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Women In Service

join us in a victory job poster

Brightly coloured recruitment posters encouraged young women to join up and more than 66,000 of them enlisted in the three services – Army, Navy and Air Force.  They made up just under 7% of the nearly 1 million Australians who served.

These days, every role in the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is available for a woman to apply for, covering a wide range of trades, professions and disciplines - but that has not always been the case.
In 2018 women make up 17.9% of the ADF workforce. Women have served in Australian armed forces since 1899. Until World War II women were restricted to the Australian Army Nursing Service. This role expanded in 1941–42 when the Royal Australian Navy (RAN), Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force established female branches in which women took on a range of support roles.

While these organisations were disbanded at the end of the war, they were re-established in 1950 as part of the military's permanent structure. Women were integrated into the services during the late 1970s and early 1980s, but were not allowed to apply for combat roles until 2013. Women can now serve in all positions in the Australian Defence Force (ADF), including the special forces.

 adf women

The ADF has an overall female participation rate of 17.9%. This has grown steadily since 2011, when Defence made increasing female participation a priority, with the intent of opening all previously gender restricted roles to women. Since 2012-13 defence has produced an annual ‘Women in the ADF’ report to assess their progress, as “increasing the participation of women in the ADF ensures that Defence secures the best possible talent available”.
The percentage of women in each service as of the 2017-18 report is 21.5% in the Navy, 14.3% in the Army, and 22.1% in the Air Force.

All female Air Force crew flew a KC 30A on March 7 to mark International Women s Day

An all-female Air Force crew flew a KC-30A multi-role tanker transport for the first time on March 7 to mark International Women’s Day.
The flight, from RAAF Base Amberley to Perth, was staffed by female pilots, attendants and technicians, and a female team of Air Force air traffic controllers directed their journey.

The role of women in the Australian military began to change in the 1970s. In 1975, which was the International Year of Women, the service chiefs established a committee to explore opportunities for increased female participation in the military. This led to reforms which allowed women to deploy on active service in support roles, pregnancy no longer being grounds for automatic termination of employment and changes to leave provisions. The WRAAF and WAAC were abolished in 1977 and 1979 respectively, with female soldiers being merged into the services. Equal pay was granted to servicewomen in 1979 and the WRANS was abolished in 1985.


Five enlisted women and a female officer in the Air Force WAF arrive at Tan Son Nhut Air Base South Vietnam June 1967



Photo: Five enlisted women and a female officer in the Air Force (WAF) arrive at Tan Son Nhut Air Base, South Vietnam. June, 1967.

The women (left to right) are: Lt Col June H. Hilton, A1Cs Carol J. Hornick and Rita M. Pitcock, SSgt Barbara J. Snavely and A1Cs Shirley J. Brown and Eva M. Nordstrom.

Thousands of US women took part in the Vietnam War, mostly in support services and most went as volunteers. They participated as air traffic controllers, intelligence officers, weather monitors, clerks, medical support, communications and many other roles, but around 90% served as nurses.





Vietnam 1967 first group of Australian Army nurses


The first group of Australian Army Nurses to arrive in Vietnam in May 1967 were from the 8th Field Ambulance.
From left to right, Lieutenant Colleen Mealy, Lieutenant Margaret Ahern, Captain Amy Pittendreigh and Lieutenant Terri Roche.

For the next four years, 43 RAANC nurses served in Vung Tau, in groups of six to ten.


Despite being integrated into the military, there were still restrictions on female service. The ADF was granted an exemption from the Sexual Discrimination Act when it was introduced in 1984 so that it could maintain gender-based restrictions against women serving in combat or combat-related positions, which limited women to 40 percent of positions in the ADF.

 army women exercising in front of army equipment



Women have formed part of ADF deployments around the world since the early 1990's.

  • Female sailors were sent into a combat zone for the first time on board HMAS Westralia in 199.
  • Female medical personnel were deployed to Iraq, Western Sahara and Rwanda during the early 1990's.
  • 440 of the 5,500 Australians deployed to East Timor in November 1999 were women.


Air Commodore Julie Hammer





Women also began to be promoted to command units in the late 1990s, and Air Commodore Julie Hammer (pictured left) became the first woman to reach one-star rank in 2000.


In 2015, 335 women were participating in overseas operations in frontline support positions, including in Afghanistan.









 On 27 September 2011, it was announced that women will be allowed to serve in front line combat roles by 2016.Women became able to apply for all positions other than special forces roles in the Army on 1 January 2013; this remaining restriction removed in 2014 once the physical standards required for service in these units were determined. Women have been directly recruited into all front line combat positions since late 2016.

2016 is a significant year in the history of Australian Women’s military service. Not only did it mark the 75th anniversaries of the formation of auxiliary services across the Navy, Army and Air Force, it also marks the moment where Australian women, for the first time, were able to directly enlist into Australia’s military forces in full combat roles.

Full appreciation of the significance of this change requires an understanding of the barriers that prevented women from taking a more active role in Australia’s defence forces at any time prior. This includes the ways in which successive generations have successfully circumnavigated barriers to make their contribution possible.

Australian Womens Army Service marching in Sydney in 1942

Photo: Australian Women's Army Service marching in Sydney in 1942


Australian women’s involvement in military service began in 1898 with the formation of the Australian Nursing Service of New South Wales, with sixty nurses from the ANS serving in The Boer War. Their service was later incorporated into the Australian Army Nursing Service Reserve (AANSR) in 1902.

 In the First World War, nurses served as an integral part of the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF), being deployed to Egypt and Lemnos during the Gallipoli campaign, in England, France and Belgium in support of the fighting on the Western front, and in Greece, Palestine, Mesopotamia and India.

Arrival of the first detachment of nurses on Lemnos 1915 

Arrival of the first detachment of nurses on Lemnos, 1915

Australian nurses worked in field hospitals and on medical ships anchored off shore near battlefields not accessible by land. There were also those who formed part of Voluntary Aid Detachments. 

Bluebirds aboard HMAT Kanowa

The Bluebirds-aboard-HMAT-Kanowa

The ‘Bluebirds’ for example, were a group of Australian civilian nurses who sailed for France in 1916 –  so named for their distinctive blue uniforms.

Despite serving with distinction in France, they have still not received official recognition in Australia.

According to the Australian Department of Defence, 2,562 AANS nurses served abroad between 1914 and 1919, with a further 423 who worked in military hospitals in Australia. Of these 29 died on active service.

 Australian nurses who received the first bravery awards in 1917

The first bravery awards for Australian women were given to four nurses. Sisters Clare Deacon, Dorothy Cawood, Alice Ross-King and Staff Nurse, Mary Derrer. 

Each received the Military Medal for risking their lives to rescue patients trapped in burning buildings after a German raid on the Western Front in France in 1917.

Although female nurses were able to enlist for service overseas, female doctors were not, despite many applications. Australia’s progressive record of civil rights for women at the turn of the last century, which included achieving the right to vote nationally in 1902 following South Australia’s lead in 1895, did not translate to the Australian Army, which was slow to accept female doctors. They preferred to follow the British lead during the Great War, prohibiting women doctors from enlisting. The British, however, later relaxed their prohibition, while the Australians did not.

Doctor Phoebbe Chapple

Doctor Phoebbe Chapple

South Australian Doctor Phoebbe Chapple who was awarded the Military Medal, the British War Medal 1914 – 1920 and the Victory Medal for her World War 1 Service.

Doctor Phoebbe Chapple’s story of service stands out as an example of a women who refused to accept the status quo of her time. For her service on the Western Front in World War 1 she was awarded the Military Medal, the British War Medal 1914-1920 and the Victory Medal.

Other Australian women doctors such as Agnes Bennett, also took matters into her own hands. Bennett and her female colleagues, who included Australian surgeon Lilian Cooper and her companion Josephine Bedford, worked alongside several Australians in a field hospital situated behind the Greek Macedonian front line, where French and Serbian troops were fighting against German-backed Austrians.

Agnes Bennett Lillian Cooper Josephine Bedford

 The Serbian government subsequently recognised the contribution made by Bennett and her colleagues, awarding each the Order of St Sava for humanitarian service. And despite significant foreign awards being presented from the governments of Britain, France, Serbia and Greece since, their service has remained largely unnoticed in Australia.

 After World War 1 and before World War 11, public pre-conceptions about women only being useful in domestic roles, continued to prevail. But despite this view there were many different ways women could – and did – serve. In World War I, Australian recruitment propaganda had emphasised loyalty to Britain as a reason to fight. In World War II, emphasis shifted to serving in the defence of Australia itself. Recruits were told that by joining Australia’s armed forces, they would be defending their homes and families.

AWAS personnel operating Anti aircraft height and range finder at North Williamstown 1944

AWAS personnel operating Anti-aircraft height and range finder at North Williamstown, 1944. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

In the Australian Army Nursing Service alone 3,477 servicewomen enlisted for service in World War II. Of these seventy-one never returned, losing their lives on active service overseas.

Vivian Bullwinkle






South Australian nurse Vivian Bullwinkle (pictured left) was sole survivor of the massacre of 32 Australian nurses on Bangka Island by Japanese forces of which Bullwinkle subsequently became a Prisoner of War.





 At least 26 women served in the Australian Army Medical Corp, in administrative roles. Voluntary Aid Detachments (VAD) like the ‘Bluebirds’ continued to operate from World War I. Many chose to join the Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service, established in 1940 and the Australian Army Medical Women’s Service (AAMWS) formed in December 1942, with members going on to serve in the Korean War, Malayan Emergency and Vietnam War.

Major Lady Winifred MacKenzie

Soon after World War II began, it was announced that women doctors would be accepted into the Australian defence forces. The first of these was Dr Winifred MacKenzie, whose commission in the Australian Army Medical Corps was noted in the press.

Major Lady Winifred MacKenzie in her office at Victoria Barracks 15 November 1944

Major Lady Winifred MacKenzie in her office at Victoria Barracks 15 November 1944


Morotai 1945 04 18 Australian Army Medical Womens Service Australian Army Nursing Service

Morotai. 1945-04-18. Australian Army Medical Women's Service, Australian Army Nursing Service


Hundreds of voluntary women’s auxiliary and paramilitary organisations were formed when Menzies announced Australia’s involvement in the Second World War on 3 September, 1939. They included the Women’s Transport Corps, Women’s Flying Club, Women’s Emergency Signalling Corps and Women’s Australian National Services, to name a few.

Melbourne Vic C 1943 WAAAF telegraphists at HQ Wireless Transmitting Station RAAF Frognall CanterburyMelbourne, Vic. C. 1943. WAAAF telegraphists, several wearing headphones, at work at HQ, Wireless Transmitting Station, RAAF Frognall, Canterbury, one of the largest RAAF Signals Stations.

Formation of women’s services increased significantly when Japan entered World War II in 1941, and the subsequent need this created to release men for service overseas. Finally those who had resisted women’s involvement in the services acquiesced, but not because they necessarily believed in the cause.

Both the Federal Government and Australia’s military did not initially support women being trained to serve in the armed forces. Neither were women’s service organisations taken seriously by the general public, despite the fact that approximately 70,000 Australian women joined the three major women’s service organisations over the following three years.

Thousands of young Australian women left home to join the new women’s auxiliary services:

  • The Royal Australian Naval Nursing Service (RANNS)
  • The Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) formed on 13 August, 1941
  • The Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS)
  • The Women’s Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) formed on 15 March, 1941
  • The Royal Australian Air Force Nursing Service (RAAFNS)
  • The Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) formed on 21 April, 1941

Leaders of Australian Womens Services 1942

                                            Photo: Leaders of Australian Women's Service 1942

By 1945, approximately 27,000 Australian women had enlisted in the WAAAF making it the largest of the women’s auxiliary forces at that time.

In the WAAAF women’s roles broadened to include mechanics, electricians, armament and transport workers, medical, signals and radio telephony, radar operations, aeronautical inspections, meteorology, catering, messing and clerical work.

The women were not allowed to fly or to serve outside Australia and, until 1943, were not allowed to enlist. Instead they enrolled as auxiliaries for renewable periods of twelve months at a time.

The WAAAF was disbanded in December 1947 making way for a new Australian women’s air force formed in July 1950. In November that same year, this force became known as the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF).

1061 4 WAAFS 4th birthday party 1945 Brisbane

Photo: 4th birthday party of WAAF in Brisbane in 1945 Brisbane

The Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service was formed as a direct result of a shortage of telegraphists. At the end of the Second World War it was disbanded, but manpower shortages in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) led to the service being re-constituted in 1951. Those in the WRANS were made a permanent part of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in December 1959.

By the end of World War II the Australian Women’s Army Service (AWAS) had recruited more than 24,000 women. The AWAS was the only non-medical women’s service to send personnel overseas during the war when in 1944, and in 1945 AWAS personnel served in both Dutch and Australian New Guinea.

AWAS who arrived in Lae from Australia







Photo: AWAS who arrived in Lae from Australia, wait for the trucks to transport them to the AWAS barracks at Butibum Road, New Guinea, 1945.






After 1947, women were not as involved in the services as they had been during World War II and by 30 June 1947, all members of the AWAS, WAAAF and WRANS had been demobilised. Thirty-three nurses deployed overseas during the Malayan Emergency and Australian service-women worked in British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) hospitals in Japan and Korea during the Korean War.

The Vietnam War involved forty-three members of the Royal Australian Army Nursing Corps (RAANC). Australian women civilians also deployed to Vietnam serving as journalists, entertainers, Red Cross support and civilian medical teams.

The role of women in the Australian military began to change significantly in the 1970s following the impact of the feminist movement. In 1975, the International Year of Women, the Australia’s Defence Force chiefs established a committee to explore opportunities for increasing female participation in Australia’s military.

The Defence Equality Organisation, established in 1997, developed frameworks to facilitate greater acceptance of women throughout the ADF.

Female Australian soldiers Afghanistan
Image: Female Australian soldiers in Afghanistan During the first (1990-1991) and second (2001-Present) gulf conflicts, women were active in service as pilots, medical and support staff on military bases from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan.

In the late 1970s female soldiers began to be integrated into the Army at large. Women were excluded from positions involving physical combat and were unable to serve in infantry, armoured, artillery and engineering units in the Army.

The WRAAF was disbanded in the early 1980s and female personnel were absorbed into Australia’s mainstream Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). Australia’s first female air force pilots graduated in 1988 and today there are no barriers to women in any role within the air force. As at January 2015, there were over 700 pilots in Air Force, 25 of whom were women equating to around 2.8%.

Programs have been put in place to support women who wish to join the RAAF and pursue roles which include becoming fighter pilots. Since 1987, 42 women in the RAAF have graduated the pilot’s course and gained their “wings” flying planes such as C-17 Globemasters, C-130 Hercules and Wedgetail airborne early warning and control planes.

WRANS personnel were gradually absorbed into the RAN during the early 1980s, however, women were not permitted to serve aboard ships until as late as 1983.

Female medical personnel were deployed to Iraq, Western Sahara and Rwanda during the early 1990s, and 440 of the 5,500 Australians deployed to East Timor in November 1999 were women.

Julie Baranowski a member of the Military Police in a jeep during a street patrol

Photo: Mogadishu, Somalia. 1st March, 1993. Corporal Julie Baranowski a member of the Military Police, serving with the Australian contingent to the Unified Task Force in Somalia (UNITAF), in a jeep during a street patrol.

Military Police women were in demand as the Somali men used to hide weapons under their women’s clothes in the hope of avoiding searches by male soldiers.

In 2002, the Australian Women in War project was commenced to address the gap that prevailed in Australia’s military history around women’s service. This National Foundation for Women project facilitated preservation of women’s service records as well as helping to identify the various relationships that emerged within and between these early women’s service organisations.

The nationwide project funded through DVA and the Office for the Status of Women enabled biographical histories of women’s military and civilian associations formed during and after World War II, to be compiled alongside individual profiles of Australian servicewomen. Guided by a project organising committee, project staff supplemented details supplied by past members with information contained in various volumes and editions of the Australian Dictionary of Biography and Who’s Who in Australia.

The project inadvertently captured an insider account of the struggle Australian women faced to achieve gender equality within Australia’s defence forces. This struggle culminated in a Federal Government announcement in 2011, that from January 2013 all Australian Defence Force (ADF) employment categories would be open to current women serving in the ADF.

Later this year, women will be able to be directly recruited into full combat roles so that no further recruitment barriers will exist for those Australian women interested to join the ADF. This milestone moment will forever change the way Australia’s military forces will recruit and operate.

The involvement of Australian women in each war is closely connected to their role in society at different times, and the nature of each war.

Military women marching

Australia has been involved in a number of wars including The Boer War (1899–1902), World War I (1914–1918), World War II (1939–1945), The Korean War (1950–1953), The Vietnam War (1962–1972) and The Gulf War (1990–1991).

On the home front, women dealt with the consequences of war—managing children and family responsibilities alone, shortages of resources, as well as their fears for the future, and the grief and trauma of losing loved ones.

Many women were also actively involved as nurses and in other active service duties, and contributed more actively to war efforts through military service. Other Australian women were also closely connected with war through male relatives and friends away on military service.

Women in war munitions factory Kalgoorlie

Photo: Women in war munitions factory in Kalgoorlie

In World War II, women were actively recruited into jobs that had always been the preserve of men; they worked in factories and shipyards, as members of the Women's Land Army and as Official War Artists.

Fundraising and Support Roles

join red cross poster 




At the outbreak of World War I, the expected role of women was to manage the home and raise children. Women were strongly encouraged to help the war effort by joining voluntary organisations.

Groups active at this time included the Australian Red Cross, the Country Women's Association, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, the Australian Women's National League, the Voluntary Aid Detachment, the Australian Comforts Fund and the Cheer-Up Society.





Paid labour and taking on 'men's work'

When World War I started, it was uncommon for many women to have jobs, apart from domestic serving roles. The number of women working outside the home did increase slightly during the war but mostly in food, clothing and printing industry jobs that were already established as female roles.

The idea that a great number of women could take up paid work in place of the men who had gone to war was resisted for a number of reasons. This resistance lasted into World War II, even though 'women beat a path to the doors of the authorities, begging to be allowed to assist, to help win the war, to give of their talents'.

slq 161198 volunteers working on camouflage nets brisbane 1942
Photo: Volunteers working on camouflage nets Brisbane 1942

By 1942, the tides of war had shifted to Australia's doorstep and roles changed out of sheer necessity. Australian women entered the workforce in unprecedented numbers and were even allowed to take on 'men's work'. These were jobs for the war, not for life. Women were paid at lower rates than men and expected to 'step down' and return to home duties after the war.

During World War Two, in Great Britain, North America and Australia and other nations, the vast number of men who were involved in the war meant that, for the first time ever, women were actively recruited into jobs that had always been considered for men. 'Rosie the Riveter' was a character used in America during the 1940s to entice women into work in factories and shipyards.

Two WAAAF flight mechanics checking aircraft engine components at RAAF Station Tocumwal 1944

Photo : Two WAAAF flight mechanics checking aircraft engine components at RAAF Station Tocumwal, 1944. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial. AWM VIC0380.

Newsreels and movies of the day show women happily coming to work in the factory each day to make bomb casings, tanks or parachutes and draws similarities between the things women are used to doing (such as filing their nails) with the work they do in the factory (such as filing the inside of munitions casings). Similar recruitment programs were used to great effect in Australia.

At the end of the war, when women were expected to give up their jobs for men who returned home from overseas conflicts, this was often a difficult transition. Many women had enjoyed participating in the workforce. The 1950s saw a dramatic change in the way women's roles were defined, as females were encouraged back into the home and their traditional roles of wives and mothers reinforced and encouraged.


Joing the womens land army

The AWLA was formed on 27 July 1942 and was modelled on the Women's Land Army in Great Britain. It was overseen by Lieutenant General Carl Jess.

When Japan joined the Axis in 1941 male agricultural labour was recruited into the Australian military to defend the country. To meet the shortfall in rural labour, state and private women’s land organisations began to form under the jurisdiction of the Director General of Manpower.

The AWLA disbanded on 31 December 1945. In 1997, many members became eligible for the Civilian Service Medal.

The Australian Women’s Land Army (AWLA) was formed during the Second World War to combat rising labour shortages in the farming sector. From December 1941, when Japan entered the war, the nation’s need to build up its armed forces was placed above the needs of other industries. Agricultural labour was steadily diverted to the armed services and war industry.

Members of the Australian Womens Land Army tending opium poppies at a CSIRO field in Canberras north as part of medical research in the 1940s
Photo: Members of the Australian Women's Land Army tending opium poppies at a CSIRO field in Canberra's north as part of medical research in the 1940s.

To meet the shortfall in rural labour, State and private women’s land organisations were organised, modelled on those established in Great Britain during the First and Second World Wars. A national body was formed on 27 July 1942 under the jurisdiction of the Director General of Manpower. While policy was devised by the Commonwealth Government, the organisation of the AWLA remained State-based. An extensive recruiting campaign was undertaken for new members. Most members of the existing land armies were later incorporated into the AWLA as well.

land army

The AWLA was planned to function in two divisions:

  • Full-time members: These enrolled for continuous service for 12 months (with the option of renewal); such members were to receive appropriate badges, distinctive dress uniform, working clothes, and equipment.
  • Auxiliary members: These were available for periods of not less than four weeks at nominated times of the year; such members were to be used for seasonal rural operations, and to receive a badge, working clothes, and essential equipment on loan.

Recruits had to be between 18 and 50 years of age and be British subjects or immigrants from Allied nations. Women on the land who were farmers, employees or relatives of land holders were not eligible to enlist.

AWLA women were generally drawn from city areas and were often unskilled in rural work. This new form of labour had to be heavily promoted to rural employees, who were initially resistant to female labour. Sceptical attitudes, however, generally changed to praise and respect.

A group of personnel of the Australian Womens Land Army Service attached to an anti aircraft unit in Melbourne in October 1942
Photo: A group of personnel of the Australian Women's Land Army Service attached to an anti-aircraft unit in Melbourne in October 1942.

Enrolment numbers peaked in December 1943, with 2,382 permanent members and 1,039 auxiliary members. The average working week for an AWLA member was 48 hours, with pay starting at the AWLA minimum wage of 30 shillings a week. Permanent members were also entitled to sick pay, as was common at the time. Women in the AWLA were paid much less than their male counterparts for the same work, which covered a variety of agricultural labours, such as vegetable and fruit growing, pig and poultry raising, and sheep and wool work.

land army women

The AWLA was disbanded on 31 December 1945. In 1997, many members became eligible for the Civilian Service Medal, after a Committee of Enquiry recommendation in 1994.