Jeanette Tarbotton’s interest in rural women’s affairs has taken her from Papua New Guinea to London and plenty of places in between.
On the surface, 83-year-old Jeanette Tarbotton’s life story seems pretty normal, training as a teacher, marrying a local farmer and raising three children on a busy farm at Laghmor. However, if you investigate a little further her achievements are pretty remarkable for a local Mid Canterbury lady. For a start she’s been awarded a medal by the Queen which is only one of a host of fascinating things Jeanette has accomplished over the years.
Like her mother, Jeanette trained as a teacher and was teaching at Mayfield School when she met her late husband Colin through Young Farmers events. They married in 1962, bought a farm in the Lagmhor area and spent over forty years there, raising three children – David, Jane and Sally. “It wasn’t easy farming especially in the seventies and eighties. We farmed through droughts and government regulations, we had no irrigation back then, we were always busy, but we got through it.” She admits as a busy farming mum she initially hadn’t much interest in women’s groups and it was Colin who organised for her to attend her first meeting in 1963, “Well, I think he regretted that day!” she laughs.
Jeanette’s passion for women’s affairs led to an involvement with Rural Women NZ for almost fifty years culminating in her being elected as National President of the organisation, she’s also worked closely with other community and women’s organisations. During her time as President Jeanette became very interested in international women’s affairs and once her term at Rural Women NZ was completed she was elected President of the ACWW for the Pacific region. The Associated Country Women of the World is a global organisation working with grassroot organisations in developed counties (for example Rural Women NZ) and funding projects specifically targeted at improving lives of women and children in poorer countries. Jeanette’s role as President saw her visiting all regions of the South Pacific and identifying projects that could be funded through money raised within NZ and Australia, “I was always impressed by the level of self-sufficiency of the developing countries, they didn’t have much but their ability to survive on very little was so amazing.”
One of Jeanette’s most memorable trips was a visit to the highlands of Papua New Guinea with a colleague from ACWW. She admits being daunted by the huge razor wire fences around the airport at Port Moresby and sitting in the backseat of a car accompanied by armed guards and the windscreen dotted with bullet holes! She visited several highland villages and was overwhelmed by the welcome she received, villages where up to the late sixties were actually still man hunting and only recently civilized. “I walked into the village and there was a big sign up welcoming me and I met the chief who told me I was the first white non-local woman to ever enter the village, I thought to myself ‘am I actually mad coming here?’” She also remembers visiting a local shelter that housed young AIDS orphans and was blown away by the kindness of the locals running it, “I’ve never seen so many happy children, it truly was a fantastic place.”
As well as identifying worthy causes to channel funding as President of the Pacific Region Jeanette organised the international ACWW triennial conference in Christchurch. It was a mammoth task involving the logistics of getting 900 global delegates to NZ plus trips to headquarters in London so Jeanette was very grateful to her family for supporting her through a busy time. The family also hosted four African delegates on the farm in Lagmhor and she still smiles at the memories of the pecking order between the four ladies deciding on which one sat in the front seat and who helped Jeanette in the kitchen! Ultimately for Jeanette the lifelong friendships forged through working together and reuniting at conferences is why she remains committed to the ACWW, she’ll be 84 next year and is planning to attend the next conference in Melbourne.
As well as her decades of involvement with Rural Women NZ and ACWW Jeanette is also a busy member of the local Presbyterian Church and was Chairwoman of the National Council for Women in Ashburton.
Her many achievements were recognised when in 1993 she was presented with the NZ Suffrage Centennial Medal, recognising her contribution to the rights of women’s issues. Instituted by the Queen and presented by Jenny Shipley, Jeanette was one of six local Ashburton women to receive the medal. Typically modest about her achievements Jeanette says she’s never worn the medal and only found out about it when her name was published in the local paper.
It’s now 125 years since women gained the vote in New Zealand and Jeanette is philosophical on how things have changed for women today. She believes women have a lot more confidence in business now, something that during her younger days at Rural Women she encouraged. Although she does feel with our modern busy lives there isn’t much time to foster community ties. If she had one piece of advice for her granddaughters? “They are usually advising me” she laughs, “I think it’s important to commit yourself to something, get through the exams and knuckle down and enjoy it when it’s all over.” Wise words from a very wise lady.