The average Australian would describe the Country Women’s Association as a group of old women making scones and drinking tea. While they’re not wrong, there’s a lot more behind the women than the caricature. I joined the Country Women’s Association in 2013 after my mom brought home some information about the judging requirements on cooking competitions. After reading that a certain type of cake must under no circumstances have cooling rack marks on the bottom, I knew this was a group I wanted to be a part of. If they could heighten the making of a simple fruit cake to cutthroat competition, I could only imagine what other things these women would teach me.
The generation gap is trying. I am the youngest member of the Hornsby branch by over two decades. There are active members who have spent over triple the amount of time on this earth as I have. It means frustrating differences in opinion on both sides but as the severely outnumbered youth, I have to adjust my thinking when amongst the community. And, perhaps not so shockingly, spending time amongst these women has taught me some things.
Feminism is my jam, so I approach the idea of the housewife/stay at home mum/homemaker with a distrustful hesitation. When a woman at my high school drew connections between my love of craft and baking and my eligibility as a wife, I was terrified that I had misrepresented myself and my feminism. I felt that by enjoying traditionally female tasks, I had sacrificed an aspect of my strength or independence and I scrambled to compensate. Most of the women in my CWA branch, though, come from the generation that birthed and normalised that feminine role in the modern western world.
Considering many young women would now recoil from a community mostly dedicated to women cooking, knitting, and sewing for fear of recursion into their grandmothers’ generations, it’s not surprising how few women my age participate in the CWA. But this attitude is simplistic and dismisses the skills and experiences of these women. Many of the members of my branch lived through the establishment of traditional social feminine norms and their deconstruction through the second wave feminism of the 60s and 70s. An association that gives women of these generations a community to share in and an opportunity to compete tooth and nail to hone their crafting and cooking skills is its own kind of feminist utilisation.
I don’t think I can stress how intensely serious their competitions are taken. At a recent Hornsby branch meeting things got pretty heated when jam judging regulations were literally turned on their head. New rules stipulated more air in the jar than previously, while also requiring jars be sealed with inverted cooling—covering the visible layer of air with jam. The change was not well advertised, and not many took kindly to this lack of consideration for competitors.
This month begins the first round of cooking competitions judged at branch level. I’ll be entering for the first time under Section 8: Jams, Pickles, and Relishes because I’m not game enough to compete on a cake. If our branch judge declares my jam worthy, I’ll move onto inter-branch competition in October where I will be expected to recreate, from scratch, the same first-round winning jam. As a novice jam-maker, the least difficult part of this task will be collecting regulation jam jars.