On the afternoon of Thursday, 8 October, South Australian Senator Penny Wong gave a moving condolence motion in the NSW Parliament for Susan Ryan, the former ALP senator and minister who passed away in the final week of September.
Senator Wong paid tribute to the 77-year old’s illustrious career in a speech that commemorated her boldness, individuality and collegial warmth.
“It is often said ‘you cannot be what you cannot see’,” Wong began, “The truest of leaders have the vision of what is possible, the courage to take on the fight against those vested in the status quo, the intellectual power to craft the strategy and the charisma and humanity to bring people with them. For us, for Labor women, that was Susan Ryan.”
“She could see what Australia needed, and she made it happen,” Wong continued. “She wasn’t a timeserver; she was a reformer. She brought others with her. She showed us the way.”
Ryan’s formative years
Ryan was born in 1942, the daughter of a saleswoman and a public servant. She attended the University of Sydney, undertaking an Arts degree before moving to Canberra to study English literature at ANU. Wong acknowledged the sacrifices Ryan made to her studies when she accompanied her then husband on two of his overseas postings.
“As she described it,” Wong remarked. “… marriage at that time meant going wherever your husband went.”
Upon her return, Ryan would tutor literature at the ANU, now affected by “the ideas of Germaine Greer, Betty Friedan, Kate Millett and Gloria Steinem,” Wong said, of the overseas posting she and her husband took. “She found herself questioning the place of women in society relative to the place of men,” Wong said. “She made the most of these experiences to gain knowledge and exposure to new and different thinking.”
“She questioned why everything in personal and public life was arranged for the convenience of men, and why people pretended that even dull men were clever. At the same time, gifted, passionate women were passed over, neglected and restricted.”
Soon after, Ryan began engaging with her local Labor branch in Canberra, subsequently helping to create the Women’s Electoral Lobby where she remained a foundation member for decades.
“Those of us caught in the whirlwind saw that society was structured and manufactured by its rulers to achieve these endless disparities between the sexes,” Wong quoted Ryan. “Our subordination was not destiny; it was a construct of men in which we had acquiesced for far too long. Susan Ryan would acquiesce no more.”
Wong also touched on the ‘depressing’ truth of how similar the battles Ryan and her comrades like Wendy McCarthy and Eva Cox were fighting to our own fights today.
“Their objectives were familiar, perhaps depressingly so,” Wong remarked. “Confronting sexism, ending discrimination in education and employment, taking control of reproductive health, improving access to child care and achieving equal pay for equal work.”
Ryan “rejoiced in the victory of the Whitlam government”, as Wong detailed her “political activism” which led to a role running the national secretariat for the Australian Council of State School Organisations – “a role that would connect her with another early leader of our movement, Joan Kirner, for the first time, and they would go on to have an effective partnership and lasting friendship.”
“Susan saw Labor as the key to a more humane, vibrant and equal society, believing that a feminist lobby was necessary but not sufficient. Instead of being on the outside lobbying, she wanted to be inside making the laws.”
When Ryan was elected by the ACT as its first senator in 1975, she was only one of six women in the parliament. That year saw her taking the women’s movement into parliament. At the time, she was a single mother in her early thirties, running on the slogan “a woman’s place is in the Senate”.
“Susan had started the fire and she would not stop until all of us were guided by its light,” Wong claimed. Throughout the years, Ryan engaged in issues from “Aboriginal affairs, social welfare, health and education to broadcasting, employment, defence and national security.”
“Affirmative action is part of why I’m in this place today,” Wong declared. “I was proud to take Susan’s legacy on affirmative action forward, where we changed the rules to ensure more talented women got into the parliament.”
Wong remarked on Ryan’s own belief that the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women Act) was “not just one of the biggest single steps forward in Australia’s history for equality of women in the workplace but as a model of consensus decision-making.”
“Labor now has more women than men in the Senate,” Wong said. “Affirmative action recognises that structural change is required to achieve equality. It recognises that power doesn’t just fall into the hands of those who haven’t had it for much of the course of human history.”
Sex Discrimination Act
In 1983, Ryan became the first female cabinet minister in Labor history and was appointed Minister for Education and Youth Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women.
“She set about implementing the feminist agenda she had envisioned,” Wong said. “At the top of this was to bring her private senator’s bill on sex discrimination into law. That the Sex Discrimination Act passed the parliament in the first year of the Hawke government speaks volumes about Susan Ryan’s advocacy and the impact of her capacity to transform ideas into action.”
“The Sex Discrimination Act encountered significant opposition both inside and outside the parliament because of the magnitude of its reform. It’s hard to remember that at this time it was not unlawful to discriminate in this country on the basis of sex in employment, education, accommodation and the provision of goods and services. A woman’s credit rating and earning capacity weren’t enough to get a loan from a bank. She could only secure credit if her husband or her father took responsibility. Landlords refused to rent homes to single mothers. Community clubs throughout the country were able to bar women. Women were sacked because of their age, marital status or pregnancy.”
“All of these injustices and inequalities were in the sights of Susan Ryan. She called the Sex Discrimination Act ‘probably the most useful thing I’ve done in my life’. I think that was a serious understatement. It is hard to imagine life in this country without it or, indeed, an argument against it. Every woman and every girl has benefited from Susan Ryan’s leadership.”
“Thirty six years after the passage of the groundbreaking Sex Discrimination Act, we continue to see gross underrepresentation of women across our society,” Wong continued. “I return to the structural nature of inequality and discrimination. Many who have power in society like to believe it is because they earned it, that it is because they are the most talented and the most worthy. But do you know what? More often than not, they started out with power; and that means others started without it.”
“Unless we take action, unless we make deliberate policy decisions, those structures will stay in place, recreating themselves generation after generation. Not only is that unjust to those who started without power and remain disadvantaged from birth to death it is a great loss to us all. It is a great loss to society because people have talents and abilities that never see the light of day.”
Wong also took the opportunity to address the latest Budget and its neglect of women, commenting that “a cabinet with Susan Ryan at the table would never have made those decisions. She would never have acquiesced, and she taught those Labor women who have followed her not to acquiesce either.”
“This budget, which should have been a blueprint for our economic future beyond the pandemic, does nothing to increase women’s participation, nothing to tackle insecure work or improve access to child care, nothing to address the gender pay gap or shrinking super balances and has no plan to help women and their children escaping family violence.”
“She was the first, but her legacy in this nation will last not just in the laws she wrote but among the Labor women who follow her, because we will continue the project of building a truly equal Australia.”