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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Women and the War

Women and the War

THE SERVICES of the women who entered the three auxiliaries were so meritorious that it is regrettable their numbers were comparatively so small. They remained in every sense an élite. It would, however, give a wrong impression of the willingness and ability of the other women of New Zealand to serve their country if some further explanation were not given, at the risk of some repetition, of the restrictions placed on women entering the Services. From the first, all applications to serve were examined by officers of the National Service Department, and applicants already in essential work were not allowed to transfer from their civilian employment into a Service. If is fair to state that although women were thus prevented from serving where they themselves felt they had most to offer, the National Service Department did not insist on the return to civilian work of women with special skills who had already joined a women’s auxiliary.

It would appear, however, that War Cabinet regarded the women’s services as being less essential than their male counterparts and, for the most part, as less essential than industry. In September 1943, for instance, when industry had vacancies waiting for 4000 women, priority page 32 was given to it, and recruitment into the three women’s auxiliaries was virtually stopped. ‘Industry’ had become a wide term: both hotels and laundries were eventually entitled to bear the proud label of ‘essential’. Yet in June 1943 the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force had asked for 800 women to relieve men in clerical and stores duties in camps and bases, a request increased a little later to 982 women to relieve 621 men. Only a very small number of women—twenty typists—went to the Middle East in response to this request, although a year earlier the official policy had been to replace men by women in the armed forces wherever possible.

In September 1943 the New Zealand Manufacturers’ Federation asked for the cessation of recruiting for women’s branches of the Services. Of course, the three auxiliaries had to some extent been to blame for not recruiting at a faster rate when they had the opportunity during 1942, but shortage of accommodation was at that stage a constant check on the intake of recruits. But even when they enjoyed the fullest official support the auxiliaries had been in some degree hampered by their own diffidence. In May 1941 the chairman of a W.A.A.F. selection committee was reported as saying that ‘the board had no more right to take a girl out of essential employment than an employer had to retain her if she could be replaced’. It is difficult to resist the conclusion that women were treated on a different basis from men for manpower purposes. A woman in an essential job had somehow become more ‘essential’ than a man in an essential job.

Some women were discharged from the three auxiliaries on a voluntary basis in early 1944. Forms asking whether they would or would not be prepared to leave their Service for essential industry were at that time completed by 6629 servicewomen, but only 784 of them volunteered to re-enter civilian life: 254 of them chose the Women’s Land Army, and 234 nursing or work in hospitals.

The Women’s Land Army, or more correctly, the Women’s Land Service, was established in 1940 under the W.W.S.A. to help meet the shortage of male farm labour caused by enlistments in the forces. In September 1942 the Women’s Land Corps, as it was first known, was reorganised as the Women’s Land Service with improved rates of pay, a dress uniform, and a complete set of working clothes as attractions for recruits. The employment of relatives as land girls on farms was also authorised under the new scheme and recruitment became the responsibility of district manpower officers. By September 1944, with the help of special recruiting campaigns in farming districts, there were 2088 land girls in the service, its highest figure, all of them employed on farms.

On demobilisation women face the same problems as do men and have the same need for rehabilitation assistance and, in New Zealand, the same rights to obtain it. It is true that many servicewomen had demobilised husbands to rejoin, while others had their own work in industry or in a home waiting for their return. On the whole, women who have had a job in a special emergency like a war tend to want to keep a job after it is over. The friendships which grow in a large organisation, particularly a fighting service, and the satisfactions of a corporate life, can only be replaced by joining some other organisation for a common purpose, and even the daily contacts of office or factory are in their degree a substitute.

The women of New Zealand in the three Service auxiliaries gave their best to help win the war. Their work, apart from spasmodic praises lavished often enough as an incentive to recruiting, has not yet been sufficiently valued or understood. It can only be hoped that their capacity will be fully recognised in the long-term peacetime planning of the New Zealand armed forces.