Australian Women in War: Service, Courage and Care

Australian Women in War: Service, Courage and Care cover

This book provides a look at the roles Australian women have carried out during wartime, as well as the effects wars have had upon those women.

Access a designed version to download or print


The history of Australian men leaving our shores to fight in wars is well told, along with their efforts to defend Australia itself when enemy forces threatened this country. This history features many stories of courage, resilience and sacrifice, shared across the years and across the branches of Australia's armed forces.

The history of Australian women in times of war is as vital as the history of Australian men in the same circumstances. Australian women have been involved in a range of conflicts in locations across the world, often experiencing the same challenging conditions as the men who served as well. The home front in Australia has seen women live with changing circumstances as they have adapted to the effects of war, at a personal level and across communities large and small.

From volunteer organisations through auxiliary military units to frontline units exposed to the dangers of war, Australian women have made many contributions to this country's safety and security. Those contributions often came at a cost of personal lives being disrupted. That disruption included the loss of loved ones and major changes to how Australian women have lived their lives over the years. A number of Australian women have lost their own lives while in the service of this nation.

This book provides a look at the roles Australian women have carried out during wartime, as well as the effect wars have had upon those women. There are stories from frontlines, from homes, from factories and from towns and cities across the country. These stories describe how Australian women have chosen to serve or to support those who serve. From women building war equipment to women serving in zones of conflict alongside men, the stories all have one thing in common: Australian women have written themselves into this country's history of wartime endeavours. As you read this book, pause to think about their stories and how their efforts have contributed to the lives we Australians live today.

The contents of this book are linked to the 2008 publication of Australian Women in War, which was produced by the Department of Veterans' Affairs. If you would like to further investigate any of the topics covered in this book, the publication has extensive information and activities that will help you in extending your knowledge and developing your historical research skills. Australian Women In War is available for free download at

Boer War and First World War

What was the nature of the war experience for Australian women during the Boer War and the First World War?

When people think about international conflicts involving Australians, they often think of the First World War, Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf Wars, Afghanistan and so on. They are often surprised to learn that Australians served in a conflict that started when this country was still made up of separate colonies, before the Commonwealth of Australia came into existence in 1901. That conflict was the Second South African Anglo-Boer War, or Boer War for short. It took place in South Africa from 1899 to 1902. British settlers were living in the South African regions of Transvaal and Orange Free State, which were controlled by the Boers, who were non-Indigenous South African farmers of Dutch origin. The British settlers felt they were being poorly treated by the Boers; this lead to conflict between the two groups.

When the Boer War began, the colonies of Australia offered troops to assist with the campaign being run by Britain. Australia's strong ties to the British Empire motivated the colonies to make the offer. Some Australians were already in South Africa when the war started. Others enlisted in Australia or made their own way independently to the war, where they sometimes joined local contingents if their enlistment in an Australian contingent had come to an end.

Australians also served in the First World War, from 1914 to 1918, as citizens of the new nation of Australia. They faced some of the dangers encountered in the Boer War, but they also faced fresh dangers in the form of new weapons, tactics and a war fought on a much larger scale, involving hundreds of thousands of troops. Australian women were involved in both conflicts. This unit will look at where those women served, what they did in those conflicts and the effects their experiences had upon them.

Before you read on, make a list of the jobs/roles you think Australian women might have carried out during the Boer War and the First World War. Once you have made that list, put it aside and come back to it when you have finished this unit. How many of the roles you identified are discussed in the unit? Were there any roles you did not include? Add them to your list.

Women during the Boer War

Australian women nurses may have seen the Boer War as an opportunity to reinforce the reputation of nursing. British authorities regarded nursing as an occupation with low status; nurses themselves were regarded as lacking professionalism and possibly not maintaining high standards of hygiene. The New South Wales Army Nursing Service Reserve, formed in August 1899, sent fourteen nurses to the Boer War, in January 1900. These nurses served with the New South Wales Army Medical Corps. Nurses from the other Australian colonies soon followed the fourteen from New South Wales. Some of those nurses from the other colonies paid their own way to South Africa. They possibly all had in common a desire to prove to the authorities that nurses were professionals, capable of providing good care to the troops involved in the conflict.

A statue of armed soldier on a horse
Boer War memorial, Adelaide, South Australia.

What does this memorial tell you about the Boer War?

Fast Fact

The Boers were non-Indigenous South African farmers of Dutch origins. The Boer War was also due to British people attempting to gain control over South African resources such as diamonds and gold.

A painting depicting a world war one battle scene where an injured male soldier is being carried by another male soldier wearing a red cross armband.

William Dargie, The incident for which Captain Neville Howse was awarded the VC, Vredefort, July 1900 (c. 1968, oil on paper on board, 25.5 x 35.5 cm. AWM ART29246)

This painting, by Australian artist William Dargie, depicts an incident for which an Australian soldier was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Choose three words to describe the environment in which the Boer War was fought.

9 bar mounted war medals made of bronze, enamel, silk and silver

Queen Victoria created the Victoria Cross (above, far left) in 1856 following the Crimean War. The medal recognises gallantry in action across all ranks of the military services and is the highest award for acts of bravery carried out during wartime. One hundred Australians have been awarded the Victoria Cross. Ninety six received it under the British Imperial honours system, while four have been awarded the Victoria Cross for Australia. This medal was introduced into the Australian honours system in 1991. RELAWM16321

No Australian women have been awarded the Victoria Cross. Suggest why that situation exists. What do you think of that situation? How might that change in the modern armed forces?

Julia Bligh Johnston

Julia Bligh Johnston was a nursing sister from the Hawkesbury district in New South Wales, where she was born in 1861. Julia grew up in an upper class family – her father was a magistrate, coroner and prominent in the local church. She enjoyed a good education and was a professional nurse when she joined the first group of nurses from New South Wales to go to South Africa to serve in the Boer War. Most of these nurses were aged 25 – 41 and were single.

Julia and the other nurses worked under very challenging conditions. The hospital tents were crowded with sick and wounded soldiers. The nurses had to cope with the smell of unwashed bodies, the presence of diseases and the confronting effects of those diseases upon the people being treated. The nurses struggled with limited medical supplies, making their work even more difficult.

An informal portrait of a nurse in full uniform standing outside and holding a an object in her hand.

New South Wales nurses with souvenirs of their time in South Africa: (left to right) Matron Nellie Gould with her leather chatelaine containing tools of the trade, Sister Penelope Frater with her Queen Victoria chocolate tin, Sister Julia Bligh Johnston with a leather sjambok and Buller the dog. AWM A03962

Think about the conditions faced by Julia and her colleagues. What sort of personality traits would Julia and the other nurses have had that helped them cope with the conditions?

What might they have done to reduce the effects upon themselves?

In their shoes

Imagine you are a nurse serving with Julia Bligh Johnston. Write a letter to your family at home describing the conditions, your work and how you are feeling.

Silver medal on a red, black and orange striped ribbon
Queen’s South Africa Medal. REL13110.001
Silver medal on a green, while and orange ribbon
King’s South Africa Medal. REL13110.002

These two medals were awarded to Julia Bligh Johnston for her service in the Boer War. The medals were created by Queen Victoria, the British monarch from 1837 to 1901 and King Edward VII, the British monarch from 1901 to 1910. Edward VII was the eldest son of Queen Victoria and became the king after she died in 1901.

Fast fact

Many Boer War nursing veterans went on to serve in the First World War.

Patients laying in bed while a nurse  and soldier stand nearby
A hospital at Orange River (a British colony at that time), 1900. AWM P00044.042

Look at the image of the hospital at Orange River. Describe what you see. Compare the conditions in the image to what might be found in a modern hospital.

Women on the Home Front

The involvement of Australians in the Boer War was one example of people from the colonies, before Federation, going overseas to participate in conflicts. Just as it is today, when people left to join conflicts overseas there were consequences for the families and friends they left behind. Australian women had their families disrupted by the absence of loved ones; they had to cope as well as they could and manage their lives and the lives of those at home with them.

Look at the image below. How might the soldier's departure have changed life at home for this family? What do you think the woman might have done to manage those changes? How do you think the children felt about their father departing for the war?

A man in uniform with a woman and three children.

A Warrant Officer farewells his wife and children in the city park of Launceston before continuing in the parade to farewell the First Tasmanian Contingent, October 1899. AWM P01209.041

In their shoes

At the beginning of this unit is a photograph of a Boer War memorial in Adelaide, in South Australia. The memorial focuses upon the involvement of Australian men in the war. Imagine you are given the job of designing a memorial to commemorate the service of Australian women in the Boer War. Come up with a design for that memorial. Keep these questions in mind as you develop your design:

  • How much information about the Boer War will be needed?
  • What aspects of the women's service might be emphasised?
  • What materials would be most appropriate to build the memorial?
  • What will be the size of the memorial?
An arch lead glass window

Stained glass windows by Australian artist Napier Waller

Look at the image of the stained glass by Australian artist Napier Waller. He created these , and others like them, for the Hall of Memory at the Australian War Memorial, between 1952 and 1958. These feature four soldiers and a nurse from the First World War. What are the similarities and differences between the images of the soldiers and the image of the nurse? How do you feel when you look at the
nurse? What is it about the image that makes you feel that way?

Women during the First World War

The First World War began with political trouble in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This empire was a union between the European countries of Austria and Hungary. The war began in 1914, only thirteen years after Federation in Australia, and finished in 1918. Great Britain announced that it was at war with Germany in 1914. Australia, as part of the British Empire, also declared war against Germany.

Australia quickly put together an army of volunteers to join with the British forces. Those volunteers ended up fighting in places whose names became important in Australia's military history: Gallipoli, the Western Front (France and Belgium), Palestine and the Sinai (in the Middle East).

Australian women once again volunteered to serve overseas and at home, as nurses, medical workers, Red Cross volunteers and fundraisers. Like Australian women in the Boer War, those who participated in the First World War found themselves confronted by a range of experiences.

Fast fact

Australian female nurses were expected to be single, or widowed. Some married women passed their recruitment checks; some women married while they were serving in the armed forces and then had to leave the service.

Painting depicting a nurse attend to a patient laying in bed
Nurse and patient, 3rd Australian CCS, Frank Crozier, France, c. 1918, oil on wood panel, 23.8 x 27.4 cm. AWM ART13338

The painting by artist Frank Crozier depicts a nurse and her patient in a Casualty Clearing Station, or CCS. These stations were set up not far from the front lines in the First World War. Their main function was to treat wounded soldiers who arrived after first aid had been applied to their wounds; if the soldiers' wounds were significant, the soldiers were sent to a major military hospital, further back from the front lines.

Look at the painting and describe how it represents the function of a CCS. What would it have been like for nurses working in a CCS? How might it have been different for nurses working in a major military hospital?

[Sister Gertrude Munro] was only ill for ten days …was put straight into hospital for sick sisters where she got the very best medical attention possible, and … one of her friends was constantly with her … She had a bad combination, Pneumonia and M.T. Malaria which is very hard to fight. Being a strong healthy woman we hoped against hope she might win through, but alas it was not to be … She is buried in a very pretty little Cemetery with some other Sisters and Soldiers who have given their lives for their country.

Jessie MacHardie White, 2 December 1918, Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files, AWM 1 DRL 428

Above is an excerpt from the Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files from December 1918. It describes the death of Sister Gertrude Munro while she was serving in the Mediterranean region in the First World War. Sister Munro died of a combination of pneumonia and malaria.

What would have made the risk of infection by disease worse for the Australian nurses working in the battle zones? What other physical and mental challenges would the nurses have faced in the First World War?

Had a desperately hard time at Lemnos with food, tents, mud and sickness, as well as great troubles with Colonel Fiaschi, who treated Nurses shamefully — No consideration whatever … I believe the Hospital would have collapsed but for the Nurses. They all worked like demons …

Letter from RHJ Fetherston in Jan Bassett, Guns and Brooches, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992 p. 50

Above is part of a letter written by Lieutenant General RHJ Fetherston, while he was serving on the Greek island of Lemnos in the First World War. He refers to the apparent treatment of nurses by a Colonel Fiaschi.

What do you think Lieutenant General Fetherston means when he says Colonel Fiaschi treated the nurses "shamefully"? How might the nurses have felt about that treatment? How might they have responded to it?

Matron (Margaret) Grace Wilson on Lemnos, Greece. AWM A05332
Staff Nurse Pearl Corkhill receives the Military Medal. AWM P01850.006

The image above shows Staff Nurse Pearl Corkhill receiving the Military Medal. This medal is extensively awarded to recognise bravery. Pearl Corkhill was one of seven Australian nurses awarded the Military Medal in the First World War.

Find out who the other six Australian nurses were who received the Military Medal. Make a table including their names, where they served and why they were awarded the medals.

In their shoes

Imagine you are an Australian nurse serving during the First World War. Write your responses to the following questions:

  • Why did you decide to serve overseas as a nurse?
  • Is the experience different to what you thought it would be? If yes, how is it different?
  • What is the hardest thing about your role?
  • What part of your service makes you feel the most proud or satisfied?
A truck travels into a camp of tents and small cabins
2nd Australian Casualty Clearing Station, France. AWM P00156.072

Women on the Home Front

While Australian women were serving on the battle fronts of the First World War, those at home in Australia were also coping with the effects of the war and supporting the efforts of those overseas as best as they could. Those involved on the home front participated in activities that related to politics, society, the economy and industry. Their participation was possibly influenced by their social class, their age and whether or not they had family members serving overseas. Australian women on the home front made many important contributions to the war effort. Some of those contributions are represented in the images.

Volunteer Red Cross workers packing parcels to be sent to troops at the front. AWM J00346
2 soldiers and 2 women sit under a large tree
Two convalescing New Zealand soldiers on their way home, relaxing with two women while in Sydney. AWM A03615
Women making uniforms at the Commonwealth Clothing Factory. AWM DAX2294

Two of the images show women engaged in specific tasks that contributed to the war effort. The third image shows two women socialising with two soldiers from New Zealand, who are on their way home. How might the two women have been contributing to the war effort by socialising with the soldiers?

An advertisement with the heading, 'God bless dear Daddy who is fighting the Hun and send him Help' and illustration of woman sitting on a chair and holding a little girl praying on her knees.

'God bless dear Daddy, who is fighting the Hun and send him Help', recruitment poster by Norman Lindsay. (AWM ARTV05469)

This poster was created by Norman Lindsay, a prominent Australian artist from that era. He wanted the poster to encourage Australian women to support the troops on the battle fronts of the First World War.

How did the poster encourage Australian women in that way? Is there anything Norman Lindsay might have done differently in the poster to make it more effective? If so, what might he have done differently?

Remember the list you made at the start of this unit, about the roles of Australian women in the Boer War and First World War? Now it's the time to go back to your list and see how many roles you identified. What does the list of roles say about the way Australian women experienced the Boer War and the First World War?

In their shoes

Imagine you are an Australian artist during the First World War, who has been asked to produce a poster with the same function as Norman Lindsay's poster. Create that poster, in digital form or using traditional art materials. Display your poster along with others created in your class. Discuss the range of responses in the class and the way you and others developed your ideas in your poster creation process.

Women wait to welcome loved ones home from the war. AWM H11576

Look at the image above, which shows women waiting for family or friends to come home from the First World War. What emotions are being expressed by the faces of the women? How might their experiences on the home front have influenced how they felt as they waited for their loved ones?

Second World War

How did the role of Australian women change during the Second World War?

When the First World War ended in 1918, it was soon known as 'the war to end all wars'. However, only 21 years later the Second World War began. Once again it was Australia's ties to the British Empire that drew our country into the conflict. Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 after Germany invaded Poland; the Australian government told the Australian people that the nation was at war with Germany as well. What followed was six years of conflict across the world that saw Australians involved in battle fronts as close as Papua New Guinea and as far away as the North Atlantic ocean. Australia itself was attacked numerous times by enemy forces during the war. Many Australian women saw a need to participate in the Second World War in any way they could, as they had in the Boer War and the First World War. Unlike the previous wars, the Second World War provided Australian women with new opportunities to play their parts in fighting the countries of the Axis forces (Germany, Italy and Japan). The parts they played involved the use of new technologies and a greater variety of roles in Australia's armed forces. Australian women at home faced new challenges; some of these challenges meant changes for Australian women that continued after the Second World War was over.

Fast fact

More Australian women worked during the Second World War than before, with many of them involved in what had previously been male-only occupations

Look at the image of the poster from 1943. What do you think a "victory job" might have been at that time? What sort of "victory jobs" might be represented by the women in the poster? What are some of the things the women in the poster all have in common? How do those things influence the "message" of the poster?

A poster of women dressed in various uniforms.

Join us in a victory job, by Maurice Bramley, 1943, lithograph on paper, 49 x 60 cm. AWM ARTV08836

Service roles for Australian women

The Second World War saw new opportunities for Australian women to make contributions to Australia's war efforts. Roles like nursing still existed, however the creation of new volunteer organisations meant that women could take up a greater range of jobs and responsibilities related to the war. Some of these organisations were associated with Australia's armed forces. They were known as auxiliary services, which meant that they were additional to, but not part of, Australia's army, navy and air force.

Women in these auxiliary forces were able to take on roles that might have otherwise required men. In this way, the men were able to move into roles directly related to the areas of conflict. This was significant for Australia's war efforts, as it meant that essential jobs across the country could continue while Australian men were overseas fighting the Axis forces or in Australia in military roles.

Promotional poster featuring an illustrated woman in a WAAAF uniform. The poster reads 'Doing a grand job! Join the WAAAF and play your part in the big task ahead. Apply - RAAF recruiting centre or local committee.

World War II recruitment poster by James Northfield. It shows a young Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force recruit. In the background is a montage of the various WAAAF duties, with Bristol Beauforts on the ground and possibly the same in the sky. AWM ARTV05170

Release a man. Join the AWAS, McCowan, Ian, 1941–1945, lithograph, 61 x 48.3 cm. AWM ARTV01049
Join the Women’s Land Army, Unknown, 1943, lithograph on paper, 74.6 x 47.8 cm. AWM ARTV06446

These posters relate to three of the organisations Australian women could join during the Second World War. Two of the posters refer to auxiliary military organisations called the AWAS and the WAAAF. Find out what the full names of these organisations were and what sort of roles women had in them.

In their shoes

Imagine you are a young woman living in one of Australia's large cities in 1943. You have joined the Women's Land Army (a civilian volunteer organisation) and find yourself sent to a country town to work on a farm. Write a letter to a friend back in the city, describing the work you are doing and the differences between life in the city and life in the country. Share with your friend your reasons for joining the Women's Land Army.

Other jobs for women

Australian women moved into a large range of specific jobs during the Second World War. Each of these jobs made a contribution to Australia’s war efforts. The jobs allowed our nation to keep its frontline forces properly equipped and effective as the troops fought in the combat zones across the world. Many of the jobs involved women taking on new skills and being trained in a range of military technologies and methods. Some of these technologies and methods were relatively new, so many women found themselves at the "cutting edge" of scientific and industrial developments.

As the Second World War progressed, many Australian women acquired more and more skills. Some saw these skills as possibly being useful once the war was over; others imagined that they would not need those skills after the war. Either way, the experiences of Australian women as they carried out their wartime jobs had an effect upon them and Australian society. This effect carried into the years after the Second World War.

Fast fact

Women in the Australian auxiliary military forces were paid at lower rates than men in the Australian armed forces.

A woman pointing at diagrams on a blackboard
Section Officer Meryl Taylor, WAAAF, lecturing in an aircraft recognition class at No. 1 WAAAF Training Depot, St Catherine's Place, 17 Heyington Place, Toorak. AWM VIC1343
2 female mechanics working on propeller engine
Two WAAAF flight mechanics at work on an engine of a Douglas C47 Dakota transport aircraft at RAAF Station Point Cook. AWM VIC0328
2 women sitting in a tractor
Two members of the WAAAF on a tractor beside a camouflaged truck.The women are among those members of the WAAAF employed as drivers and mechanics at RAAF stations around Australia. AWM P02641.002
A female soldier looking at a photograph through a stereoscope.

As part of an extensive support organisation in Australia which assisted operations in the Pacific, an officer of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) peers through a stereoscope viewer to interpret aerial photographs at an Allied headquarters in Brisbane, Queensland, in 1942. Information gained in this way was used to plan raids and prepare target maps for the briefing of aircrews. (AWM VIC0805)

These four images show Australian women carrying out a range of jobs. Look at the images and consider the following:

What jobs are the women doing in the photographs? How might these jobs have contributed to Australia's war efforts? Which jobs might have required women to undertake specific specialised training?

Think about jobs in Australia's armed forces now that might be like those in the images. Do you know any women in our armed forces who have jobs similar to those in the images? If you do, see if you can talk to them about their job. Find out about their training and why they decided to work in those areas.

Women on the Home Front

The Second World War, like the Boer War and First World War before it, brought challenges for Australian women at home. The absence of loved ones was a common challenge. Women once again experienced the emotional and sometimes physical pain of not knowing what was happening to their relatives and friends in the combat zones. Australian troops were spread over more of the world than in the previous conflicts.

One major change for Australian women at home in the Second World War was the arrival of thousands of troops from other countries, in particular from the United States. Servicemen from the US were based in several Australian cities and towns. They brought with them the customs and traditions of their own families and cultures. They also brought wealth, as they were often better paid than the Australian servicemen. Australian women were faced with the challenge of how to react to the US servicemen and their different ways of life.

The home front brought other changes as well. Australia's role in the Second World War meant that people at home had to consider how they could help the war effort. Australian women were faced with decisions that had effects upon themselves and their families.

Until 1942 [Townsville] was a quiet seaside town, where everyone knew everyone else. Then the war, and many thousands of Americans arrived in our small town. Almost overnight just about every essential item for everyday living became scarce, especially food. To keep the forces in meat and vegetables left very little for the housewife to choose from. My mother queued to buy meat, and if she was lucky [she would] get a leg of lamb or hogget. Then to the queue at the ice works for a block of ice. My mother was one of the unsung heroines of the time — how she could put a meal together with the few ingredients available I don't know.

Marjorie King in Betty Goldsmith and Beryl Sandford, The Girls They Left Behind, Penguin, Melbourne, 1990, pp77–8

"Dearest Mother;

I hope you don't mind my calling you mother; but after all you were a mother to me and the rest of the boys while I was fortunate enough to be in Melbourne. Yours was truly a house of hospitality to a couple of beat up marines."

E. Daniel Potts and Annette Potts, Yanks Down Under 1941–1945, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985, p. 207

Above are extracts from two books related to the Australian home front during the Second World War. Both extracts refer to United States service men in Australia, but they refer to two different effects those service men had on Australian women. What are those effects? How might the effects have changed life for Australian women on the home front?

The second extract refers to US servicemen known as marines. Find out who the marines were and why they were in Melbourne during the Second World War.

A poster depicting a nurse in uniform with the words Join, Australian Red Cross
Join, artist unknown, poster, 1939–1945, photolithograph, 36.8 x 24.6 cm. AWM ARTV00790
A poster depicting housewife holding a key at a stove with a large lock with the words Cook to Jo's goose by cutting down on gas and electricity, coal is vital!
Coal is vital!, artist unknown, poster, 1944, lithograph, 36.1 x 24.6 cm. AWM ARTV06690
A poster of two giant hands holding objects with a crowd of people in uniform gathered underneath.

ACF gives and can keep on giving!, produced by the Australian Comforts Fund, 1939–45, lithograph, 101.5 x 76.4 cm. AWM ARTV06426

A poster of a woman holding piles of clothes and a slogan written underneath.

Our job to clothe the men who work and fight, poster made in 1943 to encourage women to enter the manufacturing industries that worked to full capacity during the war. Colour photolithograph with block printing on paper, 73.8 x 47.9 cm. AWM ARTV01064

Look at the four posters on this page. They all have a common theme. What is the theme? How do the posters present that theme? How effective do you think these posters would have been in relation to motivating Australian women in a certain way?

The poster titled Coal is vital! encouraged Australian women to "Cook Tojo's Goose". Find out who "Tojo" was and why they are identified in the poster.

Changes for women in Australian society

The effects of the Second World War upon Australia were substantial, as the nation played its part in the military campaigns in the areas of conflict across the world. Australian women experienced changes in the way their roles and status in Australian society evolved during the war. Those changes meant different things to different women; some felt they gained advantages while others felt that the war brought disadvantages.

The amount of change also varied for Australian women, particularly as the war ended and Australians serving overseas came home to try to pick up their lives with family, friends and the wider society.

Fast fact

During the Second World War, Australian women took up jobs previously held by men in activities such as operating heavy machinery, producing munitions and building aircraft.

Women got [paid] much less [than men who performed the same work]. As far as general office administration, women had been trained in business colleges and were able to do the job much better really, but we got less money than the men did … And most of the girls didn't want [equal pay] because if the man got as much as they did when they went out they would have to pay for themselves. And it was so nice to have someone bring you a box of chocolates or flowers – so much more romantic. So they didn't want it on equal terms.

Nancy Freedman in Michael McKernan, All In!, Nelson, Melbourne, 1983, p. 64

When the war was over, I went back to being a clerk in the Bourke Street store of Coles. I didn't mind because it was made perfectly clear to us when we were made managers that it was for the duration of the war only.

Beattie Crawford, Melbourne in Joanna Penglase and David Horner, When The War Came To Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1992, p. 242

The war had a tremendous effect on the liberation of women. To be important, that was the thing: to be absolutely necessary for the running of the country, that women should work, and this is not a light thing and it couldn't possibly be forgotten once the war was over.

Dorothy Hewett in Joanna Penglase and David Horner, When The War Came To Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1992, p. 242

Here are three different points of view on how the war affected Australian women's roles and status. What are the three points of view? What might have influenced each point of view? Which point of view might be most relevant to Australian women these days and why?

Year Female wage as % of male wage
1939 55.3
1940 55.3
1941 55.8
1942 55.6
1943 57.2
1944 60.2
1945 59.8

Look at the figures on the left. What do they tell you about how Australian women were paid for their work during the Second World War? What do you think of these figures? What factors might have influenced this situation back then?

Investigate the pay rates for Australian women and men these days. How do they compare to the figures from the Second World War? What does that comparison tell you?

In their shoes

Imagine you and two others in your class are all Australian women working in a factory producing munitions for the war effort in 1944. You're all on a lunch break and the conversation turns to the differences in pay for women and men at the factory. Discuss this subject with your "co-workers". Try to take on different points of view in your conversation; for example one worker might think the pay difference is not a problem while another thinks it is unfair.

At the beginning of this unit was the question "How did the role of Australian women change during the Second World War?" Now that you have completed the unit, take a moment to think about the question and then respond to it. Your response might be a list of points, or perhaps a poster using graphics and text. You might like to consider the amount of change that occurred and where Australian women had the most change in their roles and their lives.

BCOF, Korea and Vietnam

How where these three military operation different for Australian women serving in them?

The end of the Second World War was not the end of the involvement of Australian women in military activities. In Japan, the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF, 1946–1952) required nursing support as post-war reconstruction began. The Korean War (1950–1953) also provided a need for nurses to serve in that country with the Australian military forces. When war broke out in Vietnam (1962–1973), Australian women again served as nurses in the Australian armed forces. Australian women were also involved in civilian roles in Vietnam, ranging from Red Cross support to entertainers, Australian embassy staff and journalists.

These three zones of military operations brought a range of experiences for Australian women serving in various roles. Those in the BCOF were confronted by the devastation of many Japanese cities and the desolation in which the Japanese people were trying to live. For the women who served in the Korean War, dealing with a climate that went from oppressive heat to bone-numbing cold was a challenge. In the war in Vietnam, Australian women had to adapt to a complex conflict that involved new types of warfare. This situation brought new psychological challenges for those women and for the men serving there as well.

A soldier and bride cutting a wedding cake together with others looking on

Sergeant GC McCaughey and his Japanese bride Fumiko Isumizawa at their marriage. AWM 148137

Fast fact

Some Australian BCOF male soldiers married Japanese women they had met during the occupation. These women were subject to considerable checks on their health and background before they were allowed to marry an Australian soldier.

For Australian women at home, the nation's involvement in the BCOF, Korea and Vietnam brought the same challenges as the conflicts in previous years. The emotional strain of having loved ones serving overseas was felt in many relationships and households. During the Vietnam War some Australian women chose to express their opposition to that conflict by engaging in the peace movement and anti-war protests.

Australian women and the BCOF

An Australian nurse in a BCOF surgical team. AWM P02044.006
RAANC sisters at a military parade in Japan, 1951. AWM LEEJ0007
A man and woman in bathing suits sit on the side of swimming pool with another man in the water
Relaxing at an Australian General Hospital, Eta Jima, Japan. AWM JK0008

Look at the three images above. Each shows an aspect of the experiences of Australian women in the BCOF. How do those experiences compare to the experiences of Australian women who served in the Boer War, First World War and Second World War? What are the similarities and differences?

In December, 1946, Cabinet approved the despatch of families of Australian servicemen to [live in] Japan when housing and medical facilities became available, and the first group of families reached Japan on June 1, 1947. The main family housing area was located on a disused Japanese airstrip fronting the Inland Sea at Hiroshima, in 34th Australian Infantry Brigade area. Here a considerable township grew up with bungalows and two- or four-apartment dwellings. Chapels, a school, shop and cinema were included in the development. Japanese contractors carried out the work, and furniture was obtained from Japanese sources. To give variety, different types of houses were interspersed, and the changing shades of pastel colouring of plaster walls and roofs made a cheerful and bright picture. My wife, on being consulted regarding the future name of the area, immediately asked what was the Japanese for 'Rainbow Village'. Niji Mura it therefore became, and still remains.

Major General RWL Hopkins 'History of the Australian Occupation in Japan, 1946 – 50', page 109, in Royal Australian Historical Society Proceedings, Vol 40 No 2, 1954

In their shoes

The extract above describes how housing was established in Japan for the families of Australian servicemen in the BCOF. Imagine you are an Australian woman living in Japan during the BCOF period. You want to start a journal to record your experiences while you're in Japan. Make a list of the experiences you'd like to record in your journal. Add a sentence or two to each experience in the list, describing why you'd like to record information about that experience.

A man and 3 women seated at a dining table
A serviceman and three unidentified women about to share a meal in Japan. AWM LEEJ0400

Australian Women and the Korean War

In June 1950, forces from communist North Korea invaded South Korea, which was supported by the United States. North Korea's invasion of South Korea led to three years of intense and bitter fighting on the Korean peninsula. The Korean War saw Australian women serve mainly as nurses. A few were based in Korea, where they prepared soldiers for evacuation to hospitals in Japan. The soldiers were cared for by RAAF nurses on the evacuation flights; when the soldiers arrived in Japan, they were under the care of mostly Army nurses.

There were certain dangers in transporting [the] wounded in freezing conditions in unpressurised aeroplanes … the condition of the patients was never ideal for evacuation but it was considered preferable to return them to Japan rather than have them remain in Korea any longer … on one occasion, we had to fly so high because of the weather that I became semi-conscious from lack of oxygen.

Out in the Cold: Australia's involvement in the Korean War travelling exhibition, Australian War Memorial, 2000–2001

The text above relates to Sister Patricia Oliver, an RAAF nurse, remembering her experiences of the transport of wounded soldiers from Korea to Japan. Sister Oliver says "… The condition of the patients was never ideal for evacuation …" What do you think she means by that statement? How would that situation have affected the work of the nurses? Sister Oliver also says that on one flight she almost passed out due to lack of oxygen. What does that tell you about the working conditions the nurses faced on the aircraft used for the evacuation flights?

RAANC nurses rugged up against the cold in Seoul. AWM P02044.008
RAAF nurse aiding an evacuation. AWM JK0718

Korea was little publicised in day-to-day living. I can remember being at a party at my sister's house and a woman asked me where my husband was that night. When I told her he was in Korea she asked me what he was doing in that country! The worst part of the time was the loneliness and lack of knowledge of what was happening to my man on the other side of the world. There was no contact with the Army or other Army wives. All I could find out was from the daily newspapers.

Out in the Cold: Australia's involvement in the Korean War travelling exhibition, Australian War Memorial, 2000–2001

The text above relates to the experience at home for June White, whose husband John White was posted to Korea in 1952, to serve with 3 RAR (3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment). Why was it difficult for June to find out about what was happening to her husband in Korea? What does the lack of information suggest about how the war in Korea was regarded by Australians at home?

June says the daily newspapers were her main source of information about the war. How reliable would the newspapers have been as a source of information? What might have influenced how the newspapers reported on the war in Korea?

In their shoes

Imagine you are an Australian woman who has a brother serving in the war in Korea. You read a newspaper report about his unit being involved in some recent heavy fighting. The report mentions members of his unit being killed or wounded. Write down the emotions you might experience after reading the report.

Australians in today's world have better access to friends and family serving overseas. Digital and online communication technology is part of that access. How does that technology make their experiences different to the experience of the woman from the Korean War era?

2 women in uniform stand at a large sign out the front of a building
RAAF nurses during a tour of Seoul AWM JK0701

Australian women and the Vietnam War

A government policy against the expansion of communism in Asia resulted in Australia sending training advisers to South Vietnam in 1962. Australian combat troops were sent to Vietnam in 1965. Australia included conscripts in the troop numbers in 1966. A gradual withdrawal of Australian troops began in 1969, with the last troops leaving Vietnam in 1973.

About 210 Australian women went to Vietnam as civilian nurses, as part of volunteer medical teams. Forty-three Australian Army nurses served in Vietnam between 1966 and 1973. Service nurses also assisted in the evacuation of casualties back to Australia.

Five hundred and twenty one Australian service personnel are listed as having died during the Vietnam War. Barbara Black, an Australian nurse, was one of them.

Fast fact

Nurses in the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC) in Vietnam treated enemy prisoners as well as Australian casualties, allied troop casualties and civilians caught up in the fighting.


These statements are from the National Australian Forces Vietnam War Memorial. They relate to the contributions of nurses in Vietnam. What do the statements say about the nurses? The last statement refers to something that occurred at "VAMPIRE PAD". What do you think is meant by "VAMPIRE PAD"? Who is represented by the words "WE KNEW WE HAD MADE IT"?

Two Australian RAANC nurses, part of an operating theatre team in Vietnam, 1969. AWM P01702.009
An RAANC nurse gives voluntary English lessons to two Vietnamese girls. AWM EKN/69/0034/VN
Carol Eacott, Australian Red Cross, holding a smiling young Vietnamese orphan inside an orphanage (possibly the An Phong orphanage). The orphanage received support as a civil aid project from locally based Australian and American forces. AWM P02120.002

In their shoes

Look at the images of the RAANC nurse giving voluntary English language lessons and of the Australian Red Cross volunteer holding a young Vietnamese orphan. Imagine you are an RAANC nurse in Vietnam during the war. You want to send a photograph home of you teaching English to some Vietnamese children. You'd like to write about the experience, on the back of the photograph. Try writing a few words about the experience, but remember there's not much room on the back of the photograph, so you'll have to carefully choose your words.

A crowd of people on the street holding up signs and being pushed to the ground by police officers

University students protesting the war in Vietnam. Vic Sumner/ FAIRFAXPHOTOS.COM ID 3441777

Women holding up signs infront of a building entrance

Australian women expressing their opposition to the war in Vietnam. Burke/ FAIRFAXPHOTOS.COM ID 3782784

These two images show some aspects of the anti-war protests that took place in Australia during the Vietnam conflict. What do the images tell you about the range of attitudes toward the war? What might have motivated Australian women to participate in the protests? What do you think other Australians might have thought about the protests?

In their shoes

It's 1970. Imagine you are a nurse from the RAANC who has come home from the war in Vietnam. You arrive home to find that your younger sister has become an anti-war campaigner. Pair up with someone else in your class and engage in a role play in which the two characters discuss the war and their individual attitudes toward it. Take turns at the role of the nurse and the younger sister. Compare how you both felt as you took on each character.

A solider and his family cuddling each other.

Lance Corporal Kevin Sloan, 7 RAR, is welcomed home from Vietnam by his sister Anne (left), girlfriend Maryann Lee, and other family members, 10 March 1971. AWM PEA/71/0099/EC, photographer Reg G Pearse

This image shows an Australian soldier being greeted by his family upon his return from the war in Vietnam. Soldiers returning from Vietnam with their units often had crowds to greet them, but soldiers returning individually or in small groups came home to a much quieter welcome. In 1987 Vietnam War veterans were given an official welcome home parade in Sydney.

Why might the Australian people have felt the need to conduct an official "welcome home" parade so long after the end of the Vietnam War? What evidence can you find of the original welcome home parades during the war? How did the 1987 welcome home parade differ from the original ones? What do you think the nurses who served in Vietnam and the women who volunteered there as well felt about the 1987 parade?

At the start of this unit was a question about how the BCOF operations, Korean War and Vietnam War were different for Australian women serving in them. Take a moment to consider those differences and then write them down. Compare the differences you've identified with the differences identified by others in your class.

Peacekeeping and recent conflicts

How have Australian women's roles changed in the modern Australian Defence Force?

The United Nations (UN) began peacekeeping operations in 1947, in Indonesia. Australians were involved as unarmed military observers. Since that time, Australians have served in peacekeeping roles in countries close to Australia, such as Bougainville and East Timor, and in more distant countries such as Cambodia, Somalia and Rwanda. No Australian women served in peacekeeping roles in the early years of these activities. This changed over time as roles for women expanded in the military services. Australian women are now involved in peacekeeping operations and the provision of humanitarian aid in several places across the world. Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel serve in zones of conflict in countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Australian women are amongst the personnel, in roles that expose them to some combat dangers in forward areas. They operate and maintain military aircraft, serve as crew on ships and occupy roles in which they make significant command decisions. For many years there were restrictions on the roles women could have in the ADF. In October 2018 the Australian Parliament removed all barriers preventing women from performing combat roles. All Australians can now apply for and carry out any role in the ADF as long as they can meet all the demands of the role. Women continue to be more represented in ADF roles that have been available to them for some time. These roles include medical and health, logistics, administration and support, communications, intelligence and surveillance. More and more women are taking on roles such as engineering, construction, combat and security, and aviation.

A line up of soldiers in uniform and blue berets with one female soldier receiving a medal pinned to her shirt
East Timor, 2000. Force Commander General de Los Santos presents the United Nations Peacekeeping Medal to Corporal Jodie Mason. Department of Defence image VK01042

More than a dozen Australians have died in peacekeeping operations. Only one has been a woman. Major Susan Felsche was killed in an aircraft accident in Western Sahara in 1993. Major Felsche had been part of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. She was part of a small team travelling to a UN base in Asward, in the central Saharan Desert. The aircraft in which they were travelling crashed while trying to take off. Major Felsche was just 32 years old.

A soldier with surgical gloves inspecting the teeth of a man with children lining up to watch
A Royal Australian Air Force dental team treating a patient at a dental clinic in Bougainville. AWM P03518.029
A soldier looks at a woman carrying on her head?
An Australian peacekeeper with an East Timorese person. Department of Defence image VK013201
A medical officer knees down to attend to injuries of a local woman infront of a building
Captain Carol Vaughan-Evans during peacekeeping operations in Rwanda. Department of Defence image MSU95.078.06

Look at these three images. Describe what you see in each one. What do the images tell you about Australian women in peacekeeping roles? What other activities might Australian women be involved in when on peacekeeping duties? How might those activities contribute to the keeping of peace in areas where there is or has been conflict?

Being part of the UN force, I go around unarmed. I think that creates a bit of confidence in people, too — if I don't need a weapon, then things are getting safer. I'll be here for 6–9 months. Just as long as I get home in August — because that's when we are getting married. We've already put the wedding off once because of our posting here, so I want to make sure it happens this time! The old days when women were not quite accepted have gone. We are all accepted as equal, as long as we can all do our job. I trained in a mixed platoon, so you really develop a camaraderie as part of a group — whether you are a guy or a girl.

Extract from an interview with Lainie Jenkins, an Australian women who served in East Timor as part of the InterFET (International Force East Timor) peacekeeping force, in 1999–2000.

The extract from the interview with Lainie Jenkins relates to her time serving in East Timor. How does she refer to the security situation in East Timor at that time? What effect does her service have upon her private life? What does the extract tell you about her attitude toward being in the ADF at that time? What change in the services does she refer to in the extract?

In their shoes

Imagine you are a woman in the Australian Defence Force who is about to be deployed to another country as part of a peacekeeping unit. You know that there is trouble in the country due to two rival groups in the population. This trouble has led to outbursts of armed conflict and caused innocent people to be killed or wounded. Soldiers from other countries will be there as well in peacekeeping roles.

You want to record, in your diary, your thoughts and feelings about the upcoming operation. Write down those thoughts and feelings. Once you've done that, compare your 'diary entry' with the 'diary entries' of others in your class. Look for any common themes that might have emerged while you were all writing. Discuss the variety of responses and suggest what might have motivated others in your class to respond the way they did.

Seaman Cherie on board HMAS Darwin, keeping a watch for potential threats. Department of Defence image JPAU05MAR03WGO1
A female officer in the cockpit of an aircraft
Flight Lieutenant Susan Youngman, a navigator in an RAAF F-111 aircraft. Department of Defence 20061020raaf8164229_0111
A group of soldiers in camouflage uniform
Women members of the Al Muthanna Task Group in Iraq. Department of Defence image 20051024adf8182062_018

The images above all show Australian women serving in frontline roles in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). You read earlier in this unit that Australian women are now able to serve in any role in the ADF if they can meet the role's requirements. What do you think of the idea of women serving in those roles? What do you think it means for the progress of women's rights in Australian society?

A large flat memorial in surrounded by green lawn and trees.
The Australian Servicewomen’s Memorial in Canberra. AWM ART90968

An important part of the history of Australian women serving in wars is the commemoration of their service, commitment and sacrifice. You've seen examples of memorials earlier in this book. You've read about the courage and selflessness of Australian women in zones of conflict; now it's time to think about how other countries commemorate their women who have served in wars and peacekeeping operations.

Go online and search for examples of memorials in other countries commemorating the service of women in armed forces and volunteer organisations. Collect images that show the range of designs in the memorials. Look for examples of written content on the memorials and see what it says. You might need to translate material in languages other than English. Record the similarities and differences across the memorials you find – look for aspects they have in common and the aspects that make them different to each other.

Search online for more memorials in Australia that commemorate the service of women in the same way. Record how those memorials are similar or different to the examples from other countries. Discuss with others in your class why these similarities and differences exist.


Boer War and First World War

Jan Bassett, Guns and Brooches, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1992

Jessie McHardie White in Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau files, December 1918, AWM 1 DRL 428

Second World War

Betty Goldsmith and Beryl Sandford, The Girls They Left Behind, Penguin, Melbourne, 1990

E. Daniel Potts and Annette Potts, Yanks Down Under 1941–1945, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1985

Michael McKernan, All In!, Nelson, Melbourne, 1983

Joanna Penglase and David Horner, When The War Came To Australia, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1992

BCOF, Korea and Vietnam

Major General R.W.L. Hopkins 'History of the Australian Occupation in Japan, 1946–50', page 109, in Royal Australian Historical Society Proceedings, Vol 40 No 2, 1954


Auxiliary Giving support, or a group which assists a larger group
Camaraderie Close friendship or comradeship
Communism A system of social organisation in which all property is owned by a community or state rather than by individuals
Conscripts People who are subjected to compulsory enlistment in the armed forces
Contingent An amount of troops provided for a battle or war
Coroner An official who investigates any death not due to natural causes
Crimean War A war involving Great Britain, France, Turkey, Sardinia and Russia, from 1853 to 1856
Gallantry Heroic bravery or dashing courage demonstrated in battles
Home front The civilian population of a country fighting a war elsewhere
Humanitarian Regarding the interests of all humankind
Hygiene The practice of keeping people and their environment clean, especially to prevent disease
Logistics The management of transportation or information from one place to another
Magistrate A paid officer who is responsible for a lower level court
Malaria A disease, spread by mosquitoes, that is identified by attacks of chills, fever and sweating
Marines Naval troops who serve both on ships and on land
Munitions Weapons and ammunition used in war
Pneumonia An inflammation of the lungs
Psychological Related to the mind or mental conditions
Surveillance To keep close watch of someone or something


© Commonwealth of Australia 2020

This work is copyright.

Permission is given by the Commonwealth for this publication to be copied royalty free within Australia solely for educational purposes. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced for commercial purposes.

To the best of DVA’s knowledge, copyright permission, where copyright permission is required, has been obtained for any non-Commonwealth material used in this booklet and for the use of such material for educational purposes. The Commonwealth shall not be responsible for any actions resulting from any errors or omissions contained in this booklet. If you believe there has been an error or omission in any of the material, please contact DVA at

Was this page helpful?
We can't respond to comments or queries via this form. Please contact us with your query instead.