Susan Ryan: a fighter for a ‘fair go’

Feb 28, 2021

Labor politician and lifelong proponent of equality opportunity, Susan Ryan’s commitment to social justice was fostered by years at Brigidine schools.

Susan Ryan was a lapsed Catholic, said her life-companion, Rory Sutton, at her State Funeral in Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral last year. He added that all her fundamental values came from her Catholicism; and other speakers agreed. Former Governor-General Dame Quentin Bryce in her eulogy pointed to Susan’s years at Brigidine schools as the source of her commitment to social justice.

The Beatitudes (Matthew 15: 1-12) were chosen by the family for the Gospel reading and principal celebrant Monsignor Tony Doherty commented that her life had never strayed far from those values. The family also requested that three priest friends of Susan should be there – she had once said she knew more priests than her sister Caroline, a Sister of Mercy. Her family wrote the Prayers of the Faithful, too, with petitions about her central concerns: equity for women, education, social diversity and Aboriginal reconciliation.

Surfing and politics

Born in 1944, she was a war baby, her father an army captain and her mother a David Jones shop assistant. They lived in the beachside suburb Maroubra, where Susan became an avid surfer. In 1999, when she wrote her memoirs, she titled the book Catching the Waves because she viewed surfing as a metaphor for life in politics – catching big waves or being dumped by them and always going back for more.

At the age of four, she went to the parish school under the Brigidine nuns. For the next dozen years she would be in their care, gaining honours in public exams and becoming a star debater. Looking back to her schooldays, she acknowledged that she had sometimes been ‘a smart alec’ but was grateful to the Brigidines for committing her to social justice.

In particular, Susan remembered the influence of Cowra-born Helen Connolly (Mother Cecily) who taught English and ran the school choir. With several university degrees, Mother Cecily taught in Papua New Guinea schools and also a country high school; and became Mother-General of the Australian Brigidines, dying in her 50s. Susan’s summary is apt: ‘In a Church that accepted women as equals she would have made a great Cardinal.’

‘Serious’ Catholics

Next came the University of Sydney, where she met and became engaged to Richard Butler, who would head the United Nations weapons inspectorate. They married when they were both 20. She described them as ‘serious’ Catholics who went to Mass at Father Roger Pryke’s church at Camperdown, where Susan sang in the choir with Germaine Greer. There they were introduced to new hymns by James McAuley and Richard Connolly.

These new hymns featured in the Living Parish hymnbook, a bestseller that transformed Catholic worship in those post-Vatican II years. Father Pryke, who headed the Living Parish team, recruited her to manage their publications, something she did for a year until, with a new baby, she and Richard went to Vienna, his first diplomatic posting. Soon a baby son would join his sister. The marriage, however, did not last and in 1971 Susan brought the children back to Canberra, alone.

Change was in the air in the early ’70s, the Whitlam years. Susan learned the lessons of feminism in early Canberra groups and joined a new branch of the Australian Labor Party there. In 1975 she was elected to Parliament and would become, in 1983, Minister for Education and Youth Affairs, the first woman in an ALP national cabinet.

Equal opportunity

At the heart of her political life was a core belief of Labor people, that every Australian should have equal opportunity. Her key policy achievement was the Sex Discrimination Act (1984) prohibiting workplace discrimination on the basis of sex, marital status or pregnancy. Retired from politics, she continued to pursue her fair-go ethic as head of the superannuation funds association and as Australia’s first age discrimination commissioner and as our disability commissioner.

The Ryans are Irish folk and Susan was dyed deep in Celtic culture, the songs, the poetry, the jokes. Her funeral paid tributes to her Hibernicism, with a Seamus Heaney poem, Irish music and an Irish blessing. Other aspects of her life received tributes, too. The six pall-bearers were prominent women. Aboriginal elder Mick Gooda spoke for his people, recognising her support for their causes. The recessional hymn was the McAuley/Connolly Living Parish Song of Cosmic Praise.

The State Funeral was televised. After viewing it a former Dominican theologian emailed one of the priests there, calling the service ‘a beautifully scripted and choreographed poem’.

Republished with permission from Madonna magazine. 

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