Experiences of Women
Australia and World War I

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World War I, Nurses on Troop Ship, Egypt, 1915-1917
While women were not allowed to enlist and fight as soldiers in Gallipoli, from the time of the landing they were there too, working as nurses
on board hospital ships. Often without proper equipment and supplies, these women relied on their own resourcefulness in attending to wounded soldiers as the ships sailed to general hospitals on nearby Greek islands and to Alexandria in Egypt. The nurses were not entirely removed from danger. At times, bullets hit the decks of their ships. Having such a close involvement in the War and playing such a vital role, it was not surprising that women were displeased with not being recognised and included in the ANZAC legend.

Women In Action - Nurses and Serving Women

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From the outset, women were keen to be as actively involved in the war effort as men. Women applied to work in what were considered traditional women's roles, such as cooks and clerks, so that the men could be free to go and fight. However, the government still discouraged any attempts by women to serve in the armed forces. The only women who were allowed to engage in any form of active involvement were the nurses who served overseas.

While the government did not want women to leave the home for fear it would upset the balance of society, a number of women took up roles left vacant by men who had enlisted. The number of women filling positions such as typists and bookkeepers rose and women also began to enter sectors which were previously closed to them, such as insurance and banking.

Charity and fundraising activities

There were more women applying for work than positions available for them. The result was that
a percentage of the female population became dissatisfied. In response, these women turned their attention to charity work. They relied on various methods of fundraising, including door-knock appeals and fetes to assist the men fighting overseas.

Red Cross parcels.PNGIn 1914, the Australian branch of the British Red Cross was founded at Government House in Melbourne. It grew quickly to have branches in every state as women from all over the country made their contribution to the war. The Red Cross was predominantly staffed by middle-class women whose main task was to compile packages for the men who were serving overseas.

In 1916, the Australian Comforts Fund was established. The fund raised money to provide 'comfort boxes' for the soldiers. These boxes contained items such as knitted socks, cigarettes, preserved foods. It is recognised that they knitted nearly 1.5 million pairs of socks during the war.

Also in 1916, the Australian Women's Service Corps was formed in an attempt to make the government aware of women who wanted to do more towards the War. The Corps' objective involved training women to be able to work in jobs that they had never done before which would make the men available to enlist. While this idea was good in theory, it was ignored by the male-dominated government.

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There were over 200 women's voluntary groups formed around the time of World War I. They all relied on various methods of fundraising, including door-knock appeals and fetes to assist the men fighting overseas.

The working class

It did not take long for conflict to arise on the home front. Middle-class women were the main ones to establish and run the charities and fundraising events. As a result, many middle-class patriots who felt strongly about the nation's role in the war
believed that the working class was not participating enough in the nation's fundraising and volunteer efforts. This was interpreted as disloyalty towards Australia, the war and the Empire.

In reality, working-class women did not enjoy the financial freedom of their middle-class contemporaries. Without their husbands at home to assume their role as head of the family, working women had to put in long hours just to support the family. This meant that often they did not have the time, or the disposable income, to give to charity groups.

The problem was that middle-class women did not realise that the only reason that they were able to participate in the charity work was because they had the financial support of their husbands. Many of the husbands of the middle-class women had chosen not to enlist, and instead, had decided to continue to run their companies or businesses, bringing in a reliable income to support the family.

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Women and propaganda

Women also had another important role- to influence and to encourage men to enlist. Women were both active and passive in this objective. Many women shamed men who had not enlisted by presenting them with a white feather to symbolise cowardice. Otherwise they simply shunned the men by turning away from them or crossing the street.

Images of women were used in recruitment propaganda campaigns. Recruiters played on the perceived vulnerability of women by depicting them in recruitment posters as in need of the Australian soldiers to protect them from the evil Germans. Conscription propaganda posters which featured women were also common.

Recruitment Posters and Propaganda
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Grieving and worry

Women on the home front were part of a community for whom sad news was an ever-present threat. Many had a husband, brother, son or friend serving overseas. In a world without television or the internet, most had no mental image of the places where their loved ones battled, the conditions they endured or the cemeteries where they were buried.

Some women could balance the news of a loved one's death with the thought that it had been for ‘a noble cause’. At the same time, they had to remake their lives with the knowledge that someone they cared for would not return. This was a personal and individual hardship that the nation could not share.

There were also women at Gallipoli

The nurses' letters: