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Ryan, Edna Minna (1904–1997)

by Melanie Nolan

This article was published online in 2022

Edna Ryan, 1991

Edna Ryan, 1991

Australian National University Archives, 885/203635

Edna Minna Ryan (1904–1997), communist, trade unionist, feminist, and writer, was born on 15 December 1904 at Pyrmont, Sydney, tenth of eleven surviving children of Sydney-born Christina Nelson, née Struck, and her husband Nicholas Martin Nelson, butcher; he had been born Nicholai Mathias Nilsen at sea. Edna’s father had periods of unemployment, and her mother became the breadwinner, taking in washing and cleaning offices and theatres at night, particularly during the years when she separated from her husband when Edna was in primary school. Five of Edna’s six older sisters were tailoresses but, awarded a bursary from Newtown Superior Public School, she attended Fort Street Girls’ High School, leaving in her fourth year after obtaining the Intermediate certificate. Feeling she needed to contribute to the family economy, she took a job in a canvas factory office. She changed employment every couple of years, and learnt shorthand and typing to find work as a clerk typist.

Later describing herself as a ‘meek, timid, humble’ (Ryan 1987) young person, Nelson was gradually politicised. Her father had been a member of the Australian Socialist League in the 1890s, while her mother was associated with the labour movement ‘in a spiritual sense’ (Ryan 1987). The family lived at Woolloomooloo during World War I and went to the nearby Domain on Sunday afternoons to listen to speakers such as the Industrial Workers of the World members Donald Grant and Charlie Reeve. Her father gave her August Bebel’s Women and Socialism, telling her that ‘knowledge is power’ (Ryan 1987). Meanwhile, her political awareness was further fired in 1917 by the anti-conscription referendum movement, the railway workers’ strike, and the Russian Revolution. She frequented McNamara’s bookshop and Mockbell’s café to meet like-minded people and acquire radical literature.

Having joined the New South Wales branch of the Federated Clerks’ Union, Nelson became optimistic, thinking ‘the one big union was going to come about’ (Ryan 1987). Prompted by Hettie Ross, she joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1927. Employed as the CPA’s typist, she became an activist as secretary of the Sydney district committee, which organised lectures on Sunday evenings, presenting to it herself. She attended the first Australian demonstration for International Women’s Day in 1928. In 1929 she was the sole communist delegate to succeed in the State branch elections for the clerks’ union, being elected to the federal council. That year she was also a delegate to the inaugural conference of the Militant Women’s Movement, which Ross organised. At that point she believed that ‘women taking part in the class struggle cannot be feminist,’ as feminists ‘belong to and come from the leisured class’ (Nelson 1929, 3).

On 17 April 1926 at the registrar’s office, Rockdale, Nelson had married English-born Ernest Lloyd Jones, a salesman and a socialist. They soon parted, although they did not divorce until 1935. In 1929 she had met John (Jack) Francis Edwin Ryan, a Melbourne-born master butcher and unionist who had also joined the CPA. The following year, however, he was expelled for failing to accept the international Comintern’s ‘New Line’ that decreed that communists were not to cooperate with social democratic parties such as the Australian Labor Party (ALP). After unsuccessfully seeking readmission three times, he joined the ALP. Edna parted ways with the CPA in about 1935 but she did not join the ALP until 1944. The Workers’ Weekly had accused her of following Jack in his ill-disciplined and rightist ways, but as she made clear in a public statement in 1931, she was ‘not the shadow of anybody else’ (Nelson 1931, 2).

Following the birth of their first child in 1930, sustaining a family became a priority for Edna and Jack. Despite Jack’s dislike for the trade, in 1933 they leased a butcher’s shop at Woollahra. In keeping with the Bolshevik theorist Alexandra Kollontai’s arguments, Edna believed that along with the state, the nuclear family would disappear under the second stage of communism. Both institutions persisted, and on 15 January 1943 at the district registrar’s office, Paddington, the couple married. Having joined the Workers’ Educational Association, she attended courses, taught classes, and became an organiser.

In 1949 the Ryans decided to return to the political fray and Jack stood unsuccessfully for preselection in the Federal electorate of Watson. He survived a stroke in 1952, but ‘was diminished by it’ (Mitchell 1987, 73), so they changed tack and purchased a poultry farm at Canley Heights in Sydney’s west. Edna stood for the New South Wales Legislative Assembly seat of Mosman in 1953. She was unsuccessful, and also failed to win preselection for the Waverley seat later that year. Invited onto the Labor ticket, she was elected as an alderman on the Fairfield Municipal Council; she served for nine years (1956–65), including a period as deputy mayor (1957–58). She also acted as the local campaign manager for Gough Whitlam.

Jack died in 1958 and, needing to support their youngest two children, Edna took a position as a clerk-typist at Prospect County Council. Women still earned less than the male wage and were often expected to leave the workforce on marriage. Worse, she discovered that her union seemed to accept this state of affairs. She became president (1965–72) of the local government association officers’ branch of the Municipal Employees’ Union (MEU) of New South Wales. In 1963 she had been the first woman delegate to the union’s State conference. She convinced the union to take an equal pay claim for herself and a small number of her female colleagues to the New South Wales Industrial Commission in 1965. Although she and several other women were classified as working in male jobs and paid the male rate, the union and the employer later agreed the result would not lead to similar changes for other women in the industry. The union and labour movement’s lack of support for equal pay increasingly irked her. In 1970 she joined the MEU executive, serving until 1973.

Retiring from paid employment in 1973, Ryan joined the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) and began ‘a new life as a committed feminist’ (Jalland 2015, 258). While she believed that liberated young women did not ‘fully appreciate the enslavement of the working man as well as the woman’ (Ryan 2004a, 78), she increasingly sought reforms to improve the position of women. She ‘found her true political home’ (Ryan 2004b) in WEL, and drew on her experience of union leadership to apply herself to its industrial group. With Anne Conlon, Jocelyn McGirr, and Joan Wilson, she prepared WEL’s submission for the 1974 national wage case, contending that men and women ought to receive the same minimum wage.

When the publisher Thomas Nelson (Australia) Ltd invited Ryan to write a book about women and the labour force she persuaded Conlon to collaborate with her. An International Women’s Year (IWY) grant facilitated the publication of Gentle Invaders: Australian Women at Work 1788–1974 (1975). The same year she was a delegate to the United Nations conference on women in Mexico. With a grant from the national advisory committee for IWY, in 1976 she helped to create a Women’s Trade Union Commission, a feminist labour attempt to ‘empower trade union women to champion Australia’s women workers’ (Ryan 2013, 119). She helped to organise a conference on women and trade unions, providing a foundation for the 1981 Australian Council of Trade Unions women’s charter.

In 1978 Ryan prepared WEL’s maternity leave case. The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History invited her to contribute to its special issue for IWY and she began research on a meat workers’ dispute. This was the impetus for her second book, Two-thirds of a Man: Women and Arbitration in New South Wales 1902–08 (1984). Serving on the executive of the ASSLH in the 1980s, she contributed reviews and articles to its journal. She became ‘a feminist icon’ (Ryan 2004b), and trade unionists, politicians, scholars, and journalists sought her opinions on industrial relations. In 1985 the University of Sydney awarded her an honorary doctorate of letters; she would receive the same honour from Macquarie University in 1995. In 1986 she became a life member of the Sydney branch of the ASSLH, and the following year she was made a life member of the ALP.

By that time Ryan was all too aware that she was growing old. She had kept a detailed daily journal on her ageing since her retirement in 1972, in order ‘to provide “hints for growing old”’ (Jalland 2015, 257), with a view to a future book; she would maintain it until 1994. Despite health issues, such as hearing loss, and restricted finances, she had an active old age, including travel for pleasure to Egypt and Israel. After her union friend Helen Prendergast bought a property in Canberra, in 1990 she sold her Glebe flat to join this ‘small colony of independent women in separate dwellings’ (Jalland 2015, 267), which permitted her to live near family, including grandchildren.

Short and articulate, with a slight lisp, Ryan had huge determination. Her last campaign was to lead WEL’s battle against enterprise bargaining, preparing a submission to Paul Keating’s government on the impact on female employees that led to changes in the Industrial Relations Reform Act in 1993. By this point she defended centralised wage-fixing because, although it had systematically discriminated against women, with different underlying values it could advantage them. Survived by her son and two daughters, she died on 10 February 1997 in Canberra, and was privately cremated. In 1998 the New South Wales WEL and some friends established the Edna Ryan awards for women in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory who have ‘made a feminist difference’ (Edna Ryan Awards 2020). The MEU created an annual memorial award in her name in 2000.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Cadzow, Jane. ‘The Life of Ryan.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 12 March 1994, Good Weekend 24–33
  • Edna Ryan Awards. ‘The Awards.’ 2020. Accessed 28 October 2021. https://ednaryan.net.au/awards/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Frances, Rae. ‘Edna Ryan (1904–1997).’ Labour History, no. 72 (May 1997): 244–45
  • Jalland, Pat. Old Age in Australia: A History. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2015
  • Matthews, Jill Julius. ‘Edna Ryan 1904–1997.’ History Workshop Journal, no. 44 (Autumn 1997): 289–90
  • Mitchell, Susan. The Matriarchs: Twelve Australian Women Talk About Their Lives to Susan Mitchell. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1987
  • National Library of Australia. MS 9140, Papers of Edna Ryan, 1948–1993
  • Nelson, E. ‘Edna Nelson Renounces Right-Wing Views.’ Workers’ Weekly (Sydney), 20 March 1931, 2
  • Nelson, Edna. ‘“Woman Worker” Welcome – !’ Workers’ Weekly (Sydney), 18 January 1929, 3
  • Ryan, Edna. Interview by Lucy Taksa, 19 October 1987. New South Wales Bicentennial oral history collection. National Library of Australia
  • Ryan, Lyndall. ‘About Edna Ryan.’ Edna Ryan Awards. 2004b. Accessed 28 October 2021. https://ednaryan.net.au/edna-ryan-biography/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Ryan, Lyndall. ‘Caught Out: Edna and Jack Ryan and the 1951 Referendum.’ Inside Story, 13 October 2014. https://insidestory.org.au/caught-out-edna-and-jack-ryan-and-the-1951-referendum/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Ryan, Lyndall. ‘Challenging Equality Masculinism: Edna Ryan’s Struggles for Equal Pay 1958–1973.’ Paper to the 2001 ASSLH conference. Accessed 23 March 2021. https://labourhistorycanberra.org/2014/11/2001-conference-challenging-equality-masculinism-edna-ryans-struggles-for-equal-pay-1958-73/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Ryan, Lyndall. ‘Edna Ryan and Leadership: The Women’s Trade Union Commission, 1976.’ Labour History, no. 104 (May 2013): 119–30
  • Ryan, Lyndall. ‘Mother and Daughter Feminists, 1969–1973. Or Why Didn’t Edna Ryan Join Women’s Liberation?’ Australian Feminist Studies 19, no. 43 (March 2004a): 75–85
  • Ryan, Lyndall. Personal communication
  • Ryan, Susan. ‘Obituary: Edna Minna Ryan 1904–1997.’ Australian Feminist Studies 12, no. 25 (1997): 171–73
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 4786 (MLK 4187-MLK 4198), Edna Ryan papers, 1965–1986
  • Stevens, Joyce. Taking the Revolution Home: Work among Women in the Communist Party of Australia: 1920–1945. Fitzroy, Vic.: Sybylla Co-operative Press and Publications, 1987
  • Webb, Rosemary. ‘Vale Edna Ryan (1904–1997): Feminist, Trade Unionist, Political Activist and Labour Historian.’ Hummer 2, no. 8 (Winter 1997). https://www.labourhistory.org.au/hummer/vol-2-no-8/edna-ryan/. Copy held on ADB file

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Citation details

Melanie Nolan, 'Ryan, Edna Minna (1904–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ryan-edna-minna-31769/text39232, published online 2022, accessed online 28 November 2022.

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