International Women's Day 2018: Molly O'Sullivan reflects on farming, gender equity and #pressforprogress

MOLLY O’Sullivan has never had much time for people who considered women less than equal to any task.

And, having run a 970-acre farm at Marong by herself for almost 20 years, she has encountered her share of “upstarts”.

She said the male farmers barely acknowledged her the first time she went to the saleyards after her husband Kevin died, 36 years ago.

“I just ignored them. I knew what I was doing,” Mrs O’Sullivan said.

Some market-topping sheep soon changed their behaviour and earned the farmer the respect of her peers.

The same farmers who had initially turned their backs towards Mrs O’Sullivan and ignored her were congratulating her.

Even all these years later, the 78-year-old cracks a smile as she thinks of the radical change in the farmers’ responses.

It’s evident she took some pride in having proven herself more than capable of holding her own in a male-dominated industry.

Not that she had purposely been trying to show the other farmers up. Mrs O’Sullivan was just was good at what she did.

“The world’s at your feet if you want to work,” she said.

She grew up on a farm about six miles out of Axedale.

Mrs O’Sullivan said her family owned less than 500 acres of land, which was home to sheep, cows, pigs and other animals.

Her sex had no bearing on how she was treated on the farm. She was expected to be across everything – “from butcher to worker to candlestick maker” - and she was. 

Mrs O’Sullivan met her husband, Kevin, at a ball in the town hall when she was about 18 years old.

The couple was married at the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Bendigo during the January of 1963.

They became parents to two daughters, who were aged in their teens when their father died of cancer.

Mr O’Sullivan was in his 50s when he passed.

There was no doubt in Mrs O’Sullivan’s mind that she would keep their farm at Marong.

“I just automatically worked it,” she said.

“It was not unusual for a woman to run or work a farm.”

About 41 per cent of the 15,755 people working in agriculture in Australia last year were female, according to data from the Workplace Gender Equality Agency.

Women working full-time in the industry earned 21.3 per cent less than men in the industry.

A 2012 report by the Australian Bureau of Statistics attributed the traditionally masculine image of the farmer to the fact men accounted for 72 per cent of farmers in Australia about that time.

There were 44,700 women in the Australian farming workforce in 2011.

A 2017 summary of Australia’s agricultural sector stated there were 216,100 men and 88,100 women employed in the Australian farm sector.

“The contribution that women make to the nation’s farm sector is not simply measured by the number who report farming as their main job,” the Australian Bureau of Statistics noted in 2012.

“It is also necessary to take into account the many other women who live in families where their partner is a farmer.”

About 35,100 women had a job outside the farm when the report was published. and more than half of them supported the farm through other means including unpaid domestic work.

About 79 per cent of the 16,000 women in farming families who were not employed in paid work in 2011 did at least 15 hours of unpaid domestic work per week.

Mrs O’Sullivan said some of her neighbours were ‘very kind’ and would help if she needed assistance.

She said any negative responses people had to the idea of a woman running a farm ‘gradually settled down’ once it became evident the property was in safe hands.

“I did what I did and that was that,” she said.

Her farming expertise made her a valuable member of the Bendigo Agricultural Show Society for 30 years.

She ran the cattle section for many of those years, and was also involved in the sheep dog sections.

“I supplied the sheep for it quite often,” Mrs O’Sullivan said.

The many and varied artworks in her room at Mercy Health Bethlehem Home for the Aged attest to her skill at crafts often seen in ‘women’s’ sections at many agricultural shows.

But that wasn’t where her skills were needed, when it came to the show committee.

Her interests defy rigid gender stereotypes, ranging from sports such as golf and tennis to dressmaking and needlework.

“I played golf for many years,” Mrs O’Sullivan said.

Her longstanding belief has been that women can do anything men can do.

“It’s at your feet if you want to do it,” Mrs O’Sullivan said.

And she has raised her two daughters with that ethos.

One of her daughters is working as a teacher.

The other has continued the family tradition of farming, although she is no longer living in the region.

“They learnt the same was as I did,” Mrs O’Sullivan said. 

Asked for her thoughts on the theme of International Women’s Day this year, #pressforprogress, Mrs O’Sullivan was supportive.

“If you don’t try to get progress you’re not going to get far,” she said.

She said there was no point in society continuing to behave as it did decades ago. 

“Everything changes,” Mrs O’Sullivan said.

“There’s no point going backwards. We’ve got to go forwards.”