Roles of Australian women in World War I

 

When World War I broke out, the role of most women in Australia was that of unpaid 'homemaker'. Whether married or unmarried, women generally stayed at home to look after the house and any children.

During the war, many women took on different paid and unpaid roles:

  • serving in the Australian Army as nurses
  • volunteering in the Red Cross
  • working for soldiers' comfort funds
  • raising funds for wartime charities that worked overseas.

The war didn't create large-scale changes in the roles of Australian women. Not at first, anyway. Most women remained at home, dependent on a breadwinner, and those who worked had traditionally female roles. However, there were some significant and lasting changes in the types of work women were doing after the war.

Women at home

Wartime offered some opportunities for women to expand their roles, but only in a limited way. For example, not until did many women take on military service jobs that men usually did.

Volunteering in Australia

In World War I, many Australian women on the home front took on voluntary comfort and fundraising roles to support the troops overseas.

Women's organisations that were active during the war included:

  • Australian Women's National League
  • Australian Red Cross
  • Country Women's Association
  • Voluntary Aid Detachment
  • Australian Women's Service Corps
  • Women's Christian Temperance Union.
Four women in a warehouse dressed in white caps and uniforms with a cross symbol, making wooden crates and sewing hessian sacks.

Australian Red Cross workers preparing crates and sacks that would be sent overseas as comfort parcels to Australian military personnel, Sydney, about 1916. AWM H11579

Melbourne woman, Vera Deakin, set up the Red Cross Missing and Wounded Enquiry Bureau. The organisation tried to get information to the families of servicemen who either:

  • had been killed
  • were listed as missing
  • were wounded
  • had been taken prisoner.
A studio portrait of a female military officer.

This image shows Vera Deakin in her Red Cross uniform in 1918, when she was running the Australian Wounded and Missing Inquiry Bureau in London. AWM P02119.001

Creating change

Disharmony often developed when women on the home front took on roles that involved:

  • patriotism
  • propaganda
  • politics.

These types of activism could divide a local community or groups within the community.

Pro-war activism and patriotism

Some women believed patriotism required them to urge men to enlist. Other women who had no desire to force men into service reacted badly to these campaigns.

Anti-war activism and pacifism

Some women's organisations campaigned against the war and military conscription. For example, the Women's Peace Army was formed in 1915 by 2 Melbourne women:

Women overseas

group of men and women sitting at desks typewriting

War Diaries subsection of the Australian War Records Section at 3.50pm where typists are at work on the precis of diaries. London, England. May 1919.

Women have always played a significant role as nurses in wartime. In the South African (Second Boer) War and World War I, the main service roles open to women were:

  • nurse
  • medical support worker, such as blood transfusionists and masseuses (medical therapists)
  • voluntary aid detachment (VAD).

Civilian nurses and teachers often paid their own way to volunteer overseas in the South African War and World War I.

Red Cross nurses, known as 'Bluebirds' due to their uniforms, served in military hospitals in France during the war.

Canteens were set up for Australian troops in Egypt by Australian women. Among those who volunteered were:

Women seated at desk with papers and dressed in First World War nursing veil and uniform.

Matron Grace Wilson, a Brisbane woman serving in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS), in her office at Abbassia Barracks, Cairo, about 1916. Wilson was awarded the Royal Red Cross in May 1916 for 'distinguished service in the field'. AWM J01819

Military service and nursing

World War I records show that:

  • 2,139 women served in the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS)
  • 130 women worked with the Queen Alexandra Imperial Military Nursing Service in the British Army
  • 423 women served in hospitals in Australia.

Nurses in the AANS were expected to be single or widowed. Although, some married women got through the recruiting check. If a nurse married during her period of service, she was no longer able to serve in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).

a married couple standing with their bridesmaid and groommen sitting by their side

Formal outdoor portrait of Alice Rose Davidson (nee Winterton), ex Women's Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC), her husband 2271 James (Jim) Davidson, 13th Field Company Australian Army Service Corps (AASC) and their wedding party of Corporal Innes, the Best Man and her younger sister Ella May Winterton, her Bridesmaid.

Of those AANS nurses who served overseas for whom we have details:

  • seven were aged under 21
  • 1,184 were 21 to 30
  • 947 were 31 to 40
  • 91 were older than 40.

Some Australian nurses paid their own way to be involved in medical service during the war. Some served in non-profit organisations, such as the British Red Cross Society.

While working in the casualty clearing stations in France, seven nurses from the AANS were awarded the Military Medal for bravery and service under fire:

  • Sister Dorothy Cawood
  • Sister Clara Deacon
  • Staff Nurse Mary Jane Derrer
  • Staff Nurse Alice Ross-King
  • Sister in Charge Alicia Kelly
  • Staff Nurse Rachael Pratt
  • Sister Pearl Corkhill.

Of all the women who served in the AANS during the war, 23 died from illness or wounds.

We have records of one Australian woman who spent time as a prisoner of war.

Ethel Gillingham was a trained nurse from western Victoria. In England at the outbreak of war, Gillingham joined the British Red Cross Society. In April 1915, Gillingham went with her unit to a hospital in Vrnjatchka Banja, Serbia. When the town fell to Austrian troops on 10 November 1915, she was captured. Along with the rest of her unit, Gillingham was released unharmed. She safely reached Belgrade in February 1916.

portrait image of woman in uniform

Full length portrait of Miss Annie Whitehead who served as a cook in the Women's Auxiliary Army Service Corps.

Impact of wartime employment

Non-Indigenous women had been able to vote at federal elections and to stand for federal Parliament since 1902, and vote in state elections since 1911. But when war broke out in 1914, most Australian women were unpaid homemakers, whether they married or not. Fewer than one in five females worked. Generally, they were employed in traditionally female roles, as factory workers and domestic servants.

Australian Census data for 1911 and 1921 shows the broad impact of the war on the female workforce, although both surveys excluded First Nations Australians. At the time, a breadwinner was usually the sole income earner for a family or household. A dependant was either a spouse, sibling or child supported by a breadwinner.

Census date

Total population

Female population

Female breadwinners

Female dependants

3 April 1911

4,455,005

2,141,970

394,719

1,743,213

4 April 1921

5,435,734

2,672,864

463,760

2,205,876

The data shows the:

  • proportion of females in the population grew slightly (48% in 1911 compared to 49% in 1921)
  • proportion of female breadwinners dropped slightly (18% in 1911 compared to 17% in 1921)
  • proportion of female dependants grew slightly (81% in 1911 compared to 83% in 1921).

After the war, most Australians who identified as female remained dependent on a breadwinner, either as a child, an adult who could not work, or an adult in the unpaid role of married or unmarried ‘homemaker’.

However, a deeper look at the Census data reveals that the proportion of women working in some types of jobs grew significantly. The recognition of women’s wartime roles likely helped expand the types of work available to Australian women after the war.

Class of occupation

3 April 1911

4 April 1921

% change

Professional

52,973

79,836

34%

Domestic

153,131

159,999

4%

Commercial

50,188

79,684

37%

Transport and communication

4,837

7,214

33%

Industrial

108,594

118,883

9%

Primary producers

15,880

10,385

-53%

There were large increases in the number of women working in:

  • commercial roles (mainly merchants and dealers; textiles and clothing; and food, drinks, tobacco and pharmaceuticals)
  • professional roles (mainly teaching, health care, charities and religious orders)
  • transport and communication roles (mainly telephone service and railways).

Technological advances after the war, such as the widespread adoption of telegraph stations, wireless radio broadcasting and telephone services, continued to open more occupations for women.

Commemoration of women

During the war, the Australian Government Department of Defence issued a commemorative Female Relative Badge. It was awarded to the nearest female relative (mother, wife) of sailors, soldiers, airmen, nurses and masseuses.

During the 1920s and 1930s, Australia developed the that had begun in 1915 (and that we still observe today). The Anzac legend became an important element in Australia's remembrance of the war and its national identity. However, the war was fought by men, so the legend was based on the behaviour of Australian men. At that time, the role of women was commemorated in a much smaller way, with a focus on nursing.

You can visit 2 national memorials to female service personnel at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

In the Hall of Memory, you can see 15 stained glass windows. Each window captures a personal, social or service quality displayed by Australians during wartime. One window featuring a nurse was dedicated to the service women of World War I. She represents all those who have shown dedication to their patients and a commitment to caring for the sick and wounded during the war.

Also in the Hall of Memory is a mosaic of the Women's Services, which was dedicated to the Australian service women of World War II.

Sources

Ryebuck Media (2008), Australian Women in War, Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, ISBN 1 877007 21 8. https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/resources/australian-women-war

Wickens, Charles H. (1921), Census of the Commonwealth of Australia take for the night between the 3rd and 4th of April, 1921. Part XVII-Occupations (including unemployment), Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Melbourne. Accessed 24 May 2023, https://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/free.nsf/0/ACEAEF5236ED99D6CA2578390016BD64/$File/1921%20Census%20-%20Volume%20II%20-%20Part%20XVII%20Occupations.pdf

Wickens, Charles H. (1921), Summary for the Commonwealth of Australia, Census Bulletin No 18, 4 April 1921, Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics, Melbourne. Accessed 24 May 2023, https://www.ausstats.abs.gov.au/ausstats/free.nsf/0/1AC508C0DE59AD3CCA2578F000177554/$File/1921%20Census%20-%20Bulletin%20No%2018.pdf


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Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Roles of Australian women in World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 17 May 2024, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/personnel/australian-women
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