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Women of the land

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TWENTY-THREE years ago there were – officially – no women farmers. In 1994 Australian farm women were still classified in the Australian census as “domestics”, “helpmates”, or “farmers’ wives”. But in fact women have always played a key role on the land, as an exhibition opening at Melbourne Museum shows.

Women of the Land is an initiative of Museums Victoria, the first Australian institution to record rural women’s voices, in collaboration with Her Place Women’s Museum Australia and the Invisible Farmer Project The exhibition includes a focus on Heather Mitchell, the first female president of Victorian Farmers Federation. Mitchell’s hat, studded with 40 pins representing the community organisations that hold rural communities together, is the first object collected by Museums Victoria’s Invisible Farmer Project collection.

There are also audio visual stories of contemporary farming women collected by the Invisible Farmer Project and stories of women who have made a significant impact, identified by Her Place Women’s Museum Australia: poultry farmer and CFA volunteer Pat Bigham; the late Maisie Carr (nee Fawcett), botanist and ecologist; Val Lang AM, farmer and agricultural mentor and Aunty Fay Carter, Yorta Yorta and DjaDja Wurrung Senior Elder.

“Each of these women has lived their commitment to the land and the communities who rely upon it.

Too often, the contribution of women to the land has been ignored or disregarded,” said Mary Stuart, who chairs Her Place Women’s Museum Australia.

Stuart said that a 1986 review of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs in Victoria exposed a shocking statistic – that, out of a budget of $50 million, only $100 had been spent on women.

“In Australia, there are more statues to animals than to real women.

Women of the land shouldn’t have to sit on a tucker box to get noticed,” she said.

The Invisible Farmer Project was launched in March 2017 and is the largest ever study of Australian women in agriculture. It involves a nation-wide partnership between rural communities, academics, government and cultural organisations. Museums Victoria Invisible Farmer Project curators Liza Dale- Hallett and Catherine Forge have been working towards uncovering and documenting the stories of Australian farm women through interviews, photographs and social media campaigns inviting women to partake in the history- making process.

Stuart said Her Place Women’s Museum Australia had received generous support from Museums Victoria CEO Lynley Marshall, the first woman to occupy that position since the museum was established in 1854.Women of the Land is on display at the Melbourne Museum until 26 November, 2017.