"Women's Work" and the Women's Services in the Second World War as Presented in Salt

By Davis, Joan | Hecate, January 1, 1992 | Go to article overview

"Women's Work" and the Women's Services in the Second World War as Presented in Salt


Davis, Joan, Hecate


At the outbreak of the Second World War, the dominant ideology in Australia endorsed the myths of mateship and the "digger-Anzac", and women were not widely perceived as being excluded. This hegemony is apparent in the wartime journal published by the Army Education Service (AES, later the Australian Army Education Service, AAES), Salt.(1) The national myths are evident in the journal's reports and in much of the writing contributed by servicewomen and servicemen. Australian attitudes were bonded to an Anglo-Celtic heritage distanced from the source and from cosmopolitan stimuli. The enabling myths which related to mateship and nationalism subsumed the myth of the family to advantage a white Australian masculine point of view.

Entry into professions was not gained easily even by better educated middle-class and wealthy women. For the majority, maintenance of the "nurturer" status as a component in the myth of the (national) family, rather than granting the more common reality of cheap labour, assumed paid "women's work" to be a refined form of service, or a noble sacrifice to family care.

After the outbreak of war, factories were converted to produce supplies for the fighting forces, and rationing was introduced for civilians. "Women rapidly filled places in essential industry left vacant by the conscription of men for defence."(2) The need for labour for industry was one reason why the government hesitated to recruit women into the armed services, as Gould implies:

[c]oncerned with manpower shortages, the Government reluctantly decided to recruit a limited number of women for the armed forces. This news resulted in thousands of applications being submitted.

Enlisted women would return to civilian life as ex-Service personnel, presumably on the same footing as servicemen, to be involved in postwar reconstruction. Preparation for return to civilian life, an exercise also in the maintenance of morale, was the main educational raison d'être of the AES. Salt's editorial section(3) was staffed by ten AES personnel, all members of the Australian Journalists' Association, as well as artists and illustrators. There were no women staff members: AWAS personnel served as typists.

The journal, conventionally, directed adult education courses to men but did not specifically exclude women.(4) In the general community there was a lack of opportunities for (adult) education, and servicewomen's educational standards and their achievements through Army Education Service (AES) initiatives have not, to my knowledge, been surveyed. Salt reported that tutoring assistance to matriculation standard and leading on to University courses was available. The editor endorsed opportunities developed by the AES. Even fairly late in the war, however, if education for servicewomen was intended this was by vague implication only. In the staff article, "Chances For Soldiers. Varied Arrangements under Commonwealth Scheme" (S8 (10) 17/7/44, 54-56),(5) the editor endorsed opportunities developed by the AES for postwar professional training at universities and technical schools and vocational training. The term "trainee(s)" is used in this article and would seem to include servicewomen, except that the title has focused on "Soldiers".

Participation in courses in any field requested by the servicewoman was arranged, if possible, through application to the AE Officer, Women's Services. Fedora Fisher (formerly Lieutenant Fedora Green, NF410040, AE Officer Women's Services in the Northern Territory from 1943 to 1944, recalls:

levels of formal education...varied so much from state to state...[we] tried to help the individual who wanted to learn by matching her up with someone nearby who knew the subject...and, if possible, by existing correspondence courses or those we wrote ourselves....we lived our jobs with the intensity and faith of our youth. What we achieved, historians will never be able to relate because so much of the effort was ad hoc and officially unrecorded. …

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