Roles of Australian women in World War I

 

When World War I broke out, the place of women in Australian society fitted the typical stereotype. They generally stayed at home to look after the house and any children. During the war, many women took on different 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

However, World War I didn't create lasting changes in the roles of Australian women. They still worked in traditionally female roles at the end of the war, and by 1921, the number of women in paid employment had actually declined compared to 1911.

Women at home

Wartime offered some opportunities for women to expand their roles, but only in a limited way. It was not until World War II that many women took on service jobs, working in areas that were previously male-only occupations.

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

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

  • had been killed
  • were listed as missing
  • were wounded
  • had been taken prisoner

Creating change

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

  • patriotism
  • propaganda
  • politics

These types of activities 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 conscription. For example, the Women's Peace Army was formed in 1915 by two Melbourne women:

Women overseas

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

  • nurses
  • medical support roles, such as blood transfusionists and masseuses (medical therapists)
  • voluntary aid detachments (VADs)

Civilian nurses and teachers often paid their own way to help overseas during both the South African War and World War I.

Red Cross nurses, known as 'Bluebirds' due to their uniforms, served in hospitals on the front line in France.

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

Military service and nursing

World War I records show that:

  • 2139 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 AIF.

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

  • seven were aged under 21
  • 1184 were aged 21 to 30
  • 947 were aged 31 to 40
  • 91 were older than 40

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

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.

Impact of wartime employment

The total Australian female workforce was:

  • 368,457 before the war (1911), or about 17% of the female population
  • 436,567 after the war (1921), or about 16% of the female population

Women in Australia had been able to vote at federal elections and to stand for the federal Parliament since 1902, and vote in state elections since 1911. But their increased participation in the workforce during the war didn't open up new occupations.

Those who took on paid work for the first time were mostly employed in traditionally female roles.

Fewer women worked in managerial and primary industry roles in 1921 compared to 1911, but other categories of employment remained unchanged. The five main areas of employment for women in 1921 were:

  • personal, domestic and service workers
  • craftsmen and foremen
  • lower professional
  • shop assistants
  • clerical and related workers

Commemoration of women

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

During the 1920s and 1930s, Australia developed the Anzac tradition 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. The war was mostly fought by men, so the legend was mainly about men's behaviour. At that time, the role of women was commemorated in a much smaller way, with a focus on nursing.

You can visit two national memorials to Australian service women 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.


Last updated: 11 March 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Roles of Australian women in World War I, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 25 September 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/ww1/personnel/australian-women
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