Obituary in Green Left Weekly

Green Left Weekly Wednesday, 19 February 1997

Edna Ryan

Edna Ryan, feminist social reformer, political activist and author passed away in Canberra in the early hours of Monday morning, February 10.

Edna was born in 1904, the 10th of 12 children in the working class Sydney suburb of Pyrmont. While her mother cleaned offices every morning from 3am to 8am, she was raised by her elder sisters, who encouraged her to complete her education.

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.

During her long life, Edna was involved in every major political movement in Australia since the first world war. Her first political memory revolved around the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916-17. She attended the first Australian International Women's Day demonstration in Sydney in 1928.

Her last work was informing women trade unionists about the difficulties and dangers of enterprise bargaining for underpaid and under-organised women workers. One of the last events she was able to attend, late last year, was a fundraising quiz night for the campaign for free, safe abortion on demand.

Edna's life was constantly busy and always challenging. She was an active feminist all her political life. One of her great joys was the burgeoning of the women's movement in the '70s, when her long involvement in the equal pay struggle finally culminated in the equal pay decision of 1974. During the Arbitration Commission hearings leading up to that decision Edna was the advocate for the Women's Electoral Lobby.

In 1975 Edna published, with Anne Conlon, her first book, The Gentle Invaders: Australian women at work 1788-1974, which chronicled women's fight for decent working conditions and wages.

In 1984 she published Two Thirds of a Man, about the struggle by women workers in the laundry, retail and tobacco industries to improve their wages and conditions in the early years of this century. She dedicated this book to her older sisters, who had worked in these areas and inspired her with the importance of the dignity of paid labour.

Until the end of her life Edna was available for quiet chats and long consultations with women trade union organisers about tactics and issues in industrial campaigns.

She acted again as the advocate for WEL in the maternity leave case in 1978. In 1994 Edna initiated WEL's intervention before the Industrial Relations Commission to warn of the disadvantages for women in the industrial agreements associated with enterprise bargaining.

She was the co-founder in 1949 of the first Workers' Educational Association residential school for mothers and children, which enabled working women with children to attend WEA classes. Leaving school at 14 herself, Edna argued passionately for women's rights to education. She was awarded an honorary doctorate of letters from Sydney University in 1985.

She was a Labor Party councillor on the Fairfield Council for nine years and first woman president of the Local Government Officers' Association (1965-74).

Edna was a committed social reformer, a life member of the ALP and a dedicated worker for social justice. She will be sorely missed and is greatly honoured by the women's movement and the labour movement, her family and her friends.

Her farewell service was held in Canberra on Friday. Farewell addresses were delivered by Susan Ryan and Elizabeth Evatt. When asked by Edna's daughter, Julia, what her official titles were for the program, Elizabeth Evatt replied "No, no. You know how Edna hated titles. Just me name."

The ACT Trade Union Choir "Union Voices" led the gathering in singing the equal pay anthem, "Don't be too polite Girls" and "Solidarity Forever". The songs had been chosen by Edna.
... Liz O'Brien