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Ryan, Susan Maree (1942–2020)

by Luke Henriques-Gomes

from Guardian (Sydney)

Susan Ryan, by Stuart Hay, 2009

Susan Ryan, by Stuart Hay, 2009

National Centre of Biography

Susan Ryan, the pioneering Labor senator who helped pass landmark laws to protect women from workplace discrimination, has died. She was 77.

A prominent feminist and human rights campaigner, Ryan was pivotal in the passage of the Sex Discrimination Act and Equal Employment Opportunity and the Affirmative Action Act.

She served as a senator for 12 years, was Labor’s first female cabinet minister, and later held the roles age discrimination commissioner and disability discrimination commissioner.

“I felt from the youngest possible age that it was unfair, intolerable really, that females were regarded as second-class citizens,” Ryan told the Guardian in 2017. “That was going to be the big thing that I wanted to change.”

Born in Sydney in 1942, Ryan studied Arts at the University of Sydney and later tutored literature at the ANU in Canberra, where she also helped create the Women’s Electoral Lobby.

By 1975, Ryan took the women’s movement into parliament. The 33-year-old single mother was elected as a senator for the ACT, running on the slogan “a woman’s place is in the Senate”.

But it was a bittersweet victory, she became Labor’s first female senator at an election where Whitlam’s Labor was almost wiped out.

In 1983, Ryan became minister for education and youth affairs with the election of the Hawke government. She was also handed a brand new portfolio, the status of women, and tasked with dismantling the gender inequities that permeated Australian society.

“At that time, it was not unlawful to sack women who married or became pregnant, or just because they were women,” Ryan said in a piece for the Guardian that celebrated Bob Hawke’s legacy last year.

“Maternity leave was scarcely available. Women could not get home loans. Girls’ education was restricted and fewer girls got into higher education. Much of our community thought all of this was OK.”

Designed to protect women from sexual harassment and all other kinds of discrimination in the workplace, the Sex Discrimination Act introduced by Ryan faced stiff opposition.

Mirroring the hyper-personalised attacks that female politicians face to this day, Ryan was labelled “Australia’s feminist dictator” and was the target of a “Stop the Ryan juggernaut” rally organised by Fred and Elaine Nile.

“All that sort of stuff worried my caucus colleagues,” Ryan said in another interview with the Guardian in 2016.

“They’d say, it’s all right for you running around Canberra but what about me in my electorate ... they got very sick of it, including the ministers who couldn’t get other legislation through. They called it Susan’s sex bill and more than once a colleague would say ‘Can’t we just drop it?’.”

The bill passed parliament in May 1984, about a year after it was introduced.

Ryan’s other great passion was education, which she viewed as “basis for all improvements, in individuals’ lives, in our economy, in our society”.

While on a scholarship at university in the early 1960s, Ryan was told she’d have to pay back the money she’d received when the principal of the teachers college saw her engagement ring. She had married the diplomat Richard Butler in 1963, they divorced in 1972.

In her time as education minister, retention rates improved in secondary schools, and participation increased in Tafes and universities. But Ryan also found herself at odds with her Labor cabinet colleagues who were eager to dismantle one of the Whitlam’s era greatest legacy: free university education.

By the middle of 1987 she was demoted to special minister of state. She retired from Parliament in December to become an editor at Penguin Australia.

“I greatly regret that I and the cabinet will be losing Susan Ryan’s talents,” Hawke said in a statement at the time.

He argued Ryan’s work before parliament and in opposition had “prepared the way for governments to have a special focus on women’s issues”, and said her advocacy led to the Sex Discrimination Act and Equal Employment Opportunity and the Affirmative Action legislation.

Upon leaving parliament, Ryan remained involved in human rights causes, headed the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia, served as a pro-chancellor of the University of New South Wales, and was briefly deputy chair of the Australian Republican Movement.

She was made an officer of the Order of Australia in 1990.

Ryan returned to public life in 2011 when she was headhunted to serve as the age discrimination commissioner, and then added disability discrimination to her roles at the Human Rights Commission in 2014.

Last year, she was appointed as a fellow at the Whitlam Institute leading research into gender inequality. In an interview with the ABC in November, Ryan was asked to reflect on her entry to parliament 44 years earlier.

“Some of the older senators couldn’t really accept that I was there, and kept asking me who I was working for,” she said. “There was an effort to make sure that our speeches were interrupted.

“But basically there was that sense of excitement that I got there. Now we have to make that count.”

Original publication

  • Guardian (Sydney), 27 September 2020

Other Obituaries for Susan Maree Ryan

Additional Resources

Citation details

Luke Henriques-Gomes, 'Ryan, Susan Maree (1942–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/ryan-susan-maree-31117/text38488, accessed 23 April 2021.

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