The best known effect of the war was in fact was the opening range of jobs for women. When men were called to fill the requirement of soldiers, women were needed to fill the job gap that the men left behind. Although they were an important part of the workforce, they were limited to what jobs they could perform. The war did though, have a lasting effect on women in the workplace, expanding their opportunities.
Women's role previous to the war
Before the war, it was commonly believed that a woman's place was in the home or doing ‘feminine jobs’. For example, house cleaning or tailoring. The only power they had in politics was the right to vote (since 1894 women have been allowed to vote in Australia), which wasn’t common in majority of countries around the world. Yet women still received wages 54% lower than a man’s. A woman’s place was seen to be at home, doing their domestic tasks and raising their children. They were not even permitted to work in factories as it was seen as ‘unladylike’ for them to be open to that kind of environment, which was common among most countries.
World War I, Three Women in Dressing Gowns, n.d., photograph, Museum Victoria, accessed 23 November 2012, .
What were the consequences of war for women?
It’s no secret that the soldiers went through tough times in terrible conditions on the battlefields, but what about the women that were left behind? For those women that had been left behind by a son, their husband, brothers, fathers, or friends, they were constantly waiting for their return. With the lack of communication between the home front and the battlefield, the most common news women received from the war was when a clergyman appeared at their doorstep giving them the news of their loved one’s death. This was traumatizing and caused grief to the women. Women also had to deal with managing children and family responsibilities alone, shortages of resources and their fears for the future.
First ..., n.d., photograph, Ipernity, accessed 23 November 2012, .
What fundraising and support roles did women take on during the war?
During the war, those who wanted to contribute to the war effort and do something other than nursing, fundraised. They also set up foundations that still exist today. Women were encouraged to join these foundations and organisations voluntarily. Active groups of that time included Australian Red Cross (who prepared food, clothing, blankets and did some nursing for the troops), the Country Women’s Association (who made clothing items such as socks, vests and undergarments), the Women’s Christian Temperance Union (gave support to the troops through the church), the Australian Women’s National League (who raised funds for the political system), the Voluntary Aid Detachment (who provided the British Empire with nurses), the Australian Comforts Fund (helped provide the Australian troops with luxury items such as tobacco, sweet deserts and newspapers) and the Cheer-Up Society (during World War 1 they visited soldiers at camp before providing them with dinner, entertainment and conversation).
'Our job to clothe the men who work and fight' poster, n.d., photograph, Women At Work, accessed 23 November 2012, .
What roles were there for women wishing to get involved in the war?
Even today, women are restricted from combat entitled roles in the Australian Defence Force. In 1914, when women offered to get involved in the war, their offer was immediately rejected. The only positions they were eligible for was nursing. Female doctors weren’t even allowed to take part as the government thought they wouldn’t be able to handle the conditions or the physical demands. On the 1st of July, 1903, the Australian Army Nursing Service was established and was staffed by part-time, volunteer nurses who were skilled no more than first aid workers. During the early stages of the war, the Director of Medical Services questioned the nurses’ abilities. They did in fact prove him wrong, and boosted the confidence of the soldiers and accomplished everything they were there to do.
1. A Rare Look At Women During WWI, n.d., photograph, Jezebel, accessed 21 November 2012,
2. Return to World War I Timeline - 1916, n.d., photograph, The History Place, accessed 23 November 2012, .
What was the role of the nurses?
The first nurses of the war followed the troops overseas to England, Egypt, France, Belgium and Mesopotamia. They served in hospitals, hospital ships and hospital tents that were set up without floors. There were more duties that the nurses had to carry out in the war than at home. They didn’t have many resources or equipment, and had to work at a fast pace in order to keep up with the constant demands. The women suffered almost as much as the men, also suffering from psychological traumas from the experiences of the war and the wounds of the men.
In Gallipoli, the nurses worked mainly on the hospital ships, and spent a lot of time at sea. In one night, it was common that the women would have to treat 250 men. Despite how exhausted they were due to the lack of staffing, they had to appear to be quite happy and joyful. This was because the women were seen to be mother figures for the soldiers, as many of them would need that sort of comfort. Friendships between the soldiers and nurses were built, which made it harder for the ladies when they lost another friend in battle or because of diseases. It was said that Australian nurses were in fact some of the most kind and caring nurses out of the wars women.
What awards did women receive and what were they for?
It’s no doubt that women went largely unrecognised for their war efforts, especially when compared to the male soldiers. Although, there was a few that were awarded the Royal Red Cross and earned a place in history. The Royal Red Cross is presented by the British monarch and was established in 1883 by Queen Victoria. Originally only to be awarded to women and was a way of awarding trained army nurses who had displayed their best efforts and support towards their country and the war over a period of time. It could also be given to women who achieved an act of extraordinary bravery and courageousness. Other awards include the Military Medal, which can be received if a nurse displays devotion and bravery under fire. Dorothy Cawood received this award in 1917 for evacuating patients safely during a bombing. The Florence Nightingale Medal, which is presented to nurses that gave exceptional care to sick and injured soldiers. Elsie Pidgeon received this award four times during her lifetime.
The following are excerpts from Our War Nurses, Nightingales in the Mud and Guns and Brooches (Primary Sources).
I shall never forget the awful feeling of hopelessness on night duty. It was dreadful. I had two wards downstairs, each over 100 patients and then I had small wards upstairs — altogether about 250 patients to look after, and one orderly and one Indian sweeper. Shall not describe their wounds, they were too awful. One loses sight of all the honour and the glory in the work we are doing.
[Lydia King, in Goodman, Our War Nurses, p.39]
The wounded from the landing commenced to come on board at 9 am and poured into the ship’s wards from barges and boats. The majority still had on their field dressing and a number of these were soaked through. Two orderlies cut off the patient’s clothes and I started immediately with dressings. There were 76 patients in my ward and I did not finish until 2 am.
[Ella Tucker, in Barker, Nightingales in the Mud, p.30]
Hardly a night or day did not pass that a tent did not collapse altogether … I don’t think I shall ever get over my dread of wind again, night after night, every bit of canvas creaking, shaking, straining and your mind always wondering which would collapse next.
[Louise Young in Bassett, Guns and Brooches, p. 48]