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Stories of Women on the Land

Women's agricultural heritage in Victorian cultural collections.

From the grinding stones of Australia’s first farmers, Wagga quilts, butter pats and recipe books to family photographs, garden tools and agricultural equipment – women’s farm work is frequently found in museums. The contribution of women to Australian agriculture has a rich and very deep history. Yet these stories have been unacknowledged and continue to be undervalued.

The nature of women’s farm work is often rendered invisible because much of it is intangible and ephemeral, is characterised by relationships and oral tradition, and dismissed as just ‘domestic’ work when in fact this work is what has often sustained families, farms and communities. The layers of invisibility are even deeper for migrant and Indigenous women.

There has also been a long history of official barriers to recognising women’s work on the land. Farm women were deliberately omitted from the 1891 Victorian Census. Women were excluded from agriculture courses up into the early 1970s. It wasn’t until 1994 that women were legally recognised as farmers, prior to this they were defined as ‘non-productive "sleeping" partners’. And, It is only in recent years that scholars have finally acknowledged the 40-50,000 years of Indigenous knowledge and practice in complex systems of agriculture and aquaculture.

Victorian museums are a treasure trove of untold stories about the extraordinary lives of farm women and how they have shaped our land and rural communities.

Banner image: Jessie at Willis Vale, Greensborough Historical Society.

Grinding Stone, Donald History and Natural History Group

Donald History and Natural History Group operating the Donald Court House Museum

Australia’s First Farmers were Indigenous

Grinding stones were used by Indigenous women to grind or crush seeds, berries, roots, insects and small reptiles for food production. They were also used in making medicines and pigments. Indigenous Australians were the first people in the world to develop this grinding technology.

This grinding stone was uncovered by a farmer south of Donald. This stone is an interesting intersection between one farming technology and another, and an important opportunity to reflect on the connection to country, between Indigenous women farmers with those who now farm those lands.

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Woman’s agricultural yoke, Dunkeld Museum

Dunkeld Museum Inc.

A physical life

Women worked hard and long to build and sustain their farms. It was a very physically demanding life, especially before the introduction of electricity, hot water, gas and other modern technologies. Some farms were not connected to electricity until the 1960s.

This yoke was made by a farmer in Silesia for his daughter to use on the family farm, and was brought with them when the family migrated to Australia. It was used for carrying buckets of milk, vegetables, water or other farm supplies.

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Separator, Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village

Flagstaff Hill Maritime Village

Keeping the farm afloat

Farm women were often located in isolated areas, and needed to be self-sufficient, versatile, resilient and resourceful. They have always played a significant role in the economic survival and stability of their family farms, and continue to do so, contributing over 49 per cent of the total value of the output of farming communities.

Farming is an inherently risky business. Making butter, selling eggs, selling fruit and vegetables were some of the many traditional ways in which women kept their farms afloat and sustainable. From the 1950s farms were also sustained by women’s off farm income such as teaching and nursing.

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Sugar bowl cover, Orbost & District Historical Society

Orbost & District Historical Society

Feeding the farm

Women’s role in food production has been essential to the efficient operation of family farms and an important economic contribution to the community.

Every agricultural show celebrates the skills and knowledge of women in growing, preserving and preparing food. But scones are not just scones! They can be significant tools for community development, family connectedness, healing and rebuilding spirits in the face of crises, building relationships, and assisting in negotiations with bank managers and other important farm visitors.

This handmade sugar bowl cover was a decorative way to personalise a home, and kept flies and insects from food.

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Tobacco twine, Kiewa Valley Historical Society

Kiewa Valley Historical Society

Migrant Women

Migrant women are significantly absent from our farm histories. These women were additionally marginalised because of the barriers of language and culture.

Italian women were important contributors to the Tobacco industry in north east Victoria from the 1930s. They were involved in the manual processing of tobacco and used twine to tie tobacco into bunches ready for drying; they also did an array of field work including cultivating, planting seedlings and spraying insecticide.

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CWA Scrap Book, 1945-1988, Kiewa Valley Historical Society

Kiewa Valley Historical Society

Women Supporting Women

The CWA is the largest women’s organisation in Australia. It has played a significant role in improving the lives of rural women and their families and communities.

The CWA played a particularly important role for women who lived in isolated areas. One woman was known to walk 12 miles each month to her local CWA meeting for the companionship and support of other women.

The Tawonga CWA was formed on 7th Feb. 1946. This scrap book traces the history of the Tawonga branch of the CWA, its members and what they did to improve the living conditions for their community.

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Portrait of Mary Charman, City of Moorabbin Historical Society

City of Moorabbin Historical Society operating the Box Cottage Museum

Managing Family & Farm

Every woman’s life is extraordinary – and some stories are particularly powerful when we consider the complex demands of a large family and establishing and managing a farm business.

Mary Ann Charman, like many of the women of her time, had a large family of 12 children. She was a pioneer settler in the Cheltenham area in the 1850s and with her husband Stephen ran a market garden, poultry and pork farm, and specialised in Marigolds for medicinal purposes. Mary was a regular trader on the streets of St Kilda where she drove a horse drawn cart selling her pork, poultry and vegetables.

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Photograph, Bendigo Agricultural Show, 1933, National Wool Museum

National Wool Museum

Value Adding

Women have often shown leadership and innovation by exploring new opportunities for their farm businesses: selling at farmers markets, developing niche products, venturing into tourism with farm stays, and value adding. These strategies were often provoked by major down turns in the economy or industry, and could help extend the economic base and security of family farms. This entrepreneurial work also created important industry outcomes.

This photo depicts a show entry of wool work which won First Prize and Show Champion at the Royal Melbourne Show in 1933 and the First Prize at the Bendigo Agricultural Show in 1933. The entry was undertaken by the Women's Section of the Country Party to promote the use of wool in furnishings.

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Reaping wheat, Tatura Irrigation & Wartime Camps Museum

Tatura Irrigation & Wartime Camps Museum

The Invisible Farmer

Women farmers are largely undocumented and invisible. While it is rare to find images of women using agricultural equipment it is important to acknowledge that they have always had an active role in all aspects of farming. In addition to their family responsibilities, women have participated in land clearing, ploughing, mustering, drafting, shearing, harvesting and the numerous other farm activities.

In spite of women’s involvement in the operation, management and development of farms across the ages, they still face gender barriers which exclude them from farm inheritance and general recognition as farmers. Recent research has indicated that in Australia only 10% of farm successors are daughters.

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Peter WEGNER, ‘The Wake 1’, Nillumbik Shire Council

Nillumbik Shire Council

Holding family, farm and community together

In addition to the many tasks of managing farm and family, women have played a critical role in caring for the health and spirit of their family, farm and community. It is the women who hold the community together during the inevitable and sometimes overwhelming challenges of floods, bushfires, rabbit plaques, drought, falling prices, rising debts and periods of major change.

This bronze figurine is part of a ‘Black Saturday’ series by Peter Wegner, which explores the emotion and grief that was experienced by many Nillumbik residents as a result of the 2009 'Black Saturday' bushfires.

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