Edna Ryan, feminist (1904–1997)
Edna Ryan achieved national prominence in 1974 when she presented the WEL submission to the National Wage Case, arguing that women should receive the same minimum rate of pay as men. Now, thirty years later, WEL celebrates this major breakthrough in the long history of equal pay, and the life of the truly remarkable woman who made it happen.
Born one hundred years ago in Pyrmont, then the industrial heartland of Sydney, Edna Ryan was the tenth child in a family of 12 children. By the time she was five, her father was unemployed and her mother, a cleaner, was the family breadwinner. As Edna grew up she experienced at first hand the great contradiction of the family wage system. Edna was politicised by the fact that her mother, as a woman and the family breadwinner, could earn just over half the wage paid to a man.
When she left school at the age of 16 and gained employment as a clerk typist, she found that women were second class citizens in the office. They could earn only two thirds of the male wage and had no access to promotion because they were expected to leave their job after a few years to marry and have children. Unlike their male counterparts they could not be both workers and parents, have a career and be economically independent.
Over the next fifty years, she tried to find an organisation that would challenge and change this ridiculous state of affairs. First, she joined the Communist Party, where she planned a revolution to achieve equality for women. But when the Party realised that her agenda did not match theirs, she was expelled. Then she joined the Labor Party in search of a parliamentary career to change the laws in relation to working women, but failed to secure a winnable seat. And when she returned to the paid workforce as a clerk and the family breadwinner in 1956, she found that her union was not interested in promoting equal pay for its women members.
Undaunted, in 1965 Edna persuaded her union to take a claim for equal pay to the New South Wales Industrial Commission on behalf of a small group of white collar women workers in her workplace. When the union won the case however, it made an agreement with the employer that there would not be a flow on to other groups of eligible white collar women in the industry. It made a similar agreement in relation to the equal pay decisions of 1969 and 1972.