How did a former British space scientist end up in New Zealand writing a book about New Zealand farming women’s struggle to gain proper recognition of their vital role in our agricultural sector?
The answer involves Federated Farmers as a side player but the star role belongs to David Hall – his skill as a researcher and writer, his persistence and his recognition there was an important and interesting story to tell.
‘On the Farm: New Zealand’s Invisible Women’ traces the status and experiences of farming women from World War Two through to the end of the 20th century. The story is told mostly in their own words, drawing from the vast archive of letters written to local farming magazines and newspapers.
“Those magazines seemed to me to be their social media; from the 1940s through to the ‘70s that was their main source of communicating with each other,” David, a former Director of Science at the British National Space Centre, said.
Letters from the likes of ‘Pearl’, ‘English Rose’, ‘Andrinna’ and many scores of others to the ‘Party Line’ pages of the Federated Farmers newspaper Straight Furrow, and to other rural publications, reveal the myriad roles women held on farms: from mother to teacher, baker to accountant, cleaner to farm worker. Their busy workloads were carried out largely unacknowledged and unseen.
The book ranges from a time when it was impossible for a woman to get a bank loan to own or operate a farm through to the 1990s, when women were often considered equal partners in the running of a farm and regularly became individual farm owners.
Typical of attitudes in the 1940s was that of the Rehabilitation Board after World War II, which considered that ‘only in exceptional’ cases was farming a suitable full-time career for women. While large numbers of men awaited settlement: ‘it would certainly be unwise to assist a woman to acquire a farm of her own’.
As Feds Communications Manager Leigh Catley said last month at a launch event at Wellington’s iconic Unity Book Shop, it was three years ago that David walked into the Feds’ Wellington office to discuss his plans to write about the impact of Federated Farmers on agricultural economic policy over the last 75-plus years. He’d just completed his PhD for a Humanities degree at Victoria University which pondered the question of how New Zealand “Emerged from an Entrenched Colonial Economy: 1945 –1975″.
“No, he said, I don’t want paying – powerful words for Federated Farmers!” Leigh recalled.
The upshot was that David spent many hours rummaging through Feds’ cabinets and bookshelves looking at records and papers that in most part hadn’t been perused in decades. His book, “Agricultural Economics and Food Policy in New Zealand – An Uneasy but Successful Collaboration Between Government and Farmers” was published earlier this year.
What fascinated David as he leafed through the pages of Straight Furrow, and its predecessor Federated Farmers newspaper Point Blank (a chocolate fish to whoever can throw light on why it was called that) were those letters from farm wives. He expanded his search to copies of rural publications at the Alexander Turnbull Library.
He thought even just an anthology of those letters from farming women would be a “valuable activity” but when it became clear the topics and emphasis of what the women were writing about changed over time, he realised an accompanying narrative would add more.
“I’ve tried to look at the global changes going on, and where [NZ farming] women fitted in. The philosophy of farmers in the 1940s seemed to encourage acceptance of a background role – but that was clearly changing.”
The 1980s ‘Women in Agriculture’ initiative accelerated that change. David records that WAg began to train women in agricultural skills previously monopolised by men, and shared news via a professional looking newsletter, WAgMag.
“That was their specific target, to get rid of [farming women’s] invisibility,” David told guests at the book launch.
But his book “is not the final word on this subject. It’s a progress report.
“Change is still needed; I think that’s clear. Traditions and prejudices that have developed over generations take generations to change if there is not that concentrated effort for change, illustrated by the women in agriculture movement that started in the 1980s.”
David’s view is that even now in New Zealand, the word ‘farmer’ is still perceived predominantly as a masculine word. There’s still some way to go before it becomes more correctly gender neutral.
“And I’ll finish with my final conclusion: the need for vociferous women remains to make change and perhaps the occasional vociferous man.”