Mary Ryan

Mary Margaret Ryan (1886-1968), Labor activist, was born at St Johns Wood, Timaru, New Zealand, on the 15 September 1886, third of eight children of Deborah and Jeremiah Kelly, farmers. Mary's childhood was stamped by the struggles of her family during the 1890s depression. Educated to primary level at a one-teacher school, she excelled at her work but was unable to continue. At thirteen she was managing the household while her mother recovered from the post natal death of twins. Mary exclaimed against 'a houseful of children in a much too small home, never enough money and nothing but work, work, all day long.' Her first paid employment was as domestic servant and nursemaid. She trained as a nurse in Wellington and worked briefly there before travelling to Sydney as a nurse-companion. She went as sister-in-charge to the small hospital in Portland, New South Wales, where social life was dominated by the industrial attitudes of the largest employer, the cement works. On 15 August 1921 Mary married Michael Thomas Ryan, a billiard marker. He was a former cement worker who had lost a leg in an accident at the works, for which he had received no compensation. They were both children of Irish Catholic farmers forced to seek work off the land. A son and a daughter were born in 1922 and 1923 respectively and another son some years later. Mary resigned from the hospital on marriage but returned intermittently as relief sister. Through the library of the local School of Arts and a subscription to the Red Book Club Mary read the works of the interwar socialists. Her political commitment was sharpened by the experience of the 1930s depression: the long lines of anxious men seeking work, the indignities of the dole and the resultant poverty. She was outspoken in condemnation of industrial capitalism. As a justice of the peace, she acted for most of the 1930s as an unofficial social worker within a community torn apart economically. She lived a spirited political life as secretary then president of her local Labor Party branch, attending regional and state conferences, persistently seeking political support for the needs of women and children in education, housing, employment and community facilities. She was also active in the Country Women's Association. One of her first successful campaigns was for a Baby Health Centre in Portland.

Her marvellous sense of humour, warm and generous personality and developed political intellect made her a popular and respected figure in her area; J. B. Chifley was among the regular visitors to her home. As Minister for Postwar Reconstruction in 1943, Chifley appointed Mary Ryan to the Commonwealth Housing Commission. She was suddenly propelled into two years of intensive travelling, interviewing, correspondence and negotiating. Her main interest on the Commission was to improve working conditions for housewives, to remove drudgery through application of scientific design, and electricity: 'One way of making mothers more reconciled to their post' was to offer them a home equipped with modern facilities. She also enthusiastically supported kindergartens and community centres.

On the Commission she came in contact with many women's organisations and was particularly interested in the United Associations of Women and the Australian Women's Charter. In 1943 with Jessie Street (q.v.) she tried to increase the voice of women in ALP policy making; in 1944 she stood unsuccessfully in local government elections. Mary returned to Portland in 1944 and to her role as a housewife, later serving in a small corner store.

Although often very critical of conservative Catholicism, and ready to set her Labor principles against priestly orthodoxy, she remained a practising Catholic and saw her second son enter the priesthood. In later years she travelled to Europe and Ireland and on her return established a home in Sydney. After a long illness she died on 19 May 1968.

Carolyn Allport

All her Labours: Two, Embroidering the Framework 1984 ch 8.