The Changing Role of Women in Wartime

The Changing Role of Women in Wartime

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 other service duties, and contributed more to war efforts through military service. Other Australian women were also closely connected with war through male relatives and friends away on military service.

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.


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.

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.

Paid labour and taking on “men’s work”: 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)

It’s a man’s job: During World War Two, in Great Britain, North America, 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 the preserves of men; they worked in factories and shipyards, as members of the Women’s Land Army and as Official War Artists.

‘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.

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 work 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.

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.

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