Women in wartime Australia

Explore women's contributions during WWI and WWII
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Women played important roles during both World War I and World War II. As men were drafted into the military, women stepped up to fill the gaps in the workforce, supporting their communities on the home front, and the war effort. The contributions of women were vital in keeping the country running and played a crucial role in reshaping societal attitudes towards women's roles in Australia.  

While both wars saw women take on roles that were traditionally reserved for men, the nature and extent of their contributions varied significantly. During World War I, women in Australia primarily worked in manufacturing and healthcare. They took on roles in munitions factories, producing weapons and ammunition for the troops, and worked in hospitals and medical facilities, providing care for wounded soldiers.  

In contrast, during World War II, women's contributions expanded to a much broader range of roles. With so many men away at war, women were again called upon to fill critical gaps in the workforce. They took on roles in manufacturing, health, agriculture, science, emergency services and transportation. They also served in the military, enlisting in the Australian Women's Army Service, the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service, and the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force. 

Read on to learn more about some of the wartime role’s women filled and explore how their stories are documented in Trove. 

Emergency Services

A women repairing a lock on the boot of a vehicle
Mechanic Mabel Carrick of the Women's National Emergency Legion, repairing a boot lock on one of the unit vehicles, 1943, trove.nla.gov.au/work/229198291  

Established in 1936, the Women's National Emergency Legion (WNEL) was a volunteer organisation that provided training and support for women in emergency services. It was founded by Margaret Kinder, who recognized the need for women to have the skills and training necessary to respond to emergencies and disasters. 

Initially, the WNEL focused on training women in first aid, home nursing, and other skills necessary for responding to emergencies in their communities. The organisation quickly expanded, however, to include training in firefighting, rescue operations, and other emergency services. 

four women wearing full firefighting gear, including rubber boots and helmets, walking in unison towards the camera. They are holding hoses and buckets and are smiling broadly.
The female staff of a well-known factory in the midlands are being trained as fire fighters, c.1941, trove.nla.gov.au/work/229260089 

During World War II, women trained by the WNEL were called upon to provide vital support services in Australia. Many women who had trained with the WNEL worked as dispatchers, ambulance drivers, and firefighters. 

In addition to their work in emergency services, the women of the WNEL also played a significant role in supporting the troops overseas. They organised fundraising drives to provide supplies and care packages for soldiers and worked to boost morale through letter writing campaigns and other activities. 

Explore the work of WNEL in Trove

Women's Land Army

The Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) was established in 1942 when there was a need to replace male farm workers who had either enlisted in the armed services or were working in other essential war work. The organisation ensured that Australia's agricultural industry continued to function during the war and supply food for the troops and civilians at home. As a volunteer group, with branches in each State, the women who joined were paid and housed by farmers. They were trained in various agricultural skills, such as animal husbandry, crop management, and tractor driving.

Women pushing a plow behind a horse in a muddy field. She looks back towards the camera smiling
Australian Women's Land Army - Ploughing [Vic LA girl], 1943, trove.nla.gov.au/work/235551849  

With the return of male farm workers at the end of the war, and changing social attitudes towards the role of women, the group was disbanded in December 1945. By this time there was a push for women to return to their traditional roles as homemakers and caretakers. However, for some women working in agriculture had become a passion. They had developed valuable skills and expertise in agricultural practices and managed to secure jobs in the industry, including their own farms. 

Explore the work of the AWLA in Trove.

Three women walking up a gravel path between rows of plants. They are holding boxes of produce, wearing broad-brimmed hats and smiling at the camera
Ida Daly [left] as a worker for the Australian Women's Land Army during WWII, 1942, trove.nla.gov.au/work/192759712  

Women in Science

During World War II, there were several Australian women who made significant contributions to science, technology, and medicine. One such woman was Ruby Payne-Scott, an Australian physicist and radio astronomer. Payne-Scott was a pioneer in radio astronomy and conducted groundbreaking research on solar radio bursts and the Earth's ionosphere.

During the war, she worked as a radar engineer for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), developing radar systems to detect enemy aircraft. Payne-Scott's contributions to science and technology continued to have an impact long after the war ended. 

Huts and radio wires set up in a field
Huts at the radio astronomy field station [where 'in 1948 Ruby Payne-Scott used the equipment for independent studies of solar bursts'], Hornsby, c. 1950, trove.nla.gov.au/work/236995670  

In an article about her unfortunate need to give up her work to raise children, published in The Sun on 27 July 1952, Payne-Scott described some of her research:  

'I worked on high frequency radar during the war when I joined the radio physics division of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation. At our laboratory, after the war, we started research concerning radio waves emitted from the sun and stars. Then I became interested in disturbances in the sun that seemed to be connected with flares — eruptions of bright light. These flares were associated with radio fadeouts and magnetic storms on the earth.'

It was later revealed that Payne-Scott was in fact forced into retirement, after it was discovered that she was married. At the time, women were forced to give up their careers in the public service when they got married. 

Just a week earlier, in The Sunday Herald, a paper she had co-published was praised as 'far ahead of anything else done anywhere in the world.'

newspaper clipping with the headline 'Young scientist works on radio activity'
'Young scientist works on radio-activity', The Sunday Herald, 20 July 1952, nla.news-article18518702

In 2008, CSIRO established the Payne-Scott Award, which “offers support to researchers who have taken career breaks to care for family, to re-establish themselves and re-connect with the research underway in their field.”