Women in the Second World War: In Their Own Words

Women made an important contribution to the Australian home front during the Second World War. Many women took jobs traditionally held by men in the 1930s and 1940s. In factories and fields, on roads, watching the sky and listening to airwaves. Women filled the void left by the men who were serving. At the war's end, countless women returned their jobs to their male counterparts. They returned to roles considered, at the time, more suitable for women, such as working in a dress shop or being a homemaker.

Female workers dressed in blue inside a large warehouse are occupied with many boxes stacked on tables and the floor.

Women assemble wooden ammunition boxes at the Commonwealth Ordnance Factory, Maribyrnong, Victoria. AWM ART23528

Women determined to serve their country

Many women had a strong desire to be involved in the war effort in Australia. They were influenced, in part, by the need to take on the men's jobs so the men could serve in the war overseas.

Watch the video:

During the war, Rachel Rayner was a member of the Air Flying Corps, the Red Cross and the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF). Rachel discharged from the WAAAF in March 1947.

Answer the questions:

  1. Rachel was keen to involve herself in the war effort however she could. What did she do?
  2. In the video, Rachel talks about feeling eager to join 'the services' once she turned 18. Rachel is referring to the WAAAF. Read Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) and Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF). Why was the WAAAF formed? Research and describe at least 3 different jobs for women in the WAAAF.

Watch the video:

Pat (Bourke) Guest was from Singleton in New South Wales. Pat and her cousin Doris joined the AWAS in 1942.

Answer the questions:

  1. What does AWAS stand for?
  2. What factors motivated Pat to enlist?
  3. Imagine you were alive at that time in history and in the same position as Pat. Would you have been tempted to enlist in a similar way to Pat? Explain your reasons.
  4. When Pat and her cousin went to Newcastle to sign up, they were asked to show baptismal or birth certificates. Explain why these were necessary and what could have been some other options.
  5. In the video, Pat says, 'We thought he's giving us an out here …' during an exchange she and her cousin had with the enlisting officer. Using your own words, describe what Pat means by that and what happened.
  6. Read the biography of Lance Corporal Kathleen Walker. She was a Minjerribah woman and AWAS member. In later life, Kathleen changed her name to Oodgeroo Noonuccal. List the reasons why First Nations women like Oodgeroo might enlist and how they benefitted from serving during the war.

Women performed jobs usually done by men

Women needed to take on many different roles during the war. Some worked as builders, clerks, drivers, farm labourers, intelligence officers, mechanics, telegraphists and other roles. Many worked in factories that produced ammunition, aircraft, food supplies, uniforms and weapons. Employers usually paid their female workers a little over half the average male wage. In 1943, 800,000 women were in the Australian workforce, the highest number during the war.

Watch the video:

Answer the questions:

  1. What was Pat's role in the AWAS?
  2. What skills and abilities did Pat need to perform her role?
  3. How much training do you think Pat had? Give at least one reason for your opinion.
  4. Pat describes many of the ex-prisoners she transported as being extremely malnourished and suffering from a disease called tuberculosis (TB). Research the health effects of tuberculosis and being malnourished. Read the World Health Organization's description of Tuberculosis. Describe 'tuberculosis' and 'malnourished' in your own words.
  5. Imagine you are Pat. Describe what it was like travelling from the port to the hospital with sick men on board. Describe how you might feel being constantly stopped by people searching for their loved ones. What impact might this have had on Pat?

Watch the video:

Alison Worrall enlisted in the WAAAF in August 1941. Alison was a Flight Sergeant when she discharged from the No. 7 Operational Training Unit, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF).

Answer the questions:

  1. Alison's first job during the war was filling bullets in a factory. Alison says she had to change her clothes all the time. Why do you think this would have been necessary?
  2. Alison also talks about walking on 'duck boards'. Do some research and describe duck boards and their purpose in this context.
  3. Read the Old Treasury Building's Munitioneers page. Why were women volunteering to work in munitions factories? Provide more than one reason.
  4. Read the Old Treasury Building's story of Elly Blackshaw. Elly had 2 jobs in the war effort. Describe each job using your own words.
  5. Outline the conditions and the short-term effects of working in the munitions factory.
  6. What were the long-term consequences of working in the munitions factory for Elly?
  7. Do you think you would have worked in a similarly dangerous role? Explain why or why not.

Watch the video:

Anne Curtis joined the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) in 1942. Anne worked as a coder in the Signals Department in Brisbane.

Answer the questions:

  1. From Anne's story and your own research, what do you think Anne did in her role as a coder?
  2. Read the chapter 'Showing initiative: Florence McKenzie' in Century of Service: Patriotism. Florence is credited with being a leading force behind the creation of the WRANS. Then answer the following:
    1. What is signalling?
    2. What is Morse code?
    3. How was Morse code useful in wartime?

Going further: additional research

Select one of the following organisations and investigate the role of its members. How did the members' work contribute to the war effort?

  • Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA)
  • Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS)
  • Royal Australian Navy Nursing Service (RANNS)
  • Women's Agricultural Security Production Service (WASPS)
  • Women's Air Training Corps (WATC)
  • Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF)
  • Women's Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC)
  • Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS)

Curriculum notes for teachers

The videos and activities align with Year 10 History, v 9.0 Australian Curriculum.

Knowledge and understanding: Second World War

  • the effects of the Second World War, with a particular emphasis on the continuities and changes on the Australian home front, such as the changing roles of women and First Nations Australians, and the use of wartime government controls AC9HH10K04

Knowledge and understanding: Building modern Australia

  • the significant events, individuals and groups in the women's movement in Australia, and how they have changed the role and status of women AC9HH10K12

The videos and activities also align with Senior Secondary (Years 11 and 12) Modern History, v 8.4 Australian Curriculum.

Unit 2: Movements for change in the 20th Century

Women's movements

The significance of World Wars I and II for women and the effect of international agreements, for example the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights on the status of women (ACHMH064)

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