Roles for women in WWII

At first the government politely discouraged those women who wanted to perform some kind of military service. It soon became clear that the war was going to demand much more than the government had expected. Women could do the technical jobs normally performed by men, freeing those men for combat.

Each branch of the armed services formed their own auxiliary corps for women. These were not combat forces, as the government was determined that no female auxiliary forces would serve outside Australia. As the situation became more desperate, some women were called on to serve overseas, particularly in New Guinea. They worked on observation posts and as anti-aircraft gunners, drivers, mechanics, and radio operators.

Before the war, it was generally expected that a working man was the main provider for his family. So, any woman who took a job was somehow taking it from a man, who needed it to support his family. With so many men away at war, this argument could no longer stand. Women were recruited to many jobs which would previously have been considered too physically hard for them: welding, machine repair, operating tractors and other large engines. They made uniforms, weapons and ammunition. They helped build trucks, tanks and airplanes.

Women also stepped into agricultural jobs. A volunteer force called the Australian Women’s Land Army sent women out from the cities to work on farms: ploughing, harvesting, milking cows. They were essential in keeping up the food supply of Australia. Many thought women would be incapable of these tasks:

The suggestion to form an army of women to do the hard work of farms is ridiculous. Our women are wonderful, but is it fair to ask them to shear or crutch sheep, to plough the land?

- The Argus, 1941

Letter to the editor, The Argus 16 May, 1941, p 7

This source comes from a letter to the editor of a conservative newspaper. Being able to identify bias helps you understand the underlying message in a piece of text, a painting, a photograph, etc. You need to be able to identify bias in every resource you use.

Each branch of the armed services formed their own auxiliary corps for women: The army had the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS); the navy had the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS); and the air force had the Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF).

Nursing could be a dangerous service during the war. Many nurses were stationed in Singapore, which was a base for the Allied forces in the Pacific. As the Japanese closed in on Singapore in early 1942, 65 Nurses were evacuated aboad the ship Vyner Brooke. It was bombed and sunk by the Japanese and twelve nurses were drowned. Another group of 22 nurses, captured by the Japanese on the Indonesian island of Banka, were marched off the beach into shallow water and killed by machine gun fire.

Only one – Vivian Bullwinkel – survived, despite being wounded, by pretending to be dead.

In another incident, nurses Vera Torney and Margaret Anderson won bravery awards for shielding patients with their own bodies when their ship came under enemy fire.

Photograph of a woman driving a tractor during World War II.
Photograph of nurses who protected patients from Japanese attack in World War II.
Photograph of a volunteer being sworn in to the Air Force Auxiliary.
Photograph of women working on a production line in World War II.