leaders of the gay community for describing the realisation that both her sons were homosexual as 'the greatest sorrow of our lives' (Sydney Morning Herald, 27 April 2002). Earlier, she had been accused of being homophobic, and became the target of militant homosexual activists Queer Nation for her comments relating to the parliamentary enquiry into Financial Assistance for People who had Medically Acquired AIDS.

Later in her parliamentary career, she earned further public and parliamentary condemnation for calling on the Wood Royal Commission into Police Corruption to investigate Supreme Court judge David Yeldham and former MLA Frank Arkell for charges of paedophilia. These allegations strained her relationship with the Labor Party. She resigned in November 1997 to serve as an Independent. In a less-than illustrious end to her parliamentary career, she failed to gain any seats in the 1999 NSW State Election under her new political party, the Franca Arena Child Safety Alliance. She published her autobiography, Franca: My Story, in 2002, in which she continued to voice her position as feminist.

Published Resources


  • Arena, Franca, My Story, Simon & Schuster, Sydney, New South Wales, 2002. Details

Edited Books

  • Who's Who in Australia, Crown Content, Melbourne, Victoria, 1927 - 2013. Details

Magazine Articles

  • Hickson, Liz, Franca Arena: Breaking Down Barriers, Woman’s Day, 31 August 1982. Details

Online Resources