Today marks the start of the Rural Women’s Network – Mark II. The Network is a means to support, promote, inspire, unite, empower, engage and help develop rural and regional women from across Victoria. This will be through providing information about events and opportunities, promoting groups and their activities, producing a newsletter and other social media content and providing chances for women to enter awards and engage with government to share their ideas and thoughts on a range of issues. It will be a place for women to look, listen, speak and learn and a network for all women (and men).
But before we start, it seems appropriate to re-trace the previous Network’s step, to set the scene for our exciting future. The Rural Women’s Network may have officially begun in 1986 but this memory from former regional bureaucrat Frank McClelland shows that things were afoot before this.
Frank’s McClelland – Office of Rural Affairs recalled:
“Sometime in 1983 I was approached by an ABC Rural Reporter (Lynette Wilks). She had been broadcasting a series of interviews on the lives of women on farms and a small group of farm women in Hamilton contacted her to see if more could be done to reach other farm women. Lyn Wilks, Rae Thompson, the Hamilton Group and I designed a daylong seminar for Women in Agriculture which was run on some 50 occasions across rural Victoria during 1984-5….An integral part of the day was small group discussions by the farm women of issues they saw as important to the success of their farms and to their happiness. The spin-offs and consequences of the seminars were many and varied but the flow on from the days outweighed all expectations. As Lyn Wilks said at the time: ”from little things big things grow”
Three years later, in 1986, the Victorian Labor Government established the Office of Rural Affairs and its Committee of Cabinet included two members – Joan Kirner and Caroline Hogg − who insisted on a strong focus on the needs of rural women.
At this time the average weekly wage for a woman was just shy of $340 which was more than $60 less than a man’s. About a third of women worked on farms and some of them were beginning to really make their mark. Mary Salce led a Women for Dairying group and Heather Mitchell became the President of the Farmers and Graziers Association. The Office’s first major project was to encourage the involvement of rural women in public life, and two staff members, Jenni Mitchell and Anna Lottkowitz, were appointed to develop the Rural Women’s Network (RWN).
In March 1987 the first Network newsletter rolled off the press in a bid to help women “share concerns and develop their own solutions”. Locally, the network assisted groups to explore issues and to plan activities. In 1990, the Network began its support of the annual Victorian Women on Farms Gatherings. A year later the Women in Action program began to broaden the skills base of women wishing to participate in public life. In 1992 a meeting in Ballarat ultimately led to the formation of the Australian Women in Agriculture and Networks also followed in other states. The Victorian Rural Women’s Network continued in a range of departments until 2013 and has been re-launched again in 2017.
The Network newsletter began in 1987 with two goals to:
- link women’s groups and individuals into a network towards sharing resources and skills to meet the needs of rural women.
- enable women in rural Victoria through their own contact and support network, to have a more active and influential role in government decisions which affect their lives and those of their families and communities.
At the time Betty Dennis from Warrnambool told how “the network will act as an outreach so rural women from both town and country may share their skills…the Newsletter will provide rural women with information available and contribute to our understanding of vital aspects of the world economy.”
Each edition there was a theme and in the first year these were Hearing women’s voice in public places; Women’s Health; Women’s Work and Isolation and changing family structures. Over the years words including leadership, learning, networking, local and global, safety, community, business, drought, celebration, young and old, work and water all featured in the themes. Today the topics still resonate. Like the seasons, issues for women seem to run in cycles and change just as much as they stay the same.
The 10th year anniversary edition reflected fondly on what the Network had achieved. Jean Tom from Romsey wrote: “We women are the network, networking and sharing our lives. This is the success of the Rural Women’s Network and Network newsletter.” Cathy McGowan from Wodonga borrowed some key rural women’s movement phrases in her article including “bloom where you are planted” and “step out and make a difference”. She would go on to walk this talk years later.
In 2012 the 25th edition was also reflective in an interview with the Network’s favourite sister Joan Kirner. “The Rural Women’s Network was really set up to connect women who were crucial to their communities and strengthen their sense that they could take leadership positions and be recognised for their work and their ideas,” she said. “Women whose voices were first heard through Network…they have gone on to leadership roles nationwide and internationally. It’s fantastic that it’s been going for 25 years.” At the time the former Premier also lamented the need to improve health services and support for women subjected to violence and to increase representation of women in all levels of government. Today average incomes are not couched in male and female rates and in relative terms women have achieved greater recognition, acceptance and ability to have a voice. But we are still waiting for another Heather Mitchell to lead the VFF and another Joan Kirner to be a female Premier. Women, who make up about half the population do not generally take up half the seats in government, on most councils or in the board rooms. In a recent list of the most influential Australians of the past decade only 20 per cent, were women. These are good reasons to get the Network back up and running in a race towards real and true gender equality.