From meeting at the crossroads with drought-stricken women in 1992, the NSW Rural Women’s Network (RWN) continues to reflect and improve how we listen to rural women, link them to information and services and create opportunities that build personal and business resilience and strengthen rural communities.
One of the major annual activities coordinated by RWN and run by the local community is the annual NSW Rural Women’s Gathering which this year is also celebrating 25 wonderful years.
To mark this very special occasion, founders Marg Carroll AO and Ronnie Hazelton attended this year’s Gathering in Narrandera and shared the story around the start of the NSW Gathering movement. They presented Narrandera with a beautiful flowering gum to be planted at the local park before joining with Narrandera Gathering Chair Tammy Galvin and MP for Cootamundra Steph Cooke to cut a special anniversary cake.
A flowering gum was always our RWN symbol and logo, then became the Gathering’s. It signifies the resilience and strength of us rural women through flood, fire and famine, the blossoming and growth in daily life, the determination and courage needed to raise families and develop communities.
This is the story of the NSW Rural Women’s Gathering in Mar and Ronnie’s words…
Picture this – two friends driving along, brimming with ideas and talking 19 to the dozen about the marvelous weekend they had just had!
That was Ronnie Hazelton and I returning from Numurkah, just over the border in Victoria after their Women on Farms Gathering in April 1992. We both worked in health: Ronnie in farm safety and me in health promotion, and I had a brand new but daunting job the following month of setting up the NSW Rural Women’s Network (RWN).
It didn’t take long for us to have the BIG IDEA: ‘Why don’t we do a Gathering in NSW?’ We were completely carried away, not having a clue how much organisation it might take, or how big it could grow. We just knew we had to convince our bosses so we had support, get a talented team together, scrounge funding from somewhere and unashamedly pinch ideas from the Victorians. Easy done!
1992/93 was a time of the 3 Ds – drought for over two-thirds of NSW, debt and depression, especially in the Western Division.
My new job had come about from the 1991 Women’s Advisory Council conference in Parkes, chaired by Audrey Hardman from Mandurama. There, 600 rural women had listed issues and called for action, primarily to set up a RWN. This was helped through Government by Audrey and by Dr Kevin Sheridan AO, Director-General of NSW Agriculture, who became our great ally in a male-dominated department.
My first task as RWN coordinator was to meet women all over and hear their concerns. In that first year I covered maybe 50,000 km and, over kitchen tables, in halls and paddocks (and one memorable occasion at Gilgunyah crossroads out west where the red dust settled steadily on the white carrot cake icing as we talked), heard tales of isolation and lack of communications, poor services in just about everything, loss and grief, and financial woes especially on-farm and in smaller communities.
So the idea of something as joyful as a Gathering especially for rural women, struck a cord. We wanted to offer hard-pressed women a change away from the grind, something stimulating, relevant to their needs and good fun.
It fitted within the overall RWN action strategies then of The Country Web newsletter which started when Sonia Muir came on board in 1993; Country Care Link 1800 line we set up for counseling, information and referral with the wonderful Sister Jude from St Vincent’s Sisters of Charity, and an ambitious consultation planned for a few months later with 500 women simultaneously at 28 TAFE satellite sites.
In case you’re wondering how we did this with 1.5 RWN staff that first year, then 2.5 when Sonia arrived – we worked in partnerships and teams, networked furiously, fielded constant media demands and 500 calls a month, spoke at many forums and made every post a winner. I loved working with rural women and tuning into their concerns to try and figure out what might make a difference. As coordinator, I was also away from home a lot, lost weight and took up meditation! Overdid it a bit, but the threat hung over us of being a three-year wonder, a pilot program that finished before it had really begun.
One of our key partners was NSW Health – and Farmsafe Central West.
When I was sorting out what I would do in life, I thought I would like to be an air hostess. I rang Qantas and asked them what the requirements were for a flight attendant. They said I would need a first aid certificate or a degree in nursing. I thought I would do nursing as it was sure to get me a job, so I trained at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital.
I ended up going to Bourke to ‘special’ a lady and after being there for two days a very handsome young man came to a party held at the nurses’ quarters. That was an amazing change of life for me. After about six months the lady got better and rather than leave Bourke I got a job at a local stock and station agent, Elders Smith Goldsborough Mort. After working there for about five months I decided to get my midwifery certificate and left to go to King George Hospital. The first deliveries I attended were stillbirths and I knew I needed to leave and work somewhere else.
The following year I married the handsome man who happened to be a pilot, and we moved to Cudal in 1969.
A job came up in 1975 and I told my husband I was going back to work. He said No, but I did and became one of the first community nurses in the Central West, a scheme started by PM Gough Whitlam. One of the problems we noticed was farm accidents and we worked hard to address the issue. In Cudal we started the first Farm Safety Action Group in Australia and had a great committee of diverse people. We started to run Farm Safety workshops for women on farms and also Farm Safety for School Children.
When we planned the first Women on the Land Gathering in 1993, it seemed like a perfect place to follow our program. Marg and I began by putting together a diverse team of 14 from throughout the Central West to help us. The 13 women and one bloke (now mayor of Orange, Reg Kidd) tapped into organisations and ‘networks’ – a new concept then but really the time-honoured bush telegraph. We didn’t have email or social media, just phone and fax, but got wide media coverage and used The Country Web.
Here with us from the original Gathering team are the wonderful Betty MacDonald from Orange, and Sonia Muir from DPI. Others send their apologies.
We chose Orange Agricultural College as a venue because women could hang out together in cheap digs during student holidays. It was chilly in September, but no one seemed to mind and registrations started to roll in. At about 350 the college began to get anxious. At 400 they said, ‘Stop, no more’, and we had to turn 150+ women away. Sponsorship was generous and the Rural Assistance Authority funded women from each of the 26 Rural Financial Counselling Services to attend the Gathering.
With the theme of “Surviving and Thriving” we focused on issues and actions in deciding guest speakers and workshops – finances, learning, the environment, health and personal development, as Narrandera has too. And those hidden issues I was hearing around the traps: farm family succession and domestic violence.
Our guest speakers: author/farmer Christina Hindhaugh and the first Aboriginal magistrate, Pat O’Shane, touched emotions – Pat on the appalling statistics and reality of domestic violence, and Christina urging us to follow our dreams whatever they may be. ‘Although it would be lovely if one could, you don’t have to travel overseas, change industries, go to university or win the lottery to pursue your dream,’ she concluded in a story about life journeys. ‘Look around you, right where you are; in most cases you’ll find your acres of diamonds right there in your own backyard.’
My old friend and Gathering ‘groupie’ Fran Spora from Gulargambone, who has attended umpteen events with her sisters and cousins, also recalls the Hypothetical cleverly guided by Christina Hindhaugh via a panel and her ‘story’ of Mr and Mrs Murray Grey and family. ‘We nodded our collective heads at the reality on many family farms whereby Dad, and Dad alone, liaised with the Bank Manager, with the Solicitor and others,’ says Fran. ‘Mum (let alone sons, daughters and forget about the daughters-in-law) had no part in decision-making.’ Many around the room cheered the panel as they came up with better ways of negotiating a family’s future.
We had our glitches, but women forgave the odd hiccup because they loved being there and being together. Fran Spora mentions the friendships formed all over the state, ‘an important factor in addressing the isolation felt by many women’.
An old-fashioned lantern was our way of handing on the ‘light’ to host another Gathering. At the end when it came to that question: ‘Is anyone interested in doing another Gathering?’ there was a pregnant pause, then up the back one brave woman jumped up – Janet Redden from Gunnedah. ‘I’ll do it,’ she said. Our team breathed a sigh of relief. What a great job they did, then Yanco, Cobar, the Hunter valley, Cooma and many others until it’s here in Narrandera.
But it wasn’t all joy. The following week The Land had excellent coverage of the event, but a critical editorial – Why have such a gathering, the editor wrote, when there’s Country Women’s Association already, and hey, what about us men? He copped a flood of letters, even from the husband of one participant who said his wife was so inspired she was still floating around the ceiling. So he graciously retracted his views the next week and printed the letters.
And so off went the Gatherings backed by the Rural Women’s Network which itself has carried on thanks to the tireless work of Sonia Muir, Allison Priest, Emma Regan and many other staffers.
We feel so proud that the Gatherings are still going 25 years on. And that many elements of the original model have endured:
- Women’s stories, ‘giving heart to us all’.
- Local farm tours – ‘a great idea.”
- Ecumenical services on Sundays
- A forum for views, bringing together rural and urban women, and linking participants with decision-makers and service providers. and raising the profile of rural women via media and now social media.
- Above all, wonderful volunteer teams who give their time and efforts to provide opportunities for other rural women down the years and around the state. Hosting is a huge undertaking. But it also gives ownership and pride in such achievement, and hopefully a lot of laughs.
Congratulations to all those host teams, the Rural Women’s Network and all of you for supporting Narrandera.