I am woman

Anne-Marie Conde
Tuesday, 25 January 2022

Groundbreaker, trailblazer, pioneer

All these terms have been used to describe the career of Australian feminist and politician, Susan Ryan. She was indeed a person of many ‘firsts’.

Susan Ryan was born in Camperdown, New South Wales, in 1942 and trained as a high school teacher. She moved to Canberra for her husband’s career but after the marriage ended, Ryan stayed in Canberra. She gained a Master’s degree in English literature and was appointed national executive officer of the Australian Council of State School Organisations. Education would be a key interest during Ryan’s career in politics.

In 1969 Ryan was a founding member of the Belconnen branch of the Australian Labor Party, and in 1972, a founding member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby in Canberra. Her friend, writer Sara Dowse, remembers meeting Ryan in the early 1970s when they were both single mothers being swept along by feminism. But where Dowse’s feminism was radical, Ryan’s vision was pragmatic and reformist.

Ryan successfully entered politics in the federal election of 1975 under the slogan ‘a woman’s place is in the Senate’.

She was one of the first two Senators for the Australian Capital Territory, and the first Labor Senator for the ACT. On the night of her election a jubilant group of her friends including Sara Dowse gathered to sing the feminist anthem, Helen Reddy’s

I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore.

She served in the shadow ministry until Labor won government in 1983 under Bob Hawke. Hawke made Ryan Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women. She was the first woman to hold a portfolio related to women’s affairs, and the first female cabinet member in a federal Labor government.

Gender equality

Ryan’s focus then and throughout her career was gender equality in public life. Despite equal pay legislation having been passed in 1973, Australia’s workforce remained highly segregated by gender. Workplace culture and education reform did not adequately support women entering, and remaining, in the labour force.

A Sex Discrimination Bill was introduced to parliament by Susan Ryan in June 1983. The Bill sought to outlaw sexual harassment in the workplace and prevent discrimination due to gender or pregnancy. The Bill was debated ferociously in the parliament and in the media, leading to compromises including exemptions for the Australian Defence Force.

The Bill was finally passed in May 1984. It was complaint-based, meaning that the onus was on individuals who had suffered discrimination to complain. However, in the twenty years after the Act came into effect, the Sex Discrimination Commissioner handled 13,000 complaints. This illustrates the how influential it was in changing the culture of Australian workplaces.

Ryan later stated that the Sex Discrimination Act was ‘probably the most useful thing I've done in my life’, but she also presided over the Affirmative Action (Equal Opportunities in Employment) Act of 1986.

Life after politics

After retiring from politics in 1988 Ryan had a successful corporate career while still maintaining involvement with various progressive causes, including the republican movement. She was awarded the Order of Australia in 1990.

In 2011 she became Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner, and in 2014 added the responsibilities of Disability Discrimination Commissioner when the two roles were merged.

Susan Ryan died suddenly in 2020. In tributes to her she was remembered in particular for a remark she had made in the media in 2017:

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