Shining a Light on the Australian Women's Land Army (1942-1945)

By Heather Gartshore

Heather Gartshore is an academic with the University of New England in Armidale, New South Wales. She is currently writing her Masters thesis on the histories and stories of the Australian Women’s Land Army (1942-1945), with a specific focus on ‘giving voice and shining a light on those stories which remain untold.’

Women's Land Army members at Fowlers Farm in the Burdekin district, c. 1942-1945, Image courtesy OzatWar: http://www.ozatwar.com/ausarmy/wla.htm

Women's Land Army members at Fowlers Farm in the Burdekin district, c. 1942-1945, Image courtesy OzatWar: http://www.ozatwar.com/ausarmy/wla.htm

This is the story of the Australian Women’s Land Army (1942-1945). It is a story about a cohort of women who dedicated their time, resources and energy to supporting Australia through a wartime shortage in food, agriculture and physical labour. Except for some memoirs, biographies and brief mentions, this important story remains largely untold. Many groups have obscured histories, and these are mostly those groups who were not in the dominant positions of power in their period: aboriginal cultures, women, conquered peoples, minority sects or immigrants, and other such groups. Like these groups, the story of the Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) is a story that needs to be further explored and revealed.

Promotional material, Australian Women's Land Army, c. 1942.

Promotional material, Australian Women's Land Army, c. 1942.

In seeking to tell the story of the Australian Women’s Land Army, my interest is not in championing women’s rights, but in shining a light on a significant contribution some hard-working Australians gave to buoy their country through tough times; a contribution which should be acknowledged, celebrated, and given a place in public awareness.

Women of the Australian Women's Land Army at Work (c. 1941-1943), Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

Women of the Australian Women's Land Army at Work (c. 1941-1943), Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

The Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) provided a critical service, which was recognised by farmers to politicians (and many in between) throughout the Second World War. Yet such recognition has waned considerably since the war. The AWLA has had to contend for acknowledgement, and it was not until 1981 that they were granted acceptance to march on Anzac Day. Furthermore, historical works about the contribution of women to wartime food production are considerably wanting compared to research about the widely acknowledged men’s services. Yet, the AWLA provided an essential contribution to food production across Australia during the war.

Women of the Australian Women's Land Army at Work (c. 1941-1943), Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

Women of the Australian Women's Land Army at Work (c. 1941-1943), Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

Australia’s domestic war effort included everyday services from communication to mining and agriculture, as well as more active efforts involving the Australian Defence Forces, to which both men and women contributed. War brought major disruption to agriculture and food supplies in Europe and Britain as well as in Australia. The possibility of a post-war famine in Britain and Europe was a significant concern. In Australia, discussions about increasing supply for Europe and Britain were tempered with concerns about Australia’s concurrent drought. NSW’s Governor Wakehurst contended that Australia must step up and increase her supplies in all areas of agricultural production. NSW’s Premier Mair echoed Wakehurst, urging Australia to resourcefully meet the British Empire’s food crisis.

Women of the Australian Women's Land Army at Work (c. 1941-1943), Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

Women of the Australian Women's Land Army at Work (c. 1941-1943), Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

The AWLA was a centralised ‘land army’ with ranks and uniformed women dressed similarly to the way members of a defence army would be dressed. The Land Army actively recruited members and, even though the choice to serve was voluntary, all labour was paid. Once volunteering, the women were required to serve in full time roles for a minimum of one full year and be willing to go to any part of Australia where the Land Army required them. In launching their service, the AWLA and its auxiliary services faced several challenges relating to transport, medical needs, clothing and a range of other obstacles; but the most difficult obstacle involved biases against female labour. Yet, despite this bias, women’s organisations worked hard to persuade their opponents that they would deliver a valuable contribution to food production and to relieving the manpower shortage. The result of their efforts motivated numerous farmers to report that their female employees worked extremely competently, far more so than expected.

Women of the Australian Women's Land Army at Work (c. 1941-1943), Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

Women of the Australian Women's Land Army at Work (c. 1941-1943), Argus Newspaper Collection of Photographs, State Library of Victoria

Documents provide clear evidence that both farmers and local politicians had enough confidence in the Women’s Land Army that they continued to employ these women and pay them out of their own profits. They publicly petitioned for military honours and medals to be given to AWLA members (and those of the AWLA auxiliaries), together with those soldiers who won combat medals. Regrettably, no such awards were granted until 2012; and, as mentioned above, it was not until 1981 that AWLA members were accepted to participate in Anzac Day events.

Acknowledgement in historical research is still scarce when compared with the acknowledgement bestowed upon male war efforts. In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, a commemorative artwork celebrated the contribution of the AWLA, yet this fades in significance against other relevant contributions. Finally, in 2012, Prime Minister Julia Gillard invited women from the AWLA to attend a dinner at Parliament House in Canberra, where Ms. Gillard gave a speech, certificates and brooches to acknowledge and thank these women for all they gave for their country. In her speech, the Prime Minister said:

You went to take up the work of the men who had left for the front. Some of them were your fathers, brothers, or even sons. In doing so, you brought victory closer, just as if you had picked up a rifle yourself. Now I know a thing or two about working in a traditionally male domain. But the life I've been privileged to lead is only possible because women of courage like you were there first; in the tough years, the desperate years, when the nation faced its ultimate test. You helped Australia pass that test. And today - here in the nation's heart - we thank you. I know it's been a long time coming, these words of thanks …Ladies, each of you will return home with these certificates graciously signed by the Governor-General, and with booklets created by the Australian War Memorial and, above all, with a commemorative brooch to wear. I know you will wear those brooches with a great deal of pride. And I really hope, I genuinely hope they prompt younger Australians to ask you what they mean, because you'll be able to tell them. You'll be able to say ‘I answered the nation's call. I stood up to be counted when Australia needed help the most.' And a new generation will learn of the remarkable things you did and the remarkable women you are. So today, on behalf of all Australians, I thank you for your generosity and your service. The Australian Women's Land Army has achieved a lasting place of honour in the history of our nation. May it be celebrated - truly celebrated - for many years to come.
Prime Minister Julia Gillard presenting AWLA servicewoman Peggy Williams with a commemorative brooch, 2012, Photograph: Andrew Meares, Photography courtesy Fairfax media.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard presenting AWLA servicewoman Peggy Williams with a commemorative brooch, 2012, Photograph: Andrew Meares, Photography courtesy Fairfax media.

Despite this recent acknowledgement, more needs to be done to raise the place of the AWLA in Australia’s wartime history. It is high time that historians and the Australian public paid them more gratitude and joined with the people of 1943 declaring, “Hats off to the women!” Therefore, I am continuing my research at the University of New England, seeking to demonstrate just how vital these women’s work was to the national war effort. As mentioned earlier, while this is not about championing women’s rights as such, it is about filling a gap in Australia’s wartime history during which a women’s service provided a valuable and essential service that carried our nation in a time of shortage and conflict. They deserve a chapter in the pages of Australian history.

Mini documentary commemorating the 2012 AWLA Anzac Day march, ABC News.

 

Share your Australian Women's Land Army stories!

If you know of any family members or friends who participated in the Australian Women’s Land Army, or any of its auxiliary services, and you believe you may have further information which would contribute to the telling of these women’s efforts, please send Heather an email: hgartsho@myune.edu.au

You can also share your stories with the Invisible Farmer Project via our online story submission page.

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