Some light thanks to Edna and co
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.
She wrote endless submissions and letters to politicians, and brought shrewd strategy and discipline to the women’s movement
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
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.
You might not have heard of Helen Westwood – but she has served four terms as mayor of Bankstown, and is now headed to the NSW Legislative Council. In the heart of what is considered troubled macho territory, Westwood initiated the area’s Reclaim the Night march, and public forums on sexual assault, and opened the town hall to an international conference on violence against women.
And you might not have heard of Joy Goodsell but for almost 20 years she has run the Sutherland Shire Family Support Service with its primary focus on domestic violence.
Daphne Baxter is no household name, and looks like everyone’s grandmother. It turns out, rather to her own surprise, she developed an affinity with computers, and now runs computer literacy courses for older women, who in turn help young schoolchildren.
it was not what girls wore on their heads, but what was inside their heads that mattered
The four federal women MPs who successfully co-sponsored the bill that ended the power the Health Minister, Tony Abbott, held over the abortion agent RU486 also won “Ednas”. Two of them, Democrat Lyn Allison and Labor’s Claire Moore, attended, with Allison relating that 2000 women had emailed their thanks to her in the wake of her admission in the Senate that she had had an abortion.
Dorothy Hoddinott, the principal of Holroyd High School, attended by many children from a Muslim background, reminded the audience it was not what girls wore on their heads, but what was inside their heads that mattered – and many would rather die than return to patriarchal societies.
she had said rape victims “should be proud and say ‘I stood up, I fought it, and I’m a strong person.'”
You don’t get money or a trophy when you win an EDNA – just a certificate from one of the Ryan daughters. But the 21 winners looked as if they had won the lottery. Their speeches were succinct and inspiring, and highlighted the work to be done.
When the finale rolled round, it turned out Tegan Wagner had won the “Grand Stirrer” award for inviting others to challenge the status quo. “Tegan who?” you could hear the audience murmur. Then the penny dropped. She was the remarkable young woman who had revealed her identity as one of the teenage victims of a notorious 2003 pack rape. Following the recent trial, she had said rape victims “should be proud and say ‘I stood up, I fought it, and I’m a strong person.’ They shouldn’t have to hide”. She also said, “Have fun in prison, boys. I won.”
The audience, including her grandparents, gave her a standing ovation, and when quiet descended, she said, “You might have gathered I’ve got a big mouth.”
Before the night was over, a couple of the older femocrats were talking of organising a committee to raise money for Wagner’s education.
In grey times, we all need such a night.