By Lindsay Wong
Written for The Great War 1914 to 1918
During World War One, the role that women played varied from country to country. Globally, there was a stereotype that women were supposed to have traditional roles at home and in the kitchen. Australia was not an exception. Nevertheless, women still contributed to the war effort. The primary role that women had was in the medical field as nurses and doctors, both locally and internationally. The individual I will be referencing is Vera Scantlebury Brown, a University of Melbourne graduate who was one of five Australian female doctors working at Endell Street Military Hospital in London.
The role of Australian women during WW1 is an interesting topic to examine, particularly in relation to Vera. During this time, Australian women held the traditional roles of women in society as wives and mothers. Vera and other women went against these stereotypes as they were portrayed as independent and competent instead of helpless and conforming. Feminists and especially those interested in gender studies would be fascinated by how Vera and other Australian women contributed to the war effort as gender issues are still a hot topic around the world today.
When people link Australia to World War 1, they tend to focus primarily on the tens of thousands of Anzac soldiers fighting in Gallipoli for the British. However, these Australian men were not the only Australians who played a role during World War 1. The topic of Australian women is not often talked about, even though women did contribute to the war effort on the Western Front and on other theatres of war. Most women worked in the medical field as nurses and later doctors across the world, from the UK to Belgium to Egypt. This essay will discuss the role that Australian women played during World War 1.
Originally, Australian women had no place in the war effort. Historically, only a small proportion of women in comparison to men were a part of the paid labour force. Even though many jobs were unfilled due to men joining the army, women were still not permitted to take these jobs. This is because Australian women held the stereotype of being nurturing caretakers of the family, and their roles were concentrated to the home and the kitchen. Women of the 20th century were not expected to work; they were expected to stay at home to raise the family. However, the amount of women in the workforce gradually increased, specifically in the medical field.
Women had to specifically make job requests to the government in order to contribute to the war effort. The government rejected women’s requests to work in munitions industries, as cooks, ambulance scouts, etc., with the exception of nursing. The government approved women’s requests to work as nurses due to their belief that women should have nurturing roles in society. Working as nurses fit in well with this stereotype as this job could help to prepare women in the future as wives and mothers. Nurses had to cook for the soldiers in order to strengthen them. At the same time, nurses contradicted the stereotype that women were helpless as they had to be independent and competent. Their jobs involved dealing with anaesthetics, treating wounded soldiers, and learning to survive under bombardment. Nurses also had to manage male orderlies; this was the first time that nurses directed men in such an environment. They were forced to witness the horrors of warfare – this went against the stereotype that women were “too hysterical and illogical” to work in the medical field. Nurses even had to treat soldiers with shellshock, a psychiatric condition in which soldiers suffered from the aftermath of war. This kind of work required great amounts of courage, especially since nurses were subjected to bullying in the workplace, particularly by male army officers. Many officers were misogynistic and there was no command structure between the officers and the nurses, which made them even more susceptible to bullying. Nevertheless, nurses continued to endure these hardships.
Nursing became a socially acceptable job, although this was not the case with female doctors. Female doctors were treated with suspicion as intelligence and independence were required in this profession, and these virtues were not considered to be associated with women. Despite this, Vera Scantlebury Brown, a University of Melbourne graduate who was stationed at the Endell Street Military Hospital in London, had confidence in herself. She had paid for her own way to England to work as a doctor during World War 1. Vera’s diary that recounts her time at Endell Street has been preserved in the University of Melbourne Archives. Her diary portrays her “personal journey” from a naïve doctor to an independent surgeon. In her diary, Vera initially struggles with her job; “…give up surgery! It is a trying occupation especially for a person with fingers all thumbs!” Her tone is exasperated as she doubts her abilities as a surgeon. However, she becomes more capable as she spends more time working at the hospital. Vera is just one example of a medical woman who mentally grew while working during World War 1.
Vera and the rest of the female medical women working at Endell Street have received little recognition for their work, despite their contributions towards the war effort. Even the Australian nurses who worked on behalf of the British empire across the world and endured so much hardship because of their job have not been recognised enough for all that they have done for the war. They assisted and treated tens of thousands of soldiers on various theatres of war. The time and effort they put into their job in the context of World War 1 has largely been neglected by society. One century later, it is finally time that we shine light on how Australian women made a difference during World War 1.
Diary Letterbook, Vera Scantlebury to FK Norris, 29 June 1917 – 16 September 1917. Vera Scantlebury Brown collection, University of Melbourne Archives, 1984.0082.00001
Harris, Kirsty. 2014. “New horizons: Australian nurses at work in World War 1.” Endeavor 38 (2): 111-121. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.endeavour.2014.05.004.
Maclean, Pam. 1995. “War and Australian Society” In Australia’s War 1914-18, edited by Joan Beaumont, 74-78. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin.
Neuhaus, Susan J. and Mascall-Dare, Sharon. 2014. “The Great War: An Empire at War” In Not for Glory: A century of service by medical women to the Australian Army and its Allies, 12-30. Salisbury: Boolarong Press