Life membership awarded to Anne Burgi
The Rural Press Club of Victoria is proud to award a life membership to Anne Burgi.
At our 2022 Rural and Regional Journalism and Photography Awards night, we surprised Anne with the life membership. The accolade recognises Anne’s contribution to the RPCV and rural journalism over 50 years. Anne has been a dedicated judge of the RPCV awards over the last decade. We also celebrate her mentoring young journalists who have gone on to be similarly leading reporters, editors and more.
She is the third life member of the club.
Here Anne reflects on the early days of her trail-blazing career.
No place for a girl
It was like a scene from a period drama. The ladies rose from their seats in the members’ formal dining room at the Melbourne Showgrounds and moved towards the door. The butler glided around the room, inviting the remaining (male) guests to select from a box of cigars.
It didn’t occur to me that I was expected to leave. I was at the 1977 or ’78 Royal Agricultural Society’s Royal Show media dinner as a Stock and Land journalist, not as a ‘lady’. It was only when the room fell silent and the butler hovered behind me that I realised that all was not well. Apparently, the gentlemen could not relax over port with a female in the room. I stood (or sat) my ground. I was a journalist – and I wasn’t leaving. To reinforce the point, I helped myself to a cigar.
The impasse was broken by the RASV president’s wife coming back into the room to beckon to me: “Come with us, Anne, we have much better gossip.”
It was only a fleeting incident, but the essence of it was repeated many, many times over the time I worked at Stock and Land in the late 1970s.
The early days
I’d grown up on an orchard and completed an Agricultural Science degree at Melbourne Uni, so being outnumbered by men was not unusual.
I’d long been aware that girls’ place in the world had limitations. In the mid-‘60s, the local vet was treating my pony for colic when I told him that I was going to be a vet when I grew up. He dismissed my ambition with a curt: “That’s impossible.” Also, I wasn’t allowed to go on the truck to the Victoria Market with my brother as it was “no place for a girl”. In fairness, it was just as likely that the ‘discrimination’ was as much age as gender based – a 6-year-old (me) would be a nuisance; my 12-year-old brother was more useful.
When I started my Ag Sci degree in 1973, I couldn’t apply for a Department of Agriculture cadetship. I was told that the wording of the relevant regulation talked specifically of cadets as ‘he’.
Being the ‘baby of the family’ I had it easier than my brothers and sister, but I was still expected to pitch in with chores. My first paid job (at the age of about 6) was pasting labels on wooden fruit boxes … at a shilling an hour. I wish I still had the piece of cardboard on which my father wrote my forklift driver’s licence a few years later when I was finally tall enough to reach the pedals.
At the end of my degree, in 1976, I applied for a cadetship with ABC Rural and made it to the last round. The finalists waited together before their interview and we exchanged notes as each one came out. The other two (both male) said they’d been asked about the international wool market and how the wheat crop was going. One of the first questions I was asked by the three-man panel was, “What would you do if a farmer made a pass at you?” I have no memory of how I answered but I didn’t get the job.
A year or so later, I ran into one of the interviewers (John Evans) at a luncheon. He asked me how I was getting on at Stock and Land, and then asked what the ‘right’ answer to the question was. I immediately replied that I should have said: “Depends what he looked like”. He nodded. I gathered that the ABC had had a bad trot with young women being sent out to one-person radio posts in remote areas. The local lads were less than subtle in welcoming them and a number of the inexperienced youngsters had hightailed it back to the city. The ABC was looking for replacements who had worked out how to deal with unwanted advances.
One among the many
The then Stock and Land editor, Chris Griffith, took a chance on me after the Rural Sociology and Extension lecturer at Melbourne Uni, Stuart Hawkins, arranged for me to meet with him. Chris hired three cadets in 1977 – Don Story, Nigel Austin and me, all with ag backgrounds. Chris said it was easier to take an ag graduate and teach them to write than to hire a writer and teach them about farming.
Chris and the editorial staff treated me well – far better than female graduates in many other professions at the time. I didn’t find out till many years later that I was the first female staff reporter – there had been female contributors, but none on salary.
Chris led the way in hiring young women and there was method in his madness. When the male cadets gained a bit of experience, the other state rural weeklies – particularly Rural Press under the iron rule of John Parker – regularly poached them, but Chris was sure (correctly) that I wouldn’t be approached. Even years later, female reporters were rare in the Rural Press stable. Chris mused to me one day that he liked the female cadets … “they work harder than the boys; I guess they have more to prove”.
Among the Stock and Land cadets in those years were Sue Neales and Deb Howcroft, both of whom have gone on to have very successful careers.
One of the difficulties of being one of the first women in any field was that there weren’t many role models who could help prepare you for the realities of the day-to-day working environment. Walking into a conference and realising you were the only woman in the room could be tough. It wasn’t helped by the sniggers when the MC inevitably opened the event with, “Welcome gentlemen … and lady”.
My first luncheon at the Farm Writers and Broadcasters Society (now Rural Press Club of Victoria) was in the ballroom of the Victoria Hotel in Little Collins Street, probably in 1977. I was one of just two women and I think the other was a politician’s secretary. Looking round RPCV events now, 45+ years later, it’s heartening to see the shift in gender balance.
Those luncheons were a highlight each month. Without Google, Facebook, LinkedIn or any other electronic communication, this was where 100+ comms people gathered to gossip – who’s working on what; who has a new job; who is looking for staff; what hot stories were brewing. You came back to the office with lots to think about.
As more women joined the agricultural professions, there was a sense of relief. The first female Dept of Ag extension officer was appointed a couple of years into my time at Stock and Land. The other ‘ag girls’ held their breath. We knew that if she failed, no other woman would be appointed for years. My memory is that she was a resounding success and set the precedent for others to be hired.
The balance of power
There were plenty of other women in the Stock and Land office on the corner of Victoria and Curzon Streets in North Melbourne when I started but it took me a while to recognise that they were way down the pecking order. Good for administrative tasks and answering phones but never in positions of power. They were nevertheless critical in the paper’s success. Among them were the female circulation manager (Marjorie Koster), the pay mistress, all the advertising clerks and many of the typesetters.
There was also the all-important telephonist, who controlled all the incoming and outgoing calls in the days before direct phone lines (and decades before mobiles). These women were the very heart beat of any company. You learned quickly not to get on their wrong side. One day, the accountant at Stock and Land berated the telephonist for being tardy in putting a call through. She stood up, took off her headphones and handed them to him. “Do it yourself,” she snapped. He backed down quickly … having no idea how to wrangle the plugs and cords of the busy switchboard.
A joke circulating among women at the time was that to be treated half as well as a man, you had to work twice as hard and be twice as good … but luckily that wasn’t hard. It was always funny watching any man who heard the line puzzle his way through it before identifying the sting in the tail.
Two women in the editorial area stood out for the support they gave me in the early days. Georgina Wilson was a talented contributor who helped in many ways, including encouraging me to think of myself as equal with the men. The other was Elaine Stangl, who came on board as chief of staff a year or two later. She had been Agriculture Minister Ian Smith’s senior staffer and a number of Dept of Ag people rang to warn me about how ‘tough’ she was. I doubt they would have made the same call if she had been a man. We circled round each other for a couple of weeks before becoming firm allies. Working with Elaine was a joy – she was a great manager who knew when you needed a kick or a hug to keep you on track. She went on to work with Bruce Lloyd in Canberra.
Another high profile woman in the news room was Chris’ secretary Sue Davies, who went on to a stellar comms career and a RPCV life membership. We lowly reporters envied Sue – she had an IBM Selectric typewriter. This electric typewriter was vastly superior to the clunky old upright manuals the reporters used – especially the model that had a white ribbon option that could type over errors and save you having the retype the whole page.
The IBM Selectric typewriter was a highly successful line of electric typewriters. Instead of the “basket” of individual typebars that swung up to strike the ribbon and page in a typical typewriter of the period, the Selectric had an “element” (frequently called a “typeball”, or less formally, a “golf ball”) that rotated and pivoted to the correct position before striking the paper.
Suitable jobs for a woman
I happily settled into the routine of deadlines, stock reports, property and stud sales, and news stories. But there were odd quirks in my assignments.
The Royal Show was a major fixture. My name on the roster was always next to the dairy breeds. Somehow it was deemed inappropriate for me to be exposed to the more ‘masculine’ atmosphere of the Hereford bull ring. But perhaps it was simply that Stock and Land at the time concentrated on beef and sheep, and so the ‘minor’ dairy round was assigned to the most junior reporter. (Though the two young men hired at the same time as me always seemed to be around the stud cattle and sheep rings). The dairy judges’ language was a bit puzzling: one said he was delighted by his grand champion’s “femininity”, “she stood well on her toes, with a sense of gaiety”.
I was certainly an oddity at stock sales. With notebook and camera in hand, I tried to blend in, but was always conscious of standing out. It was interesting watching men decide how to treat me – usually either pretending I wasn’t there at all or seeing an opportunity to explain to me in great detail their superior knowledge. Mansplaining existed long before the term was created.
It wasn’t just the men who didn’t know how to respond to me. Women just couldn’t work out why you didn’t just accept that their name was Mrs John Smith and that they were a ‘just’ a farmer’s wife. The idea that they were Jane Smith and a ‘real’ farmer was totally foreign.
A turning point was a gathering at La Trobe University in 1979: the first (I believe) national conference for women in agriculture. It was heady stuff. After years of being in a minority, it was amazing to be surrounded by women who were staking their claim to a place on farms and in agribusiness in their own right.
In the 1970s, the Printers and Kindred Industries Union (PKIU) was sure where women belonged – and it wasn’t in the compositors’ room. They were okay as typesetters, but the comp room was the domain of men. When I was promoted to the lofty position of sub-editor, after Tom Winterbourne’s resignation, the PKIU was not happy. There was talk of industrial action! It was fine for me to drink with the PKIU members on Friday nights at the local North Melbourne pubs, but not to be exposed to the unseemly language of the comp room.
The management stood firm, though I am sure it was in defence of their power not of my rights. My first production day in the comp room was tense. When I asked the ‘Father of the Chapel’ (the senior union rep.) to move a photo to a different place on a stock report page, he simply said, “no”. The sub-editor had the authority to demand he do it, but I knew this was a pivotal moment and every comp in the room was watching. Remembering my father’s advice to always leave an adversary a way out in a dispute, I said, “well Cal, you and I both know it would look better in the next column, but I’ll leave it up to you,” and walked out of the room. When the 10am smoko bell rang I gave the comps time to get to the tearoom before rushing out to look at the page. The photo had been moved. We never spoke of it again, but from then on I had Cal’s quiet – but powerful – support.
In those early post hot metal days, strips of waxed galleys were cut up with a small box cutter and laid onto the page. If you wanted to cut a story to fit, comps ‘encouraged’ you to cut from the last column by running the blade in and out of the cover, particularly if you looked like you’d prefer to cut it somewhere that would cause more work. That subtly threatening noise still makes me shiver.
This wasn’t my first run in with a union. In the summer between first and second year Ag Sci (1973/74), I had a work experience job on a sheep and cattle property near Healesville. The first few weeks went smoothly, but then the shearers arrived. Monday morning I walked into the shed to a murmur (probably the traditional “ducks on the pond”) that wasn’t all that welcoming. Next thing, the Australian Workers Union rep. called the property owner out for a quiet chat. Michael Herman told me later than he’d won him over by explaining that I was an ignorant uni student and this was the shearers’ chance to show me what life in the shed was really like. They took on the challenge with gusto. Their idea of entertainment at morning and afternoon smoko was to let two or three sheep loose and enjoy watching me trying to get them back in the pens while they had a break.
The AMIEU (Australasian Meat Industry Employees Union) power broker during my time at S&L, Wally Curran, was a bit blunter in his attitude. This was the time of major disputes on the waterfront over live sheep exports, so it was inevitable that I’d encounter Wally at some point. When I hung up from my first phone call with him, I had learned a bunch of new swear words that he used to describe journalists in general and female journalists in particular. At a union meeting at Trades Hall, which Elaine Stangl and I attended, Wally used his speech to make some totally outrageous claims about Elaine’s personal and professional life. It caused much hilarity across the audience – and no-one (including Elaine and me) raised any objections. The MeToo movement would not have been so accepting.
Don’t get the idea that such behaviour was in any way limited to unionists.
Attending meetings of any organisation, such as the then Victorian Farmers Union and the Victorian Farmer and Graziers Association (and even the RSPCA!), often required a sharp eye to avoid “awkward” situations. A solo woman was seen as fair game.
After one such meeting – I can’t remember which organisation – I was part of a small group who joined the president for a drink in his office. I left the room to go to the toilet and when I returned, all the others had left. The president made it clear that he was expecting a ‘private chat’. I feigned ignorance, picked up my bag and got out the door. It was only years later than I realised that all those other men must have been in on the plan.
Then there was the international journalist who I had been asked to take for dinner after a meeting. We had a pleasant couple of hours of chitchat about his travels and I suggested he walk to my nearby flat to call a cab. I went into the kitchen to make us a coffee while we waited for the cab but nearly dropped the cups when returned to find found him on the living room couch – totally naked! I didn’t think this was part of my designated host duties and burst out laughing. He gathered his clothes and left in high dudgeon.
A great place for a girl
Agriculture and journalism have treated me well. While I may have been a bit of a novelty in the early days, I can honestly say that the vast majority of people I encountered recognised that I took my job seriously and was just trying to get the story right.
In 1981, it was time to widen my horizons and I accepted a subs’ position at Shepparton News. But that’s another story.