“Not Just a Maid in a White Man’s House”: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Women in the Australian Defense Services in WWII

Friday, January 5, 2018: 9:10 AM
Columbia 8 (Washington Hilton)
Allison Cadzow, Australian National University
‘…Not just a maid in a white man’s house’[i]: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women’s in the Australian defence services in WW2

Allison Cadzow, ANU, Canberra

Though not widely recognised for it, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women served in the Women’s Royal Australian Air Force, Women’s Royal Australian Navy and Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps during WW2. Their history slips between the cracks, neither covered in women’s defence services histories which give an impression of all white service, nor in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander defence histories, where men’s histories of active service tend to be foregrounded. Drawing upon oral histories, photographs and records of Aboriginal ex-service women this paper will explore the gendered experiences and significance of the women’s service in their lives and the impacts on their communities. For some, joining the services was a means of escaping Aboriginal Welfare Board surveillance and institutions such as children’s homes. For Kathleen Ruska later Kath Walker/Oodgeroo Noonuccal, seeking opportunities beyond domestic service and receiving training and education access otherwise denied to many Aboriginal men and women was central. The prominent activist, poet and elder saw her experiences in the services as significant to her developing politicisation and activism. For others, the relative financial independence was important to them asserting their agency within marriage and life lessons especially around sexuality and romance were prominent in their accounts too. The emotional work women did in supporting male colleagues and family members, being perceived in gendered ways as ‘carers and listeners’ will also be discussed. The paper will consider how the women have represented their service, the significance of it and how the representational possibilities for expressing their identity as Aboriginal women and their histories has shifted over time.

[i] Kathleen Ruska oral history in Robert Hall, 1995 ‘Fighters from the Fringe’.

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