Hear me roar:

Vale Susan Ryan AO

IEUA NSW/ACT Assistant Secretary Pam Smith pays tribute to Senator Susan Ryan AO – a woman who changed things for women.

There have been many recent tributes to Susan Ryan AO, who passed away on 27 September, and there will be many more about the architect of equal rights for women legislation in Australia and who continued to advocate for a more socially just and inclusive society after her game-changing career in politics.

Born in 1942, Susan grew up in the Sydney suburb of Maroubra and was educated at Brigidine College, Randwick. She undertook a degree in English at the University of Sydney, hoping to complete an honours year part time while teaching.

Ryan taught for a year at St Patrick’s School for Girls at Church Hill but discrimination against married women at the time (she married at the age of 21) precluded her from completing either honours or a Diploma of Education (see breakout box page 2).

Elected to the Australian Senate from the ACT in 1975, Ryan became Minister for Education and Youth Affairs in the Hawke Government in 1983. She was also Minister for Aboriginal Affairs and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women.

During her parliamentary career, Ryan steered a range of legislation that helped transform the lives of Australian women. A centrepiece was the Sex Discrimination Act 1984, which Ryan described as “probably the most useful thing I have done in my life”.

Ryan also oversaw the Affirmative Action Act, the predecessor of the current Workplace Gender Equality Act which requires employers, such as dioceses, other systems and independent schools with more than 100 staff, to report annually to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency. Ryan’s legacy endures in this annual reporting system which ensures transparency around a range of key gender indicators, including access to flexible work arrangements.

Susan Ryan described the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 as “probably the most useful thing I have done in my life”.

After leaving the Senate in 1987, Ryan contributed to public life as President of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees and as Pro Vice Chancellor of the University of NSW. In 2011, she became the inaugural Age Discrimination Commissioner and later added the role of Disability Discrimination Commissioner to her bow.

Ryan was also deputy chair of the Australian Republican Movement from 2000 to 2003. She was a strong advocate for an Australian bill of rights.

Ryan’s inclusive vision of Australian society washer ongoing impetus. She believed “improvements in education, training, legal aid services, welfare services and childcare benefit the whole of society and not just women”.

In paying tribute to Susan Ryan, former prime minister Julia Gillard said, “Every Australian’s life has been improved by her focus on gender equality. She blazed the trail for women, including me. I honour a woman of courage and a true believer.”

Sadly, United States Supreme Court judge and icon for progressive values Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away shortly before Ryan on 18 September and Australian singer Helen Reddy shortly after, on 29 September. Reddy’s smash hit “I am Woman” has been an enduring feminist anthem since 1971. May the legacies of Ryan, Bader Ginsburg and Reddy live on in a vision of justice, equality and inclusion for women and men.