Women in the home
As the family farm became more dominant, women’s role on the farm grew more focused on the household. ‘Family and home life take pride and pleasure,’ 1 one woman said in the early 1970s.
But women were still doing tasks helpful to the farm. Most women cooked and did the laundry for farm employees as well as their families. They delivered scones down at the yards for ‘smoko’. They often continued to look after the hens. They also did a lot of preserving and baking, and gardened around the house. Women’s skills were showcased at the exhibits at local farming fairs like the A & P (Agricultural and Pastoral) shows.
Family farm employment did not entirely cease. As late as the 1920s over 60% of farms relied solely on family members for labour. Some women continued to help with the milking. In the 1970s almost a quarter of farm women were working more than 10 hours a week on the farm.
Women worked when their husbands were sick, during calving and lambing, or when there were other seasonal pressures. Dairying remained most dependent on family labour and in 1970 unpaid family labour contributed about a third of a Standard Labour Unit to the average dairy farm, allowing more cows to be milked.
Following the passage of the Married Women’s Property Act in 1884 some women had gained property rights, and by the 1970s a fifth of wives had joint ownership of the farm with their husbands.
Yet the domestic role remained the centre of farm women’s lives. By comparison with married urban women, rural women were much less likely to be in outside paid employment. In 1975 only 8% were working full-time whereas 28% of urban women were doing so. As one woman commented, ‘Farm women are far too busy to work!’ 2
Women’s interests outside the home
Farm women’s outside interests tended to revolve around their domestic role. From the 1920s car transport and better roads allowed rural women to meet one another in country towns. Women’s organisations flourished, such as the Women’s Division of Federated Farmers, the Country Women’s Institutes and the Red Cross. In 1975 half of rural women were active in voluntary community work, by comparison with only a third in the city.
As cars made their appearance and roading improved, the whole family went into town for recreation. The local hall was often the location for family fun such as dances or Friday night movies – the ‘flicks’. Many families attended church on Sundays and met their neighbours and relatives afterwards for tea and a gossip.
In the 1930s morning and afternoon teas continued to be a major ritual of farm families: ‘[they] go into their homes and tea appears as if by magic. But the morning and afternoon tea habit is not by any means an adornment of the day. It grew out of pioneering times when to offer refreshment was to be a real friend.’ 3
In most farming families the farm was handed on to one of the sons when the parents reached their 50s or 60s. The parents would then retire and move close to a town. The other children might receive some financial help on marriage or when starting a business. The effect of this was that country areas were dominated by married couples and young children. The retired and the unmarried, especially the girls, had gone to town.
However many, especially the men, lived in one area for much of their lives. They often spoke of others in relation to their family of origin. And by comparison with city people, rural families had greater contact with their extended kin. They saw grandparents, grown-up children and siblings regularly. But households were largely nuclear. It was rare for them to include grandparents or unmarried aunts.