CWA NSW founder Grace Munro: The showground was her battlefield

As the NSW Country Women’s Association brates its centenary, and to mark Women’s History Month, Women on Boards is paying tribute to its founder Grace Munro (​1897-1964).

'Determined and energetic'

Grace was a women’s activist who became the first CWA president in 1922. She believed a better life for country women could be provided ‘for women, through women and by women’ – now part of the CWA motto.

Born in 1879 at Warialda, NSW, Grace was the second of seven daughters born to grazier George Hollinworth Gordon and Eliza Frances. She attended Kambala School and was described as a determined and energetic woman and an accomplished horsewoman who “could drive a buggy at a gallop as well as any man”. She was also a great shot, expert needlewoman and green thumb.

She married grazier Hugh Robert Munro of Bingara in 1898 and had four children but the youngest died in 1911 while she was in Sydney with another child having an emergency appendectomy. It was this experience that made Grace determined to improve the conditions of and the availability of medical help for women and children in rural and remote Australia.

Grace trained as a sister of St John of Jerusalem and worked with the Red Cross during the First World War. After the war, Grace lectured for the St John order and organised first aid classes in country areas. She became the first woman to serve on a hospital board in rural New South Wales.

CWA 'initiators, fighters and lobbyists'

The CWA of NSW had its beginnings at the  Bushwomen's Conference at the Royal Agricultural Show in Sydney. At the conference an organising committee was formed, including Grace, who went on to become the CWA of NSW’s foundation president. 

She insisted the association was to be non-political with the aim of improving living conditions and amenities and health care facilities for women and children in rural areas. 

After her appointment, Grace travelled around NSW and Queensland mobilising an army of women and forming new branches of the association. 

“These women were initiators, fighters and lobbyists, who were passionate about making rural and regional NSW better for those who lived there,” says current CWA of NSW President, Stephanie Stanhope.

Grace established the first CWA rest room in Bingara in 1924 and, in the following year, helped to found the first country baby health centre at Moree further to the west. By 1923 there were 68 branches, 17 restrooms for mothers and children, two seaside homes and maternity centres in many towns. She also campaigned for maternity wards in country hospitals and improved conditions in trains and at railways tearooms for women and children. 

When she retired in 1926, more than 100 branches had been formed and the CWA membership had grown to more than 4500 members. 

Improving conditions for women in the outback

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1935, Grace said of the CWA and it’s history with Easter shows: “Our aim was to improve conditions for the women outback…We decided that we must begin our campaign at Easter time when the country folk could be reached … the Showground was our battlefield.”

Appointed MBE in 1935 she was a member of the advisory council of New England University College at Armidale from 1938.

Another interesting fact about Grace, who travelled widely, is that from the 1950s she visited the Great Barrier Reef every year, gathering a remarkable shell collection. Survived by two sons and a daughter, Grace died in Sydney on 23 July 1964 after suffering from severe curvature of the spine.

CWA: 100 years on

“The Country Women’s Association of NSW has evolved in so many different ways in the past 100 years to remain as active and relevant as it was when Grace Munro became the first state president, and we’re proud to give our members not only the chance to engage with other like-minded women, but to continue the tradition of improving the lives of women and families right across the state,” said Stephanie Stanhope.

“For 100 years the members of the CWA of NSW have continued the legacy of those trail-blazing foundation members by improving the social, educational, recreational and medical realities for their communities.”

Australian Women's Archives

For more information on great Australian women in history, check out to the Australian Women’s Archives - a long term project of WOB founding partner, the National Foundation for Australian Women.