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Think Piece: The Home Front’s Forgotten Women

Thursday 6 October, 2016

rachel-harrisWhen thinking of women’s contribution to the home front during World War II, it is munition workers, housewives and women’s auxiliaries that frequently come to mind. However, across Australia there was another band of women who literally braved rain, hail and shine to do their bit for the war effort – those employed in the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA).

Modelled on the British Women’s Land Army, the AWLA was formally established by the Federal Government in July 1942 to counteract the rural labour shortage generated by men who left to enlist or take up employment in expanding wartime industries in the cities. However, the process of replacing these male workers was not straightforward, especially in South Australia.

The establishment of large-scale munitions production in Adelaide meant fixing the deficit in the State’s rural labour supplies received little attention in comparison to the urgent need to staff facilities such as Salisbury Explosives Factory and Hendon Small Arms Ammunition Factory, which both employed more than 2000 women at the height of production in 1943. In comparison, the AWLA in South Australia peaked at 320 full-time members – just 14% of the peak national AWLA workforce.

However, in addition to the demands of wartime industry, there were other reasons for this surprisingly small membership. While there was nation-wide resistance to using female rural labour, it seems in South Australia this feeling had been particularly acute. ‘Unofficial’ land armies in other states had been formed as early as 1939, but South Australia did not organise any system of female recruitment until August 1941 – the last state to do so. Even then, farmers remained unremittingly skeptical, arguing that women would “find no glamour in farm work” and “would be stopping work all the time to powder their noses”.

Others commented that they would not trust women to treat their farm machinery with care, with one asserting that “farm work required strength as well as brains” and that he “did not believe women possessed enough of either to do a job on a farm” (News, 19 Sept. 1941, page 8). While some farmers who eventually took the plunge to employ AWLA members reported to be very pleased with the work provided, statistics indicate that such opinions were never fully quashed. Unlike in Victoria, where half of AWLA members took part in individual long-term employment on farms and stations, only 57 South Australian women were employed in these positions during 1943. Instead, the majority were employed as seasonal workers, sent to different districts each year to pick and package fruit, can vegetables, dehydrate potatoes and spread flax. Main locations included Berri, Hectorville, Laura, Loxton, Morphett Vale and Renmark; however women were located all over the State in orchards, factories, vegetable gardens and vineyards.

Once employed as a seasonal AWLA worker, it was a mixed experience. The wages set by the Manpower Directorate after July 1942 (£3 per week less £1 board) were considerably less than those on offer to women in other industries, and as AWLA membership was restricted to women not already occupied with rural labour, these low wages impacted on the extent to which metropolitan women could be enticed to take up land work. The unpredictable nature of seasonal employment also meant pay was unstable – workers were not paid between postings and could lose wages due to weather and climate-related illnesses.

Working conditions were similarly variable. Due to the widespread location of AWLA postings, the Manpower Directorate rarely undertook a proper assessment of postings before members were relocated, meaning the women often had minimal protection from substandard employer practices. Such practices included working for more than the eight and a half hours set per day, doing heavy tasks other than those prescribed in the official AWLA handbook, and being provided with poor-quality living quarters (visualise mattresses made of chaff, mice infestations, leaking roofs, no running water, and windows without glass).

But despite these conditions, the testimonies of AWLA workers reveal a deep sense of personal liberation. Of the 15 South Australian AWLA members whose testimonies are held by the Australian War Memorial, many recall that the opportunity to work so far from home had been their favourite aspect of AWLA service (see interviews S02694 to S02709). Freedom from parental constraints instilled a newfound sense of maturity. One member recalled that the “very fact of having free open life” had made up for economic deficiencies, while another believed that AWLA had been “special” for so many members because it allowed them “to stand on [their] own two feet” (AWM S02694 and S02695).

Women also seemed to thoroughly enjoy the social side of service, developing a strong sense of camaraderie that often led to life-long friendships. Many recall that such connections helped them cope with the inadequate working conditions and exhausting tasks they encountered. A song, invented by the women, captures this spirit:

     The Land Army girls are happy, the Land Army girls are free,
     The Land girls are happy when out upon the spree,
     They never never quarrel, they never disagree,
     Three loud cheers for the Land Army and three for liberty. (AWM S02704)

However, this freedom was short-lived. Upon the war’s conclusion it was announced that the AWLA would be disbanded by 31 December 1945. Metropolitan women were not invited to stay on the land and did not receive access to post-war training or deferred pay, unlike women in the auxiliary services. Instead, they were ushered back to the city with little fanfare, not being invited to march in Anzac Day parades until the mid-1980s. In 1997 members became eligible to receive a Civilian Service Medal, while in 2012 the Federal Government held a ceremony for some surviving members at Parliament House in Canberra.

However, I still believe there has not been a proper effort to acknowledge and collect the experiences these women – regardless of the fact they are few in number – particularly in South Australia, but also elsewhere. Having spoken with former South Australian members myself, as well as my own grandmother serving in the British Women’s Land Army, I recognise the special place AWLA service has in their memories. It’s already been more than 70 years since the end of the war; I think it’s time we heard more of these memories before it is too late.

Rachel Harris holds a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Queensland and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours in History) from the University of Adelaide. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Adelaide. Her thesis considers the lives of civilian women in South Australia during World War II. She was the recipient of the 2015 Wakefield Companion to S.A. History Prize for her research on the experiences of female munition workers and members of the Australian Women’s Land Army in South Australia between 1940-1945. She is currently undertaking an oral history project in conjunction with the State Library of South Australia.

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