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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Women in the Services

page 3

Women in the Services

WOMEN in New Zealand were not recruited, as they were in Britain, into auxiliary branches of the armed forces immediately on the outbreak of war. It was realised only slowly how great was the unexploited asset of the country’s woman-power for defence and industry. Nurses indeed were recruited by the Army as soon as war began; but on the whole New Zealand women were at first left to carry on such voluntary work as they could undertake or to enter industry wherever chance offered an opening. Many women, eager to serve, regretted that more use was not being made of their talents and goodwill. If, at the beginning of the war there had been the experience and understanding of women’s capabilities that existed by 1945, no doubt far more effective use would have been made of their services, to the great benefit of the whole manpower position. As it was, the first entry of women into the Services seemed to be unplanned and almost haphazard, and provided a sharp contrast to the energy used to recruit, train, and send into action the country’s manhood.

In July 1940 the Women’s War Service Auxiliary was formed as the result of a meeting of delegates from existing women’s organisations from all over New Zealand. This body, acting through its Dominion council, with twelve elected members and four appointed by the Minister of National Service (the Hon. R. Semple), had official status. Its main function was to co-ordinate the activities of women’s organisations to enable them to be used to the best advantage of New Zealand’s war effort. The W.W.S.A. was intended to supplement rather than supersede the existing women’s organisations which were affiliated to it, and it worked in close and harmonious collaboration with the Department of National Service. It established local committees throughout the country and carried out extensive and important work in civil defence and in various phases of the war effort.

When the New Zealand Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was founded in January 1941, the first women’s service to be established, the W.W.S.A. handled all applications to enter it and later controlled recruitment for the other two Services. As each of the three Services at different times complained that women were being unduly directed into one of the other Services, it may be presumed that the W.W.S.A. and later the National Service Department* carried out their recruiting duties impartially.

The main rivalry for the services of women was not, however, between the different branches of the armed forces but rather between their collective demands and the competing demand, increasing in insistence during 1944, for women in industry. Late in 1943 the recruitment of women was placed on a new basis. The three Services were to estimate their requirements in advance and then, on War Cabinet’s approval, they could recruit the authorised number and no more. Arrangements were even made in 1944 for a few women to be discharged to industry, the needs of which page 4 were considered to be superior to those of the Services at that time. This indicated a certain wavering in the policy of employing women in the armed forces; it also denoted a confusion of thought. Since women had generally been considered to do their jobs in the Services as well as men—though on some work they could not replace an equal number of men—and to do some jobs better than men, it might have been possible to have made greater use of women at overseas bases, as was suggested, to release fit men for front-line service and men of lower medical grading for employment at home in industry in the heavier work which women admittedly could not do.

All the members of the women’s branches of the three Services were volunteers. It was unfortunate that they could not go overseas in larger numbers, as this would undoubtedly have stimulated recruiting. The women who joined the auxiliaries were all eager to do more than the minimum of service, and many were disappointed that they could not serve outside New Zealand. Only a fraction of the W.A.A.F. went overseas, while in the W.A.A.C. the proportion was somewhat larger, but no Wrens served overseas.

* In October 1942 the recruiting of women for the Services was transferred to the National Service Department, still in liaison with the W.W.S.A.