It's a huge year for the Country Women's Association and also its first NSW branch at Crookwell with the big centenary celebrations under way, with street pageants and the 100th annual conference looming in May at Randwick.
There's also a major book that's just gone to press, over 300 pages, by former leading ag journalist and successful author Liz Harfull, that details the history of the CWA seen through the lives of the women who have made the CWA what it is today.
Among those great early figures was a woman who helped put the CWA and its Crookwell branch on the map, and to perhaps give her more of a prominent role in the organsiation, Liz Harfull has unearthed some new details of her life.
Newspapers from the 1920s show how Florence Laver left her mark on the CWA, helping to instill its main principals, taking issues straight up to the government within a day of the CWA being formed, and personally travelling through floods and with an injured foot, to motivate towns to form their own CWA branches and consider the CWA as a modern unifying movement for women in the country.
She is credited with forming the Crookwell, Young, Boorowa, Cowra and Frogmore branches. It was on the road and in public meetings that Florence really had an effect, fighting for the bush and the right to services just as the city people enjoyed. She was characterised in a 1923 report as a speaker who was "tireless, fascinating", speaking with "unique assistance and utterances".
She was, as was the custom of the time, carrying her husband's first name, Stephen, when she was introduced. But her real name was Florence. (She has a grand-daughter living in Cowra and a grandson at Reid's Flat.)
Her husband was a Victorian farmer who was president of the Victorian Farmers Union, and after the couple travelled through the United States and Canada, Florence was enthused by the Women's Institute in Canada that represented country women. On returning to Australia she set up the Women's Section of the Victorian Farmers in 1918, that very quickly had 100 branches. The Lavers took up land at Crookwell in 1920 and it was from here that Florence attended the Bush Women's conference in Sydney from April 18-20, 1922. It was there the CWA was formed, and Liz Harfull says within 24 hours a CWA delegation including Florence was off to meet with government ministers about lowering rail fares and other issues.
Florence started the Crookwell branch on May 10, according to Liz Harfull, although many always thought it was April 26, but Harfull's research shows this was a misconception over history due to many records being lost in floods, including from the Crookwell Gazette.
"She was a really inspirational person who effectively built the platform the CWA stood for and what it would do," Liz Harfull says.
Florence soon made sure there was room for the CWA to meet in Sydney in the Country Club in Castlereagh Street that had been the preserve of men. The CWA was "a torch, not a fuse", Florence told one meeting, and the CWA was "non-political and non-sectarian". At meetings she pushed for lower rail fares, baby health clinics, ambulances and hospitals for country towns, and a place by the sea where country women and their children could come and rest, while "the men could batch by themselves for once".
She was upset at trying to get a cup of tea at train refreshment rooms, as women often found it difficult. The CWA would be a "bond between women all over the state".
Recently the Crookwell CWA celebrated being the first branch with an afternoon tea attended by CWA NSW President, Stephanie Stanhope, Upper Lachlan shire mayor Pam Kensit and over forty members and guests, related to the early pioneering women who established the branch in 1922, Crookwell CWA publicity officer and vice president Susan Reynolds said.
"A Plaque to commemorate the occasion was unveiled by CWA President, Stephanie Stanhope and Crookwell CWA President, Lillian Marshall at the CWA rooms on the corner of Spring and Robertson Street, Crookwell," she said.
"The afternoon included revisiting the history of CWA in Crookwell from 1920's through to 1955 when the CWA rooms opened. CWA is famous for their scones, jam and cream that did not disappoint with a delicious plate including lamington, lemon tart and bruschetta being served for afternoon tea."
A report of Florence's speeches to community groups in 1923, from the Sydney Stock and Station Journal, shows how close Florence was to bush causes. She told a Cowra meeting that the CWA sought to create a more "sociable state of things" for those far from city life and to bring to them some of the advantages, medical and social, "which would go to make bush life - which ought to be the best life of all - more attractve than it is". She emphasised the benefit for women to be "organised".
Susan Reynolds said the CWA is as relevant as it was in 1922 and is still tackling many social issues. The CWA chooses one major issue to focus on for its Awareness Week each year.
"Lobbying authorities to remove high caffeine energy drinks from school canteens to improved quad bike safety on farms or calling for more funding to address domestic violence against women and children are recent successful campaigns," she said.
Awareness Week 2021 focussed on the need for more social and affordable housing.
"CWA of NSW has a specific policy on the issue and its impact on older women in our society: 'That the policy of CWA of NSW shall be to campaign for specific housing options for older women faced with homelessness or a housing crisis'."
"CWA is as relevant today as it was, when formed, in 1922. The issues have changed with society. The determination to address and improve situations that affect women and children across our region burns ever bright."
Liz Harfull's book, The Women Who Changed Country Australia, will be pre-released for CWA members at the annual conference and there will be a national launch through Murdoch Books in early June.
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journalist and author
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