Profile - Edna Ryan (1904-1997)

Edna Ryan was raised in Sydney in an unusual household for the era, in which her mother was the primary wage earner. She keenly felt the injustice of the fact that her mother, as a woman, could only earn just over half the wage offered to a man.  

When Edna left school at 16 to work as a clerk typist she was frustrated to be earning less than a man and rejected the expectation of having to leave paid work if she wished to marry or have children.  

Edna joined the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) in 1927 and then the Australian Labor Party (ALP). Within a very short time of joining the CPA, she became secretary of the Sydney Branch and was involved in organising weekly lectures. In 1929 she helped organise the wives of timber-workers in supporting the timber-workers strike. However, her time with the CPA was short-lived; she left the Party following her husband Jack’s expulsion in 1930.     

Edna fought hard for equal pay and in the 1950s she convinced her union to take an equal pay claim to the NSW Industrial Commission on behalf of a group of white-collar women workers in her workplace. The union won the case but made agreements which restricted the flow of equal pay to other groups of eligible women.  

Edna embarked on a new career as a feminist activist in the 1970s and was a founding member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL). The WEL was a force for positive change and in 1974 they presented a landmark submission on the minimum wage to the National Wage Case.  

Among her many achievements, Edna was the first female mayor of Fairfield Council (1958), first female president of the Local Government Officers' Association (1963), and organiser of the first Women and Trade Unions conference (1976). She started the first post-war work-based childcare centre in 1977, served on the executive of the Family Planning Association of NSW, published multiple books, and actively supported women’s theatre and art groups.  

In 1985 Edna was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Sydney. She continued to lend her expertise in industrial relations, political strategy and women’s issues and throughout the 1990s she conducted research on the impact of enterprise bargaining and superannuation on women workers. 

Edna Ryan died at the age of 92 on 10 May 1997, survived by her daughter. 



Ryan, L 2014, Caught Out: Edna and Jack Ryan and the 1951 Referendum, Inside Story, accessed <>

Webb, R 1997, Vale Edna Ryan (1904-1997): Feminist, Trade Unionist, Political Activist and Labour Historian, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, accessed <>



Edna Ryan speaking at the Australian National University, 1991 (ANUA 225-1085)

Edna Ryan speaking at the Australian National University, 1991 (ANUA 225-1085)