An inspiration … feminist and labour activist Edna Ryan, who was one of the five women to organise the first International Women’s Day March in 1928, at her home in Glebe in 1984.

They were young, feisty and fearless – and equal pay for women was high on their agenda.

The five women who organised the first rally in Australia for International Women’s Day on March 25, 1928 addressed several hundred people in the Sydney Domain about the rights of working women.

Equal pay is still the burning issue for the women organising events this week to mark the 100th anniversary of the first International Women’s Day that was held in Germany, Austria, and Denmark, and is now celebrated around the world on March 8. Equal pay will also be the theme of the annual women’s march from Sydney Town Hall next Saturday.

“We’re still talking equal pay 100 years on”

“We’re still talking equal pay 100 years on,” said Anne Barber, one of the organisers.

Full-time women workers still earn 83 per cent of full-time male earnings, earnings data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics last month show. The pay gap is even bigger when overtime is included.

When part-time workers are counted in the comparison – and many women are obliged to work part-time in order to manage home and children – women’s earnings are just less than two-thirds of men’s.

“there is still a persistent gap, partly because the jobs women do are still undervalued”

“We’ve had two historic equal-pay cases, in 1969 and 1972, but there is still a persistent gap, partly because the jobs women do are still undervalued,” said Fran Hayes, the National Pay Equity Coalition’s spokeswoman.

Seventeen years after the first meetings and rallies for International Women’s Day took place in European cities in 1911, the five Sydney women took to the soapbox and, without the benefit of a microphone or a loudspeaker, helped launch a new era.

Edna Ryan, nee Nelson, was 23; Hetty Ross, 28; Jean Thompson, 22 and Joy Barrington only 18. With Mary Lamm and Annie Isaacs, they kept the rally going for two hours. They eschewed hats, gloves, probably smoked and swore, and were the forerunners of the radical women’s liberationists of the 1970s, says Edna’s daughter, the historian Lyndall Ryan. “They were inspirational,” she said.

They were members of the Militant Women’s Group, an offshoot of the Communist Party, that believed women needed to assert their own agenda for equal pay, childcare and shorter working hours.

“Women, if you want equality, don’t wait for men to win it for you”

“Women, if you want equality, don’t wait for men to win it for you,” Edna wrote in the Worker’s Weekly in 1927.

Professor Ryan, who will address a symposium organised by the History Council of NSW at the State Library on Tuesday, said her mother was a tireless worker for equal pay.

Aged 68 she presented the key submission in the 1974 national wage case that extended the adult minimum wage to include full-time women workers. “Women have taken great strides since 1928 but there’s still a long way to go,” Professor Ryan said.

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

Who is Edna Ryan?