A DECADE AGO, Debbie Thiele remembers putting the phone down, heart thumping, head buzzing with the news that she had been selected as a finalist in ABC Radio's inaugural Rural Woman of the Year award.
Through the kitchen window she could see the rolling dust from a car coming down the road. It pulled to a stop, a man stepped out.
She went to greet him.
"Morning. What can I do for you?" She could see he was a chemical salesman.
"Wondering if your husband's home," he said.
"No, he's not. Why?"
"Wanted to see if he was interested in some wetting agents," he replied.
"I can talk to you about that," she said.
"I'd rather speak to your husband," he said.
She laughs as she recalls her reaction.
"The conversation never really went anywhere after that and he pinged off!"
Two weeks later, the wheat and sheep farmer from the Murray-Mallee of South Australia stepped up to the podium to accept the national Rural Woman of the Year award. Her story of being relegated to "farmer's wife'" was greeted with laughter and rueful acknowledgement by the audience.
In 2003, Debbie Thiele says she doesn't feel the need to tell that story much anymore. There is widespread acceptance of women in rural industries, even if their recognition in policy-making by government and agri-political organisations has not made the same gains.
THE EARLY '90s were a watershed in terms of publicity for the role played by rural women. The early years of the rural woman's award combined with a change in the role of farm women during the killer droughts of the 1980s and '90s to bring a greater awareness of the previously silent partners. The first-ever International Women in Agriculture conference was held in Melbourne and gave birth to a new organisation, Australian Women in Agriculture.
In the early years of the 21st century, that public momentum has stalled, but there's been no waning of the private passion for achieving equality. There are around 320,000 women over the age of 15 living on farms in Australia. About 80 per cent participate in farm work, yet only 120,000 women report themselves as employed in agricultural occupations. Many still write "housewife" as their occupation on survey forms, although more than 70,000 women define themselves as farmers or farm managers.
Most rural women deny they are feminists. Theirs is more a quiet confidence in their ability to provide a different set of skills to complement traditionally male ones and for those skills to be recognised without fanfare.
In 1995-96, the National Accounts reported that the market value of farm output was $14.5 billion. In economic terms, women's contributions on farms amount to at least $4 billion annually. Add to that about $8 billion a year of unpaid household work, and at least $500 million in volunteer work in rural communities, and you have an extremely significant input.
Yet when ABC Radio's rural reporter Lisa Palu and executive producer Edwina Clowes first proposed a national Rural Woman of the Year award in 1993, there was plenty of opposition to the idea that rural women needed public recognition.
Clowes, who now co-ordinates the award for the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation, remembers it was more the older generation of women and men questioning the need for a "women's" award.
"You'd get a whole lot of different reactions. In the early days, we focused on past achievements, runs on the board, and lots of women thought it was about the older, wiser types and big achievers," she remembers.
"Once they saw the ordinary, typical women winning, they were encouraged by it. And the women who were finalists were blown away by the support they found in local communities, the fact that local people celebrated the award and really ‘owned' them."
Clowes says for most women, the award wasn't about celebrating feminism.
"For the majority of rural women, feminism isn't really an issue," she says. "They're just quiet achievers. They don't see themselves as extraordinary, and changing the inclination of men to deal with only male farmers, for example, is just a matter of evolution."
Victorian dairy farmer Mary Salce convened the first conference of International Women in Agriculture in Melbourne in 1994 because she felt a need for "women's thinking" in response to the double whammy of the 1980s-prolonged drought and low commodity prices.
"When men talked about the downs of the drought, they talked about machinery and interest rates, not the social costs to families and communities," she says. "Whereas I knew women would tell it like it is."
It was tough going, though. Other farm women would not go with her to lobby business and government for support. Salce says they "didn't think they deserved it". But the conference went ahead, was deemed a massive success and gave rise to the formation of Australian Women in Agriculture.
THAT WAS A decade ago and the gains made in recognition of rural women have not yet translated into a more prominent role for them in agri-politics or in government decision-making.
Salce is not discouraged, though. She sees women retreating from public roles to a more grassroots, "underground" movement, using technology such as email to build support networks in remote areas and busying themselves with issues in local communities. The generation of women that saw the introduction of the contraceptive pill, the automatic washing machine and increased access to higher education are going local to achieve a national awareness.
The philosophy is clear in a quote gathered by Fiona Haslam McKenzie and Linley Lord for the Federal Government report, Beyond the Stereotypes: Women in Rural and Remote Australia: "Sometimes, to have equal opportunities to [those in] cities and larger towns, we in rural areas have to pedal twice as hard just to stay where we are. But I love it and firmly believe that it offers women chances to do things that they might not consider tackling if there was someone else to do them. It's when you have an idea and look around to see who will do this, and there is no one else, you are encouraged to have a go yourself."-FL, farmer and shire councillor, Ovens-Murray, Victoria.
Many of the gains for rural women in terms of independence and equality have been fast-tracked not by social progression but by nature. In the 1980s and '90s, the primary producer's worst nightmare, drought, wrought permanent change to women's traditional roles of homemakers and mothers.
The need for women to work off-farm to earn income while stock were sold or sent on agistment, or cropping paddocks lay fallow, challenged conservative attitudes and placed many relationships under great pressure. A lack of income to employ workers also meant women were called on to leave their traditional domain, the homestead, to help with feeding livestock and pumping water. The role of key provider was shared, rather than being dominated by the male partner.
In 1997, a collaborative study of the effects of drought on farm families was undertaken by the Centre for Social Science Research at Central Queensland University and the Centre for Rural Social Research at Charles Sturt University in New South Wales.
Questioning of 52 women revealed that the drought precipitated a change of role for many. Some spoke of the stress of trying to maintain the household and hold down an off-farm job but, at the same time, found the work away from the farm improved their self-esteem and gave them a sense of achievement as it generated welcome income. Others worried about the lack of a carefree childhood for their children, who worked alongside their parents pumping water or feeding stock.
Off-farm work by women now contributes about $1.1 billion a year to the overall viability of farming enterprises. In recent years, it has been off-farm work-81 per cent of which is done by women-that has enabled many farming families to maintain their enterprises and lifestyles. In north-west Victoria, a farmer's wife jokes that she is her husband's "best paddock" because she earns a regular income-whatever the weather-from her work as a nurse at the nearby Ouyen hospital.
BUT THE TRENDS towards off-farm work has also strained many traditional husband-and-wife partnerships and for rural women, family relationships are one area that has been slow to change. Consultant Karen Harper sees rural women as running "10 years behind" their urban counterparts in terms of attitudes to career and their role in the family structure. Those who choose to have children often find it an extra challenge.
"Women are earning more money and self esteem from off-farm jobs, but there is still the belief that once you have children, the role reverts to motherhood. Women go into a relationship feeling assertive and able but once they have children their confidence in their ability to operate outside the home can be eroded, especially if they're isolated and don't get positive reinforcement," she says.
There is also a lack of role models for young rural men to implement change in family structures. While they recognise the need to give their partners equity in the relationships, their experience is usually limited to the traditionally conservative arrangement between their mothers and fathers.
Daughters-in-law can be "invisible" in the family structure, lacking input and left out of decision-making on the farm. Harper attributes this to the inevitable reaction of the older, more conservative couple at the head of the family.
"Older women recognise it's a good thing for young ones to be involved but emotionally they can see it as rejection or a criticism of the way they've done it in the past," she says. "While the son's intentions are good, once the daughter-in-law has children, she reverts to the role he has seen his mother fulfil. It's hard to achieve change without a fresh role model."
There's a general acknowledgment, though, that achievements by rural women have been made easier by some changes in rural men.
Mary Salce says these days men are comfortable doing business with rural women, and socially, it's more acceptable. While farm women have traditionally written the cheques and balanced the books, there have been new gains made in recognition of that role. A more prosaic Thiele puts that advance down to the power of the dollar.
"Agribusinesses like fertiliser and chemical companies and farm financiers quickly realised the benefits of doing business with women as the co-operators and communicators on the farm and the ways in which that could improve their bottom line," she says.
ONE AREA THAT continues to disappoint is agri-politics and the lack of women executives in farm lobby groups. The figures show contribution and participation in rural-leadership roles is less than 20 per cent and only 15.5 per cent of board members in the agricultural sector are women. While governments have been keen to consult and include rural women in their policies, much of that consultation is directed through agri-politicial organisations run by men.
Debbie Thiele finds it frustrating that women have failed to crack the conservative old-boy network that still leads the farm lobby, resulting in groups that she says fail to embrace the diversity of gender and background to be found in rural areas.
Two of these organisations, the Victorian Farmers Federation (VFF) and the South Australian Farmers Federation (SAFF), have instigated targeted programs to encourage women to play a more prominent role. The VFF has more than 17,000 members but women occupy only 7 per cent of all office-bearer positions, with the majority of these being branch secretaries. The SAFF has 4661 members, with just 17 of the 214 elected positions being held by women.
Change in these areas may be assisted by popular culture. Previously, women were marginal figures in ballads and stories of bush life, as the squatters' daughters or wives left behind while their husbands went off droving or looking for work. But in 2003, the television series McLeod's Daughters found an enthusiastic urban and rural audience for its story-line, based around a family of rural women fearlessly and competently dealing with the challenges of running a sheep and cattle station without men.
Many of the women spoken to for this article admitted to enjoying McLeod's Daughters, mainly because of the fun of seeing a glamorised, stereotypical version of the way they actually live and work. And according to Dr Sue Turnbull, a lecturer in media studies at Latrobe University, the popularity of the television series confirms an inherent belief in the strength of rural women that forms part of the Australian cultural tradition.
Debbie Thiele has experienced first-hand the power of McLeod's Daughters to change perceptions about women in agriculture. She chairs the Urrbrae Education Centre Board in South Australia and one of its partners is the Urrbrae High School, which has a strong agricultural focus in its curriculum.
Since McLeod's Daughters came to the screen, she says the school has experienced a steady stream of applications from girls who want to study there. While she laughs at the idea of young women being inspired to take on a career in agriculture because of a television program, Thiele is optimistic at the prospect.
"Even if we can get a 10 per cent strike rate amongst the girls who applied to Urrbrae, we can begin to reverse the trend of young women leaving the country for the city," she says.
Regardless of whether a television series attracts more women into rural Australia, there are at least 320,000 who remain committed to the life.
These women will spend their lives driving the header, classing the clip, mustering the mob. Some will work part-time in towns or buy farms and run them themselves, while others will encourage their children to look at all sorts of careers, not just agriculture. They will welcome new women into their communities, laugh with each other over silly men's business and keep in touch by email. They'll struggle to keep the last of their gardens alive, so that there's something to lift the spirit after feeding drought-stricken stock in parched paddocks, and they will dress up and drive many kilometres to support their friends or causes they believe in. They are innovators, diversifying-into aquaculture, alpacas and olive oil-to ensure the farming family has a future. They take pride in their role as rural women.