Theme Rural Women

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Australian women have always struggled to achieve equitable representation in Australian public and corporate life, and their attempts to do so in the agricultural sector have provided no exceptions to this rule. Very few women achieve leadership or policy-making positions in traditional farm organisations or statutory agricultural boards, even though their contribution to agricultural production has been significant and sustained. 'The explanation', says Margaret Alston, 'lies in a farming culture that has been particularly repressive of women'. Those few women who move into representative positions are frequently ignored by their male colleagues, with the result that 'discourses of agriculture and rurality are framed around a male standpoint with women mere shadows of outraged silence' (Alston, 'Women's Representation', 474). They have been rendered 'invisible' (Williams).

Speaking early in 2013, Alana Johnson, a member of a fifth-generation farming family and Victorian Rural Woman of the year in 2010, voiced her frustration. 'The story of rural women is absent', she said:

but it is absent in a way that is more than just because it's forgotten. It's more like women have been dismissed. People have known that women have been there and what they've been doing, but they only ever talk about men. It's almost a purposeful discounting. (Johnson, Interview)

Johnson was correct. Writing Australian rural women out of national history was not just a case of faulty memory; it was official policy for some years. After 1891, the Victorian census no longer registered farm wives as 'engaged in agricultural pursuits' because to do so created an unwanted impression 'that women were in the habit of working in the fields', as they did in the so-called 'old world', but 'certainly not in Australia' (Census, 1891, 192). Nearly a century later, in 1986, the extent to which women in rural communities have been ignored was demonstrated graphically in Victoria when a review of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs showed that, out of a budget of $50 million, a grand total of $100 had been spent on women. Then, in the 1991 Australian census, almost twice as many men as women were recorded as engaged in the agricultural industry, contrary to Margaret Alston's New South Wales research, which revealed a very different story. Women's work on farms, she said, continued to be 'discounted, devalued, and certainly not recorded' (Alston, 1995, 3-4).

This lack of recognition was galling to women who had played more than supporting roles in rural communities under stress in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. Throughout these decades, rural Australia had faced a period of deep social and economic transformation accompanied by extended periods of drought, falling commodity prices, reduction of rural services and the shift of people from rural and regional centres to the major metropolitan centres. Just as rural women during the economic crisis sixty years earlier organised to find solutions and support through the establishment of the various state-based County Women's Associations (CWA), so did the late 20th-century rural crisis mobilise women, many of whom responded by seeking off-farm work to supplement farm income, or were sole managers of family farms while their husbands and adult sons sought work elsewhere. The extent to which their contribution went unrecognised, as measured by a representative voice in the historical narrative, was a source of anger and frustration, not just because it was unfair in principle but because it translated into harsh realities for farming women. Not only were they excluded from industry bodies, they were also passed over for farm succession. Furthermore, their characterisation in the law as non-productive sleeping partners meant that, when they were injured doing farm work, they were not covered by insurance. It also resulted in a lack of confidence in front of men, so that farm women were reluctant to learn basic skills such as welding and fencing in mixed-gender groups.

However, the more rural women were denied recognition and the opportunity to engage in agricultural decision-making, the more they united in a 'rising crescendo of discontent and exasperation', seeking their own channels to government through new and 'more radical' women's lobby groups (Alston & Wilkinson, 391). This late 20th-century farm women's movement was led by women who had lived through the second wave of feminism. While many, if not most, of the participants in the late 20th-century Australian Women in Agriculture movement would baulk at using the word 'feminist' to describe themselves or their activities, there is no doubt that Australian feminism, through the machinery of government it inspired in the 1980s to advance gender equity, was instrumental to the establishment of the movement. In response to severe drought and the subsequent farm crisis of the 1980s, and against the backdrop of a government receptive to women's concerns, farm women mobilised to advocate on behalf of themselves, their families, their communities and the environment. Many of the women who led the Australian movement later offered significant leadership to the global rural women's movement.

The Australian Women in Agriculture Movement

'The biggest change and the greatest gift to rural women in this country was the Whitlam government's offer of free university education', says Alana Johnson, one of the many young women who left farms to engage in tertiary education in the 1970s. 'Going to university slap bang in the middle of the urban women's second wave of feminism … most of us returned to rural Australia totally different women.' While it is true that in many parts of the Australian bush 'the word 'feminist' is still a dirty word', it is also true that there is 'an emerging feminist consciousness', in no small part due to the experience of tertiary education (Haslam-McKenzie, 24). Women like Johnson came back to claim their place on farms and to form relationships with their husbands that were not patterned on what they had seen in their parents' relationships. 'We refused to be farmers' wives', she said, 'And our husbands didn't want us to be'. Nor would they be patronised by men who would not recognise them: 'We stood up to agribusinesses like Elders and Dalgety who assumed that all farmers were men' (Johnson). Indeed, they made sure that agribusinesses that made that assumption would feel the impact on their bottom line. Debbie Thiele, for instance, the inaugural winner of the ABC Rural Woman of the Year Award in 1994, ensured that a certain chemicals salesman received no further orders when he made the mistake of insisting upon talking to her husband about his product line, despite her insistence that she would be the one to make the decision (Henningham, 'Thiele', Australian Women's Register, & Brilliant Ideas). The rural activism of women like Johnson and Thiele was personal, political and influenced by feminism, although Johnson acknowledges that, as a rural woman activist who calls herself a feminist working in a feminist movement, she is in the minority (Johnson, Interview).

If the early leaders of the Australian Women in Agriculture movement were influenced by a personal relationship with feminism, then that relationship flourished in the supportive bureaucratic environment of the 1980s. Australia led the way in introducing women into important roles within the public service so that they could work for the advancement of women. These women public servants, or 'femocrats' as they were called, provided a model to the world of how bureaucratic reform can bring about cultural reform through raising women's issues across the public service. Departments of agriculture were no exception, and, when rural women's groups began to agitate as the rural crisis of the 1980s escalated, a bureaucratic response ensued. As a result of the 1986 budget review referred to above, the Victorian government decided to appoint two part-time women's officers to a designated unit in the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. Strong women in government, including Joan Kirner, Kay Setches and Caroline Hogg, took a keen interest in the unit and 'supported an activist approach in addressing a rural women's agenda' (Alston, Mainstreaming, 2003, 24). The establishment of the nation's first Rural Women's Network (formed in 1986) was an important item on this agenda. In time, other networks emerged in other states around the nation.

The Rural Women's Networks harnessed the activism of grassroots organisations that were springing up in local communities around the country. Alana Johnson recalls that the first meeting to discuss establishing a network occurred in her lounge room in Benalla in the early 1980s. She says that local women like her 'found each other … we knew that we needed to bring women together to achieve resistance of invisibility. It wouldn't happen otherwise. It was instinctive' (Johnson, Interview). As well as using these lounge room meetings as a starting point to discuss how they might link with other women having similar meetings across the state (for instance, Mary Salce (Butler, 'Salce', Australian Women's Register; Victorian Honour Roll 2001), Catherine Noy (Butler, 'Noy', Australian Women's Register), Laurene Dietrich (Butler, 'Dietrich', Australian Women's Register) and Audrey Dreschler (Butler, 'Dreschler', Australian Women's Register), they drew up plans to approach people in government who might be able to help them. Local extension officers from the Department of Primary Industries, for example, were drawn into the network and began to teach these informal groups of women how to lobby government (Johnson, Interview).

As well as having a practical political purpose, these networks played a very important role in what Johnson called 'raising the collective consciousness'. This was needed, she says, 'because a lot of women didn't have a context in which to question their lives' (Johnson, Interview). With the help of the Victorian government project officers, this collective consciousness raising was coordinated state wide when the first 'Women on Farms Gathering' was held in Warragul, Victoria, in 1990. The location of the gatherings, held annually in different rural locations across the state since that time, is rotated, with the responsibility for organisation handed over to an autonomous committee of local women each year. Women from Queensland, Tasmania and New South Wales attended the fifth gathering in Tallangatta in 1993, and the movement spread to Queensland and New South Wales in 1993, and to Tasmania in 1994. The importance of the gatherings, as a place where farm women learned skills and affirmed their place as farmers through the process of group story-telling, cannot be over-stated. Elaine Paton, one of the early leaders of the Women in Agriculture movement in Victoria, recalls: 'I went to a Woman on Farms Gathering as a farmer's wife and I walked away a farmer'. And, for women like Johnson and Cathy McGowan, who was also a university-educated, feminist farm woman tied up in the movement, it was those moments that were memorable: 'When we saw the feeling of empowerment travel from we university women to women in the 40s and 50s-that was the magic' (Johnson, Interview).

The direct influence of public servants working for the Rural Women's Network, such as Jenny Mitchell, Liz Hogan and Anna Lottkowitz, was vital to the success of the gatherings, but it was the local women who ran them and, in the process, learned the leadership skills that drove the establishment of a formal organisation within the Australian Women in Agriculture movement. Liz Hogan of the Rural Women's Network convened a state-wide meeting in Ballarat of activists, academics and women's group leaders, from which arose the Australian Women in Agriculture peak organisation (AWIA) in 1993, with Dorothy Dunn (Butler, 'Dunn', Australian Women's Register) elected as its inaugural president. It was a committee of AWIA that organised the First International Women in Agriculture Conference in 1994.

The First International Women in Agriculture Conference

Key priorities for the newly formed organisation were to deal with the problem of invisibility of Australian farm women and to plan for a research agenda that would provide them with an evidence base from which to advocate. Bold from the outset, the AWIA leadership, which included Mary Salce, proposed not a national conference of farm women but an international conference. Salce had attended the National Farm Women's Conference in Canada in 1991, and she realised that the recognition of rural women was an international issue. Fellow dairy farmer Lyn Johnson had also been exposed to the activism of American farming women (Butler, 'First International Women in Agriculture Conference', Australian Women's Register).

A steering committee of nine women was set up and incorporated in order to seek funding for the event. The members were: Mary Salce, convenor, and Anna Lottkowitz, Ruth Liepins, Anne-Marie Tenni, Maureen Walsh, Audrey Dreschler, Jennifer North, Rosemary Grant, Lyn Johnson (Butler, 'Johnson', Australian Women's Register) and Dorothy Dunn. An advisory committee consisted of women in fourteen government and non-government bodies, including the Australian Wheat Board, the Rural Women's Reference Group, the Country Women's Association and the Sydney Myer fund. The core organisation involved forty-seven women overall and provides testament to the efficiency and effectiveness of the rural women's networks involved (McGowan, 48-9).

The conference, held in Melbourne in July 1994, was a rousing success, attracting over 850 women from 34 countries to what the then governor general of Australia, Bill Hayden, described as 'the largest agricultural conference ever held in the country' (Alston, Mainstreaming, 24). Not only did it establish AWIA as a powerful lobby group, it paved the way for international conferences to follow, in the United States in 1998 and Spain in 2002. These subsequent conferences reflected the collaborative approach to networking that AWIA sought to develop across government, non-government, business and farming organisations. The party that travelled to Spain in 2002, for instance, included a senior member of the federal government (the parliamentary secretary for agriculture) as well as the managing director of a northern Australian transport company, and Indigenous woman Elaine McKeon (McGowan, 48-9).

Furthermore, the conference captured the attention of governments across the country, and they began establishing women's units in their own state departments of agriculture, following the model established in Victoria linking rural women to the policy process. As the state organisational structures grew, the chorus of women demanding support grew louder, but it was uncoordinated. In 1995, Margaret Alston was approached to organise the first National Rural Women's Forum, to take place in Canberra at Parliament House, with the explicit aim of providing a national focus to women's activities occurring around the country. A national agenda for women resulted from these discussions. The federal government also committed to the establishment of a Rural Women's Unit within the Department of Primary Industries and Energy, the first unit dedicated to rural women's issues at a federal level. One of the most remarkable achievements of this unit was the Missed Opportunities report, published in 1998, which documented and tabulated the economic contribution women made to agriculture. Evidence-based research finally recognised that women contributed 48 per cent of real farm income though their on- and off-farm labour; the report thus honoured women's contributions and provided economic data to support their demands for equal representation on key decision-making boards.

ABC Rural Women of the Year Awards

Assisting the development of the Australian Women in Agriculture movement was the Rural Women of the Year Awards, initially mounted by the Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC) in 1994 and subsequently supported by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC). Promoting the achievements of women in agriculture to a national audience, the awards were an important and affirming initiative that also reflected the collaborative nature of farm women's activism.

Lisa Palu (Henningham, 'Palu', Australian Women's Register), the grand-daughter of sugar cane farmers, was an ABC radio rural reporter for the Wide Bay/Burnett River region in Queensland. Looking for stories in the early 1990s, she noticed how much women contributed to farm economies and how reluctant they were to speak up about it. Asking one group of women why this was so, she found that their responses were variations on one theme: that they were not valued and that they would be ridiculed by men if they offered a point of view. The problem of lack of recognition was also a problem of lack of confidence and feelings of powerlessness.

Palu was aware of the activism of farm women in Victoria and how this had spread nationally through the influence of the Women in Farms Gatherings. The Queensland Rural Women's Network (QRWN) was established in 1993 (with Georgie Somerset, as a founding board member and president), and, at around the same time, Lisa Palu began to promote the idea of an award to recognise the role and contributions of women in rural and regional communities. With the support of the Queensland network, she approached her supervisor at ABC Radio's Country Hour in Queensland, Edwina Clowes (Henningham, 'Clowes', Australian Women's Register), who offered unqualified endorsement of the idea. The ABC Rural Department, with strong support from the national editor, Lucy Broad, expanded the state-based Queensland award to a national audience.

A feature of the award was the ABC Radio Leadership Seminar for all regional winners. Participants came together for two and a half days to attend workshops on leadership, team work, presentation and media skills. For all the women, regardless of who became the national winner, the value of the seminar and the opportunities for networking that it presented were priceless.

The first ABC Radio Australian Rural Woman of the Year Award was announced on 1 July 1994 as a highlight of the International Women in Agriculture Conference in Melbourne. South Australian cereal and sheep farmer Deborah Theile, the inaugural winner, was followed in 1995 by Robyn Tredwell (Henningham, 'Tredwell', Australian Women's Register, & Brilliant Ideas) from Birdwood Downs in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, then Barbara Scott (Henningham, 'Scott', Australian Women's Register, & Brilliant Ideas) of Coonabarabran in New South Wales in 1996 and Jane Bennett of Elizabeth Town in Tasmania in 1997 (Henningham, 'Bennett', Australian Women's Register, & Brilliant Ideas).


Australian Women in Agriculture remains a vibrant and active organisation, focused on connecting Australia's agricultural women and providing the means for their participation at all levels of decision-making. Training and mentoring in capacity building, decision-making, leadership, trade, industry development, corporate governance, and succession planning are some of the associated areas of focus. Members believe that AWIA's organisational success lies in its capacity for strategic thinking, its patience and the membership's talent for identifying people in government who can help them. Alana Johnson explains that 'we work on people', and cites the example of Cathy McGowan, who took three years to convince the powers that be to allow farm families two votes in the Victorian Farmers Federation (Johnson, Interview). AWIA members also have confidence in a model of leadership that remains focused on capacity building and networking to share experience and knowledge. Johnson comments: 'We can talk about a couple of stand-out women, but on the whole it is for all of us together' (Johnson, Interview). Individual grandstanding has not been encouraged, although effort and achievement are acknowledged and acclaimed. In the view of Cathy McGowan, a past president of AWIA who also served as chair of the federal government's Regional Women's Advisory Council and was elected the independent MHR for Indi in 2013, 'we have created our own group of wise women rural elders. Our leaders. Our heroes'. The challenge will be to continue to honour those 'ordinary' and 'unsung' women who have played 'a vital part of the success of Australian women' (McGowan, 48, 49).

Additional sources: Johnson, Alana, interviewed by Nikki Henningham, 7 February 2013.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Lisa Palu interviewed by Ros Bowden in the Women of the land oral history project [sound recording], 13 March 1995, ORAL TRC 3406/32; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources


  • Alston, Margaret, Women on the Land: The Hidden Heart of Rural Australia, University of New South Wales (UNSW) Press, Sydney, New South Wales, 1995. Details
  • Eisenstein, Hester, Inside Agitators: Australian Femocrats and the State, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, New South Wales, 1996. Details

Book Sections

  • Alston, Margaret, 'Australian Rural Women: Mainstreaming the Agenda', in Rowan O'Hagan, Margaret Alston and Shelley Spriggs (eds), Setting the Agenda for Rural Women: Research Directions, Conference Proceedings and Recommendations, Charles Sturt University: Centre for Rural Social Research, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, 2003, pp. 23 - 35. Details
  • Haslam - Mckenzie, Fiona, 'Farm Women and the "F" word', in Margaret Alston (ed.), Australian Rural Women: Towards 2000, Charles Sturt University: Centre for Rural Social Research, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, 1998, pp. 23 - 30. Details
  • Jordens, Ann-Mari, 'Empowering Rural Communities through Leadership: Rural Australians for Refugees, 2001-2007', in Francis, Rosemary; Grimshaw, Patricia; and Standish, Ann (eds), Seizing the Initiative: Australian Women Leaders in Politics, Workplaces and Communities, The University of Melbourne: eScholarship Research Centre, Melbourne, Victoria, 2012, pp. 356-364. Details
  • McGowan, Cathy, 'Wishing Well and Crystall Ball', in Rowan O'Hagan, Margaret Alston and Shelley Spriggs (eds), Setting the Agenda for Rural Women: Research Directions, Conference Proceedings and Recommendations, Charles Sturt University: Centre for Rural Social Research, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, 2003, pp. 47 - 51. Details

Edited Books

  • Alston, Margaret (ed.), Australian Rural Women: Towards 2000, Charles Sturt University: Centre for Rural Social Research, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, 1998. Details
  • Bowden, Ros (ed.), Women of the Land: Stories of Australia's Rural Women as Told to Ros Bowden, Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Books, Sydney, New South Wales, 1995. Details
  • O'Hagan, Rowan, Alston, Margaret and Spriggs, Shelley (eds), Setting the Agenda for Rural Women: Research Directions, Conference Proceedings and Recommendations, Charles Sturt University: Centre for Rural Social Research, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, 2003. Details

Journal Articles

  • Alston, Margaret, 'Women's Representation in Australian Rural Context', Sociologica Ruralis, vol. 43, no. 4, 2003, pp. 474 - 486. Details
  • Alston, Margaret and Wilkinson, Jane, 'Australian Farm Women - Shut Out or Fenced In? The Lack of Women in Agricultural Leadership', Sociologica Ruralis, vol. 38, no. 3, 1998, pp. 391 - 408. Details
  • Dale-Hallett, Liza, with Diffey, Rhonda, 'Motherboards and Desert Sands: Stories of Australian Rural Women', Frontiers, vol. 27, no. 1, 2006, pp. 90 - 115. Details
  • Sheridan, Alison, Haslam-McKenzie, Fiona and Still, Leonie,, 'Making Visible the "space of betweenness": Understanding Women's Limited Access to Leadership in Regional Australia', Gender, Place and Culture, vol. 18, no. 6, December 2011, pp. 732 - 748. Details

Newspaper Articles


  • Victoria. Office of the Government Statist, & Hayter, H. H., General report on the census of Victoria, taken on the 5th April, 1891: Containing also references to the results of censuses taken at the same date in the other Australasian colonies, with summary tables, diagrams, and maps, vol. 3 of 6, Robt. S. Brain, Government Printer, Melbourne, Victoria, 1893, 192 pp. Details


Resource Sections

Online Resources