By Midshipman C.A Smith
Midshipman Chanelle Smith hails from the small coastal town of Goolwa in South Australia. Her great grandfather served in the Australian Regular Army; her grandfather was a marine engineer in the RAN and a cousin is currently serving as a Naval Warrant Officer. She is the first female to continue the family tradition. After graduating from the New Entry Officer’s Course at HMAS Creswell, MIDN Smith recently undertook the Junior Warfare Application Course at HMAS Watson.
The role of women within the RAN has changed considerably over time. Despite the current service being a male-dominated profession, women have still made a significant influence within the organisation over the years. Today, women are employed across the length and breadth of the RAN in a wide variety of roles both at sea and ashore. This essay briefly examines how the RAN has dealt with the initial entry of women, the changing nature of their roles, and their advancement throughout the ranks.
Beginning of a New Era
During World War I, the role of women was confined to the domestic sphere – to cook, clean and look after the household. Women’s contribution to war generally involved working in the manufacturing industry, knitting socks, packing parcels, fundraising or undertaking quasi-nursing domestic duties as Red Cross Voluntary Aids. World War II, however, was the moment in history that changed women’s participation in the Australian Defence Force (ADF). The increasing demands of war provided the opportunity for women to be utilised in non-combat roles to enable the release of men for fighting duties.
The idea that women could replace men in the field of communications was founded by Florence Violet McKenzie, a radio operator and electrical engineer who trained women in telegraphy. The idea soon became a popular demand for women and in 1939 McKenzie established and directed the Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps (WESC). This prospect allowed women to directly contribute to the protection of their country. Roles of women advanced from primarily domestic work to working alongside their male counterparts.
In late 1940 women in the WESC became enthusiastic about the potential of their service after researching similar services in the Royal Navy. Assistant Director of Signals and Communications, Commander J.A.S. Brame and Commander J.B. Newman supported the idea and suggested that women trained in the WESC in radio telegraphy should be admitted to the RAN. After months of lobbying, on 18 April 1941 the elderly Minister for the Navy, Billy Hughes (Hughes had served as Prime Minister during WWI), approved the employment of fourteen women, twelve telegraphists
and two attendants Nursing Sisters, Flinders Naval Depot AWM volunteering as cooks, with provision that no publicity to be given to this break with tradition. Three days later the Government authorised the entry of women into the Australian Navy as the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service.
Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS)
The WRANS was primarily formed in order to fill vacancies created when the Navy’s male wireless telegraphists were sent on war duties overseas. However society, especially men serving in the RAN, had many mixed feelings in regards to women being suitable for the service according to the prevailing norms at the time: … women’s emotional and psychological make-up does not equip them for involvement in war;… their role is in the family and in the community.1Ms Denise Culver Johnson (nee Owen), third officer within the WRANS, describes how she felt about her male counterparts: … the men were wonderful; they were extremely welcoming and nice, although there was the occasional one that found it hard to accept women.2 The WRANS nevertheless enabled women to prove to society that they were suitable and that they could also make a difference to their country. Although it was not evident at the time, the WRANS would, in future, be the foundation of the development of women’s role within the RAN. This development first began in October 1942 when a Navy Office letter was sent to the Secretary of the Women’s National Register, calling attention to the existence of the WRANS. This announcement inspired an increasing number of women to join, which subsequently advanced the role of women in duties such as telegraphists, coders and clerks, drivers, mechanics, cooks and educational workers. With the effects of war becoming increasingly evident, nursing soon became one of the most popular roles for women who wished to serve for their country, and in April 1942, 23 qualified nursing sisters formed the RAN Nursing Service (RANNS). Nurses wishing to enter the RANNS were to be registered nurses with more than 12 months experience. It became inevitable that women were contributing to what was quickly becoming recognised as an essential service.
The WRANS and RANNS grew to a wartime complement of 2,500 women serving in more than 22 categories of duties and numerous special postings. This, however, naturally brought many problems; problems which, it was felt, could best be dealt with by, or on the advice of, responsible women officers. On 18 January 1943 the first nine WRAN officers came into service. It soon became apparent that WRANS, whether officers or ratings, could tackle work hitherto believed to be purely within the male province. The WRANS had set the pace and became highly inspirational women to the public.
By the end of WWII, the WRANS had more than 2,600 women in its ranks, which comprised 10% of the total naval establishment. With the numbers increasing, the Australian Government considered the possibilities of making the WRANS a part of the Permanent Naval Force. With the war over, however, the surviving men resumed their previous positions which in 1948, consequently resulted in the WRANS being temporarily disbanded. The disbandment of the WRANS was rectified in 1951, with the service re-forming to help the RAN cope with manpower shortages due to the Korean War. In 1959, the decision to incorporate the RANNS and the WRANS into the PNF was re-discussed and approved. Women however, still had a long way to go in order to gain approval for more roles throughout the RAN. The WRANS was still considered a separate service: its members were only employed in jobs that were regarded as suitable for women according to the prevailing norms at the time. These ‘prevailing norms’ however, were soon to change, as life in the RAN for women enables many more opportunities to arise which inevitably changes the way in which society regards as suitable for women.
Life in the RAN – Significant Changes for Women
Today, the RAN is comprised of approximately 18% women. Women have the opportunity to serve in any area within the service: engineering, aviation, trades, communications and intelligence, sub- marines, combat and security, and officers and management. Currently the highest-ranking female within the RAN is Commodore Robyn Walker who in 2005 became the first female in the RAN to reach the rank of Commodore. Commodore Walker is to be promoted to Admiral in 2012. This is a considerable advancement and achievement for women since they first integrated into the RAN in 1959. The ability to achieve such results, however, is only evident today due to the many barriers and changes women faced and overcame throughout the years. Barriers and changes for women still exist today, and is something on which is therefore essential to reflect on to further advance the role of women in the future. The significant changes and barriers from past to present will be discussed by decade in the following paragraphs.
During the 1960s when the WRANS first integrated into the RAN, the Government enforced laws which restricted women from serving in combat duties and seagoing employment. With this policy in place, no matter how competent the women were, the likelihood that they would gain the same professional respect as their male counterparts was somewhat impossible due to an absence of skills that came from sea experience. These exclusions not only limited the areas in which they could serve, it restricted the tasks they could perform, which subsequently only enabled women to receive two-thirds of the male wage. Marriage was another barrier which consequently banned women from service up until 1969, when it was removed. This constraint consequently reduced the number of women who were likely to consider a full-time career.
In the 1970s, significant changes for women were enforced: equal pay with men, pregnancy did not automatically mean discharge and in 1975, being International Year of Women, the Government agreed to examine the role of women within the ADF and consider the recommendations that women should be permitted to serve on active service. A decade later in the 1980s, new laws were enforced to enable women to broaden their capabilities and therefore expand on their career opportunities. In September 1984, women were permitted to serve at sea. This was closely followed by the promulgation of the Sex Discrimination Act, and two years later the Defence Instruction on
Sexual Harassment. During this time, approximately 5% of all RAN personnel were female. Sea service also permitted the first WRANS Officers to complete their full training courses on board HMAS Jervis Bay. With these changes, women began to progress rapidly, and in 1988 the RAN appointed their first female Commanding Officer, Liz Cole. From the 1990s to life in the RAN today, major decisions have been made to further develop the role of women in the future Submarine service was approved in 1991, with women allowed to serve on Collins class submarines. This was closely followed by Australia’s first deployment of female sailors in a combat zone. This was aboard HMAS Westralia in the Persian Gulf during the 1991 Gulf War. On 27 September 2011, Minister for Defence Stephen Smith and Minister for Defence Science and Personnel Warren Snowdon announced the Government agreement to the removal of all gender restrictions in combat roles. Women therefore have the right to work in any area within the RAN, providing they meet the abilities of the role.
The future for women in the RAN is exciting: with a vast variety of roles from which they can choose, the only barrier still existing is the ability to gain acceptance in the renowned ‘male-dominant’ profession. Women’s overall physical capability is one of the major factors contributing to the way women are perceived by their male counterparts: In order to break down the barriers to acceptance and to be regarded as part of a team, women often have to prove themselves by reaching the physical standards established for men. Men’s resentment towards women, arising from having to `carry the load’ on ships, in some trades areas and in the field, constitutes an impediment to male- female bonding and consequently, unit cohesion.3
Currently the ADF is working on the final stages of the Physical Employment Standards Project which reviews current standards and introduces a gender-neutral selection process to determine suitability to perform military essential tasks and roles. Hopefully with the completion of this project, segregation between genders will be minimized and the issue of gaining acceptance in the male dominant profession will no longer be a concern for women. The future of the RAN is dependent on attracting and retaining the best people to support the mission …to fight and win in the maritime environment. With gender equity and diversity forming the basis for sound and sustainable navy, leadership strategies such as the Navy Women’s Leadership Program are in place to ensure progressing opportunities for Navy women of all ranks.
Women have made a significant influence to the RAN over the years. Their roles have developed considerably from the past, from being primarily domestic housewives to the present; where women are serving in ranks as high as Commodore in the RAN. It is important to remember the roles women have played during times of conflict. In Australia’s wartime history women have been servicewomen, prisoners of war, nurses, doctors, entertainers, workers in munitions factories, technicians and peacekeepers.
From the initial entry of women, to the changing nature of their roles and advancement throughout the ranks; the future development for women is extremely exciting. Women today, future leaders of the RAN, will learn and develop from the past and continue to develop within the service. As a young woman, currently under training to become a Junior Officer in the RAN, it is an honour to have such a privilege and being part of a remarkable tradition.
1.Burton, C. Women in the Australian Defence Force, chapter 3.0, paragraph 3.1.1. http://www. defence.gov.au/fr/reports/ women adf.pdf Accessed 11 Sep 2011
2.Johnson, D. Australian War Memorial, Denise Culver Johnson, Third Officer WRANS, interviewed by Dr Ruth Thompson for the Keith Murdoch Sound Archives of Australia in the War of 1939-45. http://cas.awm.gov.au/ item/S00565Accessed 18 Sep 2011
3.Burton, C. Women in the Australian Defence Force, p 88. http://www.defence.gov.au/fr/ reports/ womenadf.pdf Accessed 23 Oct 11
Editorial Note: For reasons of space, the bibliography and many endnotes have been omitted. The full text of this essay is available upon request from the Naval Historical Society