In Defence of the Country Women’s Association

By Karen Pickering

Feminist commentator Karen Pickering may seem an unlikely advocate for the CWA: young, urban and more concerned with social justice than mastering scones. But in her spirited and surprising Lunchbox/Soapbox last week, she convincingly argued why the CWA is a varied and valuable organisation - with a significant investment in the wider community, and improving the lot of women, in Australia and overseas.

Coming from a farming family, and having worked on cattle stations, there are things I always knew about the Country Women’s Association. I knew they met regularly and they knew everything that was going on in the district, for better or worse. I knew they knitted, cross-stitched, baked, crocheted, decorated, iced, piped, patchworked, preserved and catered just about every event that took place, from weddings to christenings, funerals to race meetings, B&Ss, rodeos and debutante balls, and of course, agricultural shows. There, they competed for ribbons in cutthroat contests of skill, stamina and diplomacy. After all, the judges had to attend meetings with the competitors next month.

Food as fundraising

But why are they so into food? It’s not just because it was at the centre of family life, as women saw their role at the time the organisation was formed. And it’s not just because, as recent trends in pop culture demonstrate, that food is important to all of us, whether it’s delicious, comforting, or just another way that we bond together. And it’s not even just because cooking together can be fun, educational and a bit of a kick.

It’s also because the CWA is a massive and highly efficient fundraising machine. And food sells. You play to your strengths and if people want a cup of tea and a slice of sponge cake, that’s something you can do really well and charge them a small amount for. The South Australian CWA teamed up with a local flour mill to brand a scone mix that’s sold pre-packaged, and for which they receive part payment, boosting their fundraising capacity passively. When the CWA is catering they’re not only sharing their skills and valuing the work of women in a visible and tangible way, they’re also making money for important projects here and abroad.

That doesn’t mean they’re not serious about producing edible goods of the highest quality and calibre – you only need to see the live jam judging at the Royal Show to feel the visceral thrill of high stakes competition and the extraordinary standards required – but the sharing and valuing of domestic skills is just part of what the CWA is about. You’ll also find an incredible emphasis on friendship, public service, social justice and improving your understanding of, and engagement with, the world around you, and the world you leave to the next generation.

'The CWA is a massive and highly efficient fundraising machine. And food sells.' *Image via Brown Council.*

'The CWA is a massive and highly efficient fundraising machine. And food sells.' Image via Brown Council.

A new generation?

But that generation has other ideas. Successive generations of women have largely found other ways to form meaningful bonds with their fellow women, to deal with their feelings of isolation (if not actually being isolated physically), to effect social change and contribute to the community. Sometimes but not always that involves the internet, a resource that’s not only more difficult to access in rural and regional Australia, but that many older women have little experience with.

So when I think of all the amazing skills that could be handed down from older to younger members of the CWA, I also think of what could be handed up – assistance with internet banking, Facebook or Skyping the grandkids and friends overseas, playing Minecraft, or accessing services they might otherwise have to travel for.

But most of all, I think about the company and the stories and the remarkable friendships we could have. In my short time researching the CWA I’ve already met some very cool women: Val and Phyllis are both pretty pumped to see a young person interested in this space they helped create, with their love and hard work, and Dulcie was very interested in my take on why they shouldn’t sell golliwog dolls in the CWA shop. And very open to my message, it should be said.

The beating heart of tiny towns

I remember the CWA as the beating heart of tiny towns in outback Queensland. They had their work cut out for them when a stockman or manager married a city girl, or when a baby arrived, and they also delivered unbelievable amounts of food to properties whenever someone died. I recall them being especially adept at caring for women whose husbands, or sons, had taken their own lives – a scourge of rural life that may ebb and flow in times of drought and flood, but remains fairly constant.

When other forms of disaster struck – flood, fire or storm – they made the tea and sandwiches for the CFA, the SES, the police and the Flying Doctors, and often organised billeting or care packages for those displaced or traumatised. They’re little things that matter a great deal. And I always knew they were an integral part of the fabric of country life. But why should we, in the city, care – beyond curiosity or an interest in cultural history?

Mostly because this is a grass-roots network of women that has lasted 85 years and still boasts 25,000 members. At the height of its membership, in the post-war period, that was 120,000 members and it’s worth looking at why. It is a non-sectarian, non-party-political organisation, formed at a time when men were scarcely able to communicate across those lines. It flourished through the first half of the twentieth century, making a huge and undeniable contribution to the national war effort, and finding its power as a political force for women and children, whichever party was in government.

Women looking out for other women

It’s really the story of women looking out for other women.

But while the CWA is explicit in its aim to improve the lives of women and children, particularly in rural and regional areas, they don’t only advocate on behalf of women, or even just country people. No, the CWA is helping many other people outside Australia, and even all of us, whether we know it or not.

I also know that the CWA has had its problems, not only in terms of image but substantially in terms of relationships and attitudes towards certain women and other people who transgressed social norms at different times in its history. Like many formal organisations in Australia, it’s been largely white and middle-class, though rural poverty complicates this assessment somewhat.

The relationship with and inclusion of Indigenous women has often been fraught. On the one hand, staunch advocates within the CWA agitated for membership to be open to all and encouraged the formation of Indigenous branches in the 1950s, while others critiqued this, as simply another attempt at assimilation and the erosion of Aboriginal culture.

LGBT women have also not traditionally felt welcome in the CWA, though arguably that has been consistent with broader social attitudes. I recently met a woman in WA who told me that her local CWA branch cared less about her homosexuality than anyone else in her small town. At meetings, she was just another woman and this was a gift to her. I would hope that all branches would extend the same welcome to gay and trans* women who wanted to be a part of CWA life.

Social justice and crafternoons: Different ways to be CWA

Whatever the failings of the organisation, there is another thing worth considering alongside the substantial record of good accomplished for the whole community – and that is that the CWA is an organisation comprised and governed by rank and file membership. That means change can be driven from anywhere, including right here in this city.

The CWA authorises branches in all parts of the city and the country, numbering women of all ages, and there is no requirement to produce baked goods or patchwork quilts. A branch could ostensibly exist for discussions and fundraising around social justice, with no sharing of domestic skills at any point. Or of course, your branch may be totally up for cakes, crochet and crafternoons. Recently, they approved the Brunsburg Branch, for Brunswick and Coburg, so maybe you already have a local. Or you might have to form your own.

The Victorian CWA was formed in 1928 out of concern for women living in isolation and in difficult times.

Women living in isolation and in difficult times.

That phrase struck me as particularly resonant because it seems to me that women are always living in difficult times and that isolation isn’t always geographical. Combating the isolation we sometimes feel is often the best way through the difficulties we face – the kind that only other women understand.

Support your local girl gang

I’m fond of saying ‘Support your local girl gang’ and the CWA have been doing this for 85 years.

The first branch of the CWA in Victoria was the Yarra Branch in March 1928. Six months later this was followed by the formation of the Yarra Branch – Younger Set, in October (in 1966 the ‘youth’ branches were incorporated and all branches afforded the same status – the Younger Set came of age). In 1958 the association started Night Branches, allowing even more women to participate, regardless of other commitments to work, family or caring in the home.

By 1930, a newsletter had been established, which evolved over the years and is now the Victorian Country Woman, in which you can find articles about fundraising, celebrations of anniversaries, performing arts events, patterns, recipes, and serious discussion of the environmental crisis, family violence, and solidarity with women around the world.

This year CWA Victoria launched the ‘What Can I Do?’ Project, aimed at teaching practical skills for preventing, identifying and dealing with family violence through a series of workshops held around the state, and an increased focus at conferences, meetings and events. State president Carol Clay said: ‘Domestic violence is so prevalent in society, something has to be done about it. There is a ripple effect – it affects the children, both parties, extended family and it really is an insidious thing.’

Last year, the global focus was on Cambodia, which had been selected as the ‘Country of Study’ for 2012. (This year it’s New Zealand.) So not only did members of CWA Victoria visit and share their experiences of Cambodia, but many members around the state learned some Khmer and tried their hand at Cambodian cooking and craftwork, as well as learning about a country where land rights, human trafficking and the missing generations of men affect Cambodian women profoundly.

During World War II, the CWA lent its considerable skill set to sewing parachutes, knitting socks and blankets, stitching camouflage nets (150,000), cutting sheepskin vests and producing, preparing and paying for food parcels to be sent to Britain. The leverage gained here was lasting, as the CWA has gone on to be influential with state and federal governments on issues as diverse as women’s health, infant welfare, depression and suicide prevention, water sustainability, coal seam gas, domestic violence, problem gambling, and the NDIS.

So if you care deeply about single mothers forced deeper into more entrenched poverty, or the women and children refugees suffering in detention centres, then that’s well within the remit of the CWA.

Achievements in the community and the world

CWA Victoria is officially represented at the Victorian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Council on the Ageing, Traveller’s Aid, FarmSafe, BreastScreen and Foodbank Victoria.

In the past 85 years they’ve taught craft work to women prisoners in Pentridge, run a home tutoring scheme for migrants to learn English, and awarded scholarships for nurses to complete postgraduate qualifications in rural and regional areas, as well as funded regular school scholarships and bursaries for country kids. They taught home nursing and first aid from 1938 (the same year the Migrant Reading Scheme began) and are also widely credited with getting the white lines painted on country roads.

CWAs around the country provided absolutely invaluable assistance during recent disasters such as the Black Saturday fires, the Queensland and Victorian floods, and large donations have been made towards recovery and infrastructure building in other countries including Bangladesh, Indonesia, Timor Leste and Papua New Guinea.

The massive fundraising capacities of the CWA are often channelled into funding for women abroad, especially in our region. This year the Associated Country Women of the World held a global event called Women Walk the World. The idea was that if members in every participating country started walking at 10am their time on a particular date, there would be a woman walking for other women for a whole day. The money raised would then go to places of need within the region of each country. Australia’s went to the women of the Pacific: over $25,000.

Recently I went to visit my newest family member, born in the very tiny Mitcham Private a couple of months ago, and his mum had received a newborn care package including a hand-crocheted teddy bear, from the local CWA branch, Donvale.

And obviously, every year you can visit the majestic CWA dining hall at the Show, festooned in decorative tea towels and dishing up food you will dream about for the rest of year, for half the price of anything else at the Showgrounds. They began catering at the site in 1936.

So it’s this combination of what I’ve always known and what I keep discovering that has led me to look deeper into the history and significance of the CWA, and I found quickly that I’m not alone.

Reviving the CWA

Recent years have seen something of a revival in interest around the association, with spontaneous outbursts of love and admiration in evidence around the country.

In Sydney last year, the performance art collective, Brown Council, held an event at the CWA headquarters in Potts Point, called MASS ACTION: 137 Cakes in 90 Hours. The four members, Di Smith, Frances Barrett, Kate Blackmore, and Kelly Doley, baked around the clock for 90 hours in an attempt to cook every recipe in the iconic Jam Drops and Marble Cake cookbook, in tribute to the 90 year history of their host organisation. They had certified CWA experts on hand to invigilate and eventually judge their efforts, followed by an afternoon tea for members and invited guests. The whole performance was liveblogged, tweeted, broadcast and completed according to strict rules:

  1. There must be continuous baking for the entire 90 hours.

  2. At least two members must be cooking at all times and all four members must be cooking during the designated opening hours. (They welcomed members and the public during set periods to observe their work and ask questions.)

  3. Members must not leave the CWA headquarters at any time during the 90 hours.

  4. Members must attempt to bake all cakes in accordance with CWA judging standards, but if a cake fails (burns, sinks etc.) the member may not attempt to bake it again.

  5. All cakes must be photographed and the images uploaded onto the website.

I was asked to liveblog the performance but it happened during SlutWalk, another grassroots event for women. I encourage you to check out the Brown Council website for a living record of this marvellous event.

Mass Action. *Image via Concrete Playground.*

Mass Action. Image via Concrete Playground.

As you can tell from the rules it was pretty rigorous stuff, and when I spoke to Kelly from Brown Council, she told me the CWA were absolutely delighted. The performance was trying to engage with complex ideas about the relentlessness of domestic work, women-only spaces and relationships, gendered roles in the home, culturally embedded notions of women’s work, and how womens’ skills and activities are valued. It also highlighted the importance of intergenerational dialogue, a theme that is becoming increasingly important for the CWA as its membership, and the population, ages. So Brown Council met some wonderful older women who were surprised and happy to see a younger generation value their skills and seek out their expertise and support.

Across the country, the Perth Belles were accepted as an official branch of the CWA WA in 2009, one of many city branches – but, fairly unusually, comprising mostly members in their twenties and thirties. They run an annual Stitch and Bitch (hilariously called a Stitch and Chat by the West Australian) that collectively knits blankets for newborns at the King Edward Memorial Hospital for Women. The next one is on 30 June if you’re over there. They also run regular events, including Mother’s Day Teas and feminist forums, and are currently building communal gardens in women’s refuges, to assist women and children in therapy and recovery. Have a look at their Facebook page and you’ll see a fascinating collection of links to articles about feminism, sustainability and food, ageing and the elderly, family violence, infant and maternal health, recipes, patterns, Julia Gillard, campaigns for women abroad, and knitting.

In Hobart, the CBD Branch is part CWA chapter, part art project and all in all, an exploration of the idea of community. Founded by artists with a view to creating a space for site-specific works and installations by appropriating the structure of the CWA, that is, a branch that meets regularly and plans community events through shared aims and goals. Reading about the first meeting, in which members of the executive from headquarters came and officially opened the branch, the founding Branch Secretary of Hobart CBD, Judith Abell, noted that ‘there is probably more of a need for us as a group to realign our ideas about what the CWA is as an organisation, than any requirement for … [members of the CWA] to realign themselves to the idea of the work of contemporary artists.’

It’s variations on that theme returning again and again; it’s not that the CWA isn’t interested in us, but rather that they think we’re not interested in them. But I am. Hugely interested.

I found out recently that Germaine Greer told a very large feminist audience at the Opera House in Sydney that they should all join the CWA. She might’ve said this because they’re engaged in the hard work of practical feminism: in supporting other women and benefiting the whole community, in serving the public by sharing their skills and raising money for those in need. Or because they exercise and teach moral leadership: in fighting perceptions of older women and the value of women’s work in general, and in contributing to broader dialogues about issues facing women and children in Australia.

Whatever she meant, I think she was onto something.