Theme Country Women's Associations

Alternative Names
  • CWA

Written by Karen Crook, Independent Scholar

The Country Women's Association (CWA) originated in New South Wales in 1922, followed over the course of the next decade by associations in other states. The Queensland association was also founded in 1922, followed by Western Australia in 1924, Victoria in 1928, South Australia in 1929 and Tasmania in 1936 (Stevens-Chambers, chap. 1; CWA of Vic.).

The CWA grew out of the growing social and economic crises of the 1920s, which saw years of drought, depressed prices for agricultural goods, and the failure of the soldier settlement scheme, along with a growing realisation of, and dissatisfaction with, the fact that country areas were lagging behind the cities in terms of health services, educational facilities and general amenities. Providing services for rural areas was not seen as electorally rewarding by politicians. The needs of women and children in the country areas were particularly great. Rural women were not sustained by a 'mateship' ethos that ignored the need to build communities able to support families and not just individual males. Women of all classes were faced with the day-to-day realities of life in the bush, and the attendant difficulties of feeding, clothing and educating their families. Even when families managed to find the money for boarding school fees, the loss of children at an early age led to increased loneliness, especially for women. Rural women's lives varied a great deal in the 1920s, as they continue to vary today. Nevertheless, despite differences in class, education, religion and race, most of these women shared the isolation of bad roads, distance and limited access to resources (Crook, 114).

The drive to improve conditions for rural women and their families was experienced by women at all levels of society but those with influence and resources felt a particular responsibility to play a part in fostering necessary changes. In Sydney, journalist Florence Gordon, together with a wealthy landowner's wife, Grace Munro, planned and organised a bushwomen's conference during Show Week in April 1922. Out of it came the organisation known as the CWA. Mrs Munro, was elected president and was instrumental in helping establish the Queensland branch later that year (Oppenheimer, In early 1928, Lady Finola Somers (Heywood & Henningham,, the wife of the then Victorian governor, asked Lady Eliza Fraser Mitchell CBE (1864-1948) to assist in the formation of a Country Women's Association in Victoria. Lady Mitchell, who had been the assistant commissioner for the Australian Red Cross in London during World War I, became the first state president of the CWA in Victoria in 1928 and remained in office until 1932. Active in community affairs, Lady Mitchell was also president of the New Settlers League and the Bush Nursing Association (Histed, In Tasmania, Lady Mary Clark, the wife of the then governor, was active in the formation of the state CWA in 1936. The origins in South Australia were different. Mary Warnes, who lived with her husband on an isolated property at Koomooloo forty miles from Burra, was the founder of the CWA of SA in 1926 and was state president 1929-41 (Whittle,

Discussions on the formation of a federal body began as early as 1928, and several unsuccessful attempts were made. At the request of the New South Wales association, Mrs W.E. Sargood, the area vice president of Associated Country Women of the World (and a member of CWA Victoria), called a meeting of state presidents held in Sydney in May 1943. A year later, another meeting was held in Sydney with representatives from all states except Western Australia. In June 1945, a meeting held at the Melbourne Town Hall resulted in the formation of the Country Women's Association of Australia. Mrs Helena Marfell, a former Victorian state president, was the first national president (Crook, The first annual conference was held in Adelaide in 1946. Conferences were held annually until 1953, when it was decided, that conferences be held every second year in order to save on expenses (Stevens-Chambers).

The Country Women's Association of Australia (CWAA) is now the largest individual women's organisation in Australia, with over 25,500 members in 1,500 branches. The CWAA maintains a small office; most of the work and activity of the association takes place in the state and territory organisations. There are 5,200 members throughout Victoria. While it is still a very active organisation, it should be noted that membership numbers are steadily declining. In 1997, the CWA had 55,000 members nationally. Twelve years later, it has less than half that number. However, membership numbers are not publicly released so it is not possible to state the figures with any certainty (Crook, personal experience).

The CWAA is a member of the Associated Country Women of the World (ACWW), which has non-government organisation status at the United Nations. ACWW has over 9 million members in 62 countries.

Leadership in the Public Sphere

The CWA is a non-party political and non-sectarian organisation. It is self-funding and relies mainly on volunteers to do its work. The focus of the organisation is on working for the welfare of all women and children through representation and lobbying to all levels of government, fundraising for causes of importance to the organisation, providing networking and social activities and teaching leadership and life skills.1

An organisation with ninety years of extensive involvement in community affairs, the CWA has had an important impact on public life. From its formation, the CWA has operated within the political arena, even though there is some discomfort internally with the term 'political'. Sometimes it is suggested that the organisation is 'above politics' but, despite a disdain for the 'grubby' world of politics, most members have been actively interested, if not involved, in civic affairs, particularly at a local level. The ageing of the membership has affected this to a certain degree, but most members are likely to be interested and informed about changes in government policy of direct relevance to them. The official aims of the association include encouraging members to 'take an intelligent interest in the working of government at local, state and federal level'.

The association is represented nationally on:

  • The National Rural Health Alliance
  • The National Rural Women's Coalition
  • FarmSafe Australia
  • Agri-Foods Industry Skills Council
  • Consumers Telecommunications Network
  • Telstra Consumer Council
  • Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
  • Consumer Consultative Committee
  • Australian Communications Industry Forum
  • Food Safety Information Council
  • Food Standards Australia and New Zealand working groups
  • Personal Tax Advisory Group
  • Rural Education Forum Australia.

In Victoria, for example, the association is represented on a number of women's lobby groups and the following bodies:

  • Victorian Foodbank
  • Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission
  • Council on the Ageing
  • FarmSafe Victoria
  • BreastScreen
  • Travellers Aid
  • Community Utilities Advocacy Centre.

In addition to its representative work, the CWA makes submissions to all levels of government on a wide variety of social issues. Recent focus on lobbying by CWA Victoria has included:

  • Australian made, grown and owned
  • Food labelling
  • Food importation regulations and correct labelling of produce
  • Water sustainability
  • Carbon tax
  • Overseas ownership of land
  • Free emergency service access from mobile phones
  • National disability care and support scheme, insurance and compliance
  • Ceasing the practice of mixed gender rooms in all public hospitals
  • Medical benefits for specific needs
  • Fire service levy
  • Aerial baiting for dogs
  • Landfill levies
  • Animal plagues and management (such as locusts and mice)
  • Women's health and wellbeing
  • Mammograms for all women
  • Pedestrian safety at pedestrian crossings
  • Smart metres
  • Keep Australia Beautiful
  • Problem gambling
  • Transport
  • Rural education
  • Medical services
  • Safer communities.

The political influence of the CWA has declined in the last forty years. There are a number of reasons for this. The CWA's political conservatism has meant it is both an unattractive ally to other groups more influenced by feminist concerns (even if these groups are not explicitly feminist) and a taken-for-granted ally of conservative political parties, which see no need to work for its support. Opportunities for lobbying and influence have been missed. A voluntary ethos and a focus on self-reliance has meant that the CWA did not form important alliances - particularly in the 1990s- with women working within government bureaucracies who might potentially have advanced their interests. The effects of this decline in political influence, of leadership within the public sphere, have been felt not only by the organisation but also by the women and children whose interests the CWA aims to serve.

Models of Leadership within the CWA

Within the CWA, women are both expected to carry out leadership roles and are trained and supported to carry them out. Members who have career experience in the paid workforce often point this out as a significant difference between the CWA and many male-dominated organisations. It is a key factor in explaining the immense organisational commitment shown by most members. Members are the most important resource of the organisation and a great deal of work is done to maintain commitment to the association's goals and aims. There are a variety of jobs at all levels that are suited to different skills and interests. As well as state president, secretary and treasurer, positions at branch and group level mirror those at state executive level, such as international officer and magazine secretary. In addition, at branch level there are valued jobs for members who may never move up the organisational ladder, such as posy person or hostess or trading table organiser. All these positions can lead to other leadership positions, but they are seen as valuable and worthwhile in themselves. In the same way, positions at state executive level such as catering chair or handicrafts and home industries chair, international officer or residential club chair provide leadership opportunities for women with a wide range of skills and interests. While all positions at state executive level can potentially lead to the state president's job, in reality, some jobs are seen as more 'career-oriented' than others.

Although it can be difficult to fill leadership positions at branch level (and this is an increasing issue as the average age of members increases), there is a body of women at state council level (that is, group presidents and state office bearers) who are ready and willing to be nominated for the top positions. Ambition too openly displayed can disqualify a group president and tears have been known to accompany election results. It is the job of the state president to see that those disappointed in their attempt to 'go on' are not lost to the association as valued contributors.

There is a clear recognition within the association that only 'the best' should go on. There are constitutional limits on the length of time one is able to stay in a position as well as minimum periods of service before election to certain positions. For example, a member must have served six continuous years on state council before becoming eligible to stand for election as state president. This requirement is designed to ensure that women have sufficient experience and expertise before undertaking the crucial key position.

The high expectations put on leaders within the association mean it is sometimes difficult to attract leaders at the lower levels. Because of this, sometimes leaders at group president level and below are not of a high calibre. It is a matter of who is prepared to do the job rather than who would be the best in the job. The constitutional limit on length of service also influences this.

Although it is theoretically possible for all members to move up the careers ladder, access to the requisite knowledge is usually dependent on whether the member has found an appropriate mentor. A mentor is necessary to lead the member through the often complicated organisational maze and to pass on informal as well as formal knowledge. This informal knowledge is just as vital to an individual's success within the organisation as the formal information.

The leadership model within the CWA most closely resembles an apprenticeship, and taking one's time to develop as a leader is seen as very important. Getting ahead too quickly at the lower levels can be detrimental when an individual reaches higher positions. Not only is there a perception that she has not 'done her time', but she will not have grasped the vital informal knowledge that is the key to career success.

There is of course an inherent contradiction in this approach, which has clearly supported the development of strong leadership within the association over many years. In the present, with membership numbers dropping steadily and the average age of members growing, there is an urgency to attracting new, and younger, members. Younger members may simply be frustrated at the perceived amount of time it takes to assume more senior leadership positions. Experienced members with a degree of insight into the long-term needs of the association recognise that a degree of flexibility is needed to allow newer leaders to change the way things are done. The ability of the organisation to balance these contradictions will be an important indicator of the future success, and indeed viability, of the association.

Leadership Skills and Expectations within the CWA

Women are expected to be leaders

Generally speaking, CWA leaders are made, not born. That is not to say that all women have the ability to be a leader but rather that there are women who may not recognise their abilities or who have abilities that require nurturing, support and training to bring out. Good leaders recognise the necessary qualities and potential in others, even if those individuals do not see them in themselves.

The overriding quality that is required is a commitment to the association as a whole. As one moves up the organisational ladder, this quality is increasingly internalised. Dedication to organisational goals and values grows. There is a recognition that service, together with high office, is a privilege and a degree of humility arises from this recognition.

More practical abilities are required too. The ability to organise an event like a group conference or a branch outing is highly respected, especially if one is able to do it with a cool head, a personal stamp and a commitment to involving and thanking all those concerned. 'Promise' is also highly valued. Increasing confidence (balanced by humility) is expected. The ability to speak in public in a confident manner is particularly highly regarded and is one of the most important things an individual is expected to develop as she moves up the organisational ladder. The ability to manage conflict and to balance competing demands is required. A woman with aspirations to the state presidency would be well advised to concentrate on her tact and the ability to project a demeanour of gentle wisdom.

There are a variety of roles, drawing on special qualities, where women can exercise leadership

There are a variety of roles where individual women can exercise leadership. While some of these roles carry more status than others, each role within the organisation is valued and honoured.

The culture of the organisation recognises that different leaders are needed for different situations - time, role, level. It is this recognition that allows for a variety of models of successful leaders and provides opportunities for most of the women who want to take on leadership roles. State or national council may look for different qualities from a president at different times. After a particularly divisive period, a president with particularly good human relations skills may be valued. At other times, public relations skills are most sought after. It must be said, however, that the 'six year' rule and the narrowing of the career path ladder means that there is very little flexibility in choosing the state president. Decisions about an individual's suitability for the role are made at a lower level. More commonly, it is at the group level that decisions are made about different individuals. It often happens that former group leaders are 'recycled' because of their experience, wisdom and respect when factional fighting prevents the election of a leader who is considered appropriate or when there is no one else to take on the job.

Similarly, some roles within the organisation are seen to require specific skills. Positions on state council such as catering committee chairman, residential club committee chairman and handicrafts and home industries chairman are all seen to require skills in their respective areas. The roles suit individuals who have such skills and experience and perhaps do not have broader aspirations.

Individual women receive training, mentoring and support until they are comfortable in exercising leadership

A great deal of support is given to women as they take on new leadership roles. They are provided with documentation, leadership schools, opportunities to network, and a body of previous incumbents ready and willing to advise. The new leader is expected to be effective in her job, and this expectation of success is another aspect of organisational life within the CWA that women in other organisations do not always experience. Even when a new leader is not liked or respected, there is no joy if she fails to do the best possible job during her time in office.

Mentoring is an important part of leadership development and there is the expectation that women will encourage, nurture and foster the leadership skills of others. The apprenticeship model provides support for women's leadership within the CWA while at the same time depersonalising the various roles and avoiding the divisiveness of personality 'cults'.

Leaders in most roles are responsible for finding and training their successor

A great deal of value is put on potential leaders who are identified and groomed for future roles and the development of individuals is a process that goes on at all levels.

Delegation is expected, so that power is shared

A woman who is unable to delegate will find her leadership aspirations defeated. As well as finding and, if necessary, training her successor a leader is expected to involve as many people in the work of the association as possible. She must also take into account the experience of members within her branch or group. Delegation and consultation can be time-consuming and messy, but the leader who does neither will not be respected or liked.

Roles are shared over time

Constitutional constraints mean that no one is in the same position indefinitely. Not all roles, especially at the lower levels, are easy to fill, and sometimes a woman will return to a position she has done before. Nevertheless, there is the expectation that leadership roles will rotate.

Women are respected for the leadership roles they perform

Respect for authority is expected within the CWA, and this is embedded within the hierarchical structure of the organisation. Authority is vested within particular positions and it is for this reason that there is such competition for key positions on state council. Nevertheless, the authority vested in positions is nothing compared to the personal authority an individual can develop and exercise. An individual develops this authority by exhibiting knowledge of formal procedures (a familiarity with the constitution, for example), wisdom and tact.

This respect for authority is a reflection of the conservative nature of the organisation. The reliance on the constitution and a reluctance to change it is an example of this. While such a respect assists the development of organisational cohesion, it often prevents necessary reform.

Women's other roles are expected and respected

It is perfectly acceptable within the CWA for a woman to take time out owing to her personal and domestic circumstances and to return at a later stage to a successful 'career' in high office. If personal issues arise that impact on a woman's ability to carry out her duties, then extra practical and other support is provided.


The values and outlook of the Country Women's Association may not be the values and outlook of all women's organisations but they are women's values nonetheless. An examination of the leadership styles of the CWA offers another set of models available to women, and an approach to leadership that celebrates a diversity of models is a desirable goal.


  1. The remainder of this entry, focusing on leadership models in the CWA, is drawn from Karen Crook, 'The Politics of Influence: The Work of the Country Women's Association in the Public Sphere' (PhD thesis, University of Melbourne, 1997). Return to text

Published Resources


  • Country Women's Association of Victoria, Years of Adventure: Fifty Years of Service by the Country Women's Association of Victoria 1928-1978, Country Women's Association of Australia (CWA), Melbourne, Victoria, 1978. Details
  • Stevens-Chambers, Brenda, The Many Hats of Country Women, Country Women's Association of Australia (CWA), Brisbane, Queensland, 1997. Details

Book Sections

  • Crook, Karen, ''Stacks of friends": Kathleen (Kay) Gordon Cameron (1899-1987) and the Broadening International Focus of the Country Women's Association of Victoria in the 1960s', in Davis, Fiona, Musgrove, Nell and Smart, Judith (eds), Founders, Firsts and Feminists: Women Leaders in Twentieth-Century Australia, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2011, pp. 326-337. Details


  • Crook, Karen, 'The Politics of Influence: The Work of the Country Women's Association in the Public Sphere', PhD thesis, The University of Melbourne, 1997. Details

Online Resources

See also