80 YEARS OF SERVICE

Women in the Australian Military

Women in the Australian Military

In today’s Australian Defence Forces women work in over 200 roles, and receive the same training, salaries and opportunities as men.

Women have served in the Australian armed forces since 1899 but until the Second World War were restricted to the Australian Army Nursing Service.

The Women’s Australian National Service (WANS) was inaugurated in 1940. Training for members included air raid and basic military drills, first aid, shooting, signalling, and mechanics.

Leading up to the formation of female branches of the Royal Australian Air Force, Australian Army and the Royal Australian Navy, the WANS demonstrated that women were capable of filling roles traditionally only available to men.

The Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force celebrates its 80th anniversary in March 2021; the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service and Australian Women's Army Service will celebrate their anniversaries in April and August respectively.

To commemorate 80 years of service, this hub will showcase stories of women in military service. 

Collected

PODCAST

Episode eleven – Women and War

Women have always played a vital role on the home front, supporting the war effort in a variety of ways from factory work to fund-raising. But women have also contributed though military service and by bearing witness. In Episode 11 of Collected, Louise Maher shares the war experiences of four very different women: Alice Chisholm, Olive Sherington, Nora Heysen and Sophia Le Faucheur. 
Credits and Collection items featured in episode 11

Definately not cooks

Wartime article

In the modern era, women have forged outstanding Army careers as photographers too. This article by Meleah Hampton and Jennifer Selby features in the latest issue of Wartime magazine.

Read article.

MSU95_078_23

Corporal Brian Buskell keels watch near the Australian casualty clearing post at Kibeho. Photographer: Robyn White. MSU95_078_23, courtesy of Defence.

Stories of Service

MEMORIAL ARTICLES

‘He is always in my heart’

NAVY

Merle Kelway Hare served in the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service during the Second World War.

Read her story

'It felt like you were moving through a ghost town'

ARMY

Alison Creagh was a major in the Australian Regular Army when she was deployed to East Timor from 1999–2000, initially as second-in-command of the 1st Joint Support Unit and then commanding the 145th Signal Squadron as part of the International Force East Timor (INTERFET).

Read her story

Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Aboriginal servicewoman, Lance Corporal (L Cpl) Kathleen Walker, was a communication worker with the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS). She was a well known Australian poet, actress, writer, teacher, artist and campaigner for Aboriginal rights.

Read her story

'They were so much more than names on a wall'

ARMY

Seventeen years ago, Sharon Bown narrowly escaped death in a helicopter crash in East Timor.

Read her story

A woman interrupted

OFFICIAL WAR ARTIST

Nora Heysen was the first woman to be appointed as an Australian official war artist.

Read her story

The first WRANS

NAVY

Established by the first qualified Australian female electrical engineer Florence Violet McKenzie OBE, the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC), trained women to be wireless telegraphists and signallers with the aim of releasing men from this work for war service.

Read her story

Women in action

PHOTOS FROM THE COLLECTION

Group portrait of members of the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS). Identified from left to right: Leading Wran Dental Assistant Constance Henrietta Keighran; Leading Wran Writer Avis Madge Crawford; Leading Wran Writer Joyce Mary Stoff ; and Leading Wran Writer Alma Marshall Burgess.

A group of WAAAF airwomen hurdling benches during a period of physical training at No. 5 WAAAF Depot RAAF, Bradfield Park. c 1943

Trainees of the WRANS receiving instruction in the use of a stirrup pump from a Chief Petty Officer of the Royal Australian Navy. 

Australian Women's Army Service personnel, disembarking from the transport ship Marella, are met by friends and family after returning home from Lae. Gladstone, Queensland.10 February 1946.

Four WAAAF fabric workers engaged in refolding parachutes in their section at RAAF Station, Amberley, Queensland. c.1943

A WAAAF Meteorological Officer (left) adjusting a theodolite prior to tracking the flight of a weather balloon about to be released from the roof of the Commonwealth Meteorological Bureau, Carlton, by a WAAAF Meteorological Assistant (centre). 

Members of the Australian Women's Army Service on parade on Armistice Day. Victoria, Melbourne. 11 November 1942. 

Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force trainee telegraphists practise morse code at a RAAF Radio School at Toorak, Victoria. September 1942.

Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) personnel moving down the gangway to the waiting landing barges during disembarkation from the MV Duntroon. The Duntroon carried a group of 342 AWAS from Australia to Lae, New Guinea. 7 May 1945.

Aircraftwoman Joan Cassidy, Armourer of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) fuses a 250 pound practice bomb.

Aboriginal servicewoman, Aircraftwoman Alice Lovett, a member of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) (centre) and two civilian friends, Mary King (left), and Eileen Watson (right).

Engine fitters of the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force working on a Pratt and Whiting aircraft motor at No.1 Operational Training Unit, RAAF. Sale, Victoria. 8 March 1944.

At HMAS Harman Naval Wireless Station WR/1019 Supply Assistant Norma Townsend, from Mona Vale, NSW, (left) issues a new uniform to WR/1946 (Valda) Maria Henry from Kirribilli, NSW, a new recruit in the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS). March 1944.

Lieutenant S.H Budge, Australian Women's Army Service, under a hair dryer constructed by Lae Base workshops. Lae, New Guinea. 1945

AWAS personnel read an announcement that Germany had unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. Lae, New Guinea. 8 May 1945.

Flying Officer (FO) Carolina Wettenhall, the first woman pharmacist in the RAAF, at work in the dispensary at No. 2 RAAF Hospital, Ascot Vale. FO Wettenhall had been serving in the WAAAF as a Section Officer in an administrative capacity before transferring to the Medical Branch of the RAAF. December 1944

Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) flight mechanics working on an Armstrong Siddeley radial engine of an Air Speed Oxford aircraft at the Central Flying School, Point Cook, Victoria.

Gunner Shaw, the 10,001st woman recruited into the Australian Women's Army service.

Sergeant Pritchard, Australian Women's Army Service, was the only female Japanese interpreter of the Australian Army. Here she is pictured talking to Prime Minister Chifley in Lae, New Guinea. 25 December 1945. 

Female War Artists Webinar

Museum at Home Webinar

Having had no official female war artists in the First World War, three were appointed during the Second World War: Nora Heysen, Stella Bowen and Sybil Craig.

In this Museum At Home webinar we explore how female war artists, particularly Nora Heysen, have captured Australia's military experience.

Watch the webinar

Amplify

ORAL HISTORY

The Australian War Memorial holds a rich collection of interviews with people who have served in Australia's military forces. Amplify is a State Library NSW platform allowing volunteers to listen to and transcribe oral histories. Over 30 interviews with nurses from the Australian Army are ready to be transcribed.

Help us record their stories. 

Listen and transcribe on Amplify

Modern Stories of Service

MILITARY TODAY

Sisters on the same path

NAVY

Sisters Warrant Officers Natasha McRoe and Amy Gale are proud to be standing side by side in the Navy.

See more on the Defence website

Indigenous mentor driven to achieve dream

ARMY

Private Pamela Amber has achieved her dream of joining Defence and is now setting her mind to being a role model for future Indigenous soldiers.

Read her story

Meeting Law of supply and demand on operation

ARMY

Captain Jess Law, from Port Macquarie, is an operations officer on her first operational deployment.

See more on the Defence website

Passion leads to becoming first female loadmaster

AIR FORCE

When the role of loadmaster was opened to women, retired Warrant Officer Katrina Salvesen seized the opportunity.

See more on the Defence website

Chat with friend inspires long career

ARMY

A chat with a friend led Warrant Officer Class 2 Cheryl Peebles to join the Army 35 years ago.

See more on the Defence website

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