A lifetime of service to rural women: Mary Salce

Mary Salce (seated) on the day she received her Officer of the Order of Australia Award

Above: Mary Salce on the day she received her Officer of the Order of Australia Award (Source: Gippsland Times)

It was all in the timing. That seems to be why accountant and dairy farmer — Mary Salce, of Clydebank — became involved in helping to establish the Rural Women’s Network in the 1980s. Victorian government ministers Evan Walker, Joan Kirner, Kay Setches and Caroline Hogg wanted to hear from rural women and Gippsland Upper House Labor MP, Barry Murphy, suggested Mary.

“They were setting up the first Rural Women’s Network and wanted someone from a rural background. Mary was a good ‘mover and shaker’ and had integrity, so I put her name forward,” Barry Murphy said.  That ‘mover and shaker’ was involved in the Drought Support Network, a group of rural women experiencing the early 1980s drought, who were concerned about social, economic and environmental issues in Victoria. This was a time when few women were spokespeople or held positions of authority in representative organisations. Mary had been Secretary of the United Dairy Farmers of Victoria.

“Barry Murphy twisted my arm,” says Mary. “I was putting my ideas about what needed to be done to Barry and lobbied him to support politicians meeting groups of women in my home. I think the government wanted to get more rural and agricultural women involved in decision making. “If a minister came through Gippsland, they would come to my home to find out directly from women about what their concerns were. John Cain, when he was Premier, came to our place one day to listen to women about their issues,” explains Mary. Establishing the network within the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs meant women’s voices were heard. But more work was ahead. “It was a beginning but not enough,” says Mary.

In 1991, she went to Canada to the National Farm Women’s Conference; and came back with ideas to hold an international agricultural conference for Victorian women, initiate a statewide Women in Agriculture group and develop curricula to teach agriculture in school. Mary consequently led a team to organise the first International Women in Agriculture Conference in Melbourne in 1994, hosting 860 delegates from 33 countries. Out of that conference, the Foundation for Australian Agricultural Women was formed. In 2013, she was named an Officer of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

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