Second-wave feminist Edna Ryan fought for women to receive the same minimum wage as men. Photo: The Australian National University (ANU) Archives

Champions of change: The second-wave feminists who fought for equal pay

Professor Melanie Nolan takes a look at how the Australian Dictionary of Biography has covered the work of second-wave feminists such as Anne Conlon and Edna Ryan.

In March, ANU Press published the 19th volume of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB). It was launched about the time people took to the streets for the March4 Justice to protest against sexism and gendered violence. This new wave of feminist protest invokes the past; indeed one of the contemporary complaints is that change first sought in the 1970s and 1980s is not happening fast enough or has simply stalled.  

Second-wave feminists who demanded action on sexist attitudes and sought equality and a safe society for women are starting to appear in the ADB. However, the Dictionary is only ‘up to’ the end of the 20th century; that is, we are editing entries for significant and representative Australians who died between 1991 and 2000. The second-wave feminists appearing in the ADB are women who either died young or joined the movement in their maturity.  

Two such feminists are public servant and labour activist Patricia Anne Conlon (1939-1979), who tragically died young of cancer, and long-time labour movement activist Edna Ryan (1904 –1997), who joined her two daughters in the feminist movement.

Conlon was a founding member of the NSW branch of the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL), which Ryan joined a year later in 1973.  A WEL subcommittee comprised of Ryan, Conlon, Jocelyn McGirr and Joan Wilson prepared a submission on the minimum wage to the National Wage Case in 1974 arguing that women should receive the same base rate pay as men. Ryan, with her many years of union experience and knowledge of the industrial relations system, presented WEL’s submission to the Arbitration Commission considering the National Wage Case, also arguing that gendered  language should be abandoned and there ought to be one rate for the job.  The court agreed and from 2 May 1974 the adult minimum wage included women workers for the first time.

In 1975, Conlon and Ryan published Gentle Invaders: Australian women at work, 1788-1974, a ground-breaking history of the regulation of women’s wages, one of the key texts of Australian women's history. Conlon went on to publish parts of her MA thesis and was appointed lecturer at the Australian Trade Union Training Authority. A founding member (1977) of the New South Wales Women's Advisory Council (WAC), she became special projects officer with the government's Women's Co-ordination Unit in February 1978. She worked on the Anti-Discrimination Act (1977) as well as on an amendment to the maternity-leave provision. Following her death in 1979 an annual commemorative memorial lecture, sponsored by the W.A.C, was held between 1980 and 2002.  

Ryan established a Women’s Trade Union Commission in 1975 with a grant from the National Advisory Committee for International Women’s Year, to empower trade union women to champion Australia’s women workers and whose work led to the ACTU Working Women’s Charter in 1981 setting out demands for pay equality, opportunities. Education, working conditions and legal rights. She started the first post-war work-based childcare centre in 1977, served on the executive of the Family Planning Association of New South Wales and prepared WEL's Maternity Leave Case in 1978. She published and lectured widely. Ryan died in 1997 aged 92.

WEL supporters established the Edna awards in her memory in 1998. The ‘Ednas’ are awarded to women in NSW and the ACT who have had significant impact on the social, economic, and political status of women and girls and, thereby, have made a feminist difference. They include the award to the ‘Grand Stirrer’, for “inciting others to challenge the status quo”.

The Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19 is available to download for free at ANU Press