Last year I joined the Country Women’s Association after reading Karen Pickering’s feminist take on the organisation. Through her article, I learned of a recently-formed branch in Melbourne’s inner north, and attended a number of their meetings. Then, at the end of last year, I moved to a regional centre in country Victoria, and have attended just one C.W.A. meeting here. I’m looking to attend more as they start up after the summer break, and will check out a few different branches to see which one best fits my tastes.
But I have to tell you, I’m worried. Though I loved my urban C.W.A. group, I’m less enamoured of the C.W.A. at large, and I fear that I might be disappointed by it, in the end.
The C.W.A.’s motto includes the words, “Through country women, for country women, by country women,” which is a sentiment I can definitely get behind. Unfortunately, before those words it starts with “Honour to God, loyalty to the throne…” which I don’t need to tell Hoydenistas is a problem. (See also: even the Guides have got rid of this stuff by now.)
As for what the C.W.A. is actually all about, and what it does, I am totally into it: mutual support, community service, skill-building, learning about issues facing women both locally and overseas, and advocacy on behalf of women. So far so good! (The scones and jam are, in large part, just how they do these things: a common interest for many members, and a popular fundraising mechanism.) And when you read Karen Pickering’s article about the C.W.A., you get an idea of the huge range of activities they’re involved in.
So why is it that, on the whole, the C.W.A. is so ossified? The impression I get from the Victorian monthly newsletter — sent out in hardcopy to all members, and not available online — is that despite regular hand-wringing over “the next generation” and a Junior stream, the average age is well north of fifty. Its structures range from “boring” (mandatory Robert’s Rules of Order at every meeting) to “deeply exclusionary” (key texts that assume Christian or at least monotheistic faith, “study” of foreign countries that often takes the form of racist appropriation). Even its craft shows — based on what I’ve seen in the competition schedule for my new local group — are stuck somewhere in the past, with five separate categories for covered coat hangers but none for papercrafts, jewelry making, woodwork, glasswork, soapmaking, etc; the cookery section, focused on baking and preserves, doesn’t have any categories where I could enter a loaf of sourdough or a jar of kimchi. None of the six local branches has a Facebook page.
And look, I’m actually into crocheted doilies and jam. I was raised to a large degree by my preserve-making, coathanger-covering nanna (who grew up during the Great Depression and saved bits of string), and proudly consider myself a nanna in training. Since joining the C.W.A. I’ve enjoyed meeting women outside my existing social cliques, of different ages, from different professions, and with different life stories. I’m not about to give up my C.W.A. membership, and I’ll be entering the craft show as it stands (though maybe advocating internally for at least some “other crafts” options in future years).
But I can’t help wondering: if a bunch of progressive, savvy, modern women were to reimagine the C.W.A. today, how would it look? An organisation for, by, and through Australian women, for mutual support, community service, skill-building, learning about women’s issues, and advocacy on behalf of women. An organisation that encompassed women of all ages, cultural backgrounds, and interests, in rural and urban areas. One that was self-reflective and constantly worked on being accessible, diverse, and welcoming.
For me, I think it would look a little like the Transition Network, a network of sustainability groups worldwide. Transition groups can start up with minimal overhead, using the resources for new groups. Each group is an umbrella for a collection of projects, decided on by the group — in Transition’s case, this is often community gardens, transport initiatives, co-operative businesses, renewable energy, or similar.
In my imaginary women’s network, perhaps a local group might form activities around watching and discussing movies, health and wellbeing, crafts, and fundraising for a local foodbank. Another group’s members might be into art, technology, and immigration issues, and organise computer training or life-drawing classes or multicultural potluck dinners. If they wanted to have a craft show (and it wouldn’t be required) it would be based on what crafts the local members were interested in: origami or e-textiles or upcycled earrings or, yes, covered coathangers. Fundraising could be a sausage sizzle or a Pozible campaign.
Each local umbrella group could come together for regular meetings where they can talk about what activities/projects have been going on, and perhaps have a speaker (a woman, naturally) come and present about a topic of interest; this would be a chance for those who are engaged in different activities to share ideas and get to know each other. There could be occasional regional, state, or national gatherings where women from a wider area show and tell what they’ve been up to, connect, and organise.
I’d like to see a toolkit like Transition’s Ingredients list, or like Beautiful Trouble, setting out core principles and concepts, patterns and anti-patterns for successful groups, and suggesting potential activities or outreach tools. Other inspirations: Permaculture principles or Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language. Something central, that sets the tone of the organisation but gives a lot of latitude and flexibility. Also, ways for members everywhere to keep in touch and see what others are doing.
I’d definitely say no to Robert’s Rules of Order unless your local group wants it, or it’s legally required (such as at an incorporated group’s AGM). The toolkit could have suggestions for a variety of ways to make decisions, including consensus based decision making, and ways to disseminate decisions and follow up on actions. Why not use something like Loomio to discuss ideas and make decisions online, so your actual meetings are less onerous and more social? (Yes, online tools limit what sort of people will take part in decision making — but so does RRoO.)
Finally, for Flying Spaghetti Monster’s sake, let’s make diversity and outreach to all women a foundational tenet. The toolkit should have information on how to engage speakers from diverse backgrounds, resources on translating your materials into other languages, accessibility for people with disabilities, outreach via social media and traditional media, connecting with other community groups, and more.
What would you want to see if you could reinvent something like the C.W.A. from scratch? Brainstorm in the comments, please!
Index page thumbnail image credit: cropped from “Country Womens’ Association at Dungog Mainstreet Parade” by kateausburn, shared on Flickr under (CC BY 2.0) license