The Eastern Institute of Technology and Flinders University, Australia, are researching women teachers as volunteers in Egypt and Europe and those who kept schools open at home.
This research focuses upon Australian and New Zealand women teachers’ work on their respective home fronts and their work as volunteers abroad during the First World War. Both sets of efforts do not appear within historical accounts of the war yet as will be argued, the wide-ranging contributions of women teachers provided opportunities for women teachers at home and abroad to exercise unprecedented levels of professional and personal autonomy.
At home in Australia and New Zealand women teachers supported the war effort in schools, and responsibility was devolved to them in determining what and how children should be taught about and incorporated into the war effort. This included establishing Children’s Guilds, training school cadets and in the case of senior girls, facilitating student labour on farms and orchards.
Women teachers also organised fundraising through the Children’s Patriotic Fund and supported local community initiatives such as through the Red Cross and the Women’s Patriotic Association. Many women teachers were also Pacifists, advocating for peace through the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. For German women teachers in both countries and for others teaching in Australian German communities and schools, there were specific ‘problem’ issues to be overcome.
In 1918, women teachers took on an additional load in nursing and supporting school families as the impact of the Influenza epidemic took hold. The work of women teachers generally during the war prompted teacher union membership and advocacy for women taking up more senior positions vacated by men and higher pay. At a personal level women teachers experienced post-war legacies such as loss of family members, the availability of marriage partners, incapacitated husbands and some having to relinquish teaching positions as male teachers returned home.
There were also single and married women teachers, including headmistresses, who left their teaching positions and went to England or the Middle East to work as war volunteers. Such efforts were not encouraged by war office personnel who believed women should remain at home undertaking practical work to support overseas troops or fill jobs vacated by men serving overseas.
Therefore women teachers, as an economically independent educated professional group were the cause of some anxiety for war contingent associations. By self-funding and travelling independently women teachers circumvented the regulations and sailed off, joining English women’s VAD corps upon arrival in London. Here some also worked for the British Dominion Women’s Suffrage Organisation, enfranchisement for women having already been won in Australia and New Zealand.
At a personal level women teachers experienced post-war legacies such as loss of family members, the availability of marriage partners, incapacitated husbands and some having to relinquish teaching positions as male teachers returned home. After experiencing new levels of responsibility, women teachers mostly returned to their original jobs and were relegated to subordinate positions. However, some were able to use their wartime experiences (mainly overseas) to consolidate their careers.
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