The Invisible Farmer project seeks to address the historical and contemporary invisibility of Australian farming women and to celebrate the creative and vital role that women play in sustaining Australian farms and rural communities. The project involves a partnership between Museum Victoria and the University of Melbourne, as well as collaboration from a range of collecting institutions and community bodies.
Women in Australia play a vital role in farming and agriculture, contributing at least 48 per cent of real farm income through their on and off-farm work (Missed Opportunities report, 1998). Sadly, however, women’s contributions to agriculture have continued to be ignored, unrecognised and rendered invisible. Farming women have been excluded from censuses and official documentation, stereotyped as ‘housewives’ or ‘domestics’ despite their significant contributions to the farm economy and blindsided by a popularist vision of Australian agriculture that idealises masculinity and posits rural Australia as a ‘male domain.’ This is best summarised in a 1992 Australian Government report, The Invisible Farmer: A Summary Report of Australian Farm Women: ‘Farming has traditionally been seen as a male domain, while women have been seen as homemakers or in domestic occupations rather than a visible or significant contributor to agriculture,’ (Williams, 1992).
Some notable ways in which farming women have been rendered invisible include:
- 1891: a decision was made to not count farming women in the census.
- Women have been denied access to agricultural education opportunities, with some agricultural colleges not accepting women until the 1970s.
- Up until 1990s women were legally defined as "silent partners", unproductive.
- The dominant cultural representation of farming in Australia has continued to be male-orientated and focused on the ‘man on the land.’
An important outcome of the Invisible Farmer Project is to create interest in the need to preserve the stories of women in agriculture, in particular those stories associated with the Rural Women’s Movement of the 1980s-1990s. Some notable events associated with this movement include the creation of the Rural Women’s Network (1983), the beginnings of the Victorian Women on Farms Gathering events (1990), the establishment of Australian Women in Agriculture (1993), the creation of the ABC Rural Woman of the Year Award (1994) and the organisation of the largest ever agricultural conference to be held in Australia, 'The First International Women in Agriculture Conference' (1994). Unfortunately, however, this national movement is largely absent from our history books and institutional collections. With much of this history undocumented, the stories of those who led the movement are at risk of being lost, just like so many generations of rural women before them.
A major outcome of the Invisible Farmer Project has been the collection of a series of oral history interviews with women that have made significant contributions to agriculture, farming and rural life. These interviews have shed light on women’s experiences with farming, agricultural education, policymaking, rural life, the media, women’s networking and the wider Rural Women’s Movement of the 1980s-1990s.
Another outcome of the Invisible Farmer Project has involved the simple yet important process of awareness-raising. Since its’ inception the Invisible Farmer Project has sought to raise the profile of farming women and has subsequently been featured on a range of media channels including The Age, ABC radio and the Weekly Times. Inviting the wider community to reflect on the histories and stories of Australia’s farming women, The Invisible Farmer Project has actively challenged the myth that farming is a male domain.
Importantly, the Invisible Farmer Project has also worked with other collecting bodies to establish a strategic plan for how institutions in Victoria – and Australia-wide – might start to recognise the urgent need to collect these important histories. Women play a vital role on farms and in agriculture, but if their contributions continue to be ignored or rendered invisible, their work on significant issues – such as sustainability, food security, drought and policymaking – won’t be recognised, celebrated or acknowledged. With this in mind, making rural women’s contributions visible is not just an exercise in recording history, but also an important step in securing our future.
Formalised in 2015, the The Invisible Farmer Project was funded by the McCoy Seed Fund - an innovative fund that seeks projects that are likely to be developed into an ARC Linkage Project or that will attract follow-on funding from another source and be sustainable beyond the life of the initial project. Although this project is inititally limited to six-months in its' "pilot" stage, it is hoped that further funding will enable the Invisible Farmer Project to have a much broader scope, reach and impact into the future.
Rural Industries and Research Development Corporation (RIRDC) and Department of Primary Industries and Energy (DPIE), 1998. Missed Opportunities: Harnessing the Potential of Women in Australian Agriculture, Commonwealth Government of Australia, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.
Williams, Julie, 1992. The Invisible Farmer: A Report on Australian Farm Women, Commonwealth Government of Australia: Department of Primary Industries, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory.