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Australian women before the War were quiet, polite and modest.

In the 1920s, women suddenly appeared sporting short skirts, short hairstyles, smoking, swearing and riding motorcycles.

Where had this new Australian woman come from? Once the soldiers had packed their sacks and hopped on the ships to fight the War in Europe, women emerged from their houses to fill the jobs left empty in support of the armed forces at home and abroad.

The movement from house to workforce which was made by many (but not all) Australian women, led to the birth of the new woman of the 1920s. Liberated by her experiences in the war, women worked and lived in the manner men had enjoyed for decades.

But her liberation was not total - although women were working, they were working for half the pay men received, and though women could leave the house to pursue a career, society frowned upon women who did not complete their duty as mother and housekeeper. The older generations were more than a little confused by the lifestyles of the new, young and restless ladies.

Working Woman - Women's Role in the War and the Workforce

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When women moved into the paid workforce they left the home, the traditional realm of women's activities. So grew the separation between home and work.

The War provided women with the opportunity to depart from their traditional roles into new and challenging jobs usually occupied by men. World War I resulted in a particularly high proportion of women, both single and married, in jobs outside the home.

With the end of the War and the return of the soldiers to the workforce, women were not ousted from their jobs as they worked as efficiently as men and were paid less. In 1928, the average male wage was 10 40s (shilling) a day whereas the average female wage was 8 80s. Employers found few incentives to employ men once a woman had been employed.

The occupations taken by women included factory and domestic work, nursing, teaching, clerical, secretarial and typing in offices, and shop assisting. Although women did complete some vocational training courses, university studies and higher education were still largely limited to men.
It was during the 1920s that women appeared on the political scene. Politician Ms M. Preston Stanley wrote a column in The Sydney Daily Telegraph called 'A Woman to Women'. She openly confronted male arrogance and encouraged women towards independence, writing, 'Adam is a notoriously egocentric fellow who, with some honourable exceptions, believes that the universe was made for him and his sons, and that Eve and her daughters are people of a lesser growth, with a lower destiny'.

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In March 1921, Edith Cowan of Western Australia was the first woman elected to an Australian parliament. Her portrait is on the Australian fifty dollar bill.

What little pay women did receive for their work and what jobs women could acquire in the workforce gave them enough financial independence to become more confident in social and personal relationships.

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The 1920s brought a new set of social values and norms. The restrictions of the War years were cast aside in favour of new freedoms. Emboldened by her invasion of the male-dominated workplace, women, with little encouragement, turned to fashion to express themselves. The women of the 1920s were called 'flappers'. They cut their hair short in the 'Eton style'. Dresses were lighter and brighter, and backless dresses received special attention. Skirt lengths were shortened to knee-length revealing enough leg to be controversial. And the effect of leg was exploited; appearing nude or covered by a tight-fitting seamed stocking. The effect on public opinion was like the navel-baring trend of pop stars such as Britney Spears in the late 1990s.

Make-up and lipstick found their way onto women's faces. Women also smoked cigarettes, drank alcohol, swore and expressed well-informed opinions on all topics of the day among men in public, challenging the social norm. Women were even going to the beach in 'revealing' bathing costumes. An appreciation of the female form received national attention when in 1926 the first Miss Australia Quest was held. The winner was 19-year-old Beryl Mills from Geraldton, Western Australia.

Not all Australians fully appreciated the assertive 1920s woman. The older generation, who were called 'wowsers', thought new fashions and attitudes were sinful.

Taken from the Freeman's Journal published in Ireland in March 1925, the disgust at the 'modern' lack of morals is clear:

'Modern ideas, modern dress, modern plays, motion pictures, modern conversation and many other modern dangers seems to be sapping the purity of mind of our girlhood... a generation ago the lowest of the slum frequenting would be ashamed to be seen smoking in public, yet today even some Catholic and convent- bred girls have no compunction about a 'whiff in public'. Who a generation ago had ever seen a girl or woman taking intoxicating liquors?'

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A short limerick published in the New Triad in Sydney in July 1928 echoes a similar sentiment:

'Half an inch, half an inch, half an inch shorter,
The skirts are the same for mother and daughter,
When the wind blows each of them shows,
Half an inch, half an inch, more than she oughter'

By comparison with other countries, Australian women of the 1920s enjoyed more freedoms, privileges and rights. For example, in Britain it was only in 1928 that women were awarded the right to vote in national elections whereas Australian women had been voting in federal elections in 1901.

Women were expressing themselves in new fashions and adopting new trends but most of society and politics were still dominated by men. Women wore shorter skirts but still bound their chests tightly to create a more masculine appearance. It is important to recognise that although women in the 1920s enjoyed some newfound freedoms, their roles in society were not completely independent from their male counterparts.

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And then there was the electric iron. Innovations made in domestic technology reduced the time-consuming labour involved in cleaning and maintaining a household. Hot water was now available from taps, the gas stove became common, carpets and vacuum cleaners appeared in houses, the refrigerator ensured fresh food would stay fresh and the washing machine and electric iron made cleaning and pressing clothes an easier process.

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With the emergence of new products into the world market came a barrage of advertising. Targeting women, advertisers redefined the role of women in the household. Although many women were engaged in the workforce, there appeared the nagging and constant reminder of her place in the home, doing the housework with all her new appliances. Nevertheless, comic strips such as 'Ginger Meggs' and 'The Potts' joked about the matriarchal control which wives and mothers imposed on men in the home.

The lowly electric iron and the persuasive advertising which accompanied it ensured that social conventions were made more rigid, gender division intensified and equality would not be found easily.

If a woman chose to work during her marriage it was looked upon as an act of desperation. The cost of living was high and few people could own a home and keep up with the new lifestyle which required its large array of domestic gadgets.

Divorce became the catchword of the decade. Divorce had increased among women now finding financial and emotional independence. Even women who had never been married were claiming that they were 'divorced'. But life was not easy for a single woman who soon became the object of social criticism. 'Companionate marriage' became popular. A man and a woman would live together in an 'experimental way,' intending to marry one another but not yet having tied the knot.

There was no sudden revolution which found women on an equal footing as men in the workplace and society. Rights, freedoms and privileges were received gradually and much time passed between gaining a right and its acceptance in wider society. The convention remained that women chose family and home over career and work.

Chapters: Soldiers Women Workers

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Question 1/5

1. How much did women get paid?

Half the wage of a man

One quarter the wage of a man

Nothing - men took their money

Equal to the wage of a man


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