07 October 2020

Much has been written and said about the great Susan Ryan since she passed away. Universally she's been described as a genuine trailblazer and a champion for women. She was highly astute and wily when she needed to be, and she proved time and time again she had the bravery and fortitude to take on a system in her quest for fairness and equality. It's clear also that she wasn't the sort of person who was easily shocked. But back in 1962, when the then 20-year-old Susan married a junior diplomat called Richard Butler, she was astounded to discover that this might bring about the end of her then fledgling career.

Susan was the first person in her family to win a scholarship to the University of Sydney, where she studied education. But, after getting married, she lost her scholarship and had to pay back all of the payments she'd received from the Department of Education. She recalled at an interview in 2012: 'It didn't happen to the blokes. When I tell that story today, young women think that I am making it up, and well they might.' Sadly, that was the way things were in Australia in the 1960s. Until 1967, when a woman got married she had to resign from her job in the Commonwealth Public Service.

When Ryan entered politics and became a minister in the Hawke government in 1983, it was still entirely lawful for a woman to be sacked for being married or being pregnant. Susan and Richard divorced in the early seventies, and he went on to become a United Nations weapon inspector. Susan, meanwhile, became highly engaged in politics, emerging as a feminist leader and a founder of the Women's Electoral Lobby in Canberra.

At the age of just 33, she was elected to the Senate at the same election at which the Labor Party suffered a landslide defeat after the dismissal of the Whitlam government. The year was 1975, and she was just one of six women in federal parliament—only six! Interest was high in the young feminist's election to the male-dominated parliament. Media stories at the time included comments on her gender, age, hair, clothing, marital status and the fact she was a single mum to two children, the type of reflection today's members and senators sadly still see repeated—perhaps not so often, though.

When she sought Labor pre-selection, she was referred to in one report as 'the attractive 32-year-old mother-of-two, a divorcee'. In another she was 'tall, slight, with green eyes and chestnut brown hair and an Irish face'. In her maiden speech, which we now call the first speech, she noted that as a female parliamentarian she was a member of a particularly small minority group. And I note happily this week that the Senate achieved a record 42 per cent female representation with the swearing in of Senator Lidia Thorpe. Susan Ryan would be proud of this development.

As soon as she was in parliament, Susan showed she was there to make a difference, launching headlong into work on serious policy reform and gaining the respect of the Labor caucus. During this period she also set up a Labor national Women's Policy Committee and travelled around Australia to improve women's understanding of the party.

When Bill Hayden became Labor leader in 1977, Susan Ryan was handed the shadow portfolios of communications, the arts and the media, making her the first woman on Labor's federal frontbench. In 1983, when Bob Hawke regained power for Labor, she was made education minister and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. She was Labor's first female cabinet member, an historic title she will carry forever.

Susan's exceptional achievement of course came in 1984 with the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act—among the most comprehensive pieces of legislation of its kind in the world. That act made it illegal to discriminate against women in employment based on their marital status or pregnancy. More than 20 years after she lost her scholarship at the University of Sydney simply for getting married, Susan Ryan righted many wrongs. She ended the systematic, embedded and overt discrimination that held women and girls back so that the power of the patriarchy, the power of men, could continue without challenge. Susan Ryan challenged the power that held the sisterhood down and she won. The Sex Discrimination Act also outlawed sexual harassment in the workplace. Until then, women who dared to complain had no recourse. Mostly, they were told they would just have to put up with it. Standing here almost four decades later, it is bewildering to recall that those reforms were opposed by many in our society, particularly community conservative groups and some politicians.

Susan was labelled Australia's 'feminist dictator' and was the target of a 'Stop the Ryan juggernaut' rally, organised by Fred and Elaine Nile. If only she could have been a feminist dictator, equality for women may actually have happened by now. Reform can be difficult and Susan never wavered, and we feminists today, those who believe in the equality of women, must never waver. We must always continue her fight and the fight of so many others to ensure true equality for women.

Susan Ryan's other great passion was education. Under her watch, year 12 retention rates doubled and participation in TAFEs and universities improved markedly. One of my predecessors in the seat of Brand, Wendy Fatin, was the first woman from WA to be a member of the House of Representatives. Wendy served alongside Susan Ryan in the Hawke and Keating ministries and, like Susan, she was passionate about women's issues. In fact, she was appointed in 1990 as Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, the role Susan held for five years, until 1988.

After leaving politics, Susan did not give up on social change, serving as Australia's first Age Discrimination Commissioner and later as Disability Discrimination Commissioner. Just weeks before her death, she was speaking out in the media against the horrendous conditions in the nation's aged-care homes. Susan Ryan was a true pioneer for women in this country. She was a progressive who was full of energy and ideas and, above all, she was effective. She was a proud feminist. I am a proud feminist. Labor women, myself included, owe Susan an enormous debt of gratitude. She blazed the trail that we're all following. Thank you, Susan. You will be remembered as a truly great Australian.