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Edna Minna Ryan (1904–1997)

by Jill Julius Matthews

from History Workshop Journal

A great Australian feminist author and activist, Edna Ryan, died on 10 February 1997 at the age of ninety-two.

Edna was born into a family of twelve in Sydney on 15th December 1904. Her seven sisters worked in the tailoring trade and her mother took in washing and later worked as a cleaner in offices and picture theatres. Edna won a bursary to Fort Street Girls High in 1916 but when her mother became ill four years later Edna left school and sought employment as a clerk to contribute to the family income. She was the only member of her family to work in a white-collar job and she worked as a clerk typist throughout her career. Edna continued her education at Workers' Educational Association courses and became a voluntary organizer for the WEA in the 1930s and 1940s. She was joint organizer of the first WEA residential school for women and children which provided an opportunity for women with children to further their education.

Her first political memory was of campaigning against conscription in 1916-17. She was influenced by the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) during the war, and became a member of the fledgeling Australian Communist Party in the 1920s from which she was expelled in 1931. She joined the Australian Labor Party in the late 1930s where she became an electoral and industrial organizer from the late 1940s. She was made a Life Member of the ALP in 1987. She was active in local government politics from the mid 1950s, serving as an alderman and deputy mayor, and becoming President of the six-thousand strong Local Government Officers' branch of the Municipal Employees Union of New South Wales for nine years till her retirement in 1972.

In 1973 she joined the newly formed Women's Electoral Lobby, and was instrumental in organizing the Lobby's industrial activities in support of working women for the next thirty years. She prepared WEL's submission and was its advocate at the National Wage Case in 1974, which ended the 'family wage' concept that had governed Australian wage fixation since 1907. She also presented WEL's Maternity Leave Case in 1978. She presented submissions to numerous other government inquiries dealing with discrimination against women in the workplace and wages and conditions. In 1994, she perceived the dangers of enterprise bargaining for women, and spearheaded WEL's campaign which led to changes in the Industrial Relations Act to take account of the interests of women. Until the end of her life Edna was available for quiet chats and long consultations with women trade union organizers about tactics and issues in industrial campaigns.

A lifetime's experience and studying the wages and conditions of working women was distilled in her book Gentle Invaders. Australian Women at Work 1788-1974 (1975, Nelson) written with Anne Conlon. Her second book, Two Thirds of a Man. Women and Arbitration in New South Wales 1902-1908 was published in 1984 (Hale & Iremonger). She received Honorary Doctorates from both Sydney and Macquarie Universities. She was still writing up until a few weeks before her death.

Edna's writing and organizing have been described as leading Australian women from being 'victims of history to agents of change'. Her death is a great loss; her life is a great inspiration.

Original publication

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Citation details

Jill Julius Matthews, 'Ryan, Edna Minna (1904–1997)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 July 2024.

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