This is what I like about the dairy farmer: he never seems phased that I’m a woman. He just tells me to do stuff and I do it. “Move those tyres off that maize pile and pull the tarp back.” “Take the quad bike down to the end paddock and let the cows out.” He’s never like, “Oh wait, are you strong enough to throw tyres? Can you handle driving a quad bike?”
The other day we went out into a field where row upon row of freshly shorn, frayed maize stalks poked out of the earth.
“Come with me Helen, I’ve got a job for you.”
I followed him up into the cab of the tractor and he started driving.
“Mumble mumble mumble…” He was turned away from me, looking out the back window. I couldn’t hear him over the noise of the engine but I thought he was asking me to look at the mulcher that we were towing behind us. He pulled a lever and the mulcher rose up off the ground. “Mumble mumble up and down.”
“I can’t hear you,” I yelled.
He flicked a couple of switches and the tractor came to a halt. “This is the clutch, this is how you make the tractor go forward,” press, flick.
So I think he’s expecting me to drive the tractor?
“This is the throttle,” push, “the number here should read around 570. These are the gears, up and down.”
“Was that right button for up, left for down?”
He nodded. “Three is good. If you hear the engine struggling go down to two. The mulcher is here.” Click. “That’s it on. If you see a stone lift it up. Got it?”
“I think so.”
He stopped the tractor again.
“Sit down. See if you can do it.”
So I took my place behind the wheel and went through all the controls he’d just shown me. The tractor chugged along the field, mulching the gnawed off maize stalks into the soil. We got to the end of a row and I turned the tractor round.
“Left a bit. No, right! Look, can you see the line where you just came down?”
“Where are the brakes?” I suddenly thought to ask.
“Down there,” he pointed to a pedal on the floor. “But if you want to stop, just flick into neutral and take the throttle down to zero.”
He opened the door to the cab and swung a leg out. “I’ll be back to get you in a couple of hours!” he called, leaping out of the moving tractor and slamming the door behind him.
A couple of hours?! It was hot in the cab and I’d left my water bottle in the ute, and was I allowed to be in charge of a tractor? And who let the cows into the field??
But as I settled into it I thought this is actually kinda cool. I liked that the farmer trusted me just to get on and do something that I hadn’t done before. In general I think you live up to people’s expectations of your capabilities.
So I was surprised the other night when we were watching a reality cop show on TV and he suddenly said, “I don’t agree with women being police.” I couldn’t understand why he would think a woman was less capable than a man of doing police work. It turned out he was basing this on the idea that on a Friday night, if trouble kicks off amongst a drunken crowd, you need someone big and intimidating to restore order; in his view, a man.
What followed was a strange and stilted discussion where I wanted to change his mind but I didn’t want to come across as disrespectful or force my opinion onto him.
“I think that with the proper training, a woman could do just as well as a man in that situation. You don’t need to be physically big to take someone down.”
He shook his head. “I’m not talking about taking someone down. Just about intimidating them.”
I went into the kitchen to do the dishes. I could see where he was coming from. I know that in general men are bigger and stronger than women, but I just can’t shake the idea that a woman can do anything a man can do. I’m not saying that every woman can do something that one particular man can do, but that there is no activity on earth that a woman cannot do, purely because she is a woman.
I walked back into the living room with soap suds up my arms saying, “I think the problem is that we’re assuming that the only way to resolve drunken violence is by intimidation but there might be another way that doesn’t require a large male, that a female would be equally as good at.”
“What, like talking to them?”
“No, that would never work. Trust me. Have you ever been in a bar fight? No? Well, I’ve seen enough to know that a big, intimidating guy is the only way.”
“I just think it seems a bit harsh not to let women join the police in case this one particular situation arises where they might not be intimidating enough.”
I went back into the kitchen. He must have been starting to come round a bit because he came in a few minutes later: “I see what you’re saying that the Friday night violence is only a small part of the job. I suppose there are other areas where a woman would be better than a man…”
Which was not quite what I was saying either. I’d like to think that a man could do just as well as a woman in an task that’s been traditionally thought of as a woman’s role. But I appreciated that he was thinking about it and changing his mind, so I said, “Maybe having men and women working together would be the best thing,” and he agreed with me. And I was pretty happy with that, until he added: “But women in the Defence Force. I definitely don’t agree with that.”