Women working at 'men's' work during WWII in the homefront and overseas was a turning point in social equality.
During World War II women worked at 'men's' work to free up over 200,000 men to serve in the armed forces. They were encouraged to "do their bit" for the war effort - from manufacturing uniforms, equipment and weaponry; to working in factories and on farms, trams and the railways. They also served in the Air Force, Army and Navy in Europe and the Pacific. Whereas in September 1939 the female labour force was estimated at 180,000, by December 1943 there were 228,000 women employed at the homefront and 8000 in the armed forces. (See NZETC: No easy victory)
The war years were a social turning point for women in the work force. There were opportunities for new forms of employment traditionally carried out by men. Prior to the war, women's occupations included shop assistants, clerical work, nursing, school teaching and "domestic work". With the outbreak of war, they were also needed to carry out work in the farming, manufacturing, engineering, weaponry and transport industries; and serve in the military.
On becoming married, women had tended to leave the workforce. With the increasing demand for female labour to fill job vacancies left by servicemen, changes took place in traditional attitudes to the family and domestic life. Initially married women were exempted from being required to work, but by the end of 1943 they were required to register. Only mothers with children under the age of 16 were exempt unless they had access to childcare. Between 1936 and 1945, the proportion of married women in paid employment rose from 8.5 to 17.2 percent. (See NZETC: No easy victory)
Women were invariably paid less than men. In October 1942 minimum weekly rates were fixed at £5 10s for men and £2 17s 6d for women. However, the question of equal working conditions was raised in some occupations, leading women to become actively involved in employee organisations. For example, in 1942 the New Zealand National Tramways Union won equal pay for women who had been appointed as tram conductors following a shortage of men. (See NZHistory)
The Women’s War Service Auxiliary (WWSA) was established in August 1940 to co-ordinate NZ women volunteering for work. Its main function was to co-ordinate nationally the activities of women’s organisations and to work in collaboration with the Department of National Service.
In January 1942, the Government passed the Industrial Man-power Regulations whereby men and women could be directed where they were needed in essential industries and occupations. Men and women were required to register at the local Man-power Office, which was a branch of the National Service Department. By the end of March 1944, 147,000 women were registered for employment. The Government continued to 'manpower" people into jobs until June 1946. (See NZHistory).
There were more women employed in jobs "where previously there had been few or none, such as in the Public Service, banks, Post and Telegraph, railways, trams, engineering, canneries, farms, flax and rubber mills and driving work". In addition, women acted as "substitutes for men—on milk rounds, as hotel porters, zoo attendants, on domestic meter reading, trucking fruit and vegetables to city markets, scientific work, joinery, brick works, delivering coal, announcing trains at stations, and one even became radio officer on the Cook Strait ferry Tamahine". (See NZETC: The Home front, V2).
The Women's Land Service was the largest of the women's war services in NZ during WWII - 2,711 land girls were placed on farms, and hundreds more served unofficially on family farms, totalling 2,963 different farms (see Te Papa).
New Zealand Red Cross and the Order of St John created the Joint Council to provide services during World War II. Between 1941 and 1946, 1,139,624 food and clothing parcels were packed by volunteers and sent overseas. The Red Cross also staffed Medical Units and provided supplies to three hospital ships - the “Maunganui”, “Oranje” and the “Somersetshire”. (See New Z ealand Red Cross.)
Recruitment of women for the military service was on a voluntary basis.The first women's service to be established was New Zealand Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAFs), which was founded in January 1941. The W.W.S.A. handled the applications to enter the WAAFs and later controlled recruitment for the other two Services - the Navy WRNZS and the Army WAACs. A small number of these women were posted to service in Europe and the Pacific.
Initially, these women undertook domestic or clerical jobs in the Services, working as shorthand typists, clerks, cooks and mess assistants. Gradually, they began to carry out sa range of tasks which were of a broader military nature - signalling and artillery branches as wireless operators, range-finders, searchlight operators and in anti-aircraft batteries.
The Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was formed on 16 January 1941, to enable the Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) to release more men for overseas service. The women served as wireless, radar and teleprinter operators, parachute packers, equipment assistants, medical orderlies and vehicle drivers on air force bases. When the WAAF officially joined the RNZAF in 1942, the women held ranks equivalent to those of men. More than 100 achieved commissioned officer rank, mainly in encoding and decoding work and administration. (See NZHistory)
By April 1944 more than three thousand women were serving in the W.A.A.C. in New Zealand and 733 overseas, of whom some 200 were in the Pacific (See NZETC). Some served in the signalling and artillery branches as wireless operators, range-finders, searchlight operators and anti-aircraft batteries. Others were truck drivers and assisted in the canteen huts cooking, cleaning and serving servicemen.
(This DigitalNZ story was created in 2019)