Join Alana Johnson and La Trobe University’s Professor Amalia Di Iorio as they consider gender equality, rural development and leadership in the Annual 2017 La Trobe University Women in Leadership Forum.
It was blowing a gale in the foothills outside Benalla, but it was near noon and a big shadow of black Angus calves rested calmly enough in the top paddock, so Alana Johnson sat down at her farmhouse table to tell a story.
“This was down the road at Euroa,” she says, plonking an index finger on the polished timber. “And this should be marked.”
The yarn she tells is about a woman who settled there in the 1800s, named Eliza Forlonge. Forlonge walked across Europe for more than a year, collecting the best sheep she could find. She walked them all over. All the way to port. Then she got on a boat with them, brought them here, and marched them north to a patch of selected land.
“The rest is history, or as I like to say, her-story,” Johnson says. “She was one of the most successful farmers in Australia, and people don’t even know her name.”
Johnson is a fifth-generation farmer. She lives on a 485-hectare property named Cleadon with her husband Rob, raising 800 head of cattle and growing Ironbark and Tasmanian blue gum for long planks of timber with no knots.
Among rural women, Johnson is pioneer who needs no introduction. She has been in Women’s Weekly and on the ABC program Q&A, and has been named in The Australian Financial Review as one of 100 women of influence in Australia. A force in agri-politics, she helped elect independent MP Cathy McGowan.
But right now Johnson doesn’t want the spotlight, she wants it steered in the right direction.
Johnson is a major supporter of the Invisible Farmers Project by Museum Victoria and University of Melbourne. Just launched,the project will record oral histories to address the “historical invisibility” of women on farms.
“The story of rural women is absent, but it is absent in a way that that is more than just forgotten,” she says. “It’s almost a purposeful discounting.”
Catherine Forge, curator of the project, said the work was urgently needed to counterbalance a solely masculine idea of Australian farming. From 1891, the Victorian census did not even register women engaged in farming pursuits because that created the unwanted impression “that women were in the habit of working the fields”, she points out.
Things improved little in the century after, until free tertiary education in the 1970s, when a generation of young farm girls (including Johnson) went off to university and returned with “a great consciousness”.
“We were never going to come back and be happy with the lives our mothers led,” Johnson says. “We wanted equal partnership with our men, to define the work we wanted to do and the life we wanted to have. Our mothers didn’t have any of that.”
Suddenly male farmers were married to teachers and nurses and social workers who had the capacity to earn off-farm income. As technological innovation grew and droughts befell the bush, women became more integral to farms surviving.
“Women learnt to be online, to do the marketing, paperwork, accounting, dealing with the GST. They were in the office running modern farm businesses.”
In Benalla, Johnson helped hold the first Women on Farms Day – a forerunner to annual Women on Farms Gatherings, which have been happening for 25 years. The meetings began as consciousness-raising exercises but have ended up validating and inspiring female farmers to claim their own identity.
“They go there as farmers’ wives and walk away as farmers,” Johnson says.
She also runs workshops about women’s history, where she often asks girls to tell the story of their mother’s mother’s mother. Too often she is met with blank looks – the history of the matriarchal line is lost.
So she tells them about her own great grandmother, a farmer’s wife who did the housework and also joined the men in the fields at haymaking time.
Women such as this sold eggs, raised poultry, planted small horticulture crops and sold produce – and yet our idea of “the farmer” is still the guy on horseback wearing an Akubra. That’s what Johnson says has to change.
“I often say, ‘You mightn’t know your great-grandmother’s story, but make sure your great-granddaughter knows yours’.”