It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of the life of Susan Ryan. She was a woman of her time determined to make the world a different and better place. She had a fierce intelligence and the courage to take on changing the system when she saw the need for change to improve the lives of Australians.
Her sudden death on 27 September came as an unbearable shock to those close to her as I was. We had been friends for nearly 50 years, brought together by the feminist politics of the early 70s. We were cofounders of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) – she in Canberra and me in Sydney.
She was a significant player in WEL politics but what was so inspiring was that she pushed the ideals into realpolitik by putting theory into practice when she successfully ran for an Australian Capital Territory Senate seat for the ALP in 1975. Her campaign slogan was “A Women’s Place is in the Senate”, an abbreviation of the WEL slogan “A Women’s Place is in the House and in the Senate”. It was clever.
She had a remarkable group of WEL and other supporters who shared her triumph when she was elected in 1975 – International Women’s Year. Those supporters have remained loyal and constant over the years to the values they were endorsing.
Equally the feminist friendships that were forged in the 70s remained strong and idealistic. We all felt, in the words of Nina Simone, there’s a new world coming, and our new friendships were helping that happen. We felt we were creating our histories.
And we were.
We never doubted her integrity and capacity to represent us even if we did not belong to the ALP. We felt she was there for all of us and groups like Women into Politics grew their ambitions and encouraged others to follow her pathway. She was unfailingly kind and helpful and encouraging to would be candidates.
She wrote in her 1999 memoir, Catching the Waves, that she was driven by the view that women should be able to pursue opportunities unencumbered by stifling stereotypes. There should be no unfair obstacles put in the way of their achieving independence. Women and men should be judged on their merits, not on how far they reinforce some socially useful or commercially contrived norm.
Not everyone agreed and it was a joy to watch her growing strength when she entered the Senate disappointed by the dismissal of the Whitlam government and often feeling very alone.
Her leadership of the sex discrimination bill was outstanding and, as the longest debate in parliament, we had time to observe her intellect, her debating skills and her tenacity despite the opposition of some residual misogynists in her own party. She just kept going – a mantra she encouraged in a recent interview about ageing and wisdom.
How perfect it was when she was appointed age discrimination commissioner in 2011. She worked so hard and when her term finished, she transferred that experience to older women.
No matter what – she lived her mantra.
Just keep going.
The sex discrimination bill is surely her finest achievement and most significant legacy. The bill outlawed discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status and pregnancy. Sexual harassment legislation was a world first.
She often reflected “it was probably one of the most useful things I have done in my life”. Many have tried to reinterpret or remove it but it remains the instrument of the law available to all of us. Its application has changed the lives of many Australians and forced organisations to change discriminatory employment practices and ignore sexual harassment at their peril.
She turned her energy and intellect to the republican cause, feminism and social justice, human rights, education, homelessness especially for older women, and superannuation.
She was the first female Labor minister and the first female minister for women.
She was a loyal and wonderful friend, always the first to send a note of praise after a public event, even if you didn’t do it well.
She was loved by her children, Justine and Ben, her partner Rory and her large extended family. She loved everything Irish.
She was the feminist we all aspired to be.