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Class and war

Professor Raelene Frances on how women’s mobilisation during the Great War cut across social lines.
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REBECCA WHEATLEY: The question of whether class is involved here– you know, often we think of this voluntary work being the preserve of middle-class women, who had the time and the means to be able to volunteer. But were working-class women involved in that work as well, that voluntary work?
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RAELENE FRANCES: Yeah. I mean, often middle-class women were the ones who were leading the organisations, but there were plenty of working-class women who were involved in volunteer work, and patriotic work, for the war effort. And they weren’t necessarily all that patriotic, but many of them did have friends and relatives at the front, and they felt that they wanted to support them, as well. So you had organisations that were set up in factories, and I can think of some off the top of my head. The Lucas girls in Ballarat were very famous, the clothing factory there, the Commonwealth Clothing factory in Melbourne.
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They both had really extensive programmes involving the workers, where the workers would raise money for the troops amongst themselves, and they would have fund-raising activities outside of their factories. But they would also volunteer their own labour. So they would work all day in the factory, in the case of the Commonwealth Clothing factory, making uniforms for the troops. But then several nights a week, they would come back and donate their own time to make extra comforts for the troops. So it was not just middle-class women who contributed to this war effort.
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LAURA JAMES: I think it’s interesting that it wasn’t just women in urban centres or in suburban areas. It was women in regional Australia, as well, that contributed. So not just a class thing, but also just a–
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RAELENE FRANCES: Absolutely. I mean, the war touched everyone in Australia, whether you lived in the city or the country. And people did what they could as their circumstances allowed. And people in the country were able to contribute in different ways to people in the city, so that they contributed farm produce, and that kind of stuff that went into making the millions of Anzac biscuits that were sent overseas, and fruitcakes, and that kind of thing. So it was something that it crossed class, it crossed ethnic lines, and it certainly crossed rural and urban divides.
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LAURA JAMES: What strikes us about several of these stories is just how mobile women managed to become during the course of the war. I’m thinking here about Lizzie Armstrong or Mary Chomley, both of whom travelled to London to be closer to the war effort, or even Rose Venn Brown, who actually managed to go to battlefields themselves. Clearly some women weren’t content to remain at home and wait and weep, as some contemporaries have put it. Do you think that the war managed to broaden women’s horizons?
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RAELENE FRANCES: I think absolutely. Absolutely. And the examples that you give are really good ones. Lizzie Armstrong, she was on a mission. She wanted to be there, and she wanted to do what she could, so she pays her own way, goes off to London, and looks around to see where the need is and what she can do to contribute. And what she sees is all these men on leave in London, and some of them getting into mischief. So she makes it her mission to actually make their time on leave more– safer, I suppose, but more enjoyable. So she sets up a very great service of tailoring tours to suit the men.
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So if they’re interested in history, she takes them on history walking tours or arranges for someone else. If they’re interested in the countryside, she takes them on tours of the countryside. And this happens throughout the war. And even when the war ends, she’s done such a good service and has become so well-known that the Prime Minister, Billy Hughes, agrees that she should actually set up a travel agency to continue the work after the war. So she sets up a special travel agency run by Australians for Australian’s so that people going back to Europe– they might just be going on holidays, but many of them were also going to visit the graves of men who were killed.
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So the work that she started during the First World War was really a platform for her, in the postwar period, to embark on a career that she probably never would have done had the war not occurred. And Rose Venn Brown is another great example. As you mentioned, she went to the front. And she was there providing comforts for the men at the point where they’re going into the line and coming out of the line. It was really quite dangerous, the places that she went to. But she was an extraordinarily brave woman, and she wanted to deliver the help where it was most needed.
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So she’s another example of someone who, again, took herself off to London, saw a need, filled the need, and just did the job. And again, that the beginning of a long career of mobility for Rose. After the war she went to China, where she was working for a petroleum company. And then she went on various adventures. So it was really– these were interesting women who engaged with the modern world in that really mobile kind of way that the modernity allowed.
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LAURA JAMES: I think we were really able to uncover some strong characters in that mix. And what about those women who remained at home and worked in patriotic organisations? How did war change for them following the armistice?
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RAELENE FRANCES: I think that the war provided a lot of women in conservative political organisations an opportunity to experience a different way of being a woman in 20th century Australia, that they were the ones who actually, in many cases, opposed votes for women. They opposed women being in the public arena. You know, their idea of the modern Australian woman is that she should stay in the home and support her husband. But what happens in the war is that they feel the need to come out and support the war effort.
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And they also feel the need to come out and not just organise the comforts and so on, and the fund-raising, but also to speak out publicly around certain issues, particularly around the conscription referendum. So these are women who don’t actually believe in women being the front face of politics, but who become it because of the circumstances of the war. And I think a lot of them really enjoyed it. And after the war, they again didn’t want to go back to those old roles. So what you see in the ’20s and ’30s is a burgeoning of this kind of conservative women’s volunteer work.
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And they draw on the skills that they’ve developed during the war, and the confidence they developed, but they channelled their energies into peacetime operations. So I think the war changed those women, as well.

Watch Professor Raelene Frances discuss how women’s mobilisation during the Great War cut across social lines and how the service experience changed women’s lives.

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