2001 ASSLH conference – Challenging equality masculinism: Edna Ryan’s struggles for equal pay 1958-1973

Professor Lyndall Ryan
Head: School of Humanities, Faculty of the Central Coast, University of Newcastle


When labour activist Edna Ryan was widowed at the age of 53 in 1958, she became the family breadwinner. She quickly found that while pay and conditions for all workers were negotiated on a triennial basis between unions and management, whereby men had access to a career path and regular pay increases, no such provisions existed for women. The paper focuses on her struggle within her union to take an equal pay case before the Industrial Commission in 1964 and how upon winning the case, the union colluded with management to prevent its widespread implementation. The paper concludes that structural practices of equality masculinism were stacked against women workers. They only changed when challenged by the new approaches of second wave feminism.


When Edna Ryan joined Prospect County Council as a clerk typist in mid 1958, she was part of that vast army of married women who were re-entering the white-collar workforce at that time.1 She quickly discovered she was an “outsider” in a world of entrenched masculinism where unions and employers colluded to deny women access to promotion and careers. As a long-term advocate of equal pay, she determined from the outset to work within her union to improve her wages and conditions and those of her fellow female workers.

Marilyn Lake has called the period from 1940-1970 in Australian feminist history, as “equality feminism”.2 This was the time when women tried to work within the structures and practices of masculinism to achieve improvements in the status and condition of women generally. While Lake cites important achievements for women in this period:—the election of the first women to federal parliament in 1943, the appointment of women jurors in the 1950s, the return of married women to the workforce and the achievement of equal pay for women teachers in New South Wales in 1958— there were also setbacks. The Arbitration Court’s reversal in 1950 of the wage gains made by women workers during World War II and the Australian government’s refusal to implement ILO Convention 100 on equal pay, are more useful indicators of the declining position of women in the 1950s. These setbacks were a triumph for masculinism.3

By substituting the term “equality masculinism” for “equality feminism”, it is possible to gain a clearer view of the subordinate position of women in the workforce in this period. While the rhetoric of equal pay dominated the era, only one dramatic breakthrough occurred, the legislation in 1958 that accorded equal pay for women teachers in New South Wales.4 The question should then be asked: why was this decision not used by the union movement as a precedent for other equal pay cases in New South Wales over the next decade?

There is a great silence about the experiences of women in unions generally and white collar unions in particular in Australia in the postwar period, 1945-1971. Ross Martin in his general study of unions notes the increase in the number of women entering white collar employment at this time.5 But apart from useful studies of teacher and public sector unions and Claire Williams’ pioneering work on the women flight attendants’ union, no studies have appeared of other white collar unions that had large female memberships at this time like the Federated Clerks Union and the Municipal Employees’ Union.6

Two overseas studies claim that white-collar unions were the sites of resistance by men to women workers in the post war era. Cynthia Cockburn, in her study of men’s resistance to sex equality in a range of organisations including white- collar unions in Britain, labelled this form of activity “fratriarchy”.7 Gillian Creese in her study of gender, class and race in a white-collar union in Canada 1944-1994, found that once the breadwinner was established to be a white man in workplace structures and union traditions, white masculine privilege continued to shape union politics in the office long after any explicit notion of breadwinner rights had been discarded.8

Both studies provide a useful context for understanding the experiences of women white-collar workers in Australia in the post war period. While the best known and possibly the only account of women white-collar workers by Clarke and Stephenson, reveals moving stories of personal discrimination, they do not show how some women tried to use the industrial structures to improve wages and conditions.9 Nor are there accounts by individual women in white-collar work of their struggle to achieve equal pay at this time. This absence stands in stark contrast to the groundbreaking story of Zelda D’Aprano’s struggle within her blue-collar union to gain equal pay.10 In this paper, I will draw on the experiences of one woman white-collar union activist, Edna Ryan and her struggle to achieve equal pay for women workers in her workplace, as a way of understanding how the structures and practices of equality masculinism worked against white-collar women in the period 1958-1973. The structures were the unions and the employers. The practices were the ways in which the men who operated within these structures perceived women workers.

Most of the primary source material used in this paper comes from Edna Ryan’s autobiographical fragment she wrote in the 1970 based on notes that she made about her work force experiences in the 1960s.11 They provide a rare insight into the problems faced by white-collar women activists in working within the structures and practices of equality masculinism.

Edna Ryan encounters equality masculinism: Prospect County Council 1958-1962

In March 1958, Edna Ryan’s husband, Jack Ryan died at the age of 55 after a long illness. Since their expulsion from the Communist Party in the early 1930s, they had run two small businesses, first a butcher shop in the eastern suburbs of Sydney and then a poultry farm at Canley Vale, on the city’s southwestern outskirts. During this time they raised three children and were active members of the Labor Party and the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA). In 1951 Edna embarked on a political career and after two false starts, was elected as an ALP alderman on Fairfield Municipal Council at the end of 1956. At the time of Jack’s death, Edna was deputy-mayor and full-time white-collar worker supporting two teenage daughters. The town clerk, anxious that she should have more secure employment as the family breadwinner, advised her to apply for a position as clerk typist at the newly formed electricity authority, Prospect County Council.12

Edna put her age down from 53 to 45 and dressed and behaved to fit this image. At the interview the Chief Clerk informed her that he was offering the position at the highest rate on the female award. He explained that there were no provisions for further promotion and wage increases would only come from changes to the basic wage and to female award rates. As a woman she was eligible to join the Provident Fund which would make her a modest payment upon retirement. She could not join the Superannuation Fund, which provided male clerks with a pension on retirement. The Chief Clerk did not consider these differences as discriminatory. Rather he focused on the fact that subject to satisfactory performance Edna would have secure employment until retirement.13

At that time Prospect County Council (PCC) was barely a year old. Formed in 1957 following legislation amalgamating electricity distribution functions of five local government councils in western and southwestern Sydney, PCC was the second largest electricity distribution authority in New South Wales. As a new semi-government authority it was designed to meet the needs of the booming population and new industries in the outer western and southwestern areas of Sydney. Its headquarters were based in the original offices of Holroyd Council at Merrylands, four stations up the railway line from where Edna and her family lived, at Canley Vale.

Staff who had worked in the electricity distribution areas in the five local councils transferred to the new authority without loss of pay or conditions. Employees were covered by two unions: the office and senior administrative staff were covered by the Local Government Officers Association of the Municipal Employees’ Union (MEU) and the tradesmen were covered by the Electrical Trades Union (ETU).14

The MEU was the New South Wales (NSW) branch of the Federated Municipal and Shire Employees’ Union of Australia and covered white-collar workers in local government and semi-government authorities in New South Wales and Victoria and parts of Western Australia. The federal president was a member of the ACTU executive and the president of the NSW branch, Gavin Sutherland, was a Member of the Legislative Council and a key member of the Right faction that dominated Labor Party politics in NSW. The Assistant State Secretary, Peter McMahon, a rising star in the union, was a member of the Equal Pay Committee of the NSW Trades and Labor Council.15 As a right wing union it focused on negotiating successful industrial agreements for its members, rather than engaging in industrial action.

Edna immediately joined the MEU and was saddened to find few employees of either sex interested in its policies and strategies. Indeed the main union conscious members were in senior management. This led the office workers to shrug their shoulders and say, “our bosses are running the union”. Few paid their union dues, and even fewer attended the twice-yearly general meetings, which often lacked a quorum of twenty members. Nor did the union appear to encourage active membership and certainly did not expect women to join.16 In becoming an active woman unionist, Edna Ryan was a double aberration in her workplace.

Edna had joined Prospect County Council a few months before the New South Wales government enacted the Industrial Arbitration (Female Rates) Amendment Act in December 1958, which awarded women teachers equal pay to be phased in over five years.17 Women employed in local government and semi-government authorities as architects, cashiers, draftswomen, engineering, town planning and survey workers, chief clerks and/or accountants and deputy town, shire and county clerks, graded female clerks, playground supervisors, chief librarians and graded librarians, also benefitted from this decision. Most worked in either the Sydney County Council or in local councils in rural areas and had held their positions since World War II. The MEU appeared to interpret the legislation as an end point of past anomalies rather than a new era in the struggle for equal pay.18

This placed Edna in a different position from her union. As a “new” worker in the postwar era, she saw the 1958 legislation as an opportunity to reclassify women who were performing work similar to men, into male awards. The union preferred to follow the policy of the ACTU and the NSW Labor Council of lobbying the federal government to ratify the International Labor Organisation (ILO) Convention 100 on equal pay, and encouraging state and federal governments to pass legislation to implement it. Edna considered this approach as a tactic to avoid the issue of equal pay. While the ACTU, the NSW Labor Council and the MEU supported equal pay in principle, they did so in order to protect men’s jobs. For no man in the union movement believed that any employer would prefer to employ a woman rather than a man, if she were paid the same wage.19

When the unions and PCC management negotiated a new industrial agreement in 1959, Edna discovered significant differences in the ways in which the two unions consulted their members. The members of the Electrical Trades Union (ETU) which covered the wages division, comprising tradesmen, foremen and technical officers, were all men. They were covered by one award within which was a range of classifications. All ETU members regardless of their status were usually told the contents of the claim on their behalf. This claim always sought a percentage increase for each classification so that relativity between the rates of pay was maintained. By contrast members of the MEU, which covered the salaries division, were both women and men. They were rarely informed about the contents of the claim until the new agreement had been reached. By then it was too late to raise questions.20

Three separate awards covered the salaried staff at Prospect County Council. The Higher Appointments Award covered the top administrative staff, comprising half a dozen men, and was determined separately from all other awards covered by the MEU. No one really knew the salary levels of these people. The Administrative Officers Award, which covered engineers, accountants, administrative branch heads, supervisors and executives who were also all men had five grades. To reach this grade, a person, at this stage always a white man, had to have reached the top of the Clerical Award, the next award further down the hierarchy.21

The Clerical Award had separate sections for females and males and was the usual career point of entry to the administrative and clerical area of Prospect County Council for both women and men. The usual age of entry was sixteen and the basic qualification was the Intermediate Certificate. At this point of entry, men and women received about the same rate of pay. Despite the fact that the female basic wage was then about eight dollars below the male basic wage, junior females received 89% of the female basic wage while the junior males received 65% of the male basic wage. This was tacit recognition that the junior females had arrived in the workforce with more immediately useful skills in typing and basic bookkeeping. But from that point, these skills lost their value. While the women engaged in short-term training to become clerk typists, stenographers, book-keeping machine operators and switchboard operators, the men were expected to study part-time in a career path to become accountants, town clerks, personnel officers and administrative officers and in time be promoted to the Administrative Officers Award. Despite the fact that few male clerks pursued this expectation and despite their lack of study status, all men under this award received higher increments than women. By the time the women and men had reached the top of their scales of F13 and M13, at about the age of 30, the difference in their weekly pay packets was fifteen dollars thirty in favour of the men.22

While those men who did improve their qualifications could expect over the course of their working lives to be promoted to the Administrative Officers Award and the select few to the Higher Appointments Award, no such career path existed for the women. F13 was the top of their career path. They were expected to be content with this position for the rest of their working lives. This was the level at which Edna had been employed in 1958.

The only women who could be classified above F13 were named positions such as Secretary to the County Clerk, Secretary to the Chief Engineer, Supervising Telephonist, Billing Section Supervisor and Supervisor Home Management. All these women were paid the female basic wage plus a margin above that of F13. In the 1962 award the highest paid female, the Secretary to the County Clerk was paid a weekly salary of twenty four pounds one shilling ($48.10) one pound seventeen shillings ($3.70) below that of a class M13 clerk who received twenty five pounds eighteen shillings ($51.80). These women were paid at a higher rate, not to reflect their workload responsibilities, but to reflect the status of their bosses.23

It took Edna Ryan some time to work out how to challenge this state of affairs. But she was ready for action when she only received a five shillings (50 cents) pay rise from the 1962 Agreement. Some of the men had received enormous increases because their departments had greatly expanded. Her administrative head had received nine pounds ($18) per week more, but for the general run of clerks the increase ranged from 2/6 (25 cents) to ten shillings ($1). Edna decided that women like her were indeed missing out.

She told the industrial officer at PCC that it would be wiser for her to “pitch the typewriter out of the window” because she received less for her skill as a typist than her male counterparts who had no such skill. Simply by being men, male clerks were paid more than females. Indeed the classification of “clerk”, was a male classification. A woman could not be a clerk. She had to be a “clerk typist”, and be paid less. At the 1962 annual conference of the Local Government Association of Officers (LGAO) of the union, at which Edna was the first woman delegate to attend, the industrial officer told her that he was opposed to equal pay for women, as it was psychologically bad for men. He explained that the male clerk might have a wife and children to keep. Edna retorted that she also had a family to keep while most of the young men in her office had no family responsibilities at all. It was clear that the margins for skill in the clerical award were not based on skill, but on sexual difference.24

As Edna later wrote, “I was receiving ten dollars a week less than a 25 year old yahoo who could neither spell nor type, who never reads a book and whose knowledge and interest never goes beyond the odds on the next race, who could not keep his mind on his work for more than five consecutive minutes. However he is a man, a white man.”25

Edna Ryan achieves equal pay: 1963-1964

By then Edna had discovered that the 1958 legislation could be applied to her if she were reclassified into the position of clerk, rather than clerk-typist. By the end of 1963 she had not used a typewriter in her workplace for more than a year. In other words she had been doing exactly the same kind of work as the male clerks around her. She decided to take action.26

First she persuaded her apathetic workmates to nominate her to the Committee of Management of the Local Government Association Officers’ branch of the MEU. Six months later she was elected President, the first woman in the union to hold the office. Then she was instrumental in the appointment of a new industrial officer who appeared sympathetic to the principle of equal pay so that when negotiations for the 1965 industrial agreement between the union and her employer began, she was in a strong position to influence the proceedings. She instructed the new industrial officer to put the reclassification of clerk typists to male clerks on the agenda.

Initially he was reluctant to do so. Edna pointed out to him that with the growth of the section, and with her experience and ability as a book keeper and clerk, she was fully engaged in clerical work in exactly the same way as the male clerks in her section and she now expected recognition of equal pay in accordance with the law. As she pointed out later, she sat at the same kind of desk as the men, with a swivel chair and used a pencil. And as the union representative in the workplace she expected union support for her position.27

The union agreed in principle with her view, but was reluctant to seek a reclassification of a number of female clerical awards to male awards for fear of upsetting the men. But Edna persisted. With the support of the union’s industrial officer, she put together a claim for five women who could legally be entitled to equal pay. It was understood that if the five were successful, other women would have to be recognised. The union went to Prospect County Council and pointed out that if they opposed the claim, the union would take the case to the NSW Industrial Commission. Prospect did oppose the claim which went to the Industrial Commission in August 1964.28

The claim for the five women, including Edna, was carefully chosen. They could not include for example, the female Billing Supervisor in charge of Council’s book keeping machine operators because she was in charge of women who were not doing work normally performed by men. Instead each woman selected worked in a section with other men and performing exactly the same kind of work. In December 1964, the Court recognised the claim and Edna was reclassified as a clerk.29

As one of the five women reclassified, Edna moved from Class F13 to Class 14, Grade 1 Clerk. It was only one class but the jump from the female basic wage to the male basic wage was about seven pounds ($14) and the extra class was one pound ($2) which gave Edna a salary increase of eight pounds ($16) a week. On top of that the Industrial Commission awarded the claim retrospective to the date of submission.30 It was the best Christmas present Edna ever had.

A short time later, other women like the Billing Clerk, were also reclassified, so that by the end of the year, seventeen women in the Council were graded as Male Clerks. More importantly, it provided an opportunity for other women office workers, in other local government and semi-government authorities covered by the MEU, to also achieve reclassification. Their increase in pay and longer-term promotional opportunities were significant.

However, not one man on the staff at Prospect County Council congratulated Edna on this magnificent achievement. Indeed the twenty five-year-old lad in her section did not speak to her for two months. Edna told him that he could expect to be much more than Class 14 when he was fifty years old.31

Despite this significant breakthrough in the struggle for equal pay, neither the press nor the union movement reported it at the time.32

Union and employer reaction: 1968

When the Industrial Agreement was due for renewal in 1968, the Council’s industrial officer told Edna that the County Clerk was determined to have all secretaries and other females reclassified in the female section, rather than permit the gradual move to a single award rate. The County Clerk pointed out that he did not intend to reduce the pay rates of women who had achieved equal pay, and would recommend that they receive higher margins to compensate for the differences between the male and the female basic wage. But he was determined to restore the principle of a male rate of pay and a female rate of pay.

Edna was stunned. The County Clerk’s plan was designed to reduce the status of female employees and to prevent them from seeking male jobs in the future. While Edna’s status as male clerk had been achieved from a legal determination and could not be reclassified back to her previous scale, the County Clerk’s plan closed the door to other women employed at the Council from achieving the same status. His plan also prevented any new women from being employed as male clerks. The union decided not to oppose this backward step. 33

Only six of the former seventeen women remained classified as clerks. The rest, like the Secretary to the County Clerk and the Billing Supervisor were reclassified to the female section where their opportunities for promotion to the Administrative Section were closed. While the eleven women who lost their male classification were rewarded with substantial pay increases to rob them of any cause for complaint and to offset any discontent on the part of the secretaries in the top administration, the principle of equality of opportunity had been lost.34

This was borne out when one of Edna’s colleagues, Joan, who had been reclassified as a male clerk at the same time as Edna, decided to apply for a position as a male clerk in the Sales Branch. After the interview the Sales Superintendent declared that she was the best applicant and recommended her appointment. But the County Clerk rejected it on the grounds that Joan had been graded as a male clerk in the job she had been performing and that it did not apply to any other male clerical position in the Council. PCC’s industrial officer pointed out that Joan had the rights and privileges of any other male clerk. But the appointment was never made. When Joan retired some years later, a man at a much higher grade replaced her.35

Edna could only accept this defeat as another round in the fight for equal pay and equality of opportunity for white- collar women. But it did lead her to wonder what went on in the mind of the Chief Clerk in relation to women workers. It was clear that he was not interested in the best person for the job, or in offering a rate for the job. Edna wondered whether men like the Chief Clerk suffered from malicious personal grudges, which they projected into their business relationships.

It is often said that women workers are dragons, or they are neurotic or bitchy. This is sometimes true but how often as a result of the blatant unfair discrimination that they suffer. And what, may I ask, explains the neurotic bastard type of men one comes across?36

Edna Ryan continues the struggle for equal pay: 1968-1972

Despite this setback in the 1968 agreement, Edna decided to remain as president of the Local Government Officers’ Association, in order to ensure that the equal value of women workers covered by her union was recognised. As president she represented males as well as females and found this more useful than having separate sections for men and women. She was also able to reassure women who had achieved equal pay about their rights in the workforce.

One young woman, Anne, who had achieved equal pay and had returned to the workforce after bearing a child, mentioned to Edna that she was concerned that she did not always focus on her work, because she thought about her young child a lot. Did this mean that she was not worthy of equal pay? Edna told Anne not to worry. She told her that few of the young men in her office could concentrate on their work for more than a few minutes at a time. They organised their day around the races and the football, ringing the TAB for race results throughout the day and organising punting clubs.37

But the equal pay set back at Prospect County Council, did prevent Edna from moving on to her next enterprise, the provision of maternity leave and child care for women workers. Instead she focused on organising the next industrial agreement due in 1971 whereby more women would become eligible for equal pay. She was confident that the 1969 Equal Pay decision in the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission, which effectively extended the narrow provisions of the NSW 1958 equal pay legislation to the federal arena, had created a more favourable climate in support of equal pay.

At the same time she was concerned that many young women in her office who would have been prime candidates for equal pay, resigned to pursue other dreams like travel and having children. They told Edna they were not valued as workers and found the workplace a highly masculinised environment. While they did a lot of complaining and general talking about discrimination, they appeared to have a fatalistic acceptance of their position. They were reluctant to fight for better conditions themselves and were happy to leave this to Edna. On the other hand, when the Auditor appointed a young woman in his section, he told Edna that he was convinced he had done the wrong thing, because she would soon demand equal pay.38

When one such young woman resigned to have a baby, and was told that her position would probably be filled by a man, Edna decided to apply for her job, and persuaded a few other young women to do the same, in order to test the view that these positions that were likely to become “men only” following the 1969 equal pay decision.

A few days after my application I received a letter from the Industrial Officer telling me that the position I was applying for, that of Compensation Clerk, had the list of duties reconstituted with added responsibilities. Applicants would be required to complete a comprehensive questionnaire on portions of the Worker’s Compensation Act and current practices. “If you feel that your qualifications are sufficient” etc. “otherwise you may decide to withdraw your application.” I did not see much sense in pursuing this lost cause and all the women withdrew.39

There were also other areas of discrimination that Edna could do little to change. It was an established procedure that when any officer of any department was absent, the clerk replacing him was given acting pay. Sometimes the acting pay travelled down the line to three people. This happened in the Revenue Section at the Council where three men stepped up. It was assumed that as one does his superior’s job, then the man below did the next one’s job. As Edna pointed out at the time, “The procedure is regarded as a bit of a lurk but it happens and who is going to complain?”40

But this “acting pay” lurk only worked for the men. As Edna discovered, on one occasion a typist who did the work of her boss, the Insurance Clerk, who was away ill for several months. Her service was recognised when the County Clerk agreed to pay her an extra three dollars a week for this period. He then appointed an assistant Insurance Clerk so that the typist would never have to act in this position again. He had a salary three times that of the typist. When he arrived she had to show him how to do the job.41

When the Industrial Officer became ill, Jess, his secretary, took on his work. She had a matriculation standard education and a year at business college as her qualifications. As far as the staff were concerned, she was THE Personnel Officer. When the Industrial Officer returned, he arranged for acting pay for his staff clerk and said to Jess: “Bad luck old girl. The award does not make any provision for women to receive acting pay.” As Edna said at the time:

Jess was the sort of Girl Friday who could be trusted to calculate the rates for a new agreement, check all the details and type the stencil herself. No division of labour here—she did the lot. Moreover her work was strictly confidential. None of the secretaries at Council ever betray their trust no matter what injustices or impositions they suffer. The Industrial Officer conceded that Jess was doing the work of two and told her he would engage a shorthand typist to take some of the load.

It is usual when interviewing applicants to put the immediate superior officer on the interviewing committee. This is done even if the superior officer is a dill as some of the males are. Jess was present at the interview for this appointment the first time but when the first lass was transferred to a higher job, she was not consulted about the replacement. This unwarranted snub hurt her considerably and she handed in her resignation although she made no comment on this incident as a contributing factor.

Her resignation was a shock and her boss frankly confessed he couldn’t make up his mind about a replacement. He would not give the recently appointed stenographer all Jess’s work—he might get a man to do the other work.

Soon after Jess’s departure he said to me, “I know you think I am always against women but I have just given a woman an increase in pay, promoting her five classes—five”, he emphasised, then hastily added: “I’ll admit she was classified too low in the first place.”

Well, I didn’t come down in the last shower. The Industrial Officer had lost Jess his highly paid secretary—the rate of pay of a Branch head’s secretary reflected his status. He could not tolerate the secretary of another branch being more highly paid than his. The relative merit of the secretaries is a secondary consideration here—no trouble at all lifting someone up five classes in a good cause like yourself.42

The final case of systemic discrimination that Edna recorded from this period, concerned Marilyn, number two in the debt recovery section. She had come to the job with a long background and experience in legal procedures and was classified as a clerk/typist on the incremental scale. When she decided to retire she was earning sixty dollars and five cents a week. Her job was advertised as that of a male clerk with a salary level of seventy five to eighty dollars a week. The man appointed would need secretarial support at about forty dollars a week. Marilyn had always done her own typing. So the Council was prepared to pay about sixty dollars a week extra to replace Marilyn.

When Marilyn saw the advertisement for her replacement, she said to Edna, “To hell with the swine”. She took two days’ sick leave for revenge. As Edna wrote at the time: “A Negro or an Aborigine would understand.” 43

The equal pay case of 1972 and its implementation by the MEU

Following the election of the Whitlam Government in 2 December 1972, the National Wage Case was reopened to hear an equal pay claim. Edna took the day off work to attend the hearing on 13 December. The Commission brought down its judgement two days later on Edna’s 68th birthday.

“Pinch me, it’s a miracle handed out on my birthday. It could have been decided years and years ago. We’d given up hope, and now, bang, here it is in writing,” she wrote in her diary. She worked out that about one and a half million working women were now eligible for full male pay.44 The increase was to be phased in by three instalments; 31 December 1973, September 1974 and 30 June 1975.45

But there was one last twist. Edna retired from Prospect County Council in January 1973, but decided under strong pressure from her union mates, to continue as president of Local Government Officers’ Branch of the MEU. At first Edna thought that this position was recognition of her successes in the struggle for equal pay. But the union had other ideas. The union executive did not consult her about how the 1972 equal pay decision was to be phased in over the next three years. In the union’s agreement with local government, the women would get the full basic wage increase of $9.30 but they would only get a percentage of the increased margin of $20. Edna found that while first and second year girls were classified respectively as first and second year boys, third year girls were classified as second year boys, plus 30 cents a week; fourth year young women became second-year boys plus $2.80 per week. “And so on up the scale where tenth-year women became sixth-year men and fourteenth-year women were classified as tenth-year men. Thus whilst these female employees were made equal to male, they were classified as males of a lower rank.”46

As the only woman executive member and as president of the Local Government Officers’ Association, it was Edna’s task to “square off” this act of blatant discrimination to the women. This was the last straw. In her own act of revenge, Edna decided not to nominate for re-election as president at the forthcoming executive election, but told no one in advance. When the executive met in April 1973, Edna did not appear. Instead she sent a note to say that she had resigned from the union, had joined the newly formed Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) and had begun to plan their submission to the next National Wage Case to introduce a common minimum wage for men and women workers. The executive was stunned. They had no nomination for the position of president and could only find a candidate when they agreed that when elected, he would not have to “square off” with the women. They delegated that task to the industrial officer.47


Between 1958 and 1973 Edna Ryan worked within the structures of equality masculinism to achieve limited equal pay for white-collar women workers. But with each decision, the MEU appeared to take a step back enabling the employer to deny women their entitlements. While Edna found that some structures of equality masculinism like the NSW Industrial Commission and the Commonwealth Arbitration Commission were not actively masculinist, other structures like the trade unions and the employers and their practices were certainly so.

Edna later dismissed this period in her working life as a series of industrial failures.48 Yet in proving that the 1958 legislation could be used to extend equal pay to white-collar women workers, she leaves the unions exposed to the question: why didn’t they make widespread use of it between 1959 and 1969? One can only conclude that they feared the widespread introduction of equal pay and used every possible strategy, including collusion with employers, to prevent its implementation. This was a triumph for equality masculinism. Endnotes

1 Karen Mumford, Women Working. Economics & Reality. North Sydney, 1989, p.6.
2 Marilyn Lake, Getting Equal. The History of Australian Feminism in the 20th Century. North Sydney, 1999.
3 Edna Ryan and Ann Conlon, Gentle Invaders. Australian Women in the Workforce, 1788-1974. Second edition, Melbourne, 1989, pp.141,245-6.
4 Ibid. p.146.
5 Ross Martin, Trade Unions in Australia, Ringwood, Vic, 1980.
6 Claire Williams, Blue, White and Pink Collar Workers in Australia, North Sydney 1988. For histories of teacher unions, see Andrew Spaull and Martin Sullivan, A History of the Queensland Teachers’ Union, North Sydney, 1989; John O’Brien, A Divided Unity: Politics of NSW Teacher Militancy Since 1945, North Sydney, 1987; Jan Bassett, Matters of Conscience: A History of the Victorian Secondary Teachers’ Association, Melbourne, 1995; Adrian Vicary, In the Interests of Education: A History of Education Unionism in South Australia , North Sydney, 1997. For women in the teacher unions in the postwar period see: Alison Turtle et al, ‘Women’s Participation in the New South Wales Teachers’ Federation’, Journal of Industrial Relations, vol.26, no.4, 1984; Roberta Bonnin ed. Dazzling Prospects: Women in the Queensland Teachers’ Union Since 1945 , Brisbane 1988. For studies of public service unions in the postwar period see: Marian Simms, Militant Public Servants: Polticisation, Feminisation, and Selected Public Service Unions, South Melbourne 1987.
7 Cynthia Cockburn, In the Way of Women: Men’s Resistance to Sex Equality in Organisations, London, 1991.
8 Gillian Creese, Contracting Masculinity: Gender, Class, and Race in a White-Collar Union, 1944-1994, Ontario, 1999.
9 Zoe Clarke and Joan Stephenson, Girl Fridays in Revolt. Sydney, 1968.
10 Zelda D’Aprano, Zelda. North Melbourne, 1995.
11 Edna Ryan, Autobiographical Fragment, Edna Ryan Papers, NLA MS 9410, Box 1.
12 Ryan Family Recollections. In possession of the author.
13 Edna Ryan, Autobiographical Fragment, op.cit.
14 Ibid.
15 The Counsellor. Official Organ of the Federated Municipal and Shire Employees’ Union of Australia. Vol. 9, No.4 1962, pp.1-2. Mitchell Library, Sydney.
16 Edna Ryan, Autobiographical Fragment, op.cit.
17 Edna Ryan and Anne Conlon, Gentle Invaders, op.cit.p.146.
18 The Counsellor, vol.7, No. 4 1960, p.9.
19 Ibid. vol. 9, no.1, 1962, p.25.
20 Edna Ryan, Autobiographical Fragment, op.cit.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
24 Ibid. See also The Counsellor, vol.9, no.4, 1962, p.8.
25 Edna Ryan, Autobiographical Fragment, op.cit.
26 Ibid.
27 Ibid.
28 Ibid.
29 Ibid.
30 Ibid.
31 Ibid.
32 A search of the Sydney Morning Herald, December 1964 and of The Counsellor in 1964 and 1965, yielded no information about this case.
33 Edna Ryan, Autobiographical Fragment, op.cit.
34 Ibid.
35 Ibid.
36 Ibid.
37 Ibid.
38 Ibid.
39 Ibid.
40 Ibid.
41 Ibid.
42 Margo Oliver, Edna Ryan A Political Life. Video. AFI. Melbourne, 1992.
43 Edna Ryan, Autobiographical Fragment, op.cit. p.20.
44 Edna Ryan diary, Book 5. In possession of the author.
45 Ryan and Conlon, Gentle Invaders, op.cit., p.166.
46 Ibid.
47 Edna Ryan, ‘Backdrop 1972’. Edna Ryan Papers, NLA MS 9140, Box 1.
48 Margo Oliver, Edna Ryan A Political Life, op.cit.