Susan Ryan, a formidable trailblazer for women in politics and Australia’s first Minister for Women has died aged 77.
Ryan, a senior minister in the Hawke government held several portfolios including minister for education, minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Minister assisting the Prime Minister for the status of women. She was also the first female minister from the Labor Party.
During her prolific career, Ryan oversaw a raft of legislation that helped to transform the lives and livelihoods of Australian women, including The Sex Discrimination Act– a policy she described as “probably the most useful thing I’ve done in my life”.
First elected to the Senate in 1975, Ryan was one of the first representatives for the ACT after it was granted representation of two senators. She was regularly subjected to media scrutiny and gendered analysis, with regular press references and political discourse mentioning her appearance and personal life.
As a self-proclaimed feminist, Ryan was a polarising figure in an overwhelmingly male-dominated parliament. Her fierce promotion of women’s issues, including the right to abortion were condemned by conservative sectors. She later said that for much of her parliamentary career, she felt like ‘a shag on a rock’.
In her first speech to the Senate, Ryan identified and condemned “the anxiety felt by many women in our society about possible reductions in Government support”, adding that as a female parliamentarian she existed within “a particularly small minority group. In this respect, our national Parliament is a microcosm of our society. Women are as badly under-represented here as they are anywhere else in our society where power resides or where decisions are made”.
Ryan went on to say that “through a variety of formal barriers, traditional prejudice, and sheer neglect by policy makers … in education, training, employment and income, most women have been seriously disadvantaged”, urging a-then Liberal government to “implement anti-discrimination legislation,” that she would inevitably achieve herself.
A visionary, Ryan also noted that “improvements in education, training, legal aid services, welfare services and child-care, benefit the whole of society and not just women”– a truth not yet properly recognised by policy in today’s Australia.
Ryan’s legacy was diverse and enduring. She remained in parliament for 12 years before retiring in 1987, but in 2011, was appointed as Age Discrimination Officer and later served as Disability Discrimination Commissioner.
Tributes today have rolled in from politicians, journalists and commentators past and present: