I’d like to thank Pamela Hart for this guest post about Australian women lives during WWI. Pamela is an award-winning author for both adults and children. She has a Doctorate of Creative Arts from the University of Technology, Sydney, where she has also lectured in creative writing. Under the name Pamela Freeman she wrote the historical novel THE BLACK DRESS, which won the NSW Premier’s History Prize for 2006 and is now in its third edition. Pamela is also well known for her fantasy novels for adults, published by Orbit worldwide, the Castings Trilogy and her Aurealis Award-winning novel EMBER AND ASH. Pamela lives in Sydney with her husband and their son, and teaches at the Australian Writers’ Centre. THE SOLDIER’S WIFE is her twenty-eighth book. You can follow Pamela on Twitter and Facebook.
My novel The Soldier’s Wife is set in 1915-1916 – so of course I did a lot of research, and since my main character Ruby is a young woman, I had to learn a great deal about how women acted, how they were treated, and what expectations society placed on them – and how all that changed with World War I.
So here (in no particular order) are the best ten things I learnt:
- The price of bread in Australia doubled in 1915. Most women who went to work for the first time during World War I didn’t do it because they were feminists – they worked to put food on their table and a roof over their heads. Many of their husbands were away at the front; and there were always widows and unmarried mothers and women whose husbands had just buggered offf. There were feminists, of course, but in Australia a lot of that fight had gone away after Federation, when all non-indigenous women gained the vote.
- Women weren’t allowed to have their own bank accounts – unless they could prove that their husband (or father) knew about it. Yes, you needed your husband’s permission to save your money, even if the money came from your own job. This was one of the things which shifted during the War, because how could a woman get permission from a husband who was on the front line?
- Some women wore make-up, particularly younger women. I was interested in whether or not my Ruby would have worn rouge or lipstick. I decided not. She was a country girl and not at all ‘fast’. The newspapers of the time are full of complaints about make up, such as this article from 1912 from the ‘A Page for Women’ in the Sydney Morning Herald. The author (a strong feminist) is making a list of things which hurt girls, and should be thrown in the fire. After the hair-pads should go the cosmetics, first and foremost that awful whitewash that gives the face a ghastly hue, and makes our girls look like so many graven images. Rouge, artistically used, at least has the virtue of giving the wearer a look of health that is becoming; but the cosmetic with which the present-day girl whitewashes her face makes the user look as if she were in the last stages of some dreadful disease. The only recommendation it seems to possess is that it is easy to match, and can be worn with any hat. She was strongly against high heels and narrow toes, too, on the grounds that they hurt … not much has changed.
- Skirts rose fast – before the War, skirts came right down past the ankle (not quite ground-length, but long). By the middle of 1915, they were on the way up, above the ankle. Think about that. For thousands of years, women’s legs had been covered. In the space of months, that was overturned. The men who came back from Gallipoli found a world where their wives and sweethearts (and sisters!) were wearing skirts of a length which only prostitutes would have worn before.
- Women ran the humanitarian efforts in the War, notably the Red Cross. The Australian branch of the Red Cross was founded nine days after the war started, by the wife of the Governor-General, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson. It was run almost entirely by women, and provided ‘care packages’ – socks, scarfs, bandages, food, etc. It also helped track the missing and the dead to inform relatives of the latest news of those missing in action. I believe that running the Red Cross (there were branches in every suburb and town) had as much to do with the rise of women’s rights advocates as the move into men’s jobs did. Many women took on responsibility for the first time when they joined the Red Cross (as does Maree, one of the characters in The Soldier’s Wife).
- A leg of lamb cost 8 shillings. The average male wage was around 3-4 pounds (60-80 shillings). Think that through in modern money, and you can see that meat was far more expensive than it is now – and, in season, a leg of lamb was cheaper than a chicken. Would you spend one tenth of your weekly salary on a leg of lamb? Food, generally, took up a much greater portion of a worker’s take home pay, and women, of course, were paid far less than men.
- Yes, women were paid far less for the same job – sometimes only half. The theory was that men were supporting a family and women were just working for ‘pin money’. Of course, the money didn’t go up if the woman was a widow supporting six kids! Employers knew when they were on to a good thing, and after the war there were many complaints about women having undercut the pre-war workforce.
- ‘Lingerie’ didn’t mean what it means now. It referred to clothes made from light linen, normally white. Presumably it acquired its current meaning from slips and camisoles. Underpants were called knickers and were usually loose-legged, like boxer shorts.
- There were huge stores in Sydney, like Way’s, and Lassiter’s (which took up two full city blocks in the middle of the CBD). They’re gone and have left no trace… it makes me wonder what ‘institutions’ will survive in a hundred years’ time.
- You find out more about women’s life in the newspaper advertisements than you do in the articles. The articles are often about what women ought to be like – but the ads appeal directly to what women really were It might have been not quite the thing to wear rouge and powder, but by God they sold well!