Girl Least Likely

Photo of woman eye and business city. Double exposure

For International Women’s Day, Susan Harris Rimmer reflects on her journey from rural Australia to international human rights lawyer.

This what my official bio says:

Associate Professor Susan Harris Rimmer (BA[Hons]/LLB[Hons] UQ, University Medal, SJD ANU) is a Australian Research Council Future Fellow at Griffith University Law School. She is the author of Gender and Transitional Justice: The Women of East Timor (Routledge 2010) and over 40 academic works.

There follows the usual academic and policy details, awards and board memberships and previous posts working for the UN. Every time I read my own bio, I am incredulous and smiling. It feels like a miracle, because it is.

I am an extremely unlikely candidate as a feminist international human rights lawyer. Each of these descriptive words were unlikely. I come from a rural background in Coonabarabran NSW, a tiny town of 3,000 people in the middle of Australia, born in 1972 to working class parents. I had no family history of tertiary education or interaction with the legal profession, academia or the public service. We were a family of readers but with little to read.

My influence as a young woman, and subsequently, has come from being curious, seeking knowledge, full of ideas that were solutions-oriented, and having the confidence to speak. My dominant characteristic is a sense of accountability; that we must act if things are going to change for the better.

My challenges as a young woman were partly about dealing with poverty and the class issues that I encountered in getting to university at all, studying law at university and learning how the world really works at the elite decision-maker level. I was always confident in my intelligence and competence, possibly over-confident because I had seen so little of the world. I needed to build my confidence in unfamiliar environments, like the corporate law firm, or Parliament or the UN system. It was a long journey, and I had many setbacks, often caught out by my own naivety. I still do struggle with confidence in formal international settings, especially in my G20 work.

But I have never felt alone. I wield my influence as part of the broader women’s and human rights movement, a global network built on solidarity and a commitment to justice. The legacy of my influence aims to be to leave the movement stronger. Some of my sites of influence, such as the rights of refugee and asylum-seekers, or justice for First Australians have not seen progress as yet, but I travel in hope.

Today I am proud to have built expertise in women’s rights and international law, and has a track record in influencing government to adopt progressive policy ideas, including the creation of the position of the Global Ambassador for Women and Girls, the C20 (civil society grouping giving policy advice to the G20), and the W20 (gender equity on the G20 agenda. We need to amplify the voices of women to reform policies and laws.

There are so many silences in public life about the influence and achievements of women, and yet women are often catalysts, workers, the glue holding teams together. Much of my academic research has been about the leadership of Australian women at the global level, such as Elizabeth Evatt, Hilary Charlesworth, Erika Feller and Megan Davis who have all held senior roles in the UN system, and yet never been acknowledged in Australia as they deserve.

Their experience has some commonality: the importance of qualities such as patience and determination; the key role of good gender analysis as opposed to general gender awareness; and the importance of strategic thinking, especially in relation to finding combinations of key expertise and political leadership, with an eye to the improvement of the machinery of decision making. These women have achieved success mainly due to expertise, each one a top legal brain and a formidable intelligence, with undeniable integrity. These stories of leadership at the international level should be documented, especially as the feminist movement in Australia undergoes generational change.

Many Australian women work in collectives or teams, don’t believe in a ‘front woman’, or are just modest. In my fieldwork to many places in South East Asia, it is the same dynamic. I have been a strong voice imploring women leaders to claim their successes, or at least, document them. The lack of self-promotion by many successful women makes it difficult to track just what they have achieved. Modesty can obliterate women’s contribution to history.

I am now documenting and celebrating the role of women involved in global economic governance through the G20, forming a partnership with the top think tank Chatham House to influence the G20 Leaders.

And so I write this piece today, International Women’s Day, to share my own story. I finished high school living on my own in a caravan park in a small Australian town at the bottom of the world, living hand to mouth and uncertain about my future. Last year I shared a panel discussion with Angela Merkel in Berlin. I am proud of both these facts. I can now talk about the economic rights of women from a place of bitter experience and utter conviction, as well as an intellectual base. And I better understand my own position of privilege as a white woman from a developed country, who benefited from a welfare system.

My key lessons in effecting change have been to keep forecasting and be propositional – if you keep coming up with ideas, partnerships and moments – and you keep testing these ideas, usually the right leader at the right time will welcome the idea. I still do not always understand the personality politics of elites, but standing apart from ideology, status and party politics is often a good stance for someone who cares about the protection and promotion of human rights. Being an outsider can help sharpen the vision of what needs to change.

So I still grin at my own unlikely biography. I excavate and celebrate women’s achievements. And with you this IWD, I celebrate the women’s movement and the strength it gives us all to press ahead for change.

Curriculum vitae

Selected media interviews and public talks

The W20 Panel with Chancellor Merkel can be viewed here:

Why should we care about the G20 – Sky News –

Why refugee law is difficult, even without the politics – Wheeler Centre –

Associate Professor Susan Harris Rimmer, Griffith University Law School.

She is co-editor of the forthcoming Research Handbook on Women in International Law due to be published in 2019.


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  1. You Go ‘Grrl | IntLawGrrls - March 8, 2018

    […] To celebrate International Women’s Day, IntLawGrrl Sue Harris Rimmer has a terrific post on the Elgar blog about her life journey.  Here’s just a tidbit, but I encourage you to read the entire post: […]

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