Yesterday, Australian feminism lost one of its old guard. One of the legends in the battle for greater equality, fairness and justice for women, children, the aged and the underprivileged in this country. A public servant in the true sense of the word.
The Hon. Susan Ryan AO died yesterday, falling ill just two days earlier following a swim. She was 77.
A woman with brains, wit, style, spirt and substance, Ryan was a progressive whose period in Federal Parliament resulted in some of the greatest gains we have seen in the battles against inequality and discrimination in this country. During her five years as Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women between 1983 and 1988, Parliament passed the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986, the Public Service Reform Act 1984 and the Equal Employment Opportunity (Commonwealth Authorities) Act 1987.
Foundational pieces of legislation that put a firm footing under those who work to achieve social, physical and economic security for women of all ages and races in Australia. The Sex Discrimination Bill drew heavily on a Private Member’s Bill introduced by Ryan in 1981 while sitting on the opposition benches. In 1984 it was still controversial and its passage through Parliament was rocky. Ryan fought the good fight – the right fight – and won. Her achievement cannot be understated.
As former Sex Discrimination Commissioner, Elizabeth Broderick AO, tweeted; “Without Susan we would not have the Sex Discrimination Act, our key piece of gender equality law. She fought for human rights for everyone, every day. We will miss her enormously.”
Chris Wallace, who met Ryan in 1983, put it this way in The Conversation; “Ryan was from a generation of politicians who knew how to fight, have fun and get really important things done….. She is a signal example to those who despair of getting things done in democratic politics. Ryan showed, even on the most controversial issues, it can and should be done.”
Australia’s first female Prime Minister, The Hon. Julia Gillard AC, tweeted; “I am shocked and saddened that we have lost feminist hero and Labor giant, Susan Ryan. Every Australian’s life has been improved by her leadership on gender equality. She blazed the trail for Labor women, including me. I honour a woman of courage and true believer.”
Born to middle class parents in Sydney in 1942, Ryan was educated in the Catholic Convent system, became a schoolteacher and married Richard Butler in 1963 – a diplomat who later went on to become the Governor of Tasmania. He and Ryan had two children and divorced in 1972, by which time Ryan was well on the way to her life’s work in the ALP, developing, debating and delivering high quality social justice and educational public policy.
She was elected to the Federal Parliament in 1975 as one of the first two Senators for the newly independent ACT, served in the first Hawke cabinet as Minister for Education and Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women and then as Special Minister for State.
She resigned from the Senate in 1988 and her post-parliamentary life saw her focus on superannuation policy and rights for the aged, especially for older women. She was appointed as Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner on 30 July 2011 for a five-year term, having led two major community groups campaigning for an Australian Human Rights Act.
She held a number of leadership positions in the superannuation industry, governance roles at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, was Women’s Ambassador for ActionAid Australia A foundation member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby.
On behalf of everyone at Women on Boards and their mothers, their grandmothers, their daughters, their grand-daughters…: ‘Thank you Susan Ryan. God Speed.’
Claire Braund, Executive Director Women on Boards