CWA: Tea and solidarity
Inner-city recruits and a thoroughly now social conscience make Victoria’s 90-year-old Country Women’s Association a force to be reckoned with.
Underestimate the Country Women’s Association at your peril. To know it as the genteel face of rural life, revolving around meetings and shows in draughty halls with endless cups of tea and scones, is only half the picture.
The flipside is a socially aware organisation thoroughly relevant to our times and actively campaigning on women’s issues ranging from homelessness to better lighting around train stations.
The two images might seem mutually exclusive but each is emphatically correct – including those scones, 13,500 of which were sold at the Royal Melbourne Show last year. The CWA Kitchen remains a beacon of gastronomic goodness.
As the CWA celebrates its 90th birthday in Victoria this year, with 5500 members across 330 branches, it is clearly undiminished since its inauguration in 1928. Its most recent efforts include lobbying in favour of same-sex marriage and a reduction in Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re very diverse,” says Lynette Harris OAM, the CWA’s Victorian president. “Some people join for the craft and cooking, others to make a difference to people’s lives, but above all we’re about friendship.”
Although it began to support women and children in remote areas, the modern-day CWA is increasing its presence in Melbourne’s suburbs. Branches have opened in inner areas such as Brunswick, Richmond, Collingwood and Footscray, and membership across the state has swelled by 20 per cent in the past five years.
Anomalous? Not on your life. “I love living in Richmond, but you can get quite busy and lose what’s going on in your local community,” says Kate Ryan, 28, a member of the nearly two-year-old branch. The 17 members include barristers and accountants, and a woman they recruited at the pub having dinner by herself.
They get together monthly for a meeting or movie. “A lot of people ask why Richmond would have a CWA, but I always say it’s about community and friendship. And a good spread, of course, although the Richmond branch is also very partial to cheese.”
Former state president Betty Burgess, another life-long city dweller, joined the Pascoe Vale branch in 1976. (“Well, it was almost country in those days. No sewerage, and no guttering along Pascoe Vale Road,” says the now 93-year-old). There is no country-versus-city divide as far as Betty and other CWA members are concerned – they decide together as a branch which charities and causes to support with their fundraising.
"At the moment our Pascoe Vale branch is working for the Lighthouse Foundation for youth homelessness. It stirs you up to think of all the money we’ve managed to raise and the people we’ve helped.”
The Pascoe Vale branch membership remained steady over some lean decades when other branches closed. “A young one just started recently in her 30s, and we’ve got a couple in their 40s,” says Betty.
The resurgence of interest is attributable partly to the DIY ethos championing the lost arts of crafting, preserving and baking, but mostly, says Lynette, to the timeless power of female friendship. “There are a lot of lonely women in city areas as well as country areas. Fundraising is important but above all, I tell our members to enjoy their branch meetings. It means so much.”
Baking still means a great deal too, as attested by the 90th birthday Biscuits Galore fundraising book (order on 03 9824 0239). And as newcomer Kate discovered last year at the Royal Melbourne Show, the CWA takes its reputation seriously. “I was started on dishwashing and they were impressed with my work, so I got to put the butter on top of the freshly baked scones. You have to earn your stripes.”