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Women in wartime

Poster for the Womens Land Army, 1943.

A poster produced in 1943 encouraging women to join the Land Army. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

The involvement of Australian women in each war is closely connected to their role in society at different times, and the nature of each war.

Australia has been involved in a number of wars including The Boer War (1899–1902), World War I (1914–1918), World War II (1939–1945), The Korean War (1950–1953), The Vietnam War (1962–1972) and The Gulf War (1990–1991).

On the home front, women dealt with the consequences of war—managing children and family responsibilities alone, shortages of resources, as well as their fears for the future, and the grief and trauma of losing loved ones.

Many women were also actively involved as nurses and in other active service duties, and contributed more actively to war efforts through military service. Other Australian women were also closely connected with war through male relatives and friends away on military service.

In World War II, women were actively recruited into jobs that had always been the preserve of men; they worked in factories and shipyards, as members of the Women's Land Army and as Official War Artists.

Fundraising and support roles

At the outbreak of World War I, the expected role of women was to manage the home and raise children. Women were strongly encouraged to help the war effort by joining voluntary organisations.

Groups active at this time included the Australian Red Cross, the Country Women's Association, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Australian Women's National League, the Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Australian Comforts Fund and the Cheer-Up Society.

Paid labour and taking on 'men's work'

When World War I started, it was uncommon for many women to have jobs, apart from domestic serving roles. The number of women working outside the home did increase slightly during the war but mostly in food, clothing and printing industry jobs that were already established as female roles.

The idea that a great number of women could take up paid work in place of the men who had gone to war was resisted for a number of reasons. This resistance lasted into World War II, even though 'women beat a path to the doors of the authorities, begging to be allowed to assist, to help win the war, to give of their talents'. (Adam-Smith, Patsy 1996, Australian Women At War , Penguin Books, Australia, p 5)

By 1942, the tides of war had shifted to Australia's doorstep and roles changed out of sheer necessity. Australian women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers and were even allowed to take on 'men's work'. These were jobs for the war, not for life. Women were paid at lower rates than men and expected to 'step down' and return to home duties after the war.

It's a man's job

Photo of two WAAAF flight mechanics, 1944.

Two WAAAF flight mechanics checking aircraft engine components at RAAF Station Tocumwal, 1944. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. AWM VIC0380.

During World War Two, in Great Britain, North America and Australia and other nations, the vast number of men who were involved in the war meant that, for the first time ever, women were actively recruited into jobs that had always been considered for men. 'Rosie the Riveter' was a character used in America during the 1940s to entice women into work in factories and shipyards.

Newsreels and movies of the day show women happily coming to work in the factory each day to make bomb casings, tanks or parachutes and draws similarities between the things women are used to doing (such as filing their nails) with the work they do in the factory (such as filing the inside of munitions casings). Similar recruitment programs were used to great effect in Australia.

At the end of the war, when women were expected to give up their jobs for men who returned home from overseas conflicts, this was often a difficult transition. Many women had enjoyed participating in the workforce. The 1950s saw a dramatic change in the way women's roles were defined, as females were encouraged back into the home and their traditional roles of wives and mothers reinforced and encouraged.

Australian Women's Land Army

Photo of Australian WomenAustralian War Memorial.

The Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA) was established in July 1942, in response to labour shortages in country areas. The Women's Land Army recruited women to work on farms where there were no men left to do the hard labour that was traditionally assigned to men.

AWLA was not considered a military service and never included benefits such as the pensions, deferred pay and bonuses, which were available to those women who joined WRANS, AWAS and others. By 1944 the Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA) had around 3000 members.

Taking personal action

The unique war experiences of some Australian women came from their own initiative and special circumstances. Travelling in England at the beginning of World War I, Olive King went on to work as an ambulance driver in France and Salonika. The suffragette and pacifist Vida Goldstein founded the Women's Peace Army in 1915. Vera Deakin established a Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau in Cairo in 1915, and in London in 1916, providing a vital service for Australian families in these countries.

During World War I, some women threw themselves into campaigns in favour of conscription, others opposed it vehemently. In the years following World War II, the war stories of extraordinary Australian women such as Nancy Wake, Jessie Traill, Vivian Bullwinkel and many others have emerged.

In a different Australia at the time of later conflicts, women have joined with others to voice their opposition to war through marches, rallies and petitions.

Women bearing witness to war – artists and writers

Image of Sister Minnie Goldstein working in the Blood Bank, 1944.

Nora Heyson, Sister Minnie Goldstein working in the Blood Bank, Alexishafen 1944. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

Art and writing can offer a window into some wartime experiences. Sybil Craig, Nora Heysen and Stella Bowen were among the Official War Artists appointed by the Australian government during World War II and their impressions of war are among many artworks held at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Letters, diaries and other written accounts convey women's experiences of various conflicts. Betty Jeffrey's book White Coolies (1945) and Jessie Simons's book While History Passed (1954, reissued in 1985 as In Japanese Hands ) are personal accounts of being held prisoner-of-war by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore in World War II. Susan Terry's book House of Love: Life in a Vietnamese Hospital (1966) reflects her experiences as a civilian nurse during the Vietnam War.

Recognising Australian women's war efforts

In World War I and World War II, the wives or female relatives of Australian servicemen received medals to show their personal connection with military efforts.

The type of work women did was less of an issue when Australia became involved in the Vietnam, Korean and Gulf Wars. Australian society had changed and these conflicts had a different impact on the day-to-day life of most people.

Useful links

Women's role in wartime

Stories of women in wartime



Print references

  • Adam-Smith, P 1996, Australian Women At War, Penguin Books, Australia
  • Adam Smith, P 1992, Prisoners Of War From Gallipoli to Korea , Viking, Penguin books Australia
  • Bassett, J (ed.) 1998, As We Wave You Goodbye: Australian Women and War, Oxford University Press Australia
  • Kenny, C 1986, Captives: Australian Army Nurses in Japanese Prison Camps, University of Queensland Press
  • Hardisty, S (ed.) 1990, Thanks Girls and Goodbye: The Story of the Australian Women's Land Army 1942-1945 , Viking O'Neil, Australia.

Last updated: 28 May 2015
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