Vale Edna Ryan (1904-1997): Feminist, Trade Unionist, Political Activist and Labour Historian

Rosemary Webb

Earlier this year, the Branch lost one of its most loved and admired members, Edna Ryan. Born in inner Sydney in 1904, Edna devoted her life to the cause of social justice for Australian working women. I To commemorate Edna’s remarkable achievements as a feminist, trade unionist, political activist and labour historian, Sydney Branch member Rosemary Webb has penned the following fascinating overview of Edna’s life and work. Rosemary is currently undertaking doctoral thesis research on women and trade unions in inter-war Australia within the School of Industrial Relations and Organisational Behaviour at the University of New South Wales. A reminder, too, that the Branch has organised a special one-day conference, entitled: “Edna Ryan, Women’s Activism and the Australian Labour Movement: A Celebration.” The Conference will be held on Saturday, 2 August 1997, at the Women’s College, University Of Sydney (for full details, see the ‘Notice Board’, below).

Edna Ryan died in Canberra on February 10th this year. She was aged 92 and a was lifelong feminist and campaigner for women’s and workers issues. She was an early member of the Communist Party of Australia, a founding member of Women’s Electoral Lobby, a life member of the Australian Labor Party from 1987, and writer of two significant books on women and work – Gentle Invaders with Anne Conlon in 1975 and Two Thirds of a Man – Women and Arbitration in NSW to 1908 (1984). Her life spanned the birth and, arguably, the death of Australia’s centralised Industrial Relations system. In 1986 the Sydney Branch of the Labour History Society made her a life member for her work in labour history.

Edna Ryan was born Edna Nelson in Sydney in 1904, the tenth child in a family of twelve. Her feminism and her socialism were shaped at an early age by the working experiences of her older sisters, by her mother who had supported and brought up the family herself, and by the landmark events of her formative years – the Bolshevik Revolution, the 1917 NSW General Strike, and the turbulent Twenties. In interview she has recalled the endless round of work for women, describing how her older sisters would leave for work in the morning when her mother returned home at half past seven from cleaning offices: ‘She’d walk home across Pyrmont Bridge and they’d go to work across Pyrmont Bridge’2 It is no wonder that her own passionate concern became that of improved conditions and pay equity for working women. Two Thirds of a Man covers the first, four New South Wales arbitration cases involving women and work. The book interleaves skilled documentary research, succinctly presented, with her own recollections of the paid work experiences of her mother and her older sisters. She spoke with numerous researchers about her own working experiences, notably – for labour history purposes – Joyce Stevens in 1987 (Taking the Revolution Home) and Lucy Taksa in 1988 (Bicentennial Oral History Project)3

Her political activism began well before she joined the CPA in 1927. She was an adolescent during the anti-conscription campaigns of World Wnr One, the Great Strike in 1917 and the Russian Revolutiont; she described as exhilarating, the excitement compounded by attending meetings in the Domain, and meeting some of the leading leftwing political orators of the pre and post-war era4.Her politics were strongly influenced through friendship with the Wobblies – one of her sisters married IWW member Vivian Mackay, whom she remembered with affection as one of her political mentors. There was thus an inevitability to her joining the CPA. Almost immediately on joining, at the age of 23, she became Secretary of the Sydney District Group and was involved in organising the Sunday evening lectures and in speaking herself.

The prolonged Timber Workers’ strike of 1929 was her last major involvement for the CPA, and is covered extensively in Taking the Revolution Home. The strike, against the proposed reintroduction of a 48 hour week enjoyed broad popular support and was played out just before the CPA’s ‘Third Period’ split. She worked with a group of other Party members – ‘four or five of us, we were all young women in our early twenties’5 – to organise the timber-workers’ wives in supporting their husbands and continuing the strike. The impetus for that part of the action came through the Militant Women’s Movement, established and mentored by executive member Hetty Weitzel (Ross).6

Her formal contact with Communism ended after the 1929 split. Husband Jack Ryan, as a non-recanting member of the Executive, had been one of those expelled. However she never lost her socialist principles. She eventually joined the ALP (in those years when socialism retained a finn place in the Labor Party) and held various positions – amongst them campaign secretary in Phillip Federal electorate in 1949, endorsed ALP candidate in the blue-ribbon state seat of Mosman during the Cahill government and twice an ALP Senate candidate. She continued to work tirelessly for women, work and politics, fighting conservative forces in the Depression. organising meetings and lecturing and never losing sight of the immediate as well as the long-tenn issues for women and families

Child endowment, introduced by Lang in 1927 was welcomed by women in the CPA whilst opposed by the men, who failed to comprehend its practical benefit to women. Edna gave credit for the initiative to Marion and Justice Piddington – Marion for the initiative, Justice Piddington for the influence on Lang – and described these two with affection as ‘great liberals’, ‘radical liberals ‘.7 The failure of pay activists to understand the urgent short-tenn need for a family wage for women as well as for men – and that it should be accommodated alongside the long-tenn goal of true equal pay – was a difficulty she had later with Muriel Heagney. The latter’s singleminded fight for equal pay tolerated nothing less than full equity.

Edna Ryan left school in 1919, but continued to pursue her educatIon infonnally – her structured education was effectively conducted through the CPA. During the thirties the family lived in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, and from 1935-45 she was voluntary WEA organiser for that area. During the Depression she was for long periods the sole breadwinner in the family – a situation which gave her priority access to the first Sydney City Council childcare centre in Woolloomooloo. She was a clerical worker in numerous offices, industrial activist and trade union delegate (and of course on female rates, at least until 1964 when she negotiated for herself payment at the male clerical rate). Jack Ryan was a butcher – he was good, but ‘hated’ the trade, she recalled – and after the Depression years of casual employmept he established his own business in Woollahra in the 1940s, when the family lived behind the shop.

It was early in those Eastern Suburbs years that she began the substantial correspondence now held in the Noel Butlin Archives as part of the Nonnington-Rawling papers. The collection includes letters to and from Esmond Higgins, Joy Higgins, and Jack and Edna Kavanagh. The letters are enlightening in regard to activist strategies and constant ideological exploration – with Edna taking frequent intellectual and strategic issue with the recipient – and are also. simply enjoyable, revealing her humour and dedication to work. For example, of winter in Leura at ‘Kelmscott’ – the Evatt house – she writes to the Kavanaghs of the bitter cold repelled by ‘numerous radiators, an open fire-place and plenty of blankets” and then goes on if this is the judge’s mountain shack it would do me eternally lor my home. In addition to every imaginable comfort and a palatial bathroom, we have art and culture. Many pictures and mllny good books. I wish they weren’t here because they tempt me and actually I ought to be up and doing.

And then in the next line: ‘By the way I want to hear more from you about the CI [Comintern] and sanctions (following Ercoli’s analysis and ‘soft-pedalling’ on the CI position)’.8 The lines encapsulate her insatiable intellectual and political energy as, indeed, does much of her personal and political correspondence. Here she is, taking Esmond Higgins to task over matters doctrinal:

Dear Hig,

I heard something about you lecturing in that W.E.A. series on Stalin in instead of Ross doing it. I am sorry you are doing this and for several reasons reckon you are NOT the right one to do it. However, the above quotation is sure to be helpful and can be turned into a rather neat argument against Trotsky – coming ironically enough from Eastman. I shall not go to hear your lecture, not wishing to hear you apologise for the C.1.

Am intending to write a panegyric (whatever that is) about Eastman and his book. His news about the Soviet Union and its artists is interesting enough, but it is his attitude towards art and philosphy that have capitavita – I can’t spell any more on this typewriter – captivated me. My vulgar mind finds him full of common sense and fearlessness about the SACRED and MYSTERIOUS “DIALECTIC” which everybody pretends to believ.e in but nobody uses. I lost faith in the dialectic when Lenin said that the Party’s theoretician, Bukharin, never understood the dialectic and reckoned that made it hopeless for most of us blokes and anyway it is apparently possible to be a perfectly satisfactory revolutionary without it. Moreover, those comrades out here who claim to understand the dialectic have always acted most undialectic – this applies equally to Kavanagh and Miles, e.g. – they put down opponents flatly and are prepared to annihilate them, although we mag about “it is” and “it is not” and opposites merging into another totality. According to the dialectic we should not only listen to but absorb portion of our opponent’s views, in other words, carry on a life of continual compromise without being PURE and steadfast in our purpose. The latest perpetration which caused me to fling out the bloody dialectic was when I asked Barras about the contradiction in the Party’s election Policy last year and this year concerning the Labor Party – that was only an example of the dialectic. I might be “vulgar” but so are they – the Barras fellows I mean. For the moment I exempt Kavanagh until I deal more with him on the question.

Have you thought about an agenda for Sunday if you’re having us up (no answer from you yet!) I might put a few items down and if so will enclose them here. Would like to discuss historical materialism and philosphy (I can leave out the “0” because it is easier to type it that way) and the dialectic, etc. sometime, on account of I’m just beginning to learn.


Less well-known is her work in local government after the Ryans moved to Canley Heights in Sydney’s west. Her achievements are listed in WEL’s biographical volume: Fairfield Council – member 1957, first woman mayor 1958. first woman delegate to State conference Municipal and Shire Council Employees Union, 1963, first woman president Local Government Officers’ Association 1963. For many women her achievements culminated in the founding of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in 1971, the Equal Pay decisions of 1969 and 1972, and in the 1974 National Wage Case in which she was the official WEL advocate in the Arbitration Commission hearing’s equal pay case 1974. Her submission was noted for its intensive research including the collation and first-time presentation of new statistical evidence on the endemic inequities of the female wage. The case resulted in Australian women for the first time being awarded a minimum wage equal to the male wage. In the same volume she described herself as ‘Convenor of the Industrial Group of Sydney WEL, active in trade unions at executive level, nine years an alderman, forty years in the ALP.’ 10

Throughout life her concerns were for women, class, and a multifaceted and socially just society. In later years she worried over the potential harm to women of the ALP/ ACTU enterprise bargaining push, lobbying Industrial Relations Minister Laurie Brereton and undoubtedly influencing the strength of the equity and human rights measures encompassed in the Federal Industrial Relations Reform Act of 1993 (and dropped by the Coalition’s 1996 Workplace Relations Act). She was more recently angered by the new right troglodytes of the Howard government, by their attacks on equity, education, women, work and family issues and the arts (‘How’, she asked’ can artists have the time they need to develop when the grants systems is demolished?’
11). She continued to fight, never allowing her energies to be depleted by despair over those attacks. Her strategic advice to women since March of last year on resisting the backlash has been applauded in the innumerable tributes to her continuing activism. The procession of acknowledgments since her death have been to a woman. who never let up, one of strength and courage, an extraordinary friend and mentor to many who themselves have become pivotal to Australian society. Those privileged to meet her found a political activist immersed in unshakeable principle and pragmatism, and a woman possessed of a no-nonsense quirky humour.

RYAN, John (Jack) (c.1903-1954)
Apprenticed in father’s butcher’s business, Brunswick, Vic, then worked in trade in NSW Northern Rivers district. To Sydney, became member of Executive, Australian Meat Industry Employees’ Union, represented union on NSW Labor Council until late 1928. Member of CPA; contributed to CPA’s Workers’ Weekly and sold paper in The Domain. Protege of Jock Garden; appointed secretarydirector of NSW Labor Council’s Labour Information Bureau on death of George Winter, 1927. At Council’s request, undertook 18 month course in accountancy to sharpen skills in researching company finances; joined Clerks’ Union; edited Bureau’s Labor Monthly. Delegate to Hands Off China Conference; member of International Class War Prisoners’ Aid; prominent in formation of Pan-Pacific Workers’ Movement;n Australia; assistant editor of Pan-Pacific Worker; ACTU delegate to Pan-P~ific secretariat in Shanghai, 1928. Subsequently attempted to visit Japan but arr!’sted and expelled, returning to China and travelling to USSR, attending conference of Red International of Labour Unions in Moscow as! accredited Australian delegate; member, RIUL Executive; represented pan.! Pacific Secretariat at conference in India, October 1928. Returned to Australia,! July 1929; persuaded ACTU to reaffirm its association with RILU. With wife,’ Edna, active supporter of 1929 timberworkers’ strike; 1930 appointed to ACTU Central Strike Committee. Expelled from CPA 1929-30; with Edna, joined ALP. On staff of Henry Lawson Labor College, mid- 1940s. Sources: Labor Daily, 13 January 1927; Smith’s Weekly, 20 Oct. 1928; Barrier Daily Truth, 6 July 1929; Andrew Moore and John Shields (eds.): A Biographical Register of the Australian Labour Movement, 1788-1975, forthcoming.

Edna Ryan’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 of her life – 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.

Lyndall Ryan has described her mother as ‘a true revolutionary’, ‘living in the present and thinking about the future’.12 In the 1930s Bertha McNamara was eulogised as ‘the mother of the labour movement’. Edna Ryan similarly was a friend and mentor to the labour movement and working women. She is a light in our labour history.


  1. The author wishes to acknowledgment the assistance provided by the folIowing people in research for this piece: Joyce Stevens, Lyndall Ryan, Susan Carcary, Eva Cox, Lucy Taksa, and Edna Ryan (interviewed by the author at Lyneham, Canberra, on 14 September 1996).
  2. Interview, 14 September 1996
  3. Joyce Stevens Taking the Revolution Home: Work among Women in the Communist Party of Australia: 1920-1945 (Sybilla Press 1987); Edna Ryan, interviewed by Lucy Taksa, October 1988, NSW Bicentennial Oral History Project.
  4. Stevens, op cit.
  5. Interview, 14 September 1996.
  6. See appended leaflet urging action by timber workers’ wives, issued by Militant Women’s Group 1/2129:
  7. Normington-Rawling Papers, Accession P12/4/3, Noel Butlin Archives, Canberra.
  8. Interview, 14 September 1996.
  9. Normington-Rawling Papers, Accession PI2I4/36, Noel Butlin Archives, Canberra. Normington-Rawling Papers, Accession PI2I4/3, Noel Butlin Archives, Canberra.
  10. The WEL Papers, 1972-74
  11. Interview, 14 September 1996.
  12. ‘The Life of Ryan’, Jane Cadzow, Good Weekend. 12 March 1994.