Susan Ryan rode the wave of 1970s feminism to become the first woman cabinet minister in a federal Labor government.
Ryan was responsible for the Hawke government's landmark sex discrimination and affirmative action laws.
But the "unreconstructed Whitlamite" struggled against the economic rationalist tide in her major position of education minister and, after being demoted in 1987, suddenly quit politics.
She then reinvented herself as head of industry associations.
Her life ran the full gamut - from good Catholic schoolgirl and loyal wife, through single mother and flamboyant feminist, to near the pinnacle of political power and finally to lobbyist for big business, big money and older Australians.
Susan Maree Ryan, who has died aged 77, was born in Sydney on October 10 1942.
She was educated at the Brigidine Convent, Maroubra, and Sydney University where she met Richard Butler - the future high-flying diplomat, controversial chief UN weapons inspector in Iraq and, briefly and ingloriously, governor of Tasmania.
Just after completing her BA, and both aged 20, she and Butler married.
Two children soon followed, the second born in Vienna where Butler had his first overseas diplomatic posting.
It was there that Ryan, learning of the church's suspected complicity in the Holocaust and unable to accept its opposition to contraception, started questioning her faith.
Back in Canberra, determined to carve out a separate life, she resumed an English literature MA.
But after a year Butler was posted to the UN in New York and, reluctantly but faithfully, she followed.
New York was awash with feminist thought and Ryan was thrilled by it.
After less than a year there Ryan, her two little children in tow, was back in Canberra, her marriage over.
She never gave details of the breakdown, though in her memoir Catching the Waves she wrote: "The basis of any partnership, trust, had gone."
Ryan, who'd joined the Labor Party largely because of her admiration for Gough Whitlam, became a leading figure in Australian feminism.
She was a founding member of WEL and made the shortlist for the position of Whitlam's women's adviser.
Having failed in a preselection battle for an ACT lower house seat in 1974, she became Labor candidate for the newly-created ACT senate seat the following year.
Ryan went to the frontbench after the 1977 election and in 1979 women's affairs was added to her responsibilities.
She made her mark in 1981 when she introduced a private member's bill to ban discriminatory acts based on gender or marital status.
The measure provoked a storm of controversy and didn't become law.
After Bob Hawke came to power in 1983, Ryan became Education Minister and Minister assisting the PM on the Status of Women.
She moved quickly on her Sex Discrimination Bill, which passed at the end of the year - though only after a ferocious campaign by opponents and the longest debate in the Senate, to that point.
Yet some of her old mates in WEL turned on her, claiming the measure was an insulting token.
Looking back nearly 15 years later, Ryan said all problems hadn't been solved.
"But there have been changes that improve equity and efficiency and the changes continue," she said. "Without the lever of these laws, we would still be waiting for them."
Ryan was less successful in education.
Her attempts to change the formula under which public and private schools were funded caused huge rows, especially when she produced a hit-list of 41 high fee independent schools which would have their money reduced.
At a public meeting in Melbourne, angry parents hissed, booed and spat.
The row didn't please the consensus-loving PM.
Ryan fought a rearguard action against cabinet's money men to retain free tertiary education, which she regarded as one of the Whitlam government's great legacies.
It survived just a little longer than she did.
Similarly with the Schools' Commission, a powerful independent source of advice - once she went, its days were numbered.
After the 1987 election, Hawke moved her from education, while keeping her in cabinet as special minister of state without a department of her own.
She was dispirited, but not surprised; for she knew she'd irritated the hard men of the Expenditure Review Committee.
The hardest of them, Finance Minister Peter Walsh, said Ryan would have felt ERC hostility more than most because she was an unreconstructed Whitlamite who refused to accept fiscal targets agreed by cabinet.
Walsh also said that, unlike some of her feminist associates, she actually liked men, had a sense of fun and sometimes engaged in late night roistering.
Ryan took more bruising while running the campaign for the ill-fated Australia Card and, after receiving a book publishing offer, abruptly quit politics.
When the publishing job didn't work out, Ryan became chief executive of the Plastic Industry Association, helping the industry clean up its environmental act while grappling with the jobs-threatening impact of globalisation.
She wished that she'd known, when a politician, what she learnt there about manufacturing.
In 1993 Ryan became executive director of the the Association of Superannuation Funds.
"I was invigorated by the size, complexity, but most of all, by the social usefulness of superannuation," she said.
In 2011 she went back to fighting discrimination, this time of the aged, when she became Australia's first full-time age discrimination commissioner. Then, in 2015 and aged 72, the Abbott government made her its inaugural ambassador for mature age employment.
Ryan remained a constructive critic of Labor and she jointly edited a major retrospective of the Hawke government.
With hindsight she largely blamed herself for her ministerial disappointments.
"I was emotionally attached to too much of the old, and I did not know enough in practical terms about how the economy worked," she wrote in her memoir.
Australian Associated Press