Never just a farmer’s wife

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I’m often asked what sparked my interest in Elizabeth Macarthur.

Harriett Pettifore Brims (1864-1939), Harriett Brims' photographic studio and residence, Ingham, Queensland, ca. 1894-1900. Image courtesy of John Oxley Library through Picture Queensland: 146939.

Harriett Pettifore Brims (1864-1939), Harriett Brims’ photographic studio and residence, Ingham, Queensland, ca. 1894-1900. Image courtesy of John Oxley Library through Picture Queensland: 146939.

Many years ago I managed a government grants program and had the privilege to work with some grant applicants from outback Queensland – including a group of women farmers.  I was very green and the farmers were very kind.  They took the time to explain to me that there was no such thing – at least out there – as “a farmer and his wife.” Instead there were only farmers (single people) or married farmers.

Yes, work on a farm is (and was) often very much split along gendered lines.

It is often the women who do the bookkeeping and paperwork, who feed and maintain the workforce and who raise the next generation of farm workers.  But it is also often the women who provide an on-call workforce during peak work periods: yarding stock; pulling bores; nursing injured animals back to health.

And, crucially, it is often the women who generate the off-farm income that enables the family enterprise to maintain some sort of cash flow between wool cheques (or whatever other sort of seasonal income the farm generates).  These days the off-farm income might come via a job in town, or an online business.  In the past the women generated income by selling eggs, for example, or surplus produce.  Or they ‘just’ ensured the family could eat between cheques by maintaining a house cow, a poultry yard and growing vegetables.

Basically, what I learnt from those wise and generous outback women is that where farming is a family business, the contribution of the wives is just as crucial to the operation’s financial viability as the contribution of the husbands.

Yet, as with all things, the farming women’s contribution is usually devalued.  Throughout history and literature she is just the farmer’s wife.  This is especially so in Australia, where the myth of ‘the bush‘ as a male place is entrenched.  Think of a Hollywood western – the covered wagons travelling west are invariably filled with women and children.  Yes, this heightens the dramatic tension when the wagons are attacked by ‘injuns’ but it also reflects a view that the US holds of itself – in the popular mind its past is populated with women in a way that Australia’s is not.

So where does Elizabeth Macarthur come in?

I was keen to learn more about Australian women farmers.  Who were they?  Why are they not more readily known?  And I’m afraid the very first woman farmer (Elizabeth Macarthur) I investigated proved so interesting that I haven’t (yet) gone further!  But there is definitely further to go.

Apart from the married farmers, in Australia’s post-1788 history there have been a host of women farmers in Australia who held and worked properties without a male partner.  White women farmed from the very earliest days of the colony.  According to eminent historian Dr Alan Atkinson, in the The Europeans in Australia – a history. Volume One (page 199):

[By 1800] Margaret Catchpole lived alone on 15 acres, running sheep, pigs, goats and growing maize: ‘I hire men to put in my corn and I work a great deal myself.’ … The 1800 list mentioned about 20 women as owners in their own right of land and/or livestock, such as pigs, goats or sheep.

In the 1840s Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb successfully farmed in Victoria.  Drysdale’s diaries survive, and were published by the State Library of Victoria in 2009 in Miss D & Miss N: an extraordinary partnership.Miss D & Miss N  It’s a fantastic little book.  The blurb on the back cover reads:

In 1839 Miss Anne Drysdale sailed from Scotland to Port Phillip.  She was 47 years old, had a small inheritance, and was determined to be a sheep farmer.  Soon after arriving in Melbourne, she took up land near Geelong and formed a partnership with another enterprising woman, Caroline Newcomb.  They established a successful pastoral business, and for thirteen years lived and worked together on their properties, Boronggoop on the River Barwon and Coriyule on the Bellarine Peninsula.  The daily lives of these remarkable women were recorded in Anne’s diary; four of its five volumes have survived, providing a rare, detailed account of domestic and farming life in the 1840s.  Substantial extracts from the diary are published for the first time in this book, telling the story of two extraordinary Victorian pioneers.

Women on the LandBrenda Niall’s biography True North tells of Mary and Elizabeth Durack who, in the early twentieth century, managed the family’s pastoral properties in northern Australia.  Also in northern Australian was pastoralist Sara Henderson, who in 1993 documented her life story in the bestseller From Strength to Strength. 

Today, the popular television program Australian Story often features women farmers.  For more depth and analysis of contemporary farm women, I recommend Women on the Land: the hidden heart of rural Australia by Dr Margaret Alston.

My point is that women farmers are there.  They’ve always been there. But – at least in a historical sense – they seem to be missing from the collective Australian imagination.  My biographical work on Elizabeth Macarthur is a very small effort towards change.

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2 responses »

  1. Not a fan of Sara Henderson, though I think her daughters were the real deal. My favourite woman farmer is Daisy Bates (yes, THE Daisy Bates) who purchased a cattle station in the Pilbara, near present day Newman, and attempted to stock it by droving cattle south from Broome (“Three Thousand Miles in a Sidesaddle”). Louisa Lawson is another, reflecting the reality of Australia’s Bush legend, that women were left for long periods alone on isolated holdings while their husbands went-a-droving. I also found helpful an essay by Jemima Mowbray on women’s inclusion in the pioneering movement: arts.monash.edu.au/publications/eras/edition-8/pdf/mowbrayarticle.pdf

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