16 April 2021

Books from Susan Ryan's personal library up for sale

| Kim Treasure
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Susan Ryan sitting with Bob Hawke

Susan Ryan achieved many firsts in her life, from becoming the first woman senator for the ACT to the first female Labor minister. Photo: Museum of Australian Democracy.

When Susan Ryan died unexpectedly in late 2020, she was remembered as a pioneering Labor senator who helped pass landmark laws to protect women from workplace discrimination.

The 77-year-old was well known as a passionate campaigner for human rights and was pivotal in seeing the Sex Discrimination Act, Equal Opportunity Act and Affirmative Action (Equal Employment Opportunity for Women) Act pass through Federal Parliament.

What is less well known is the role she played in providing Far South Coast women with a safe haven when domestic violence left them with few, if any, other options.

Her love of, and support for, the Southern Women’s Group will be highlighted with a special event in Cobargo on Saturday, 17 April.

A prolific reader, many of Susan’s books have been donated to institutions such as the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra, but eight boxes of her personal tomes have been donated to the Bega group.

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Between 10:00 am and 1:00 pm on Saturday, Well Thumbed Books in Cobargo will host a sale of the books from Susan’s personal library, and all funds raised will be donated to the Southern Women’s Group in support of the Women’s Resource Centre Bega (WRC).

Jane Hughes, from WRC, says its another legacy from a woman who achieved so many firsts in her life, from becoming the first woman senator for the ACT to the first female Labor minister.

“Australia is so very fortunate to have had Susan Ryan bring her conviction and passion into the political arena, and our society would have been very different without her,” says Jane.

Mothers and children in 1984

This historic photo was used in 1984 with a mass letter to Minister Susan Ryan in the early days of lobbying for women’s services in the Bega Valley. Photo: Southern Women’s Centre.

“The Southern Women’s Group has been around since the early 1980s. I’ve only been here two years. I didn’t know about our organisation’s strong connection with Susan until her friend, Heather O’Connor, made contact and said we could have these books.”

Like most feminist organisations, the Southern Women’s Group had humble beginnings.

In 1984, local women, concerned about the lack of services for females fleeing domestic violence, began providing safe beds in their own homes. This small group of dedicated women put considerable effort into lobbying politicians and community members to establish services in the Bega Valley.

Jane says Susan was a politician who took those concerns seriously and lobbied on their behalf.

“In the Bega Valley, in particular, we are very grateful to Susan for bringing her support to the local fight to have a funded women’s refuge for women and children escaping domestic violence,” she says.

From that humble beginning of Bega volunteers providing accommodation to women in crisis on their lounge room floors, Southern Women’s Group has grown in 35 years to employ 15 women and have a presence across the whole NSW South Coast.

The group continues to offer court support, a community pantry, and health and sexual assault services. Managed by dedicated volunteers, it remains one of the few feminist collectives still operating in Australia.

“We continue to be active in our advocacy for services and justice for all women,” says Jane. “Most recently, we helped organise the local March 4 Justice in Bega, attended by around 500 people.”

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It’s all work Susan would have supported, and her book donation will help raise funds and the profile of the Southern Women’s Group.

So what did this highly intelligent, forward-thinking feminist like to read in her spare time?

“There is no list available, but there is a broad assortment of fiction and non-fiction, political, biography and poetry books on offer,” says Jane.

“Apparently she was very fond of poetry.

“Friends of Susan will also be sharing treasured memories of their time with her, and I’m informed there’s also likely to be a bit of a sing-a-long of Danny Boy because Susan loved to belt it out with her mates after a couple of beers.”

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