Australia’s “land girls” were crucial to the country in World War II.
Author Victoria Purman has written about them in her new novel, titled Land Girls. Victoria will speak about her book at Newcastle Library.
The land girls were part of the Australian Women’s Land Army.
“The women who worked in jobs during the war found an enormous sense of pride because they were supporting the war effort,” Victoria said.
“With 700,000 men away at war, the women of Australia were doing crucial work in jobs they’d never had a chance to do before.”
For some women, the work gave them a wage of their own for the first time in their lives. It also gave them independence.
“They were learning skills – like driving tractors and repairing farm machinery – and keeping farms viable, too,” she said.
“Some took up jobs that women had never done before – such as tram conductors, bus drivers and even stenographers.”
Many of the land girls have passed away or are in the last stage of their lives.
Before she wrote the book, Victoria listened to oral histories and read transcripts, recorded in 1990, of interviews with Australian land girls.
“Those women talked about how much they relished earning their own money, although it wasn’t very much – 30 shillings a week – about half of what men earned for doing the same job.”
They loved the adventure and challenge of doing jobs they never imagined they’d do. They found joy in friendships.
A White Feather
The book’s main character Flora is a 30-year old “spinster”, as unmarried women were called in the 1940s. She’s resigned herself to a life looking after her father and two brothers. One brother is away at war, but the other is at home. He’s unable to serve because of a disability.
A woman gives Flora a white feather in the streets of Melbourne and calls her disabled brother a coward. Flora is so incensed, she joins the land army to help the war effort.
“She finds meaning in her life by defending her brother’s honour. Her service in the land army not only sparks her independence, but helps her find a new role in life.”
In taking on men’s jobs, women had to fight “all kinds of prejudice about their ability to handle some of the work”.
“It was never just a man’s war. Women and families felt the brunt of it, too.”
Some believed women wouldn’t be able to handle the hard work and conditions.
“The land girls tackled the doubters by working as hard as they could and eventually earned high praise.”
She said Australia had no choice but to use women for agricultural work.
“By 1941, two thirds of the male agricultural workforce, which was about 100,000 men, had enlisted. Farmers and primary producers were experiencing severe labour shortages. Plus, there were 130,000 American troops stationed in Australia and they needed to be fed too.
“By volunteering for the land army, the land girls played a crucial role in keeping Australia – and all those troops – fed.”
Women worked in shearing sheds. They picked grapes, potatoes, oranges, cherries and onions. They harvested flax.
Victoria said there’s no doubt it was a shock for “shop assistants, hairdressers, telephonists and waitresses to be put to work doing such different physical labour”.
“In the summer months, they were out in the fields in scorching heat. In winter, they wore layers and layers of clothes during the day and at night to cope with the freezing conditions in some parts of the country.
“Some did quit and go back home, but others stayed for the rest of the war.”
There’s a perception that once the war was over, the land girls went home to their husbands and old lives.
“The truth is a little more complex. When the war was over, all the land girls’ jobs were over and they were expected to head back to the cities and their old jobs.”
But some stayed in the country, having met and married farmers. Others had to return to their old lives, now as widows.
Many others relished their newfound independence, but found it hard to take up jobs that society believed should be done by men once again. This was despite the fact they were now qualified for these jobs.
“Some women did return to hearth and home. But in the immediate post-war years, married women continued to work and the percentage of married women in the workforce continued to rise.”
Some women were so angry about the way they were treated after the war, they raised their daughters with “a spirit of independence and urged them to continue the fight for equality”.
It’s thought that this helped create the second-wave feminist movement of the 1960s and ’70s [the US and UK had land girls, too].
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