Some light thanks to Edna and co by Adele Horin

Adele Horin, Sydney Morning Herald, 3-4 June 2006

IN A bad news world, the recent Edna Ryan awards night was a heart-lifting occasion that brought 200 women (and a sprinkling of men) together in celebration. At a time when some think feminism is dead, and others think it has failed, having swapped women's boredom for exhaustion, the night was a cheering reminder of how much good feminist work goes on - and needs to go on.

It was an occasion when women who make "a feminist difference", most of them unheralded and unknown, were honoured by their peers. And it showed feminism has changed, not expired. It has become more individualised, is less about meetings and more about practical application in daily life.

You could tell it would not be the usual starchy affair as soon as you walked up the stairs of the quaintly named Sydney Mechanics School of Arts building in the heart of the city. The former chief judge of the Family Court, Elizabeth Evatt, was behind a table selling glasses of Margaret River wine for $4 (cask wine for $2); and on trestle tables lay a generous buffet largely prepared by the feminist, educator, and proud grandmother Eva Cox. Nothing pretentious or expensive about this night - some of the assembled warriors were pensioners - but right from the start it had spirit.

Before Germaine Greer, and long after she left our shores, there was Edna Ryan who, until her death in 1997 at the age of 92, fought tirelessly for women's rights, especially in the workplace. She was instrumental in the quest for equal pay and maternity leave. A trade unionist, Fairfield councillor, deputy mayor, and early campaign manager for a young Gough Whitlam, she was also a founding member of the Women's Electoral Lobby in 1972. It was her submission to the Arbitration Commission in 1974 that resulted in the granting of an equal minimum wage for men and women.

Ryan's personality left a huge impression - she was always exhorting women to "do something" about this or that problem. She wrote endless submissions and letters to politicians, and brought shrewd strategy and discipline to the women's movement. That her husband died early, leaving her three children, hardly slowed her activism which extended from theatre to family planning. Her feminist daughters, the historian Lyndall and teacher Julia Ryan, both in their 60s, recalled their mother fondly on the night. It was fortunate for politicians, Lyndall said dryly, that Edna died before the age of email.

The group that started the "Ednas" nine years ago decided to cast a wide net in the areas dear to Edna's heart - politics, workforce, media, education, community activism, and the arts - to seek nominees worthy of an award.