Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Australian War Widows: A Case Study to Challenge Public Policy

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Social Issues

Australian War Widows: A Case Study to Challenge Public Policy

Article excerpt


War widows in Australia have been eligible for pensions since the 1917 and 1920 Repatriation Acts. At this time the pension provided subsistence, however the formation of the War Widows' Guild of Australia in 1946 resulted in significant expansion of the pension and its associated concessions/benefits. The continuation and expansion of these benefits in public policy owes much to the pressure exerted by the Guild. By 1951, the Guild was able to claim that public policy had increased the pension, secured payment of accrued recreational leave pay to soldiers' widows, included medical, dental and optical benefits and provided for the educational costs of children (Thorpe Clark 1986). A war widows pension was significantly higher than a civilian widows pension until the 1970s when the base rate for both were equalised (Roe 1983). Other differences, however, have continued. For example, the war widows pension is not means tested and certain benefits are not available to civilian widows. Although the category 'widow' enshrined in public policy in 1942 for civilian widows was dismantled (included as sole parent pensioners or unemployed) in the late 1980s, the category 'war widow' has continued to the present day.

One of the major tenets of feminist research has been the acknowledgment and validation of the experience of women (Skeggs 1995). In the process of making experience visible, however, Scott (1992: 25) argues that critical examination needs to include "the workings of the ideological system itself, its categories of representation ..., its premises about what these categories mean and how they operate ...". This paper examines the lived experience of war widows. It uses case study material from war widows to explore how the category 'war widow' is taken up albeit reluctantly by one Vietnam war widow and considers why this might differ from other widows' experiences. The emphasis on a single-subject case study is particularly useful where it highlights assumptions and generates different reactions from what is considered universal because of "the dissonant character of the findings" (Dukes 1972: 221). Case study also extends social understanding by focusing on rich detail of an instance. The aim is not to investigate the prevalence of an experience and findings may not be generalisable. Instead case study is useful for examining individual effects and differences in fine detail and the thick description may resonate as meaningful. The findings from this examination may then inform larger studies to further investigate such meanings.

The study

The central question of how broader social forces influence the experience of widowhood was explored through oral life histories in a qualitative study of 36 women. Seven war widows were interviewed as part of this larger study and this paper explores the differences found within these women's experiences of widowhood. Unstructured interviews around particular life events such as childhood, education, work, marriage, motherhood and widowhood were conducted. As Connell (1995: 89) noted oral histories are "a first-class method for the study of social change". An individual "constructs an image of [her] life course--past, present and future--which selects, abstracts, and distorts in such a way as to provide [her] with a view of [herself] that [she] can usefully expound in current situations" (Goffman 1976: 139). In this way, current constructions are reflected in the interviews with the women and past events reflected on by each woman using her current position with these reflections shedding light on the process of change and the process of construction.

A life history should not be seen as representing 'reality' directly but rather as a story meaningfully constructed within a given interactive situation or situations. Each woman's oral history was written as a case study that both preserved her unique experience and allowed comparison of cases to explore and analyse similarities and differences. …

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