RYAN, Susan Maree (1942–2020)
Senator for Australian Capital Territory, 1975–88 (Australian Labor Party)

Susan Maree Ryan was born on 10 October 1942 at Camperdown, Sydney, the third of four children of Arthur Francis Aloysius Ryan, a clerk in the state public service, and his wife Florence Ena, née Hodson, who worked as a sales assistant. Growing up in Maroubra, Susan was educated at its Brigidine Convent, where she completed the Leaving Certificate. Although she was to move away from her Catholic faith, she remained grateful for her convent education, which she believed gave her a social conscience, a universal outlook, a republican orientation, an understanding of institutions and debating skills.

In 1960 Ryan enrolled at the University of Sydney on a Teachers’ College scholarship, graduating in 1963 with a BA. Ryan married Richard Butler, then a research assistant to the director of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission, on 8 April 1963 at the Holy Family Church, Maroubra. On graduation she became a school teacher, then, after the birth of their first child, Justine, in 1964, she ran a small business from her Cremorne home, managing the Living Parish Hymn Book Publishing Company.

In 1965 the family moved to Canberra, Richard Butler having joined the Prime Minister’s Department, and Susan embarked on a Master of Arts degree in English literature at the Australian National University (ANU). While she was a postgraduate student, she undertook casual teaching and then a research job at the university. Her studies were interrupted when Butler, who had transferred to the Department of External Affairs, was posted as second secretary to the Australian Embassy in Vienna. They arrived in July 1966, and their second child, Benedict, was born there later that year. When the family returned to Australia in May 1969, Susan resumed her studies at ANU, tutored at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (CCAE) and became a foundation member of the Belconnen branch of the Australian Labor Party. In late 1970 a second posting took the family to New York, where Susan found that ‘All the intelligent women I met’ were ‘on fire with enthusiasm’ for feminism. Growing tensions within the marriage prompted her to return to Australia with the two children in June 1971; the couple were divorced in the following year.[1]

Ryan resumed her tutoring at CCAE and again took up her much interrupted MA, which was conferred in 1973. That year she was appointed national executive officer for the secretariat of the Australian Council of State School Organisations. In 1971 she had joined a women’s liberation group, and in 1972 she became an active foundation member of the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL). Her strong involvement with feminist issues coalesced with an increasing interest in politics and a commitment to democratic socialism that had been strengthened by her observation of European politics.

Elected vice-president of the Belconnen branch of the ALP in 1972, Ryan worked for and rejoiced in the election of the Whitlam Government. When the Canberra branch of WEL decided that it needed direct political representation, rather than relying on lobbying, Ryan agreed to stand for preselection for the new ACT seat of Fraser in the House of Representatives. Although the WEL lobby worked diligently to encourage its members to join the ALP, the unexpected double dissolution of Parliament on 11 April 1974 caught it amid an incomplete campaign. Ryan came third in the preselection ballot, her votes helping to elect Ken Fry, then a member of the ACT Advisory Council, over Peter Wilenski as the successful ALP candidate. In June 1974, as the nominee of the ALP’s ACT branch, Ryan replaced Fry on the Advisory Council, following Fry’s election on 18 May as MHR for Fraser. Three months later she was elected to the ACT Legislative Assembly, which replaced the Advisory Council. In 1975 Ryan began work as an education officer for the International Women’s Year secretariat and in June she travelled to Mexico to attend the United Nations first World Conference on Women.[2]

Legislation to provide the ACT with two Senate positions had been enacted in 1974, and Ryan was preselected as an ALP Senate candidate in September 1975. On 13 December 1975, in an election that failed to reinstate Gough Whitlam as prime minister after his dismissal by Governor-General Sir John Kerr, Susan Ryan became one of the Territory’s first two senators and its first Labor senator. As such, she attracted media attention, with regular press references to her appearance and personal life: ‘the attractive 32-year-old mother of two—a divorcee’; ‘tall, slight, with green eyes and chestnut brown hair and an Irish face’; ‘slim, dark-haired mother of two, chic in a neat white dress’. Years later, Ryan observed that when she first sought Labor pre-selection ‘my status as a divorcee with two young children was used against me—not so much by the media but by my opponents within the Labor Party’. In 1976 one journalist identified less superficial traits that were to mark her parliamentary career, describing her as ‘practical, determined and used to in-fighting’.

In her first speech to the Senate, on 25 February 1976, Senator Ryan criticised ‘the present [Fraser] Government’s ill conceived anti-Canberra policy’, which was already ‘causing distress and hardship’ to people living there. She pointed to a number of areas where Labor’s reformist policies were being downgraded and, citing the co-dependence of the public and private sectors in Canberra, criticised in particular the cuts in funding to the National Capital Development Commission’s building program. The second half of her speech dwelt on ‘the anxiety felt by many women in our society about possible reductions in Government support’. She noted that as a woman parliamentarian, she was a member of ‘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 reminded her listeners 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’, and she urged the government to implement anti-discrimination legislation. She warned that Labor’s efforts to create ‘a just society based on an equitable distribution of power and resources’ were being eroded by the Liberal government, and observed that although much of what she had discussed related specifically to women, ‘improvements in education, training, legal aid services, welfare services and child-care, benefit the whole of society and not just women’.

Ryan said that during her first two years in the Senate, she ‘learnt the ropes’. Labor’s Senate Whip, George Georges ‘had quite a good technique, he would just put me on every speaking list’, and he would tell her, ‘You’ve got to do it!’ Accordingly, she spoke, as she put it, ‘on everything’. Among the issues she debated were Aboriginal affairs, defence, social welfare, education, employment, health, broadcasting and the Australian Security Intelligence Agency. She also served on a number of parliamentary committees.

When Bill Hayden became Leader of the Opposition following the federal election of December 1977, he gave Ryan the shadow portfolios of communications, the arts, and the media, thus making her the first woman on Labor’s federal front bench. In 1979 Hayden also gave Ryan responsibility for women’s affairs, a post she was to hold, in opposition and in government, until her resignation.[3]

In October 1978 Ryan moved a motion in the Senate to disallow the Termination of Pregnancy Ordinance 1978, made by the government under the Seat of Government (Administration) Act 1910, a measure to prevent the establishment of abortion clinics in the ACT, whether privately or publicly owned. In speaking to her motion Ryan emphasised that she was not ‘wishing to canvass the issue of abortion laws’ but that the ordinance thwarted the ‘clearly expressed wishes of the people of Canberra and their elected representatives’, as the ACT Legislative Assembly had issued a report, based on a public inquiry, recommending that a special abortion clinic be set up in Canberra under the control of the ACT Health Commission. Ryan urged senators to vote for the disallowance of the ordinance on ‘a democratic principle’, whatever their views on abortion clinics. Inevitably, however, the debate canvassed broad abortion issues and the motion was decided on a free or conscience vote. It found support from several Liberal senators, but was opposed by some of Ryan’s Labor colleagues, and was defeated. Ryan recalled being ‘besieged by thousands of letters, abusive phone calls, even death threats’ as a result of her actions.

During this period, conscious of the ‘gender gap’, which saw many fewer women than men supporting Labor, Ryan set up a national women’s policy committee within the party and toured throughout Australia to improve women’s understanding of and communication with Labor. In 1979 she travelled to Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Britain to learn from their policies on women and on the arts. Later in the year she joined a US Congressional women’s delegation in a visit to Kampuchea to try to persuade the Heng Samrin regime to facilitate the distribution of humanitarian aid from the West.[4]

Ryan entered the 1980 campaign debilitated from surgery for a liver abscess, but was buoyed by the success of Labor’s female candidates, a vindication, she believed, of her insistence on a women’s electoral strategy. After the election Hayden took from Ryan the shadow communications portfolio, giving her instead Aboriginal affairs, which she held until March 1983. During those years she travelled widely, consulting with Aboriginal communities; she was a council member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies from 1981 to 1983. In August 1981 Ryan introduced a private senator’s bill which sought to give Indigenous people living on reserves in Queensland security of tenure similar to that given by the Fraser Government to Aboriginal people in the Northern Territory. The Senate passed the bill, but it did not progress beyond the second reading in the House of Representatives. At the ALP National Conference in 1982, she succeeded in strengthening the party’s commitment to national land policy, but, to her ‘shame and distress’, she found that when Labor won government it was ‘not able to deliver this policy’.

After Labor’s landslide victory in the March 1983 election, the new prime minister, Bob Hawke, named Ryan Minister for Education and Youth Affairs (Education from December 1984), thus making her the first woman in a federal Labor cabinet. She was also Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women. In November 1981 Ryan had introduced a private senator’s bill to outlaw sexual discrimination. Although the bill did not pass, it paved the way for Ryan, now in government, to introduce the Sex Discrimination Bill into the Senate in June 1983. To strengthen the constitutional status of the bill by bringing it within the external affairs power of the Commonwealth, she persuaded the government to ratify the 1980 United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. The Sex Discrimination Bill embodied half of Ryan’s 1981 private bill in seeking to prevent discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status or pregnancy. The bill also contained provisions outlawing sexual harassment in the workplace and in educational institutions, and provided for redress against individual acts of discrimination. Despite vocal opposition from conservative community groups, and a lengthy debate, the measure eventually passed in the Senate in December 1983 and in the House of Representatives three months later. Ryan called the legislation ‘probably the most useful thing I’ve done in my life’. The other half of her original bill was embodied in the Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act 1986.[5]

One of Ryan’s strongest convictions as a passionate democratic socialist was the need for the redistribution of wealth and access to education. This was her guiding ideal as she struggled with the state aid issue that bedevilled Australian politics. In 1983 she antagonised supporters of non-government schools by reducing Commonwealth funding of the forty-one of the country’s wealthiest schools. Sections of the media described those schools as ‘victims’ of Ryan’s ‘Hit List’. The campaign on behalf of the forty-one schools overlooked the fact that the government was maintaining state aid to all non-government schools, and the money saved from funding reductions was redistributed to disadvantaged schools.

In the following year, government guidelines confirming the long-term funding of nongovernment schools—described by Ryan as a ‘historic settlement’—aroused a ‘sense of outrage and betrayal’ among some of her erstwhile supporters in the Australian Teachers’ Federation and other state school groups. Ryan later wrote that teachers’ unions and government school parents had ‘maintained a consistent demand for the abolition of state aid [to non-government schools], a totally unrealistic aspiration’.[6]

Her final years in Parliament were gruelling. She was blamed in the community for cuts to the program for teaching English to migrants, and for the withdrawal of the eligibility of single mothers receiving a pension to also receive funding from the Tertiary Education Assistance Scheme. There was also dissatisfaction within the ACT branch of the ALP that she had voted for the government’s decision to resume uranium sales to France—Ryan believed that Cabinet solidarity required her not to oppose government policy publicly. Despite the widely accepted convention that ministers should not be challenged in the electorate, discontent with her performance and her alleged lack of attention to local issues led to a preselection challenge from the Left in December 1986. She won easily but found it taxing to be fighting the battle while having to defend the new $250 administration fee for university students, which she had strongly opposed. Her outspoken opposition in hearings of Cabinet’s Expenditure Review Committee in 1985 to the introduction of any university fees and to the establishment of a private university had led to tensions in her relationship with Prime Minister Bob Hawke. These tensions worsened when she mistakenly tabled in the Senate confidential figures on projected home loan interest rates. In Caucus, she alienated colleagues by her uncompromising refusal to countenance any cuts to the education budget in the May mini-budget of 1987.

After the 1987 election Hawke took the education portfolio from Ryan but allowed her to stay on in Cabinet as Special Minister of State (24 July 1987 to 19 January 1988). She remained Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, was given additional responsibilities relating to the 1988 Australian bicentenary, and became Minister Assisting the Minister for Community Services and Health. Although her responsibilities included assisting with a national campaign against drug abuse, and the unsuccessful attempt to introduce an identity card (known as the Australia Card), there were inevitably mutterings about the ‘token woman’. Ryan felt that she had ‘come to a dead end’. In December 1987 she informed Hawke of her intention to leave Parliament. Her resignation from the ministry took effect on 19 January and from the Senate on 29 January 1988.[7]

Ryan’s parliamentary career was often stormy. As one of the pioneering women in Parliament and in Cabinet, she had to face community prejudice as voters adjusted to this new presence. Coming into Parliament as a self-proclaimed feminist further alienated conservative sectors in the community, as did her promotion of women’s issues, especially the Sex Discrimination Bill and the right to abortion. Operating within the overwhelmingly masculine milieux of Caucus and Cabinet presented challenges: some male colleagues resented her strong-willed, uncompromising championing of her causes. Her unwavering loyalty to her social democratic principles within a party moving inexorably towards economic rationalism created further tensions. For much of her parliamentary career, she said, she felt like ‘a shag on a rock’.

Yet her achievements were considerable. The sex discrimination and affirmative action acts were among the most comprehensive measures of their kind in the world. She oversaw increased funding for women’s refuges and for childcare. Despite the frustrations of the education portfolio, she introduced a participation and equity program which, together with financial assistance to disadvantaged students, secured an increase in the retention rate to year twelve from thirty-five per cent to fifty-three per cent during the first four years of the Hawke Government. More schools for Aboriginal children had been built in remote areas. Between 1983 and 1987 tertiary enrolments increased at more than double the rate of growth during the last four years of the Fraser Government. Ryan counted another of her major achievements as having been part of the ‘very very small and beleaguered team that took Labor from the shocking, traumatic defeat of 1975, repeated in 1977, to a wonderful victory in 1983 and a history-making third term’. Her particular contribution had been to work for an increased women’s vote for Labor. At the 1983 federal election fifty-two per cent of women supported the ALP.

Immediately on leaving Parliament, Ryan moved to Melbourne to become publishing director with Penguin Books Australia, but differences of opinion with its management led to her resignation after ten months. In 1989 she took up the post of executive director for the Plastics Industry Association. From 1993 to 1997 she was executive director of the Association of Superannuation Funds of Australia; between 2000 and 2007 she was president of the Australian Institute of Superannuation Trustees. She served as a pro-chancellor of the University of New South Wales from 1998 to 2011. From 2000 to 2003 she was deputy chair of the Australian Republican Movement. She continued to work for human rights, and in July 2011 was appointed Australia’s first Age Discrimination Commissioner, and in 2014 Disability Discrimination Commissioner. In 1990 Ryan was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia for service to Parliament. Her autobiography, Catching the Waves: Life In and Out of Politics, was published in 1999.[8]

Diane Langmore

[1] This entry draws throughout on Susan Ryan, Catching the Waves: Life In and Out of Politics, HarperCollins, Sydney, 1999; and the transcript of an interview with Susan Maree Ryan by Sara Dowse, July 1991, NLA ORAL TRC 2744 (access restricted).

[2] Phillip McCarthy, ‘The Making of Susan Ryan’, National Times (Syd.), 7 July 1979, pp. 9–10; Ken Fry, A Humble Backbencher: The Memoirs of Ken Fry MHR Fraser, 1974–1984, Ginninderra Press, Charnwood, ACT, 2002, pp. 77–8; ACT Advisory Council Minutes, 6 May, 10 June, 1 July 1974; Peter Grundy, Bill Oakes, Lynne Reeder & Roger Wettenhall, Reluctant Democrats, Federal Capital Press, Fyshwick ACT, 1996, pp. 78–9.

[3] Age (Melb.), 27 Sept. 1975, p. 12; Australian (Syd.), 23 Sept. 1975, p. 5; SMH, 11 Jan. 1978, p. 7; Herald (Melb.), 17 Feb. 1976, p. 2; Australian (Syd.), 26 Jan. 2005, p. 15; Sun Pictorial (Melb.), 20 Feb 1976, p. 30; CPD, 25 Feb. 1976, pp. 225–6; NLA Interview.

[4] CPD, 11 Oct. 1978, pp. 1204–6, 9 Nov. 1978, pp. 1915–20; Margaret Fitzherbert, So Many Firsts: Liberal Women from Enid Lyons to the Turnbull Era, Federation Press, Sydney, 2009, pp. 104–6; CT, 12 Dec. 1979, p. 20.

[5] CPD, 27 Aug. 1981, pp. 413–7, 18 March 1982, pp. 978–92; Susan Ryan, ‘Women’s policy’, in S. Ryan & T. Bramston (eds), The Hawke Government: A Critical Retrospective, Pluto Press, North Melbourne, 2003, pp. 202–14.

[6] Transcript of an address by Senator Susan Ryan to the Church Schools, Danebank Church of England Girls School, Hurstville, NSW, 24 Sept. 1983; Don Smart, Roger Scott, Katrina Murphy & Janice Dudley, ‘The Hawke Government and Education 1983–1985’, Politics, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1986; AFR (Syd.), 29 July 1983, p. 5; Australian (Syd.), 6 Aug. 1983, p. 3; Ryan, Catching the Waves, p. 229.

[7] AFR (Syd.), 10 Sept. 1986, p. 15; SMH, 12 Sept. 1986, p. 6, 26 Feb. 1987, p. 9; Age (Melb.), 18 June 1984, p. 1, CT, 9 July 1985, p. 2, 10 July 1985, p. 2, 10 Sept. 1986, p. 1, 7 Dec. 1986, p. 1; CPD, 26 Feb. 1987, pp. 697–8, 701–3, 705–9, 714–17; Australian (Syd.), 17 May 1985, p. 2; Times on Sunday, 26 July 1987, p. 13; Age (Melb.), 17 Dec. 1987, p. 4; SMH, 23 July 1987, pp. 1–2; NLA Interview. [8] Ryan, Catching The Waves, p. 279; Marian Sawer, Sisters In Suits: Women and Public Policy In Australia, Allen & Unwin, Syd., 1990, Ch. 3; J. McMorrow, ‘Education Policy’ in Ryan and Bramston (eds), The Hawke Government, pp. 184–201; Department of Education, Training and Youth Affairs, Higher Education Students: Selected Higher Education Statistics, 2001; CT, 19 Dec. 1987, p. B3; News Release, Senator Susan Ryan, 28 May 1985; Susan Ryan, ‘Fishes on bicycles’, Papers on Parliament, No. 17, Sept. 1992, pp. 27–43.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, Vol. 4, 1983-2002, Department of the Senate, Canberra, 2017, pp. 12-17.

Auspic DPS

Auspic DPS

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, ACT, 1975–88 (ALP) Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, 1983–84 Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for Women’s Affairs, 1983 Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Status of Women, 1983–88 Minister for Education, 1984–87 Special Minister of State, 1987–88 Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on the Bicentennial, 1987–88 Minister Assisting the Minister for Community Services and Health, 1987–88

Australian Capital Territory

Member, ACT Legislative Assembly, 1974–75

Senate Committee Service

Estimates Committee F, 1976, 1978–81; E, 1976–78; C, 1978; B, 1981–82; G, 1982 Joint Committee on the Australian Capital Territory, 1976–80 Publications Committee, 1976–78 Standing Committee on Education and the Arts, 1976–81 Standing Committee on Regulations and Ordinances, 1976–78 Select Committee on Parliament’s Appropriations and Staffing, 1980 Standing Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, 1981–83 Scrutiny of Bills Committee, 1981–82