Chapter 16 - Women in War

Posted in The Forgotten People

There is no more popular fashion than that of calling ourselves realists. But what is "realism"? Surely it is a state of mind in which the thinker has put on one side all sentiment or prejudice or self-delusion. In other words, realism involves facing the facts, whatever they may be, and acting in accordance with them.

On no question is a realistic approach so necessary but so rare as it is on the question of war employment of women. Tonight I want to take a few moments of your time in clearing up, if I can, your minds and my own on a problem which is of increasing importance and urgency.

We have grown up with what might be called all sorts of taboos and superstitions and conventions on this matter. We say, perhaps a little artificially, that women should not do this or that kind of work, and that if circumstances do require that they should work, the task should have a quality of gentility.

Now, what is the truth about the kind of work that women can do - and particularly about the kind of work that women can do in the war? I should like to answer that question by reference to my own experience of observing war work in Great Britain last year.

Many hundreds of thousands of women were actively engaged in the war effort - not only in nursing and hospital services, but in scores of other ways. The Auxiliary Territorials were doing clerical work, were driving cars, were carrying on administrative activities. At operational headquarters of branches of the air force I saw hundreds of young women in uniform doing, with speed and accuracy, work of the greatest importance. At the fire stations of London, scattered right through the blitz area, there were hundreds of women - young and not so young - dressed in the blue overalls of the auxiliary fire service; not merely standing around and looking picturesque, but working hard and fast, reporting fires, telephoning, doing a mass of clerical work which before the war was done by men.

And it did not end there. When the bombs came down and the fires started there were young women of the auxiliary fire service driving cars, driving other vehicles, operation courageously in the fire-lit target areas, coping with incendiary bombs, sweating and grimy, but playing a part worthy of any brave man.

Just before I left England, selected women were being introduced into active army operations, doing particularly some of the precision work involved in the anti-aircraft defences.

In every munitions and aircraft factory that I saw, there were hundreds and sometimes thousands of women employed. Some of them of course were doing fine inspection work where lightness of touch and accuracy of eye produce speed and output. But these were a relatively small proportion . Most of the women at work were dressed in overalls like men, attending to lathes and presses, using riveting machines, wielding hammers, doing in many instances downright hard manual labour.

As I saw them they were cheerful, with good nerves, with the right enthusiastic spirit.

I was told more than once that on a morning after a blitz in some industrial area you could almost bank on one hundred per cent of the women employees being on time for work.

In the country districts the increased production which is being wrung from the soil of Great Britain is in many instances being wrung from it by the hard physical toil of women of the land army.

On every street the woman bus-conductor is a familiar sight.

So there are hundreds of thousands of women in uniform, in overalls; but there are millions of women who, while they form part of no army and work in no factory, are doing a superb job in an entirely unadvertised and often unnoticed way. Today's housewife in Great Britain has had the whole order of her life disturbed. She has become a great improviser, a person of almost infinite resourcefulness. If the bombs fall and the electric light system is interrupted or the gas mains are set on fire or the water pipes burst, she must be able at almost a moment's notice to turn her hand to getting, by what means a man can never understand, a hot meal for her family, because the day's work must go on and the day's workers must be fed. After dinner at night, sitting with her family in her suburban street, she may find herself called upon to go out with sand bag and stirrup pump to help to extinguish incendiary bombs in her area.

What a life! And what amazing courage this is that can take daily danger almost as a commonplace!

And, apart altogether from bombs and destruction, this same housewife is the one who has had to adjust the routine of household management to rationing - the rationing of food, the rationing of clothing, the rationing of almost everything that people buy.

One could go on for a long time with a catalogue of this kind of thing. But, in brief, it all represents a formidable breaking down of old barriers and old ideas.

No doubt this great movement of women into the defence of the realm is destroying or impairing some elements of life which we might have liked to keep. But we shall be completely unrealistic if we do not realize that when this war is over there will no more be a return to the status quo for women than there will be such a return to many of our older notions of life.

Now, what are the paramount questions that we in Australia must answer in relation to this problem if we are to face frankly our dangers, and therefore our needs?

The dominant one must be this: Have we ample man power for all the tasks of this war - including not only the fighting services, but munitions production, essential civil production both primary and secondary, and essential civil services? (When I use the expression "man power", I mean man power and not woman power.) Plainly, we have not ample man power for these needs in the light of the new and extending and pressing demands of this war.

Well, then, can we achieve our end by drawing upon woman power? Plainly, we can to a very great extent. There should be no prejudice on this matter. There must be no prejudice on this matter.

Wherever a woman is willing and able to do some job, however "unwomanly" that job might have seemed to the eye of convention or of custom a few years ago, and her employment in it will either give us something we lack today or release a man for a job, fighting or otherwise, which only a man can do, then there should be no barrier against the woman doing it. On the contrary, there should be active encouragement and direction. That seems to me to be the essential principle of this matter.

Somebody may say to me that this lifting of many women out of ordinary domestic affairs, this taking down of woman from her "pedestal" is fraught with grave dangers for the future of the race.

Perhaps it is, and perhaps it isn't. But the gravest danger to the future of our race is that we shall be defeated in this war, and we must be prepared to take much greater risks than the one to which reference has just been made if victory is to be ours.

Really, I do not think we need fear the future on this matter unduly. There is - and every year I live, every new experience I have convinces me of it more and more - there is courage, energy, skill and resource about women which can serve this land mightily.

And if that is true, will the country not be all the richer because those qualities have been put to the highest patriotic use? In the long run, will our community not be a stronger, better balanced and more intelligent community when the last artificial disabilities imposed upon women by centuries of custom have been removed?

There is no equality so ennobling as an equality in service. There is perhaps nothing we need more as a corrective to the patent ills of democracy than a full brotherhood and sisterhood in action and sacrifice.

When peace comes and we try to resume our normal lives we will, I believe, learn one thing among others as a result of our experiences in this war. And that thing will be that those thousands of women who will, before this trial ends, serve Australia with all the strength of their minds and hearts and hands, will be the better mothers of the new generation because in this one they have been the fighting daughters of their country.

20 February, 1942