Women’s History Month – guest Clare Rhoden

Clare Rhoden is not a character in Perry Rhodan. In fact, she’s a real person. Like me, she’s an historian and a fiction writer and she comes from Melbourne. She gives you a fuller bio beneath her article, but you needed to know she’s real. (I hope everyone knows Perry Rhodan!)

Australian Women and the Great War

Today, for Women’s History Month, I’m excited to share some of what I learned in the course of my PhD. I studied the depiction of leadership in Australian Great War narratives, and identified how Australian writers wrote their leaders differently from the way they are shown in the best known and most respected British books.

That was my main study. But wow! The Great War is such a watershed in Western history on so many levels – so many rabbit holes and side-alleys to explore. No wonder that over a million books have been written about it. Today I’m going to challenge three of the myths about “Australian women and the Great War”.

First, there is a popular belief that women had a unified position. This just isn’t true. Women are as complex, diverse, confused, partisan, clear-sighted, and muddle-headed as the rest of humanity. During WWI, women’s writings and activities covered the entire range from pugnacious patriotism to pious pacifism.

There are two major schools of war writing: traditionally heroic or hopelessly disillusioned. The choice of one or the other is not gendered. Most Australian writers used a traditional style for writing about WWI. Another striking similarity between Australian men and women writers of the Great War is that they both tended to disregard women. In Australian WWI books, women are either absent or simply feminine, tender, and unimportant. This picture is changing only slowly as authors begin to depict the Australian women who served overseas (there were over 3,000), and to write more about what women were experiencing on the home front.

Second, another popular myth says that women joined the paid workforce at the time of the Great War because the men were serving overseas. This isn’t true. Women have always made up a substantial portion of the paid workforce ever since payment for work was instituted: for example, milkmaids, shepherds, spinsters, weavers, cleaners, fishwives, factory hands, shop assistants, cooks, cleaners, nurses, childcare workers, and a variety of domestic staff. The only thing that changed was that women of higher socio-economic status entered the workforce.

Third, we assume that women promoted peace and were active against the war. Mostly, women are considered as fostering peace and having a larger vision about humanity.  Neither is this true. Some Australian women were among WWI’s strongest supporters. They actively encouraged enlistment, and it was women who carried out the infamous white-feather campaign, telling men and boys not in uniform that they were cowards. The Australian Women’s National League campaigned strongly for conscription, in both of the referenda. Their president was Janet Lady Clarke, a socialite and philanthropist. Ethel Turner, the author of Seven Little Australians, spoke at rallies in favour of conscription.

Other Australian women actively promoted peace. The Women’s Peace Army sought to gather the women in Australia who opposed all war, with the aim of destroying militarism, which was seen as a male imposition on society.  Their motto was “we war against war”, and their flag was purple, green, and white. Their leader was Australian suffragette Vida Goldstein.

Conscription was defeated twice in Australia during WWI, by very small margins each time. The country was divided, but it was not women against men. It was much more complex than that.

History is always more complex than that.

Recommended Sources:

N. Khan, Women’s Poetry of the First World War (1988)

S. Raitt and T. Tate, Women’s Fiction and the Great War (1997)

L. Hanley, Writing War: Fiction, Gender and Memory (1991)

Clare Rhoden is a Melbourne writer and book reviewer. Her PhD was published by UWAP Scholarly as The Purpose of Futility: writing World War One, Australian style, in 2015. Clare’s WWI historical fiction The Stars in the Night was published by Odyssey Books in 2019. She is very pleased that both books have been praised and criticised by both the left and the right. That counts as success. Clare blogs at clarerhoden.com

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