But Edna did not give up. In 1973, she joined the newly formed Women’s Electoral Lobby and found her true political home. With a group of like-minded young women she used her union experience and knowledge of the industrial relations system to prepare and present the now famous submission on the minimum wage to the National Wage Case in 1974.
Its success led her to a new career as a feminist activist. In 1975 she published her first book with Anne Conlon, Gentle Invaders: Australian Women in the Workforce 1788-1974, and her second, Two-thirds of a Man: Women & Arbitration in New South Wales 1902-08, in 1984. She organized the first Women and Trade Unions conference in 1976, which became the basis of the ACTU Women’s Charter in 1981, started the first post-war work-based childcare centre in 1977, served on the executive of the Family Planning Association of New South Wales when it was entering a new policy direction, and actively supported women’s theatre and art groups. But she never lost sight of her main commitment – to use the industrial relations system to make the wages and conditions of women workers equal to that of men.
By 1985, when she was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Sydney in recognition of her services to women, Edna had become a feminist icon. Her views on industrial relations were sought by politicians and trade unionists of both sexes. When she retired to Canberra in 1991 she initiated research into the impact of enterprise bargaining and superannuation on women workers. She died in 1997 aged 92, knowing that she had made women’s employment issues front page news.
Edna Ryan was a shrewd political strategist and a source of inspiration, vision, and strength to the Women’s Electoral Lobby. She not only inspired all who her met her with her warmth, wit and optimism, great intelligence and common sense and her unquenchable energy, she also trained countless women in the art of politics and encouraged others to become trade union activists. She was guided by the belief that women could achieve change only by taking up the cudgels themselves.
This is her great legacy.