Reimagining the C.W.A.

Guest Poster Bio: Alex Skud Bayley is a software developer and nanna-in-training who blogs at Infotropism, Chez Skud, and founded the Geek Feminism blog and wiki.

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

Categories: education, ethics & philosophy, fun & hobbies, Sociology

Tags: , , , , , , ,

15 replies

  1. Five categories of covered coat-hangers?

  2. Those are some good links for creating communities in general. Nice. Since we moved to Tassie, the importance of building a community has been obvious. One thing we don’t want is to raise kids in a post-literate, anti-progressive environment — whether that’s the traditional redneck conservative anti-Green school dropout pattern that currently exists, or the more worrying apocalyptic, doomer, anti-science, anti-vax, anti-fluoride, anti-technology hippy alternative that seems to be the equally common extreme. So creating societies, through barter, community involvement, communication — that’s our #1 goal. I shall press the little-remembered Bookmark button and save this page for later.

  3. Clem Bastow had a piece encouraging women to join the CWA on Daily Life in 2012. She’s not taking as deliberatively transformative stance as you are, but she definitely sees more members from more diverse groups as the way forward.
    [edited to fix link]

  4. Here in Melbourne, TimeOut recently ran a piece about female networking groups, some of which have a more community-oriented (less business-oriented) focus.

  5. Orlando: Yup! they are:
    20A(i) Coat Hanger (Wool only)
    20A(ii) Coat Hanger (Nylon)
    20A(iii) Coat Hanger (Wool with lace)
    20A(iv) Coat Hanger (Nylon with lace)
    20B Coat Hanger (Any other medium)
    I must say 20B makes me want to cover one with bacon or old bike inner tubes, but that’s just my contrarian instincts speaking.

  6. I would be looking more closely at the programs and opportunities available at Neighborhood Houses.
    I’m not keen on starting from scratch, but I see that a number of programs within the Neighborhood Houses I have been involved with could do with the sort of national mobilisation that the CWA has available, and they already have pretty good policies and resources around diversity.

  7. I’m tempted to join the CWA, and I know that joining the Brunswick/Coburg chapter is more likely to be less craft focused (I am not crafty, well not in that way) which would suit me more.
    I was put off by their website last year when I was looking into chapters in my area, and thought about volunteering to fix it, but then didn’t because websites by committee tend to make me want to pull my hair out, that and I don’t program.
    I’d like to reinvent the CWA to be an organisation that lives on and offline, that has diversity as a key aim of it’s membership, that supports women of all ages, sizes, abilities, orientations, backgrounds and religions. An organisation that supports and works for progressive causes (the CWA was once a very progressive organisation), and one whom politicians are once again genuinely frightened of receiving a visit from.

  8. Karen: In practice, I’ve found that Neighbourhood Houses have a lot of problems similar to the CWA. Many don’t have websites or promote their activities in ways that I could find out what they’re doing. Some are run by religious organisations (eg. one near me is run by the Salvos who I avoid on the basis of their anti-LGBT bigotry). And though they often have good programs, it seems to be on an activity-by-activity basis, eg. you can go to a class in X, but you don’t get hooked into a network or community of support and sharing in the way I’d like to. I guess I feel like they provide more of a venue that a community group could use, rather than *being* a community group.

  9. Rebecca: Yes, the CWA Vic website is pretty antiquated at this point. What I found particularly frustrating is that there is very little information there about stuff like “how to start a group” or “how to run a meeting” — no resources! There is a booklet called “Rules and Objects” which you receive when you join, and the 15 “Objects” outline what the Association is about, but none of that appears on their website.
    I agree that committee-driven web design is awful but I think this might actually be worth doing. I’ve mentioned that I’d be interested in helping with the website, and asked for that to be passed on in the right direction, but don’t know whether that will filter up the chain to the Vic head office. I am wary of contacting them directly until I am a bit more experienced in the organisation.
    The thing is, when our group was thinking of getting a small public address system, one of the older participants suggested that “someone’s husband could tell us what we need”. This does not bode well for being taken seriously as a technologist within the CWA 😦

  10. Just playing with Loomio (because I should be working on something else, heh) I set up a group to discuss what one might want from a hypothetical women’s network. If you’re interested in trying it out, you can find it at
    (Loomio is an online tool for consensus-based decision making. It’s open source and the ideas for it grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement.)

  11. A correction to the original post: of the six local CWA branches, five do not have Facebook pages — but one does.

  12. Can we please leave out the bits to God and Queen. Still goes on at local bowls club too, but almost only followed by the woman.

  13. I have to admit, if I were thinking of things we could share and compete over, the first three things I think of are inventions, green tech and food art.
    1) Inventions – not necessarily something you’d patent, but a way of showcasing and celebrating the whole make-do-with-what-you’ve-got and how-can-we-do-this-better attitudes. I think sometimes there’s a tendency to not realise the stuff we create because we have to counts as “being inventive”.
    2) Green tech – sustainable waste, water, energy things. Every one’s situation is different, so it’d be interesting to see what people chose to do and what they got working.
    3) Food art – whether it’s the kids’ lunch plate, a fruit platter, a main meal or three-courses-on-one-plate, I seem to spend a certain amount of time each day arranging every meal I prepare. Usually that’s just trying to make sure the bolognaise and the pasta aren’t touching on the 2yo’s plate (else both will get rejected), but sometimes (like today) it’s crafting a full-on picture of shape, colour and nutritional balance.
    I have no idea how much any of these three things appear in typical or atypical CWA groups. Just thinking out loud for what I’d be immediately trying to share/compete in.

%d bloggers like this: