Woman McGowan, Catherine (Cathy)


Businesswoman, Farmer, Parliamentarian and Rural women's leader

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Cathy McGowan is an Australian politician and independent federal member for the northeast Victorian electorate of Indi. Before she was elected to Federal parliament in 2013 she was better known as a rural consultant, farmer and academic. She has extensive knowledge of the issues facing women in agriculture, having been a past chair of the Regional Women's Advisory Council and a past president of Australian Women in Agriculture. She was a recipient of a Centenary Medal in 2001 and, in 2004 was made an Officer of the Order of Australia 'for service to the community through raising awareness of and stimulating debate about issues affecting women in regional, rural and remote areas' (It's an Honour). She has a Masters of Applied Science in Agriculture and Rural Development, a Bachelor of Arts Degree and Diploma of Education. She is a graduate of the Australian Rural Leadership Program and a Churchill Fellow. In 2001 her work with the dairy industry won an international award for excellence in extension.

Cathy McGowan has been 'an active participant in the history of women and agriculture' all her life. (McGowan, 2003) The fourth girl child on a dairy farm in the Indigo Valley in north-east Victoria, her love and interest in agriculture has, she says 'been there since the beginning' (Cathy McGowan, 2014). Born in the 1950s, she says she had a traditional farm upbringing, looking after the calves, tending the vegetable garden and helping her mother with chores. 'There was nothing unusual in that … What was unusual was my mum and dad's commitment to education.' Her paternal grandfather who witnessed the impact of the First World War and depression passed on the belief that if you had a solid education behind you, then you could be resilient. 'So it wasn't just about agriculture, you had to go and learn about things and keep on learning,' says McGowan. 'It wasn't just formal learning; it was hands-on, practical learning as well' (Cathy McGowan, 2014).

There were other important parental influences. As well as working as a hands-on farmer, her father ran an agricultural consultancy business to supplement the family's farm income in the 1960s. As the business grew, he established contracts in Argentina, Kenya, Iran and the South Pacific, giving McGowan a sense of agriculture as a global enterprise. Thinking locally, as well, her mother taught her about the importance of connecting with community. She would attend any number of community meetings with her parents which left her with a love of rural communities and a desire to help them reach their potential and/or make them better.

After graduating with a BA/Dip Ed from Monash University, McGowan taught for a short while in schools but it was it was her job as a research assistant for the Federal member for Indi, Ewen Cameron, which whetted her appetite for community engagement as she learned how to work with Government and communities to bring about change. Her love of farming and community engagement were cemented when she completed her Masters in Applied Science in Agricultural and Rural Development from the University of Western Sydney at Hawkesbury in 1993. Keen to learn more about farming communities by working on her own property, Cathy joined local farm groups, seeking advice from other farming women. This led to her becoming a key player in the establishment of Australian Women in Agriculture in 1993. She was AwiA's inaugural secretary, and she has had various roles within the organisation including president in 1998. She was very involved in the organisation of the first international conference for Women in Agriculture, held in Melbourne in 1994 and was a team leader for the 100 Australian women who attended the second conference in Washington, USA, in 1998.

As a member of parliament, McGowan now has a new forum from which to advocate on behalf of Australian rural communities. But her approach is the same as it was when she was advocating on behalf of Australian Farm Women in the 1980s and 90s, with an emphasis on planning, networking and collaborating to bring about sustainable change. In 2003, as chair of the Regional Women's Advisory Council, McGowan spoke of the importance of 'integrated systems that create links between government, individuals, families and communities, businesses and industries' to the long term viability and sustainability of rural communities in Australia (McGowan, 2003, p. 51). In 2014, as the member for Indi, she told parliament: 'It is my belief that the key to rural and regional Australia having a long term sustainable and happy future, lies in a coordinated approach to regional development. We need a clear vision for our future and we need mechanisms for coordination, planning and advocacy' (Hume RDA planning).

Published Resources

Book Sections

  • 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

Online Resources

See also