As we celebrate our 90th year we thought it was time to look back and tell the stories of the extraordinary women who grew this organisation into what it is today.
In 1925 William Polson, President of the New Zealand Farmers Union (NZFU) warned that ‘several ladies intended to be in Wellington during the New Zealand Farmers Union Conference week’. The NZFU subsequently invited these women to a tea-party at the DIC department store on 27 July.
The following day the women met separately to form the Women’s Division of the NZFU (WDFU), electing Florence Polson (pictured) as president. The organisation aimed to find ways of improving living conditions on New Zealand farms and support the NZFU. 29th July 1925 the WDFU was officially founded.
Florence had been voicing her beliefs about the needs of rural women by for several years through writing for the New Zealand Farmers’ Advocate, under the pseudonyms ‘Martha’ and ‘Columbine’, she described the hardships and loneliness of women living on back-blocks farms.
Too much church, children and kitchen…..
Florence was concerned about farm women’s lack of financial independence, she had an idea that rural wives could sell produce to townswomen and called for greater help in the home. She thought that the rural wife was taken for granted by her farmer husband and his union because there was ‘too much church, children, and kitchen about his attitude.’
The Bush Nurse and Housekeeper Scheme
When William travelled overseas, Florence went with him to study rural women’s organisations. She returned in 1926 with plans for bush-nurse and housekeeper schemes to be run by the WDFU. These were implemented in 1927.
Florence also followed up on her ideas introduced a market system, the Women’s Exchange, which enabled farm women to sell produce, and with Henrietta Jackson devised the rules and constitution for the WDFU. She set up a travelling book club in Marton and encouraged the WDFU to lobby government for more maternity homes and rural dental clinics.
The first Annual General Meeting of the WDFU was held on the 4th August 1926. Mrs J G Coates, wife of the Prime Minister opened proceedings. There was an address by the Mr F C Brown Chief Poultry Instructor, the name of the organisation was confirmed, issues discussed were Help to Boy Immigrants; Medical Attention to Country School Children; Bibles in Schools; and Legislation for more Maternity Homes.
Florence’s work sometimes caused controversy and her abilities were not always appreciated. In January 1928, for instance, the WDFU executive was embroiled in a row over how the housekeeper scheme should be managed, and some members thought her too autocratic. She was returned as president in July 1928, but illness forced her to resign in 1929. She really had not recovered from the death of her son Donald aged 15, in a shooting accident in December 1927.
In 1933 Florence sought re-election as president of the WDFU but was unsuccessful, partly because she was opposed by a group of members who were strong believers in eugenics. These women were influenced by Nina Barrer and were keen to reinstate the dropped clauses of the 1928 Mental Defectives Amendment Act. Florence was seen as a threat to their aims. Florence Polson died on 14 May 1941 at Wanganui.
Over the years there have been huge successes for the organisation and eventually it became known as Rural Women New Zealand (RWNZ).
“Some of those successes achieved during our 90 year history include funds raised for a Spitfire to support the war effort, significant fundraising for leptospirosis research, cot death research, a mobile library service, and support for communities during adverse events. Life is very different today for families on farms but there are still challenges,” says RWNZ National President Wendy McGowan.
“Mental well-being has become a significant concern, along with family violence, biosecurity issues and limited access to adult learning opportunities for rural women. These are just some of the many issues we are addressing today as an authentic advocate for rural communities. Our advocacy role in rural health, education, safety and environmental issues make our organisation as relevant today as it was in 1925,” says Ms McGowan.
References: teara.govt.nz; And So We Grew RWNZ 25th Anniversary publication; Minutes of the first AGM