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Women in Agriculture

1980 – 2018

This essay written by Danna Glendining was first published in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 1993.

1980 – 1993

Women in Agriculture began as a loose coalition of individuals, groups and networks focusing on the role of women in the agricultural sector. It was not, and was never intended to be, an organisation in the traditional sense.

In December 1980 Danna Glendining, then a member of the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women, felt it was time the role of women in agriculture was seen and recognised. She contacted others interested in raising the profile of the women who owned farms, worked paid or unpaid on farms, or worked in other parts of the agricultural sector.

Early in 1981 a Women in Agriculture group, soon known as WAg, started meeting in the offices of the Committee on Women in Wellington. Among those attending were Valerie Tarrant, president of the Women's Division Federated Farmers, Catherine Downes of the Country Women's Institutes, and Mary O'Regan of the Vocational Training Council. The Committee on Women and its successors provided WAg with an administrative base; a paid worker, Charlotte Kennedy, was employed under a government scheme; and a striking poster was commissioned from Claudia Pond Eyley. In September 1981 journalist Gwenyth Wright conducted a survey of rural women's work through Federated Farmers' newspaper Straight Furrow. [1]

In November 1981 more than sixty women from various parts of the agricultural sector throughout New Zealand attended a WAg skill-sharing seminar at Lincoln College. Workshops included practical sessions on riding a motorbike, driving a tractor, sheep and wool handling, electric fencing, basic horticultural skills, forestry regimes, farm landscaping and business management. The essential element was that women taught other women. Discussion groups at the seminar covered issues such as isolation, matrimonial property, inheritance and ownership structures. This pattern of workshops and discussion groups in a supportive women-only atmosphere went on to be repeated, with variations, in rural communities throughout New Zealand.

Women standing around a carcass
Margie Blakely saws through a carcass at a Women in Agriculture training course held at the Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre, Wairarapa, July 1983.

In different locations WAg was picked up and adapted in different ways. Rural Education Activities Programmes (REAPS), community colleges, polytechnics, established rural organisations, ad hoc groups and individuals formed WAg groups, organised WAg activities or adopted WAg ideas as their own. Each group was an independent autonomous body. WAg tended to appeal to younger women, who felt that the traditional organisations for rural women did not meet their needs.

WAg groups initiated a number of significant projects in the 1980s. When Beryl Ingold, a well known Australian rural woman, toured New Zealand in March 1982 to raise the profile of women in agriculture, regional WAg contacts organised functions which over 1500 women attended. Also in 1982, Gwenyth Wright began the WAg newsletter, WAgMag. Funded by the Advisory Committee on Women's Affairs until 1985, and then by the Ministry of Women's Affairs, it was distributed free to over 3500 women. The Rural Women's Education Trust took over the magazine in 1991, but not enough subscriptions were received to make it viable, and it ceased production in 1992 after only one further issue.

 Other WAg initiatives included Robyn Grigg and Isla McFadden's collection of 'herstories' of women in agriculture, which gave role models for young women looking for careers; the 'Rural Women Stepping Out' workshops, run from 1984 out of Lincoln College's Extension Centre; Vivienne Allan's 1985 survey of rural women in Southland; and the 1986 Herstory diary, which focused on women in agriculture. Southland, under the leadership of REAP's Alison Broad and Mary Walker, operated a particularly active WAg network with its own newsletter, Barbed Wire.

With the confidence, support and awareness gained through belonging to the WAg network, women challenged traditional male power structures in the rural sector, seeking places on meat and dairy company boards, the producer boards and Federated Farmers. Many of the women prominent in the early years of WAg were appointed to government boards and committees, or elected to county and regional councils or to Parliament. [2]

In the 1990s the WAg network continued to provide information, support and activity as and where the need arose, in order to foster the progress of women in agriculture.

Danna Glendining

1994 – 2018

In the early 1990s Women in Agriculture (WAg) continued to be a loose coalition of individuals, groups and networks working together to focus on the role of women in the agricultural sector. The main WAg participants were in their thirties or forties.

By 2018 the original WAg women were nearly forty years older. [3] While most still had connections with farming and the agricultural sector, those were no longer their primary focus, and other women were taking important leadership roles in agriculture.

The Dairy Women’s Network, established in 1998, was actively involved in networking amongst dairy women and promoting their interests. In June 2017 West Coaster Katie Milne was elected National President of Federated Farmers – the first woman to hold that position; and in 2018, Karen Williams of the Wairarapa was elected Chairperson of Federated Farmers’ Arable Industry Group. 

As for the National Fieldays, in June 2018 the former ‘Rural Bachelor’ competition had its name changed to ‘Rural Catch’, and Mairi Whittle, a Taihape shepherd, won the title and the Golden Gumboot. The following month Sharon Angus, Rebecca Brown, Ash-Leigh Campbell and Hannah Cameron were elected to the National Board of New Zealand Young Farmers, giving the Board equal numbers of women and men. [4] In October 2018 Lynda Coppersmith began work as the first female chief executive of Young Farmers.

In 2018 the original WAg women rejoiced with the progress made for women in the agricultural sector over the last forty years. Many of them remained loosely connected with each other and also with agriculture.

Danna Glendining


[1] Women are in Agriculture: A Straight Furrow Special, 4 March 1982.

[2] Jenny Simpson (later Rowan), Vicky Duncan, Jenny Shipley, Robyn Grigg and Jennie Langiey were elected to county councils. Rowan went on to be mayor of Inglewood and then deputy chair of the Taranaki Regional Council. Duncan became chair of the Accident Compensation Commission in 1983. Danna Glendining chaired the National Advisory Council on the Employment of Women from 1985–87. Shipley became MP for Ashburton in 1987, held social welfare, women's affairs, health and transport portfolios between 1990 and 1997, and was New Zealand's first female Prime Minister, 1997–1999. Rowan and Grigg were appointed to the Planning Tribunal in 1991. Christine McKenzie was elected to the board of the Alliance Freezing Company.

[3] For example, Danna Glendining was 36 in 1980 and 74 in 2018

[4] The Federation of Country Girls’ Clubs, established in 1945, had amalgamated with and become submerged in the Young Farmers’ Clubs in 1973.

Unpublished sources

Women in Agriculture minutes, 1980–1986, in possession of Danna Glendining, Taupō

Published sources

Allan, Vivienne, Southland Rural Women: An Aspect of Change, Rural Education Activities Programme (Southland), Invercargill, 1985

Grigg, Robyn, 'A Woman Farmer's Perspective', in L. T. Wallace and R. Lattimore (eds), Rural New Zealand – What Next?, Lincoln College, Lincoln, 1987

McFadden, Isla, and Robyn Grigg, Women are in Agriculture, Lincoln College, Lincoln, 1984

New Zealand Meat Producer, Vol. 18 No. 4, July–September 1990

Rosier, Pat, 'Farming Feminist: Interview with Danna Glendining', Broadsheet, No. 178, May 1990, pp. 20–23

Rural Women's Network, Herstory 1986, New Women's Press, Auckland, 1985

WAgMag, 1982–1992