‘Walking the path made by the women before us: the Country Women’s Association, Victoria’.
It was late December, and I wanted to escape my office. The concrete footpaths of my suburb were too well known by my feet after two years of travel restrictions. I wanted to smell eucalyptus leaves in the hot sun and shelter in the shade of stubborn pine trees. I needed to have the sound of traffic and car radios exchanged for parrots calling to one another across paddocks as I walked the winding path along a creek trail. And, a firm believer in making things happen when you can, that’s how I found myself on a hot day at the Wandin station point of the Warburton rail trial in Victoria, Australia.
At the start of the trail, the path splits into two. Leading above ground level is a vintage black-and-white painted sign declaring, in capital letters, this was once the WANDIN platform. Under this, at ground level, I stand where the railway line once lay. A wooden retaining wall, which looks to be made from old railway sleepers, ensures the historic platform is preserved from erosion.
Today, there is something different about the retaining wall. Not lost in the musing of thesis writing and research, a sign about the Wandin Station Mural Project gained my attention. This project, the sign states, appeals to ‘Wandin families, residents, ex-pats, local groups, businesses…to participate in this exciting Shire of Yarra Ranges approved project’. Following this notice are numerous boards containing images bolted into the retaining wall. Some are black-and-white photographs that have been enlarged, while others are paintings demonstrating moments from the past that failed to be captured by a photographer. A clever way, I think, noting how many of these are about rural life and women, to represent people and events missing from the official textual record.
My wandering gaze skipped over the photographs of transport and settled on one titled ‘The History of the CWA Wandin’. They were the only words on the board. The mural measured 800 mm high and 1200mm wide. There was a central image, a white-walled and green tin-roofed building; in the lower corner of the image, the CWA [Country Women’s Association] emblem was situated. On a background of sky-blue paint, surrounding this building were nine other images. They didn’t all contain women. Three scenarios demonstrated crafts in the form of canned fruit and vegetables, crocheted and knitted blankets and clothing, and scones and tea being served at an agricultural Showground. The rural aspect of the CWA was shown through dirt roads and mountain landscapes taking place behind activities. In one instance, women walked babies in prams, looking like a mothers group from the 1950s, while another group of women caught a bus to an unknown destination. There was one image where men appeared; they were in the background dressed in soldiers’ uniforms of the Anzacs; the women were situated in the foreground, and they knitted socks and clothes. Images of young girls at a pageant and women singing showed a diverse skill set, but it was the middle image on the left-hand side that captured my attention. There six women were seated, their attention focused on the speaker. Together, they looked at an image. It’s impossible to tell if it’s a television screen, a poster or a painting, but there are islands and water, with blue, lightly clouded sky. A woman with notes in her hand is pointing at the islands and she is talking to the group. The ‘wattle portrait’ of Queen Elizabeth the Second is painted into the image. Empire. Islands. Lectures. Not being a member of the CWA, but having briefly researched the New South Wales CWA at the National Library of Australia, I wondered if this was an image representing the CWA’s links to Pacific branches, especially those in Papua and New Guinea, as former colonies of Australia. Alternatively, was this aspect of the painting showing viewers something else? I took photographs of the mural, having decided this image would inform my ‘One Day in the Archives’ for the month of January.
An online search about the mural revealed a few details. The CWA mural artist was Mary Newham, and the panel was installed by Gavan MacIntyre as part of the celebrations for the 91 years that the Wandin CWA had been active. A local newspaper interviewed the CWA, Wandin President, Lyndall Rowe, who explained that the mural presented- in chronological order- significant events that had informed the development of CWA. Starting with the girls ‘who ran a princess carnival’ fundraiser to build a local hall and ending with the ‘introduction of guest speakers’. I wondered where I could locate more details about these events. Could I find the names of the women involved in the CWA, Wandin, in eight hours?
Ordering the journals I needed was fairly straightforward. I searched for CWA journals through the online State Library of Victoria (SLV) catalogue and then, as prompted by the record, called the Library to order what I wanted. I learned while ordering Country Crafts that there was a daily ten-item limit. This led to a quick adjustment to my request, limiting my focus to what I thought were key periods in the intersecting histories between Australia and the Pacific Islands: the 1930s, 1950s and 1970s. While I placed my order, there was some discussion about the need for more information regarding how many issues were contained in a volume and that the journal went by various titles, one being New Country Crafts. It was, I thought, hanging up the phone, going to be interesting to see if I got what I asked for.
In the SLV, these materials depicting the story of the CWA, Wandin, were so different to that displayed on the walking trail. Being in a library system, the Country Crafts journal was bound, named, catalogued, titled, and categorised. Through this process, these items were no longer just connected to the women of Wandin, they were connected to the State of Victoria. The nameless, timeless women depicted in feminine roles as teachers, carers, performers, and creators on the trail, became preserved in the catalogue by location and date. If the journal was a complete set that meant I had 480 journals, each with approximately 20 pages a piece to examine. How I was going to find evidence of the actions of Wandin women in forty years of journals?
I acknowledge undertaking this research I was limited not only by how fast I could turn pages and make an evaluation of the information before me but also by not being a member of the CWA. Trying to understand the structure of this historic organisation needed a moment too. I needed to understand the CWA before being definitive about my research approach. Elanor G. McIntyre’s book In the beginning: a foundation member of the Country Women’s Association looks back (1967) provided some orientation. She credits the existence of this rural community organisation to the ‘strength and character and the organising drive’ of the foundational members that created it in Australia. McIntyre shows that the CWA was established in Australia in April 1922. According to McIntyre, a CWA presence emerged in Victoria in 1926. The CWA Victoria was established officially there 12 March 1928. There was not much about the mechanics of the organisation. Perhaps the journal, Country Crafts, would assist here.
After some back and forth, trying to locate the journal materials, I started examining the 1930s issues. These items were provided to me on a trolley- a presentation method that brought delight and dread. A trolley of journal material is far too much for one day. It is too much for one week. There were six grey archive boxes, similar to what businesses use to hold magazines. There were also three bound collections and one plastic bag of materials. I took a deep breath, and I started at the beginning.
In the 1932 issues, I gained the first tantalising glimpse of information about CWA, Wandin. The order of the journal was relatively standard. An editorial, a letter from the State President, a feature about craft (including instructions), articles from the executive committee members about community events, letters to the editor and, at the back, short statements provided by each branch about a highlight event that occurred recently. It was in the latter I found traces of the Wandin women. At this time, the branch is listed under the name Wandin Yallock. Now, Wandin and Woori Yallock are two separate suburbs. In 1935 the ‘Yallock’ was dropped, and Wandin celebrated its four-year anniversary. This naming of the branch indicates the women initially came together over a larger geographical space and then, when there were enough members, perhaps, organised smaller groups.
Details are brief in these short statements, and no members’ names are mentioned. There is no information about the pageant in these issues. A 1935 note indicates there was a branch meeting held, and an army Major, who was left unnamed, invited and accepted the opportunity to spend time sharing his war experiences. Following this visit in November 1935, the branch held a fundraiser for the men that returned from military service. It seems the lecture element of the CWA, inviting others into the group to share their experiences, was present from the beginning of the CWA, Wandin. In 1935 ‘‘Travel Talks’, which was a new event, was promoted and discussed in the December editorial. It seemed to be a precursor to the International Study discussions and programs of the 1950s and 1970s. Reading multiple decades of the journal led to comparisons between the 1930s and 1970s issues in particular. It seems lecturers were a frequent element of the CWA. These in-house study moments involved a branch examining a country chosen by the national executive committee for discussion and demonstrating its uniqueness to members.
While there were few details about the CWA, Wandin women, there were other fascinating elements that became apparent as the day wore on. The CWA connected rural women in local spaces at global, regional, national and state levels. There is nothing explicit in the journals I was able to examine that states how these connections came to be, but there are hints. On January 25 1933, the League of Nations was mentioned in the letter from the international liaison officer. This letter highlighted the importance of recognising that women needed to work together worldwide to ensure social and cultural change that benefited them. In May of that year, there was an article discussing the inclusion of Australia in the British Empire and its role as a former (debatable) colony. Two years later, in the March 1935 issue, the League of Nations was again discussed, perhaps this was a repetition intended to catch the attention of new members or those that missed the first article. The following month an article appeared about the mandated territory of New Guinea and its importance to Australia. When women read this journal they were enticed to see themselves as belonging to a larger network of women. To locate specific voices of the Wandin women, I believe local newspaper articles and branch meeting minutes would be best.
This process of connection and representation was uneven. While there were discussions about numerous branches in the journal not all were represented equitably. A partial map of Australia appeared on the front cover of the 1930s journals. If the reader didn’t know what Australia looked like on a map, perhaps the kangaroos in a line underneath the country, with scrubby grass at their feet, helped the reader to realise this is an “AUSTRALIAN” organisation. Yet, it was a partial representation of Australia. There were absences on this map. The state of Tasmania and the external Territory of Papua were not present. Tasmania gained branches in 1936, and it seems the CWA arrived in Papua in the 1940s. This process of inclusion and absence I will research further.
Eight hours is not enough for a brief history of a complex organisation like the CWA. At the end of my day, I determined the mural in Wandin did a great job of showing a brief visual history and prompting interest in the local CWA. Access to secondary sources and the CWA Victoria periodical collection at the SLV enabled me to fill in some gaps regarding the development of the CWA, Wandin. By the end of the day I understood that the CWA was more than a fundraising and community support organisation. My examination of the Country Crafts journal indicated the CWA also functioned as a national and transnational political organisation. One with imperial ties. The multiple connections, while fascinating, make it difficult to see the contributions of the Wandin branch, specifically in the later 1970s journals I consulted. I would like to acknowledge that the SLV is just one location where information can be gathered about the Wandin CWA branch. Trove, Australia, is another open-access research point. At CWA Victoria, there is an archivist, and they do retain copies of the journal there, but gaining access is not an immediate process. The Yarra Ranges Regional Museum would, likely, have images, artefacts and records concerning local CWA branches. So too would former, and current, member of the CWA. But the public State library seems an excellent venue to roam in this instance, especially considering the article last month was based on online research. My limited time locating and examining these journals demonstrated this benevolent, rural women’s organisation contains strident political voices and ambitions. This time, with few individuals known and questions unanswered about the political work of these women, my curiosity was not satisfied. I’ll be returning to the SLV and this collection again.
 Ludwig, Callum, ‘Wandin CWA Recognised By New Mural’, in Upper Yarra Star Mail, , 28 November 2022.
 Country crafts (Melbourne, Vic. : 1930). (1930). Melbourne: The Association; Country crafts (Melbourne, Vic. : 1958). (1958). Melbourne: Country Women’s Association of Victoria; New country crafts / Country Women’s Association of Victoria. (1952). Melbourne: The Association
 McIntyre, Eleanor, In the beginning : a foundation member of the Country Women’s Association looks back, Sydney, NSW, New Century Press, 1967, , p. 9.
 CWA, Vic, archivist, personal comms.