Inside Story

Remembering Susan Ryan

A former colleague recalls working with the reformist Labor minister

Sara Dowse 2 October 2020 1313 words

Susan Ryan, Labor’s shadow women’s affairs minister at the time, campaigning in Adelaide during the 1983 federal election campaign. Newspix

By the time you read this, most of you will know of Susan Ryan’s sudden, untimely death last Sunday, and you’ll be aware of the outstanding role she played in championing women, the homeless, the aged, people with disabilities, and our First Nations people. The first and, for a time, the only female cabinet member in a federal Labor government, she was given responsibility for education and youth affairs and was also the minister assisting the prime minister for the status of women. It’s because of her that we have the federal sex discrimination and affirmative action Acts.

The loving, glowing tributes she’s received from all corners of society invariably mention her sharp intelligence, her zest for life and her warm personality. My guess is that, until she died and all this was put on the record, the new generation of women who applauded her appearances on The Drum knew just a fraction of what she gave to this country. As for me, the news of her death plunged me into shock, as it did so many, and set off a flood of memories. So I am here to tell the story of how our long friendship began.

Susan and I met in the early 1970s when we were both single mothers, swept away from difficult marriages on that tumultuous feminist wave and drawn ineluctably to the women’s liberation movement. But she had a more pragmatic vision than many of us, and among them I include myself.

With a federal election looming in 1972, Women’s Electoral Lobby was born. Now there were two kinds of feminism, one deemed radical, the other decidedly reformist. Susan gravitated to the reformist WEL, and was a founding member of its Canberra branch, while I stood firmly in the radical camp. Radical or reformist, though, the word revolution tripped happily off our tongues, especially in Canberra, with its small, politically engaged population, where a women’s liberationist one minute could pop on her WEL hat the next, and vice versa. “Revolution” has been in very bad odour for decades now, and whenever I hear it uttered in clips of us at that time I’m touched by our naiveté but also by our splendid bravado.

Just before the Whitlam government was elected in December of that year, I got a job with the Australian News and Information Bureau; by 1973 I had been seconded to a minister’s staff and had joined the Labor Party. Susan, meanwhile, was working in the interests of government schools as executive officer of the Australian Council of State School Organisations and had started a local Labor Party branch. When Whitlam called a double dissolution in 1974, she decided to run for preselection for the new Canberra seat of Fraser.

She gathered a bunch of feminist party members and, sooner than I realised, I was helping run her campaign. Our first task was to get more feminists signed up to the party — in other words, to do some branch stacking. Some of the older, largely male, members were furious, calling us “groupers” (after the Catholic activists within the party and the unions in the early 1950s) and worse. But we pressed on. There wasn’t a single female member in the House of Representatives, and we were determined to change that.

It was a tight contest. Peter Wilenski, Whitlam’s principal private secretary, was a candidate. So was Megan Stoyles, press secretary to Bill Hayden, both of whom had done so much to get Medibank (as it was then, though stymied by the Senate) up and running. As Susan’s backers we couldn’t have come any greener, and being American-born with little more than a rudimentary understanding of how politics worked in Australia, I was greenest of all.

After Megan Stoyles dropped out, it was a three-way contest between Susan, Peter and Ken Fry, the ACT branch president and a member of the ACT advisory council, forerunner of the ACT Legislative Assembly. When Gordon Bilney, Wilenski’s campaign manager, sidled up to me one night, whispering, “What’s your number?” I thought he was planning to proposition me and walked away. He was actually looking for our preferences if Susan was knocked out.

The vote was taken and — to Wilenski’s disappointment and Bilney’s disgust — Ken Fry was the winner. Both Fry and Wilenski believed that Susan’s preferences got him over the line, but to this day I’m not sure this was true. I don’t remember our directing preferences at all. But their belief secured Susan’s reputation as a powerbroker, and Ken Fry continued to acknowledge his debt to her throughout his parliamentary career.

The rest, as they say, is history. In 1975, after a stint on the advisory council herself, Susan ran for the second ACT Senate seat and won. But that was the year Whitlam lost in a landslide. Right away she was in the shadow ministry, and I, by this time working in the prime minister’s department, found myself serving a government I deplored for the part it had played in Labor’s dismissal.

I know she was disappointed in me, as many were. But there was little I could say publicly about how necessary it seemed for me to stay in the department and try to maintain the reforms for women initiated under Whitlam. When this was no longer possible, I resigned from the service to chance my arm as a writer, and Susan helped me, as she had so many others, by giving me the job of drafting the ALP women’s policy that would eventually be implemented when she became a minister in the Hawke government — a contribution that could be my proudest. And when, years later, she resigned from parliament and went to work at Penguin, without my bidding she reissued my first novel, West Block, which had come out in 1983, the year she became Labor’s first ever female cabinet minister.

Thus ours was a friendship that went right back, to the beginning of what we’d scarcely dared believe was to be her brilliant career. Watching her up close and from afar she seemed to grow into herself more than anyone I knew. To risk a hackneyed phrase, she became larger than life, a commanding figure wherever she happened to be.

My shock is slowly subsiding, and for the first time since her death I am able to shed tears as I write this, as more and more memories of her come floating back. Little things, but in a way these are the most indelible. Like the time we went to see the movie of Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls, and when an older, heavily rouged woman with dyed black hair came on the screen, Susan grabbed me and cried, “Look! She’s just like my Irish aunts!” Or when we went to Melbourne together for one of the first women’s liberation conferences and shrank into ourselves as the militant Spartacists tried to take it over.

Then there were our battles with male delegates at the UN Conference on Women in Mexico, as we sought to keep our plan for the coming decade intact, crossing out words at their insistence then slipping them back in when they’d wilted. It was an endurance test worse than any interdepartmental committee I’d participated in, and certainly good preparation for what would be her lone voice in cabinet.

There was the time, too, when we stayed up all night singing every Tin Pan Alley song we knew, one schmaltzy ballad after the other. And how, the night she became a senator, the group of us sang, yes, Helen Reddy’s “I Am Woman.”

The thing about Susan Ryan is we all have such stories, and will be forever holding them close to our hearts. •