by Marg Carroll OAM, Molong
As featured in the 2018 Country Web Annual.
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, as the NSW Rural Women’s Network (RWN) Coordinator, setting up the Network (a position I held from 1992–98).
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, get a talented team together and source funding.
1992/93 was a time of the 3 Ds: drought (affecting more than 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 who at the time was the Director General of NSW Agriculture. He was to become our greatest ally in a male-dominated department.
My first task as RWN Coordinator was to meet women from all over and hear their concerns. In that first year I covered maybe 50000 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 of The Country Web newsletter, which started when Sonia Muir came on board in 1993; Country Care Link 1800 line we set up for counselling, 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! I 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 at the time was NSW Health and Farmsafe Central West. And this is where Ronnie Hazelton comes into the picture. Ronnie was one of the first community nurses in the Central West (a scheme started by former PM Gough Whitlam). During this time one of the noticeable problems was farm accidents. Ronnie and her team worked hard to address the issue and they started the first Farm Safety Action Group in Australia at Cudal with a great committee of diverse people. The committee started to run farm safety workshops for women on farms and also for school children. When I started planning the first Women on the Land Gathering in 1993, Ronnie felt it was the perfect place to promote their farm safety messages.
With Ronnie by my side, we began by putting together a diverse team of 14 from throughout the Central West to help us. The 13 women and one bloke, 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.’
We chose Orange Agricultural College as a venue because women could gather 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 registrations the College began to get anxious. At 400 they said, ‘Stop, no more’, and we had to turn more than 150 women away. Sponsorship was generous and the Rural Assistance Authority funded women from each of the then 26 Rural Financial Counselling Services to attend the Gathering.
With the theme of ‘Surviving & Thriving’ we focused on issues and actions in deciding guest speakers and workshops—finances, learning, the environment, health and personal development, 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, 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.
An old-fashioned lantern was our way of handing on the ‘light’ to host another gathering. At the end when we asked if anyone was interested in putting on another Gathering, there was a pregnant pause before one brave woman, Janet Redden from Gunnedah, jumped up and said, ‘I’ll do it’. Since then gatherings have been run annually with the 26th gathering to be held in Merimbula on 19-21 October.
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 CWA 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 RWN, which itself has carried on thanks to the tireless work of Sonia Muir, Allison Priest and many other staffers.
We feel proud that gatherings are still going strong and that the many elements of the original model have endured: Women’s stories that give heart to us all, local farm tours, ecumenical services on Sunday, a forum for views, the bringing together of rural and urban women, linking participants with decision-makers and service providers and raising the profile of rural women via media and now social media. And above all, the wonderful volunteers who give their time to provide opportunities for other rural women by hosting a gathering—a huge undertaking but one that gives ownership and pride in such achievement, and hopefully a lot of laughs. ■
The 2019 NSW Rural Women’s Gathering will be held in Walcha from 1-3 November. For more information on the event email: firstname.lastname@example.org