Along Cook Street, joining Glebe Point Road and Blackwattle Bay, old and new dwellings sit side by side: terrace houses, a large stone dwelling and a number of older and newer blocks of flats. For the ten years from 1980 to 1990 Edna Ryan lived in one of the older blocks of units. In 1984, hundreds of people filled the Glebe Town Hall to celebrate her 80th birthday.
This remarkable woman was born in Pyrmont, the tenth of twelve children. Although she won a bursary to attend Fort Street High School, there was no way the family could have afforded to send her to university. In fact she left school after four years when her mother became ill. Yet, towards the end of her life, she was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Letters from the University of Sydney (1985) and honorary Doctorate of Letters from Macquarie University (1995).
Edna Ryan worked tirelessly in causes related to the rights and wellbeing of women from an early age. She participated in the first International Women’s Day in 1928. She organised the wives of timber workers in the 1929 strike. She was the first female deputy mayor in NSW in 1958 and the first woman president of the largest branch of the Municipal Employees’ Union in the 1960s.
Edna Ryan’s long involvement in the struggle for equal pay culminated in what many regard as her standout achievement, namely the submission she made to the Arbitration Commission in 1974 which led to low paid women workers being paid the same minimum wage as men. Her book written with Anne Conlon called ‘The Gentle Invaders’ was published in 1975 and deals with the struggle of women for decent working conditions. Later she wrote ‘Two Thirds of a Man’ (1984) which focuses on the discrimination women suffered in the laundry, retail and tobacco industries.
In a moving address ‘Comments for Edna Ryan’s Funeral’, Susan Ryan (no relation), former Minister for Education in the Hawke Government and Minster Assisting the Prime Minister on the status of women said in part:
‘Edna Ryan was the most inspiring and admirable woman I have known.
Her life was full of remarkable ironies … how remarkable that a woman, one of a large poor family, prevented from pursuing formal education, should be publicly recognized as one of the clearest thinkers about our industrial relations system …’