There’s no denying tea and scones are an excellent icebreaker; however for the Country Women’s Association (CWA) this time-honoured tradition is just the beginning of a much larger conversation. Four years shy of its 100-year anniversary, the largest women’s organisation in Australia comprises more than exceedingly skilled bakers – the group is a powerful force for social change. And its members live in both city and country.
“I feel that we’re as relevant as we’ve ever been,” says Silvana Griffin, President of the CWA Sydney City Branch. “Whether in the city or country, we have a strong awareness of issues currently facing women in rural and regional Australia.” Isolation, domestic violence and mental health are high on the list nationally, as are environmental and agricultural concerns.
“We’re bringing these issues to the fore – lobbying government at all levels – to put forward CWA policies and improve conditions for women, children and their families so that everyone is aware of what is happening in our communities, and to our food and resources,” she says.
“Whether in the city or country, we have a strong awareness of issues currently facing women in rural and regional Australia.”
Griffin believes the group’s CBD location challenges stereotypes people have about the CWA. “We’re very strong on supporting farmers and having an affinity with who grows our food – here we just do it from an urban perspective,” she says. As part of a network of 400 branches in NSW and one of six in Sydney’s metropolitan region, Sydney City is 80-strong with a diverse group of members ranging in age from early 20s to 70-plus.
NSW has 9000 members across those 400 branches. State president Annette Turner says that the organisation has always been involved in advocacy on important issues, but social media and digital technology means they are better able to spread the message these days.
“We’re doing the same thing, but we’re upping the ante.” For the CWA of NSW, that means everything from meetings with state government ministers to a seat at the table for farm safety working groups.
“We’re working to support mental health, to support the work against domestic violence across the state by bringing training to people who work in that area, we’ve donated money to the Salvation Army to support a drug and alcohol program that was rolled out across the state, and we have a disaster and emergency relief fund,” Turner says.
Not to discount their legendary cooking skills, most branches raise money by selling homemade treats. “We’re into jam making in a big way!” says Griffin, whose team holds stalls at Sydney’s Carriageworks Farmers Market and Sydney Living Museum’s Christmas Market at Hyde Park Barracks. Over last year’s summer holiday period, they sold around 2000 jars, raising over $10,000 towards educational scholarships for rural and regional children, women’s health issues, medical research and state disaster relief. Members also attended 2016's TEDxSydney, where CWA scones were on the menu, and the recipe included in a TEDx collection.
The biggest annual fundraiser is the CWA Tearoom at Sydney Royal Easter Show, where this year a record-breaking 53,872 scones were scoffed. “The scone has been an incredible force,” says Griffin. “At a time when much of our communication is done via texting, social media and platforms that are quite insular, sharing a plate over a cuppa and conversation can really help in so many ways – something so humble has been an incredible way to bring people together, raise money for the community and learn about other people and cultures.”
Recipes that stand the test of time: this ginger sandwich was published in a CWA recipe calendar in the 1930s.
Cultural awareness ranks highly on the CWA agenda (yes, they’re a busy lot), with each state nominating an annual country of study to encourage education and discussion. For NSW, 2017 is Nepal. “We explore food, culture and what’s happening to women in Nepalese society right now – while they may face many difficult challenges, in a lot of ways they’re facing the exact same ones that we are,” says Griffin. “It’s a fantastic learning experience and really broadens your horizons.”
With an active social media presence, she says there’s been no shortage of interest from prospective members – including those wanting to take up traditional hobbies. “The CWA is passionate about learning, and putting into practice, time-honoured skills such as preserving and handicrafts,” says Silvana. “We need a creative outlet when we’re so absorbed with work and family – acting as a network to support one another was the very reason the CWA was formed 95 years ago.”
While the Easter Show is no doubt a highlight in the CWA’s social and fundraising calendar, the association’s annual conference is an important opportunity for each branch around Australia to raise key issues on their agenda. This year Sydney City brought forward discussions on marriage equality. “It’s up to us to champion things we feel are important,” says Silvana. “We need to recognise that the face of our society is changing rapidly – we want to be able to acknowledge that and do our bit.”
Scone-dough scroll with sticky syrupy sauce? Now that's an easy - and budget-friendly - dessert!
Country Women’s Association cake champion Merle Parrish shares her very own slice recipe, using coconut, brown sugar and a hint of vanilla.