Australia’s farming women have not been absent, but unrecognised

Top image: Sallie Jones and cows, Jindivick, Victoria, 23 Nov 2016 Photographer: Catherine Forge Source: Museums Victoria

An old riddle goes: a father and son are in an accident, killing the father and sending the son to intensive care. When the doctor comes to see the boy, the doctor says, “oh my god, that’s my son!”.

Who is the doctor?

Some are quick to suggest that the doctor is the boy’s other father, adoptive father or biological father, before it dawns that the doctor could be the boy’s mother.

It is in the same vein that when you ask people what mental picture they conjure when they imagine a farmer, you are most likely to spend the following moments listening to varied descriptions of the Marlboro Man. Rugged, dirtied, Akubra mad, and, unfailingly a ‘he’.

The farm is one of many domains typically conflated with maleness. A hierarchical and gendered division of labour means that men and women are thought to perform different tasks in divergent realms, and work undertaken by men is afforded a higher status. Women are thought to care for the home, keep the books, and run the errands. However, it is the physical on-farm labour, typically thought of as men’s work, that is associated with the identity of a farmer, and legitimises the idea that farmers are men.

This notion is pervasive, and difficult to dislodge. It is problematic, given that Australian farming women have been on the land as long as farming men, and their work no less intrinsic. Women farmers have, and continue to play critical and innovative roles within and across our agricultural enterprises, producing at least 49% of real farm income. There lies a rich history and wealth of knowledge, largely untapped.

Until 1994, farming women were legally defined as ‘silent partners’, uninsurable on the land. Historically, they have been excluded from the national census, from agricultural courses until the 1970’s, from voting in farming organisations until the 1990’s, even from succession planning of their family farms.

In 1996, the Victorian Women’s Benevolent Trust (VWBT) funded the Rural Women’s Legal Outreach Program Who Gets the Farm, which raised awareness of the inequities that discriminate against rural women in land ownership and succession. It impressed the importance of succession planning upon rural women. Through focus groups and education workshops, these women could come together to discuss their experiences and inform themselves on their local services, legal rights and entitlements. VWBT funded the project again in 1997, for further research into the link between domestic violence and poor succession outcomes for women, and how women’s treatment by legal and financial professionals impacted decision making.

This year, VWT has had the privilege of funding a video about The Invisible Farmer, a new rural initiative for women. 

The Invisible Farmer launches an offensive against the historical and contemporary invisibility of our farming women. The largest ever study of Australian women on the land, it is supported by nation-wide partnerships between rural women and cultural organisations, academics, governmental and non-governmental bodies. At the risk of losing history undocumented, there is a pressing need to research and document their stories. We need to collect and preserve these women’s personal narratives in the national historical narrative, and map an agricultural landscape that is far less exclusively male.

The project centres on woman’s entitlement to recognition, and self-recognition; not as a farmer’s wife but as farmers in their own right. It demands fair and equal representation in agricultural bodies, boards and councils, in bodies of works in libraries and museums and history books, and on the consciousness of bodies in the street.

Australia’s farming women have not been absent, but unrecognised. It’s high time this changed.

Sophie is a volunteer at the Victorian Women’s Trust and an International Relations major at the Royal ​Melbourne Institute of Technology. Originally hailing from sunny Queensland, Sophie now resides in Melbourne and is fast learning the art of rugging up.