Labour History

Edna Ryan and Leadership: The Womens Trade Union Commission, 1976

Labour History (2013), 104, (1), 119–130.


At the end of 1975 my mother, Edna Ryan, along with a small group of trade union women, received funds from the National Advisory Committee of International Womens Year, to establish a Womens Trade Union Commission (WTUC). Edna had developed the idea for the commission while conducting research for her book, Gentle Invaders, published earlier that year. She believed that the WTUC could be a first step towards resolving the long stand-off between feminists and the labour movement. This article draws on Edna’s dairies and papers to explore and unravel her contradictory leadership role in the WTUC over its 12 months of life in 1976. She was neither a paid official nor an active trade unionist in the WTUC. Rather, as an active member of the management committee, she relied on her previous experiences as a trade union activist and her membership of the Labor Party and the Womens Electoral Lobby (WEL), to drive the WTUC to become a change agent for trade union women. By the end of 1976, the WTUC had engineered a major shift in trade union attitudes towards women that would have far reaching benefits over the following decade. The article finds that, while Edna did indeed have important skills, she was by no means a one-woman band. She was a catalyst. She seized the opportunities created by second wave feminism to press for change for women trade unionists.

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*I would like to thank Pat Grimshaw for inviting me to present an earlier version of this article to the Women and Leadership Symposium at the University of Melbourne, 11 March 2011. I would also like to thank Sara Dowse for her incisive comments on an earlier draft of this article. Finally, my thanks go the two anonymous referees ofLabour Historyfor their comments and suggestions. Full responsibility for any errors of fact or interpretation remains with the author. Google Scholar

1.Edna Ryan, diaries, book 29, 2 December1975, 98. These diaries are in possession of the author. Google Scholar

2.SeeAustralian Financial Review, February 27, 1974 and Age, April 18, 1974. Google Scholar

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6.Ryan, “Challenging Equality Masculinism,” 221. Google Scholar

7.Carmen Lawrence, “Foreword,”inMaking Women Count: A History of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Australia,Marian Sawer with Gail Radford(:UNSW Press, 2008), xii. Google Scholar

8.Edna Ryan and Anne Conlon, Gentle Invaders: Australian Women at Work 1788-1975(:Thomas Nelson Australia, 1975). Google Scholar

9.Gisela Kaplan, The Meagre Harvest: The Australian Women’s Movement 1950s-1990s(:Allen & Unwin, 1996), 75. Google Scholar

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16.Edna Ryan, diary, book no. 30, 27 August1975, 35. Google Scholar

17.Ibid., 3 September 1975, 47. Google Scholar

18.Edna Ryan, diary, book no. 36, 7 May1987, 16. Google Scholar

23.Edna Ryan, diary, book no. 36, 30 April1976, 8. Google Scholar

24.Ibid., 30 April 1976, 9; 7 May 1976, 16. Google Scholar

25.Ibid., 30 April 1976, 10. Google Scholar

26.Ibid., 11. Google Scholar

27.Ibid., 7 May 1976, 18-19. Google Scholar

28.Edna Ryan, diary, book no. 36, 29 May1976, 34. Google Scholar

29.Ibid., 31 May 1976, 38. Google Scholar

30.Ibid., 20 June 1976, 43. Google Scholar

31.Ibid., 23 July 1976, 67-68 and 10 August 1976, 90-91. Google Scholar

32.Edna Ryan, diary, book no. 36, 10 August1976, 77. Google Scholar

33.Ibid., 78. Google Scholar

34.Ibid., 80. Google Scholar

35.Ibid., 88. Google Scholar

36.Edna Ryan, diary, book no. 36, 10 August1976, 88. Google Scholar

37.Ibid., 89. Google Scholar

38.Ibid., 78, 91. Google Scholar

39.Ibid., 93. Google Scholar

40.Ibid., 82. Google Scholar

41.Edna Ryan, diary, book no. 36, 17 August1976, 98. Google Scholar

42.Edna Ryan, diary, book no. 37, 23 September1976, 65. Google Scholar

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Author details

Ryan, Lyndall