Commemorating our dear departed equal pay activists

Two women who deserve special recognition and commemoration are Eileen Powell and Edna Ryan, both of whom played a crucial role in the struggle for equal pay.

Edna was born Edna Nelson in Sydney in 1904, the tenth of twelve children, her feminism and her socialism shaped by the working experiences of her older sisters, by her mother who had been left to support and bring up the family herself and by the events of her formative years, notably the October Revolution and the NSW General Strike of 1917.

Book cover showing an old illustration of women working in a sewing factory

Her book, Two Thirds of a Man covers the first four arbitration cases involving women, building anecdotally on the experience of her mother and of her older sisters. In interviews, she recalled that her mother, who worked as a cleaner, would pass her sisters on Pyrmont Bridge on her return home from work in the early morning, as they were leaving home to go to work.

It is no wonder she became passionate about conditions and pay equity for working women. She spoke with Joyce Stevens about her own experiences in ‘Taking the Revolution Home’ (1987) and with Lucy Taksa on 19 October 1987 as part of the NSW Bicentennial Oral History Project.

She continued to work tirelessly for women by fighting conservative forces during the Depression

Her political activism began well before she joined the Communist Party (CPA) in 1927 , with the anti-conscription campaigns, the Great Strike in 1917, friendship with the IWW – one of her sisters married an IWW member. Immediately on joining the CPA at the age of 23 she became Secretary of the Sydney District Group and was involved in organising lectures and in giving them herself. And although she moved away from the Party after the 1929 Split, she never departed from her left political convictions. (Her husband Jack Ryan, as a non-recanting member of the Executive, had been one of those expelled). Eventually she joined the ALP.

She continued to work tirelessly for women by fighting conservative forces during the Depression, organising meetings and lecturing. Child endowment, introduced by Lang in 1927 was welcomed by women in the party whilst opposed by the men, who failed to comprehend its practical benefit given that women did not benefit from the family wage. (The failure to understand the immediate pragmatic urgency for a family wage for women as well as for men was one difficulty she had later with Muriel Heagney, in the latter’s single-minded fight for equal pay).

Her concerns were for women, class, and a multifaceted and socially just society

For many her achievements culminated in the founding of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in 1971, in the Equal Pay decisions of 1969 and 1972, and in the 1974 National Wage Case in which she was WEL advocate in the Arbitration Commission hearings.

Edna’s commitment to labour history was made clear in her letters and her books which explored and analysed historical issues crucial to women’s industrial identity. She was working and writing to the end – the quest was to find time for the writing she still needed to do, aside from the time she so generously gave to campaigners, to researchers, and to her friends. 

a force for feminists and working women

Edna Ryan was a pivotal friend and mentor to the labour movement and more, a force for feminists and working women. The spontaneous procession of informal tributes since her death have been to a woman who never stopped working, a person of strength and courage, an extraordinary friend and mentor to so many people who themselves have become critical to Australian society, and a woman possessed of a no-nonsense quirky sense of humour. The women’s movement, the labour movement and the country at large are the richer for her generous legacy of activism, mentoring and example.

See a longer article by Rosemary Web in Australian Society for the Study of Australian History.

Edna Ryan, taken at her home at Glebe, at a table with her typewriter.

Who is Edna Ryan?