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Roper, Edna Sirius (1913–1986)

by Sue Tracey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Edna Sirius Roper (1913-1986), politician, was born on 19 July 1913 at Port Adelaide, South Australia, second of three children of Norwegian-born Martin Lorence, engine driver, and his South Australian-born wife Hilda Rose, née Arnold.  They lived on a coal hulk in Port Adelaide.  Edna’s parents were both active in industrial campaigns during World War I and her father was a supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World.  She attended St Paul’s Church of England school until the age of 14.  Her father opened a greengrocery and sweet shop on shore but lost it during the Depression.  The family then moved to a farm.  Edna hated it and returned to Adelaide to work as a waitress.

On 2 April 1932 at the registrar’s office, Carlton, Melbourne, Edna married Gilbert Giles (Gil) Roper, a linotype operator and secretary of the South Australian branch of the Communist Party of Australia.  They moved to Castlemaine, Victoria, where Edna was a waitress in a soup kitchen, and in 1934 to Sydney:  Gil ran Forward Press, publisher of the communist paper, the Workers’ Weekly (later the Tribune), and Edna was a copy holder.  During World War II Edna worked as a shop assistant and then as a cashier at Farmer & Co. Ltd.  They both gradually transferred their allegiance towards the centre of the Australian Labor Party and Edna joined the Paddington branch in 1941.  In 1959-67 Gil was an alderman on the Sydney City Council.

Edna was elected secretary of the State Labor Women’s Central Organising Committee in 1945.  An opponent of the industrial groups, she dreaded the unpleasant monthly meetings but Gertrude Melville, Edna’s mentor, told her to 'have some back bone!'  Edna and one hundred 'anti-groupers' walked out of the April 1956 LWCOC conference, ensuring Carmel Nyhan’s election as secretary.  The ballot was overturned in July by the State ALP disputes committee and by October 'anti-groupers' were back in control.  Roper became vice-president in April 1957 and Kathleen Anderson secretary.  Thus began a long political and personal friendship.  Both women moved to the right of the party.  President (1960-67) of the committee, Roper was respected for her skill in the chair.  She was also president (1960-64, 1966-75) of the National Labor Women’s Committee.  In 1952-58 she was a member of the State ALP central executive.

In November 1957 Roper was elected to the Legislative Council at a joint sitting of both Houses; she took her seat in April 1958.  She supported Melville in her controversial campaign against the brutality of some police, in spite of strong opposition from most Labor members.  Backing tenants’ rights, she joined Arthur Gietzelt, Melville and the Building Workers’ Industrial Union of Australia in opposing the (Sir Robert) Askin government’s changes to the Landlord and Tenant Act.  Partly because of her father’s experience she was sympathetic to migrants.  She endorsed the European Economic Community as a means of diminishing the chances of war.  A strong advocate of equal pay, in 1962 she opened National Equal Pay Week in Sydney.  In 1968-69 she was a member of the select committee on violent sex crimes in New South Wales.

Roper attended the Australian area conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association at Darwin in 1967 and was a delegate to the Socialist International Congress in Vienna in 1972.  In 1973 she became the first woman to be appointed temporary chairman of committees in New South Wales.  That year the International Women’s Day Committee named her its woman of the year.  She was appointed to the Women’s Advisory Board by the State Liberal Party-Country Party government in 1975 but resigned after six months, when (Sir) Eric Willis, the minister for education, made remarks casting doubt on her integrity.  Deputy-leader (1973-76) of the Opposition in the Legislative Council, on the election of the Wran Labor government in 1976 she became deputy-leader of the government in the council—the first woman to hold the post—but did not get a ministry.  In 1975 she was a delegate to the International Women’s Year Conference in Mexico.  She did not seek re-election in October 1978; in December she was appointed OBE.

Short and attractive, with masses of fair hair, Roper was always perfectly groomed.  She had found the £9 per week Legislative Council member’s allowance insufficient to meet the cost of her clothes so she continued to make fake jewellery, an occupation that allowed her to belong proudly to the union representing sheet metal workers.

Although Roper stated that she was 'no women’s libber'—she saw the movement as supporting separation of the sexes—she nonetheless claimed new territory for women.  In a debate in 1971 on abortion law reform, she suggested that liberalising abortions could be detrimental to Australian society.  The first and, until 1984, the only woman board-member of Royal Prince Alfred Hospital (1953-86) and a board-member of Queen Victoria Memorial Hospitals for more than ten years from 1961, she was a councillor (1962-70) of the New South Wales Bush Nursing Association.  In 1979 she was appointed to a four-year term as the consumers’ representative on the Dairy Industry Authority of New South Wales.  Roper’s only child had died in infancy and she was predeceased (1975) by her husband.  She died on 8 October 1986 at her home at Leura and was cremated.  Her funeral was held at St Stephen’s Uniting Church, Macquarie Street, opposite Parliament House.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Clune & G. Griffith, Decision and Deliberation, 2006
  • Parliament of New South Wales, Parliamentary Record Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, 1824-1996, vol V, 1996
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 'Look', 6 December 1973, p 2
  • R. Raxworthy, interview with E. Roper (ts, 1986, National Library of Australia)
  • private information

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Sue Tracey, 'Roper, Edna Sirius (1913–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roper-edna-sirius-14197/text25209, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 June 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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