With the theme for IWD 2020 being #eachforequal, it’s a perfect time to profile a new project in Melbourne calling for ‘statue equality’ among our historic icons. Cassie Mercer speaks to Prof Clare Wright to find out more.
What’s statue equality? I’m so glad you asked. Clare Wright, Professor of History at La Trobe University, author, broadcaster and co-convener of a new community campaign, explains. “Just three per cent of all statues in Australia are of real women. We have more statues of animals that we do of women’, she says. “Frankly, it sucks. It certainly doesn’t pass the pub test for a nation that prides itself on being egalitarian.”
It was this incredible statistic that compelled Prof Wright and her co-conspirator, journalist and human rights campaigner Kristine Ziwica, to do something to correct the inequality. “The campaign is called A Monument of One’s Own,” explains Prof Wright. “We are out to smash the bronze ceiling! We are campaigning for more statues of historic women on our streets, in our parks, and in our civic landscape.”
The campaign kicks off this month with ‘Operation Zelda’, with the group looking to honour the memory and work of Zelda D’Aprano, a feminist activist who fought for pay equality. “Zelda was a great rebel,” says Prof Wright. “Zelda is the woman who in 1969 protested at the front of the Commonwealth Building in Melbourne against a recent decision of the Arbitration Court that denied women equal pay. Zelda chained herself to the front of the building with a sign that said ‘No more male and female rates. One rate only’. The police had to cut her out of there.”
“I just couldn’t believe this, and I thought, here are all the women, here we are, all sitting here as if we haven’t got a brain in our bloody heads…”
Born in 1928, Zelda began her career working in factories to help support her family. It was there that Zelda saw – and experienced – firsthand the inequality of wages between men and women. In 1965 Zelda started a job at the Meat Industry Union, where she met a lot of female workers who were dissatisfied with the inequalities they faced in the workplace. At the time, the meat industry was being used as a test case for the Equal Pay campaign. She attended a commission hearing at the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission for equal pay, but was disappointed at the lack of female contribution. In an interview with the State Library Victoria in 2007, Zelda explained how frustrated she was at the whole process.
“I just couldn’t believe this, and I thought, here are all the women, here we are, all sitting here as if we haven’t got a brain in our bloody heads, as if we’re incapable of speaking for ourselves on how much we think we’re worth. And here are all these men arguing about how much we’re worth and all men are going to make the decision…
“I thought about it and I thought, well something’s got to happen. Someone’s got to do something … [and] I was prepared to chain myself up.”
So, on 21 October 1969, Zelda did just that. The photograph of her in chains holding a placard became an iconic image for a generation. That image represents all rebellious women, says Prof Wright, who spoke at Zelda’s memorial service in 2018. “Zelda raised awareness of the plight of equal pay in Australia,” she says.
“One of the things I love about Zelda’s struggle is that although it was one woman in this action, when the police came to cut her out she said: ‘Today it’s me, tomorrow they’ll be two more and the next day they’ll be four and the next day they’ll be eight and that’s how it’s going to go.’ So she was making it clear that she was part of a collective struggle for women’s rights. Even though it looked like she was a renegade individual, she absolutely wasn’t.”
So it’s fitting that the first statue A Monument of One’s Own is campaigning for is one of Zelda outside the Melbourne building where she first demonstrated, fifty years ago. “We have the internationally renown artists Gillie and Marc who have generously donated half of their fee to the cause already. And we’re launching a website to raise money and awareness for the campaign,” explains Prof Wright.
“There are a lot of symbolic statues – nymphs and angels and muses – around but not of real women. This is about celebrating and remembering the achievements of actual women. It’s inspirational for today’s women if they can see these reflected in the landscape and architecture around them. And it helps breach the respect gap if men and boys can see that women too have played a significant role in the making of Australia. In the future, we also hope to raise statues of indigenous women who played a role in protecting and fighting for their country and their human and political rights. The aim is to represent in bronze and stone – materials that imply significance and value – a more inclusive and truthful Australian story.
The campaigners are also asking for community nominations for future statues to be funded. “People will be able to nominate their own woman who they believe needs a statue,” says Prof Wright. “There will be women who have done amazing things in communities and towns that we don’t know about. So we want to have a real sense of community ownership and to reflect the diversity of women and their achievements.
“I’m not for pulling statues down,” explains Prof Wright. “I’m for erecting more of people who can be remembered and celebrated for a wider range of activities. And in so many cases, the things those women fought for are still unfinished business, whether that’s equal pay or indigenous sovereignty or a range of indicators of freedom, opportunity and equality. The process of raising the statues will shed light back on the original campaigns and as yet resolved issues.
A Monument of One’s Own will launch at the end of March. Stay tuned for more details.
Feeling inspired to find your own remarkable female ancestors in the records? Log in to Ancestry and starting researching your family tree today.