Susan Ryan was more than a feminist icon and achiever, Labor’s first woman cabinet minister and the model for all those who have followed her.
She was an exceptional politician in her own right, and if things had played out a bit differently, she might well have preceded Julia Gillard to become our first female prime minister.
But she was a senator, and also something of a maverick. When Bob Hawke determined that his government must have a woman in the cabinet, Ryan was the obvious choice. But when she went to the party room to overturn one of his own decisions, he never forgave her. She was demoted, and left parliament soon afterwards.
All was not lost, of course; her subsequent career was extraordinary. But politics was her true vocation, and for her – and many others, me included – there was always a sense of what might have been.
Her ambition showed early, She had been the shadow minister for Aboriginal Affairs under Bill Hayden, fellow moderate lefty, but deserted him for Hawke because she believed that Hawke was more likely to win government. Later she went back to Hayden to join his centre-left faction where she felt more comfortable.
After Hawke’s election she went to his confidante Mick Young, and said she wanted a “real” job. She had been passionate about her shadow portfolio, but still regarded it as on the fringe. She was rewarded with Education, a senior and sensitive role in which she was outstandingly successful – the retention rate for high school pupils trebled under her watch.
But she had her frustrations. I accompanied her on a trip to the Torres Strait Islands, where she was reduced almost to tears at the lack of school funding, a result of the intransigence of the Queensland government which jealously guarded its constitutional responsibility.
She will be best remembered for the Sex Discrimination Act and the huge advances women earned in her time in the ministry, but she was never a single minded feminist; her reforms crossed all thresholds, including those of gender.
She has rightly been described as the best kind of Catholic, one who has put social conscience and activism above dogma.
Of course she had her detractors. Hawke’s acerbic Finance Minister, Peter Walsh, dismissed her as an unreconstructed Whitlamite, a put down she willingly embraced. Perhaps it arose from the occasion when her teenage daughter, in Walsh’s hearing. asked her how much she received in child endowment. When told, the girl was appalled: “That’s not even enough for two strawberry daiquiris,” she lamented. Susan blushed as Walsh fumed. It was one of the very few times she was lost for words.
She was frighteningly intelligent, politically savvy, balanced, funny, optimistic and committed. Truly the life of the party – and especially the Labor Party. And it will miss her, as will we all. But she was not and is not irreplaceable. Generations of women particularly, but men as well, will follow where she so capably led. And that is her greatest legacy.