Farewell to a Labor pioneer

8 December 2020 | Posted In: #137 Summer 2020,

Whether fighting for gender equality, employment rights or affirmative action, Susan Ryan was responsible for some of Labor’s greatest reforms. Rebecca Benson reports. 

From the youngest possible age, Susan Ryan felt that it was “unfair, intolerable, really, that females were regarded as second-class citizens”. It was, she told The Guardian in 2017, “the big thing that I wanted to change”. With the enactment of the Sex Discrimination Act in 1984, Ryan succeeded in making that change. Ryan’s trailblazing role as an advocate and activist for gender equality was attested by the tributes she received when news broke of her death, aged 77, at the end of September. Describing Ryan as a “feminist hero and Labor giant”, former Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, tweeted: “I honour a woman of courage and a true believer.” Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek, meanwhile, viewed Ryan as “a hugely impressive role model” who “continued her fight for equality long after leaving Parliament”.

With the campaign slogan “A woman’s place is in the Senate”, Ryan entered Parliament as the ACT’s first female senator in 1975. The arrival of the 33-year-old single mother in the upper house puzzled some parliamentarians. “The older senators couldn’t really accept that I was there,” Ryan would recall. “[They] kept asking me who I was working for.” In her opening speech, Ryan noted that she was a member of “a particularly small minority group. Women are as badly under-represented here as they are anywhere else in our society where power resides or where decisions are made.”

Although born in Camperdown in 1942, Ryan grew up in Maroubra where she attended the Brigidine Convent School. Ryan would later be granted a scholarship to study education at the University of Sydney where she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in 1963. A decade on, Ryan would graduate from the Australian National University with a Master of Arts degree in English Literature. After graduating, she served as a delegate to the ACT Labor Party. The appointment would launch Ryan’s political career.

Ryan served in the Senate for 12 years — eight of those on the opposition bench. When Bill Hayden became Labor leader in 1977, he handed Ryan the shadow portfolios of communications, the arts, and the media. In the process, Ryan became the first woman to sit in a Labor shadow ministry. Two years later, Hayden also gave Ryan responsibility for women’s affairs — a post she was to hold until her resignation in 1988.

After years in the political wilderness, Labor finally gained power in 1983. When the newly appointed Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, gave Ryan the education and youth affairs portfolio, she became the first female cabinet minister in Labor history. As a self-proclaimed feminist who actively championed women’s rights and social democratic principles, Ryan was never afraid to alienate conservative factions of the Labor Party. “My parliamentary career contained many periods when I was in the eye of a storm,” Ryan said in 1992.

The biggest storm of all was the Sex Discrimination Bill. Developed by Ryan, the landmark legislation outlawed discrimination against persons on the ground of sex, marital status, and pregnancy. The bill’s passage wasn’t smooth, and it received much resistance from the parliamentary patriarchy — a reaction that came as no surprise to Ryan. “The male backlash had started before we had even got anywhere for them to lash against.” Progressives also had gripes. In order to push the bill through, concessions were made, and exemptions sought. Ryan, however, remained politically pragmatic. “It would not have been possible to pass it without those exemptions,” she later said.

In a speech honouring Ryan, Senator Penny Wong told members of the upper house: “It’s hard to remember that at this time it was not unlawful to discriminate in this country on the basis of sex in employment, education, accommodation and the provision of goods and services. All of these injustices and inequalities were in the sights of Susan Ryan. Every woman and every girl has benefited from Susan Ryan’s leadership.”

Ryan’s time in Parliament was turbulent to the end and, during Hawke’s third term, Ryan was stripped of the education portfolio. “By maintaining the policy of no tuition fees for university, in the eyes of my colleagues, I had gone too far,” said Ryan. “I paid the price and lost the job.” By the end — as the Hawke Government began further embracing free market reforms — Ryan said she felt like “a shag on a rock”.

Outside of Parliament, Ryan continued to blaze a trail: in 2011, she was appointed Australia’s inaugural Age Discrimination Commissioner and, in 2014, Disability Discrimination Commissioner. But, as Wong remarked, “We remember Susan not just for the things she did first. We remember here for the legacy she leaves. She changed Australia for the better.

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