HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, 7 OCTOBER 2020
Susan Ryan was the first in her family and the first in her school to win a scholarship to go to the University of Sydney. She studied education and, like many women of that generation, expected to go on to a career in teaching. After graduating, she married public servant, and later diplomat, Richard Butler. She recalled, 'Because of this, I lost my scholarship and had to pay back the scholarship money,' and she noted that this wouldn't have happened had she been a man.
In 1965, they moved to Canberra. For the next six years, she was active in the ACT, becoming a founding member of the wonderful Belconnen sub-branch of the Labor Party. She spent two periods living overseas when Butler was posted first to Vienna and then to New York. There, she was influenced, as Christine Wallace has noted, by the work of Kate Millett and Betty Friedan—and, of course, Germaine Greer was then part of the mix, along with Gloria Steinem.
Susan returned to Canberra in 1971 with her two children but without Butler, who she divorced the following year.
She became involved with the Women's Electoral Lobby and continued her activism with the Labor Party while completing her master's degree at the Australian National University and being employed as the head of the Australian Council of State School Organisations. She was elected to the non-governing ACT House of Assembly in 1975 and ran unsuccessfully in 1974 for preselection for the electorate of Fraser, which I had the honour to represent as the last member for the then ACT electorate of Fraser prior to the creation of the Victorian electorate of the same name. She was defeated by Ken Fry but won preselection as the Labor candidate for the Senate in 1975. She ran under the fabulous slogan 'A woman's place is in the Senate', but her timing was unfortunate in that her election coincided with the dismissal of the Whitlam government. She told journalists that she:
… would never have cracked pre-selection in the heavily factionalised NSW branch of the ALP, and owed much to the ACT branch's more open and flexible attitude towards a 33 year old single mother.
Her trailblazing was recognised in the ACT following her death by a wonderful cadre of feminists who acknowledged her prominence and her role as a standard-bearer for a broad movement of resolute and sophisticated change-makers. She was remarkable because she expressed the wisdom and conviction of her peers, many of whom still inspire the current ACT Labor team and whose values are embodied in our progressive and egalitarian ACT Labor branch.
Her work was in so many fields. In the Sex Discrimination Act, she reshaped a nation for the better. As Susan Ryan recalled, prior to that act:
… it was not unlawful to sack women who married or became pregnant, or just because they were women… Maternity leave was scarcely available. Women could not get home loans. Girls' education was restricted and fewer girls got into higher education…. much of the community thought all of this was okay.
She endured ferocious political attacks but managed to continue without losing that sense of optimism and idealism. She didn't become hardened or embittered by the attacks. She simply carried on in her wonderful Susan Ryan way. As Chief Minister Andrew Barr has noted:
… she will be fondly remembered by those who knew her, and those that are continuing the fight for Labor values today.
As my colleague Senator Katy Gallagher has noted, she was ‘an incredible support for so many of us who have followed in her footsteps’. Destroy the Joint supporter Sarah Jeffery said:
I saw her speak in parliament in 1983 on a school excursion to Canberra. She was impressive. I remember being shocked by the abuse and ridicule she received from the rows of men in opposition. She just kept talking. I was 15 and she made a huge impact on me. I have always been grateful for her legacy.
Leone Joice said:
… in 1984 my sister, as a young Engineering Survey Draftsperson, kept a copy of the Anti Discrimination Act displayed prominently on her desk, so coworkers didn't say she was taking a job away from a man.
When Susan Ryan received an honorary doctorate from the Australian National University for her work to advance human rights, the MeToo movement was emerging and she saw an opportunity to push against obstacles that should never have existed but still did. As she told the Canberra Times:
… I feel more than disappointed, deeply distressed that women are still battling things that they shouldn't have to battle.
Women need to act collectively and support each other on these big issues.
She campaigned on age discrimination and on disability discrimination and she pushed the frontiers in so many important ways. One of the great reforms for which she has largely gone unheralded was the campaign from the Women's Electoral Lobby in the ACT submitting to the Tariff Board in the 1970s that the tariff on contraceptives be reduced. As a free-trading feminist myself, I can think of no better reform to be championing.
Susan Ryan laid the groundwork for so much in the modern, progressive Australia we have today, and she is remembered fondly here in the ACT for all that she achieved.
Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.