Much changed for women during the Second World War.
Footage featured in Australia in Colour shows women driving tractors, harvesting hay, welding and butchering meat. For the first time, women were in traditionally male occupations, previously considered too challenging for them, including working in factories, shipyards and farms.
Before the outbreak of war in 1939, it was rare for women to work outside the home other than in domestic serving roles. As the war progressed, more and more resources were directed to the war effort, and it soon became clear that women would have to take a more active role in the workforce.
Episode two of Australia in Colour shows women embracing their new roles with gusto. More than 24,000 women joined the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) after it was founded in 1941 to free up men to join fighting units, marking the first time women were permitted to serve in the military. Women who were British subjects aged between 18 and 40 were eligible to enlist and were paid two-thirds of the equivalent male wage for their service.
While it was initially thought women would be confined to roles such as typists and cooks, AWAS members ended up serving in army ordnance, artillery, intelligence and signals corps. They carried out clerical and manual work, maintaining transport and equipment crucial to the war effort and driving everything from cars to amphibious vehicles. In 1945, members of the AWAS became the first women to serve overseas in non-medical roles when a posting of 385 women sailed to New Guinea aboard the MV Duntroon.
For the first time, women were in traditionally male occupations, previously considered too challenging for them, including working in factories, shipyards and farms.
Thousands more women enlisted for service in the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF), the Australian Army Medical Women's Service (AAMWS) and the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS).
On the home front, the war effort intensified even further following Japan’s entry into the war in December 1941. As agricultural labourers were seconded to serve in the military, the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) was established in July 1942 to make up the shortfall in farm workers.
Women from the city who were unskilled in agricultural labour were trained up and sent to farms where they pitched in to keep food production going.
In all, 200,000 women joined the workforce during the Second World War, forever transforming the role of women in society. Female workforce participation increased 31 per cent between 1939 and 1943 as women took up positions in munitions, textile and clothing factories.
Although they did the same work as men had done, they were paid between 60 and 90 per cent of the standard male wage – a gender pay gap that persists today.
Experience Australia’s story brought vividly to life with the new four-part series Australia in Colour premiering on SBS at 8.30pm on Wednesday March 6. Available anytime and anywhere on your favourite device after broadcast on SBS On Demand.