Courageous leadership plays an important role in the capacity of communities to adapt in a changing world. When leaders make empathetic decisions that are based upon active listening to community concerns and experiences, they foster genuine accountability and enable the repair and strengthening of relationships. Inspiring role models can be found in unexpected places. In the mid-20th century the Country Women’s Association formed branches that actively included Aboriginal women. I have collected oral histories that illuminate the cultural exchange that arose through this innovative pairing.
The Country Women’s Association (CWA) of NSW, which has been known as a socially conservative women’s organisation, for example, was prepared to take a huge social risk from 1956-1962 by forming CWA branches that actively included Aboriginal women and broke down habitual racial segregation then practised in rural Australia. These branches flourished when local white CWA matrons responded to the circumstances of their new Aboriginal peers with empathy and action.
Advocating for improvements to accommodation
Ella Simon, an Aboriginal matriarch and author from Purfleet Station at Taree on the NSW central coast, wrote about one such response in her autobiography Through My Eyes. After joining the CWA, white members suggested that the new Aboriginal branch hold a street-stall to raise funds:
Some white women from Taree suggested we raise some money by cooking and then selling some cakes. We told them that wasn’t much use because we had no ovens to bake cakes in! All we had were the open fires. They were absolutely amazed […] Mrs Hickson, said, “You mean to say you haven’t got stoves!”
Mrs Hickson, like most white CWA members, was completely unaware of the sub-standard living conditions experienced by Aboriginal families on government stations and reserves just a few miles away from her own comfortable home. The cottages on Purfleet Station were unlined structures without electricity, without private bathrooms or laundries, and crucially, without stoves. Aboriginal residents accessed a single, centrally located tap for running water, and shared a row of drop-toilets up the back.
By way of context, in the mid-20th century, white Australians were vigorously pursuing the modern ideal and spurned such basic living conditions in favour of up-to-date innovation. CWA leaders such as Mrs Hickson envisaged that commodities including the electric oven would simplify domestic duties, enabling women to devote more time to social improvement like fundraising to open and run baby health centres and school-term hostels. Having the capacity to bake products of saleable quality was essential to funding CWA social initiatives.
It thus seemed outrageous to Mrs Hickson that these Aboriginal CWA members didn’t even have access to old-fashioned wood-fuelled stoves for baking. My oral history interviews suggest that Mrs Hickson was subsequently “off like a jet” in pursuit of kitchen improvements for her new compatriots. Aboriginal author Ella Simon also recalled the incident in her book Through My Eyes:
At a meeting shortly after that one she confronted the [Purfleet Station] Manager about it. […] he got a bit upset being asked by the CWA of all people why we didn’t have stoves. It didn’t matter if he did get a bit upset. Within a few months we all had stoves! It just goes to show that you only have to be the right person asking.
A sympathy of bitter experience
The CWA of NSW, founded in 1922, had a 40-year record as a persuasive and successful lobby group. Their mandate was to assist rural women by delivering practical social support, infrastructure initiatives and services in health and education, regardless of political, sectarian or class distinction. In 1956, the CWA of NSW extended this mandate to actively include Aboriginal women. They did this by establishing special Aboriginal CWA branches on government stations and reserves. Aboriginal branches were established near Boggabilla in 1956, near Kempsey and Taree in 1960, near Nowra in 1961, and near Grafton and Griffith in 1962.
White CWA members also volunteered to mentor Aboriginal women in core CWA activities including craft, cookery and voluntary action. The swift mobilisation of CWA clout at Taree, which convinced the tight-fisted Aboriginal Welfare Board to invest in kitchen stoves, impressed Aboriginal members as a new avenue of very productive solidarity. As Ella Simon recalled:
At last we could talk to people who were really keen to listen to our state. They were country women. They knew what we were talking about. Many of them had been through much the same thing at one time or another. I used to call it the sympathy of bitter experience.
This “sympathy of bitter experience” enabled willing CWA members to deliberately overlook and transgress the deeply embedded race-based stratification of rural society. Scholar Pam Robert’s notes that the CWA, a conservative organisation, had already developed a style of social assistance that ameliorated rural women’s experience of inequality and oppression, but did not attempt to address its structural causes.
Emphasis in common interests and collaboration
CWA historian Helen Townsend explains the rationale for this approach to social welfare, arguing, “As their motto indicated, they believed totally in the existing social order – marriage, family, children, respect for the Government and authority, loyalty to the Crown, and Christianity”. The CWA aimed to provide a space in which Aboriginal and white women, who lived in geographically proximate social enclaves, might be drawn together. They sought to achieve this by emphasising their common interests in cookery, craft, domestic management and childcare. In an era of restrictive government policy, including forced child removal, this approach enabled Aboriginal CWA members to demonstrate their skills and leadership capacity.
At Taree, training in CWA protocol enabled Aboriginal self-help initiatives that overcame bureaucratic barriers and helped the Purfleet community to achieve improved living conditions including the supply of kitchen stoves, kitchen sinks, private bathroom facilities, town water supply, a public telephone, footpaths and a baby health centre.
The conservative rural Aboriginal women who joined the CWA could be perceived as being compromised by assimilation, but my research suggests that they used the style of quiet activism available through the CWA to pursue cultural goals and to extract gains for their communities whilst also assimilating the occasional white matron into Aboriginal ways of being and doing. Such histories demonstrate how brave Aboriginal and white leaders made a difference, by finding common ground, listening to each other’s stories, and by being moved to act. This is something we can all learn to emulate; listening more and then taking empathetic and collaborative action.