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WWII & Australia: Women & World War II

Investigate Australia's role in WWII with these resources

Aussie women in World War II: The Australian Women's Army Service | Traces  Magazine

Source: Traces Magazine

Women made significant contributions in World War II. From the Soviet women who served in active military duty to the Allied nurses serving across the globe to women on the home front working in manufacturing to the women guards of concentration camps, women were involved in all aspects of World War II. The war also had a profound impact on gender roles in Western culture. Read through the resources below to learn more about the role of women in World War II and how this impacted gender relations going forward.

Women in wartime (Australian Government, n.d.)

This website looks at the role of Australian women during war, and briefly touches on their roles during World War II.

Roles for women in World War II (State Library of Victoria, n.d.)

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. Read this article to learn more.

Thanks girls and goodbye (National Film and Sound Archive, 1988)

Thanks Girls and Goodbye is not just a 'feel good’ nostalgia film. It explores how the Women’s Land Army was exploited during the Second World War.

Australian women and the Second World War (ANZAC Portal, 2020, April)

The Great Debates series is designed to assist teachers with classroom investigations of how war and conflict have affected Australians. This debate resource focuses upon the effects the Second World War had upon Australian women and the roles they played.

Australian women at work in WWII: keep cool and carry on (State Library of Queensland, 2020, August 13)

During World War II (WWII), Australia faced a dilemma: Many women were eager to do their bit and contribute their skills to the “war effort”, but there was still widespread resistance to the notion of a woman doing a “man’s job” – surely they could not handle the physical or mental exertion and maintain their “femininity”? Meanwhile, many able-bodied men were refused enlistment to the armed forces because their occupations were considered essential to civil defence or other critical services and industries. As the war progressed and came closer to Australia’s shores, this need for more “manpower” grew even more pressing. Eventually it was conceded that women’s services would be required, though one question was still perplexing some: what exactly could women do? Read through this article to learn more.

How the Second World War changed the game for Australian women (SBS, 2019, March 13)

More than 200,000 women joined the workforce during the Second World War, forever transforming the role of women in society. Read through this article to learn more.

Women in the work force during World War II (Old Treasury Building, n.d.)

Women Work for Victory in World War II tells the story of women on the home front during the Second World War. Click through this link to read an online version of this book.

The vital role of women in World War II (Imperial War Museums, n.d.)

Women were conscripted in December 1941. They were given a choice of working in industry or joining one of the auxiliary services – the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS), the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) or the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS). Read through this website to learn more about the roles for women in the UK during WWII.

Women in World War II (The National Archives, n.d.)

World War II brought about major change for women in the services in the UK. In December 1941 the government passed the National Service Act (No 2), which made provision for the conscription of women. At first only childless widows and single women 20 to 30 years old were called up, but later the age limit was expanded to 19 to 43 (50 for WWI veterans). Read through this website to learn more.

Did the war change life for women? (BBC, n.d.)

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 just over five million women were in work. By 1943 that number stood well in excess of seven million. As men from all over the country joined the fight against fascism, so women were called upon to help – and in an age of total war they were now in the midst of the action. Read through this resource to learn more.

Women in combat in World War II (PBS, n.d.)

Discover the military contributions of women throughout World War II. Despite the traditional taboos regarding women in combat, women played significant roles in the war. Russian snipers, British anti-aircraft operators, American pilots, and French Resistance workers were just some of the roles women filled to serve their countries and influence the outcome of the war. Narrated by historian Brenna Wynn Greer, the video uses primary source footage to illustrate the varied and often dangerous missions women accomplished.

American women in World War II: from the home front and beyond (National WWII Museum, n.d.)

American women played important roles during World War II, both at home and in uniform. Not only did they give their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers to the war effort, they gave their time, energy, and some even gave their lives. Read through this website to learn more.

The impact of WWII on women's work (Striking Women, n.d.

Government figures show that women’s employment  increased during the Second World War from about 5.1 million in 1939 (26%) to just over 7.25 million in 1943 (36%  of all women of working age). Forty six percent of  all women aged  between 14 and 59, and 90% of all able-bodied single women between the ages of 18 and 40 were engaged in some form of work or  National Service by September 1943 (H M Government, 1943, p. 3). The level of employment could have been higher as domestic servants were excluded from these figures. Many domestic servants would have been redeployed to national service, but no exact figures exist. Read through this website to learn more.

In the military (National Women's History Museum, n.d.)

Before the United States entered World War II, it started preparing for conflict. In preparation for war, Eleanor Roosevelt began advocating for women to have a greater role in the military.  Read through this website to learn more about the role of American women in the military. 

On the farm (National Women's History Museum, n.d.)

The Women’s Land Army of America, later known as the Women’s Land Army (WLA), employed women throughout the country on local farms to combat the labour and food shortage. The WLA was in operation from 1943 to 1945. Read through this website to learn more about women and farm work during the war effort.

On the home front (National Women's History Museum, n.d.)

America’s involvement in World War II signaled changes on the home front and shifts in men’s and women’s roles. Many men were enlisted in the armed services, leaving a large number of jobs vacant. Wartime production demands for more planes, guns, and other military goods required an increase in the labor force. The US government called on women to fill these labor needs. Women were employment in a variety of jobs, which had previously been carried out by men. They joined the military, worked in defense plants, drove streetcars, worked on farms, and performed other roles on the home front. Read through this website to learn more about the role of women on the home front.

Working in the defense industry (National Women's History Museum, n.d.)

Millions of women were involved in the wartime work force, many of them in the defense industry. There were a variety of female war workers who gained employment in manufacturing during the war. A large number of women shifted from their pre-war employment positions, moving from secretarial or service related jobs to the production line. Other women entered the workforce for the first time. Read through this website to learn more about the role of women in the defense industry.

Australian Women's Land Army (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

The Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) was formed during the Second World War to combat rising labour shortages in the farming sector. From December 1941, when Japan entered the war, the nation’s need to build up its armed forces was placed above the needs of other industries. Agricultural labour was steadily diverted to the armed services and war industry. Read through this website to learn more.

Australian Women's Army Service (Australian War Memorial, n.d.)

From the outset of the Second World War, Australian women were aware of the changing role of British women in supporting Britain’s war effort. To help “do their bit” for Australia’s war effort, women in Australia joined groups as diverse as the Australian Red Cross Letters Association, the Australian Comforts Fund, the Women’s Air Training Corps, and the Women’s Emergency Signallers. Read through this website to learn about the formation of the Australian Women's Army Service and the role they played during World War II.

Women in the Third Reich (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, n.d.)

German women played a vital role in the Nazi movement, one which far exceeded the Nazi Party’s propaganda that a woman’s place was strictly in the home as mothers and child-bearers. Of the estimated forty million German women in the Reich, some thirteen million were active in Nazi Party organizations that furthered the regime’s goals of racial purity, imperial conquest, and global war.  Read through this website to learn more.

Women and the National Community (Facing History, n.d.)

As they worked to create the “national community,” Nazi leaders envisioned a special role for women. During World War I and in the Weimar years, women’s traditional roles had been transformed by the wartime economy and by an expansion of women’s rights in the Weimar Constitution. In the Nazi worldview, which rejected these changes, women had a special status and responsibility for the Volksgemeinschaft, or “national community,” but their importance would be demonstrated through their traditional roles as wives and mothers. 

The little-known story of the Night Witches, an all-female force in WWII (Vanity Fair, 2015, June 25)

In the Nazi-occupied Soviet Union, German soldiers had a very real fear of witches. Namely, the “Night Witches,” an all-female squadron of bomber pilots who ran thousands of daring bombing raids with little more than wooden planes and the cover of night—and should be as celebrated as their male counterparts. Read through this article to learn more.

Miss Alice Gould, a wealthy socialite (left) and Mrs D'Arcy-Irvine, a member of a prominent Sydney family, two drivers of the women's Australian National Emergency Service, who are part of a group of six who operate a RAN ambulance which was donated by a girls' school. Members of the National Emergency Service are all volunteers, come from all walks of life and are trained and qualified to drive heavy motor transports, including omnibuses.

Australian nurses, accompanied by a Scottish officer, stroll through a popular tourist attraction known as Haw Par Villa in September 1941

Nothing was heard of the last group of nurses evacuated from Singapore until the survivors were found in Sumatra in September 1945. Only 24 of the 65 women survived the sinking of the Vyner Brooke and captivity.

Nurses of the 2/6th Australian General Hospital take refuge in a cemetery in Argos to avoid an air attack, 24 April 1941

Three nurses of the 2/4th Casualty Clearing Station, photographed soon after their arrival in Malaya in late 1941. Of the three, only Sister Mavis Hannah (centre) survived the war, as a prisoner of war in Sumatra. Matron Irene Drummond (right) was killed in the massacre of nurses on Bangka Island on 15 February 1942 and Sister Dora Gardam (left) died on 4 April 1945 as a prisoner of war. 

In August 1943, Enid Lyons (the woman at right in the image) was the first Australian woman to be elected to the House of Representatives. With Enid Lyons is Dorothy Tangney, the first Australian woman senator, elected to represent WA in the Senate.

This portrait of Sisters Ellen Keats (left) and Elizabeth Pyman, 2/10th Australian General Hospital, taken before the start of the campaign, illustrates the vastly different fates of the nursing staff, depending on which ship they were evacuated on. Pyman left with the first draft in the Empire Star on 12 February and reached Australia safely. Keats boarded the Vyner Brooke the following day and was killed in the Banka Island massacre.

Land Army women on tractor and harvester

With so many men away at war, women were needed to keep farms running, and a volunteer Land Army was formed. Many of these Land Army women were from the cities, and had to learn to manage animals, operate machines and do hard physical labour.


Photographer unknown, c 1942

Australian nurses, winners of bravery award

In February 1942, these two Australian nurses, Vera Torney and Margaret Anderson were aboard the Empire Star, a ship evacuating wounded soldiers from Singapore. The ship came under attack from Japanese fighter aircraft, which strafed the decks of the ship. Torney and Anderson shielded their patients with their own bodies against the incoming fire. Fortunately neither was hit. For their extraordinary heroism, they were awarded some of the highest honours.


Photographer unknown, 1942

Young woman being sworn in to WAAAF

The Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) provided support to the Air Force in non-combat roles. Women served in a wide range of technical jobs - radio, ground control and aircraft maintenance - which would have been off-limits to them in peacetime. The poster in the background emphasizes the solidarity of Commonwealth nations in the war.


Photographer unknown, c.1942

Women making gas masks

Women stepped into the factory jobs left behind by the men who had gone to war and Industries were re-tooled to manufacture wartime equipment.  Fortunately, these gas masks were never needed.  Although both the Germans and Americans developed battlefield gas weapons, none of them were used in World War 2.


Photographer unknown, c.1941

An emotional family welcome home at Mascot airport for a former prisoner of war Captain Kay Parker (right), Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS).

Captain Parker was one of six Australian Army nurses captured at Rabaul in 1942 along with seven civilian administrative nurses, four Methodist missionary nurses, and a civilian housewife. They were all transported to Japan and interned at Yokohama. The woman on the left is possibly Lieutenant Daisy (Tootie) Keast, AANS, another inmate from Yokohama.