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Cohen, Teofila (Totti) (1932–2010)

by Malcolm Brown

School parents and citizens (P&C) associations were once quite tame organisations, known for running tuckshops and organising lamington drives. But after a seven-year presidency by Totti Cohen, lawyer, parent and activist, the Federation of P&C Associations of NSW was strident, professional and effective.

Ministers for education and the NSW Education Department might at times have seen her as a mixed blessing but never again could the views of the federation be ignored.

Teofila Kaplun was born in Paddington on March 5, 1932, the daughter of a storekeeper, Stanley Kaplun, and his wife Adel (nee Gutman). Her parents had migrated from Poland and met in Sydney. They thought Teofila was a bit of a mouthful, and as the famous operatic soprano Toti del Monte was visiting Sydney at the time, they decided that Totti was a nice diminutive and the name stuck.

There was to be a story, lasting most of her life, that one of her forebears was Rosa Luxemburg, who was shot dead in 1919 while trying to form the Communist Party of Germany. The family was finally able to trace the story back and prove it was false, but given the fierce intellect and organising ability Cohen came to demonstrate, it was not a bad tale.

Cohen went to primary school in Paddington and an opportunity school in Woollahra, and later, Parramatta High and Sydney Girls High. She gained an outstanding Leaving Certificate result, with first-class honours in English, history and Latin, topping the state in history, then won a scholarship and went to the University of Sydney, where she graduated with a BA LLB in 1956.

She married Neville Cohen, who worked in his family's furniture and carpet business in George Street in Sydney. After briefly working in a relieving role for a legal firm, she acted on her husband's suggestion to try for a job at what was then the top-ranked legal firm in Sydney, Minter Simpson. She got the job, the first female solicitor it employed.

Because she had difficulty conceiving, the couple adopted a son, David, in 1960. Cohen then found she was pregnant, and a son, Adrian, was born in 1961. She then joined another firm, F. W. Jenkins and Co.

In mid-1963, she was called by her boss, the solicitor Frank Jenkins, to sort out a mess created by an erring partner. When Jenkins died, she bought the practice from his widow.

When her boys went to Coogee Public School, Cohen decided she ought to become a teacher, and enrolled as an external student with the University of New England, only to find, when she wanted to do some practice teaching, that positions were available only north of Tamworth. She gave the idea away, but did join the P&C Association at Coogee.

From there she went to the eastern districts council of the federation, and in 1968 the state council. In the 1969 NSW elections, the Defence of Government Schools group put her up as a candidate in the seat of Phillip. It argued that a disproportionate amount of federal government money was going to private schools. She stood against the speaker of the House, Sir William Aston, scoring 2.3 per cent of the vote.

Cohen was elected president of the Federation of P&C Associations in 1973 and introduced a professional role and involvement of parents in the education system. She raised the whole level of the P&C participation in educational affairs to a different plane. Continuing under five ministers for education and nine directors-general, she felt no compunction about telling governments what to do.

She served as vice-president of the Australian Council of School Organisations and became the first parent representative on the newly established Education Commission. In 1978, Cohen was awarded an OBE. In 1980, the Department of Education, in conjunction with the P&C Federation, hosted a dinner for 300 people including the governor, Sir Roden Cutler, to honour her on her retirement as P&C president.

However, Cohen was hardly going to become inactive. She served several years as a part-time member of the Social Security Appeals Tribunal, and for 18 years on the Consumer, Trading and Tenancy Tribunal. From 1983, she began what was to be a 10-year term as chairwoman of the NSW Privacy Committee.

In 1995, Cohen decided to work as a solicitor from home. She was involved in the National Council of Jewish Women and edited its bulletin for some time. She also helped with Meals on Wheels, and with Neville served for two years on the Jewish Board of Deputies. In 1987, she was made a member of the Order of Australia. Totti Cohen is survived by Neville, their sons and two grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 September 2010

Additional Resources

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Cohen, Teofila (Totti) (1932–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/cohen-teofila-totti-16852/text28748, accessed 16 November 2018.

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