World War Two expanded the role of Australian women, both on the Homefront and in the military services. Throughout the war, women felt the need to support the Australian war effort despite the strong opposition surrounding the idea of women in the workforce 10. However, as the war progressed, the demand for military personnel heightened and for the first time, Australia’s need for woman-power within the army was recognised.
On 13 August 1941, Sir Percy Spender, Australia’s Minister for the Army, gave approval to commence the recruiting of women to form the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS), after seeing Australia’s large population of underutilised of women 3. The establishment was one of the largest non-medical organisations for Australian servicewomen during World War 2 1, with the purpose of providing members which could complete the jobs on the home front, enabling men to be deployed to overseas fighting units 2. Prior to the formation of the group, women were not accepted into the Australian Army with the exception of those willing to work in the medical field. Colonel Sybil Howy Irving acted as the controller of the AWAS during its active years. Colonel Irvin selected twenty-nine head officers from across Australia who displayed the attributes of a leader 6. These head-officers attended the first training officer’s training school in Victoria from November-December 1941 before returning to their home states and beginning the recruiting process 3.
Throughout its active years, a total of 24,026 women enlisted in the AWAS. Aspiring members of the organisation had to meet certain requirements before they were recruited. They had to be between the age of 18 and 45, have a satisfactory medical examination, security clearance by the Manpower Authority, as well as display willingness to commit full-time to the service for the length of the war and a character testimonial signed by a civic councillor 3.
They served in a variety of roles across both populous and remote areas of Australia. These included jobs such as caterers, typists, administration, members of intelligence units, drivers, cipher clerks, signallers, Japanese translators and veterinary surgeons 2. As well as undertaking technical jobs, they controlled the Fixed Defence Units and undertook rigorous physical training, in case they were needed overseas to assist in the combat units. The wage for members of the AWAS was approximately two-thirds of their male equivalents which despite the lower salary, was more than the average woman 5. When Hilda Harrington, a 22-year old woman, joined the AWAS in 1943 she said, “I felt excited to think I was doing something important. We were replacing men, so they could go to the front line” 8. Harrington’s enthusiasm was similar to many of the other women who were eager to contribute to the military after years of rejection.
Although the organisation made a great impact on Australia’s war effort, the servicewomen were restricted to support roles in the defence force 1. “I would love to have been a pilot”, said Kim Roper, an air force intelligence operative during the war. “We (women) wanted to fly planes. We had a few older women who actually were pilots, but they wouldn’t let them fly. We joined so the boys could serve”8. It was only in May 1945 that the Australian Government allowed a total of 385 AWAS personnel to serve overseas in Papua New Guinea, where they were posted to the HQ of the First Australian Army 4.
Following the end of World War 2, the AWAS were no longer required. Colonel Irving resigned from the service on 31 December 1946 and by 30 June 1947, the AWAS was demobilised 3. Advances made by women during the war drastically reduced when the men returned from overseas. Women went home assuming that they would be greeted with respect and acts of gratitude, however once the war had ended they were no longer welcomed into the workforce 6. It was expected that upon arrival, women would give up their jobs for returning soldiers and return to their previous domestic roles 10.
Overall, the servicewomen of the AWAS played a significant role in the Australian effort, leaving a legacy behind. Members of the AWAS promoted the idea of women in defence and proved that women were capable doing more than raising children, cooking and cleaning. They displayed acts of courage and versatility; performing unconventional roles that were thought to be “for men”. Their involvement in World War 2 played a role in the acceptance of women to the Australian Army from the late 1970s 9.