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A female member of No. 75 Squadron RAAF in 2008

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 reestablished in 1950 as part of the military's permanent structure. Women were integrated into the services during the late 1970s and early 1980s and can now serve in most positions in the Australian Defence Force (ADF), including combat roles.


Separate branches

Female service in the Australian military began in 1899 when the Army Nursing Service was formed as part of the New South Wales colonial military forces. Army nurses formed part of the Australian contribution to the Boer War, and their success led to the formation of the Australian Army Nursing Reserve in 1902. More than 2000 members of the Australian Army Nursing Service (AANS) served overseas during World War I as part of the Australian Imperial Force. At the end of the war the AANS returned to its pre-war reserve status.[1] In addition to the military nurses, a small group of civilian nurses dubbed the "Bluebirds" were recruited by the Australian Red Cross Society and served in French hospitals.[2]

The leaders of the female branches of the military in 1942

Australian women played a larger role in World War II. Many women wanted to play an active role, and hundreds of voluntary women's auxiliary and paramilitary organisations had been formed by 1940. These included the Women's Transport Corps, Women's Flying Club, Women's Emergency Signalling Corps and Women's Australian National Services.[3] In Brisbane alone there were six different organisations providing women with war-related training in July 1940, the largest of which was the Queensland-based Women's National Emergency Legion.[4] The Federal Government and military did not initially support women being trained to serve in the armed forces, however, and these organisations were not taken seriously by the general public.[3] A shortage of male recruits forced the military to establish female branches in 1941 and 1942. The RAAF established the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force (WAAAF) in March 1941, the Army formed the Australian Women's Army Service (AWAS) in October 1941 and the Australian Army Medical Women's Service in December 1942 and the Women's Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) came into being in July 1942.[1] In 1944 almost 50,000 women were serving in the military and thousands more had joined the civilian Australian Women's Land Army (AWLA). Many of these women were trained to undertake skilled work in traditionally male occupations in order to free servicemen for operational service.[3] Women were also encouraged to work in industry and volunteer for air raid precautions duties or clubs for Australian and Allied servicemen.[5] The female branches of the military were disbanded after the war.[1]

Manpower shortages during the Korean War led to the permanent establishment of female branches of the military. In 1951 the WRANS was reformed and the Army and Air Force established the Women's Australian Army Corps (WAAC) and Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) respectively.[1] The proportion of women in the services was initially limited to four percent of their strength, though this was ignored by the RAAF.[6] The quota was lifted to 10 percent in the RAAF and RAN during the 1960s and 1970s while the Army recruited only on a replacement basis.[7]


Male and female soldiers on board HMAS Tobruk in 2008

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.[1][7] 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.[1]

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. As a result of personnel shortages in the late 1980s the restriction against women in combat-related positions was dropped in 1990, and women were for the first time allowed to serve in warships, RAAF combat squadrons and many positions in the Army. Women were banned from positions involving physical combat, however, and were unable to serve in infantry, armoured, artillery and engineering units in the Army and clearance diving and ground defence positions in the RAN and RAAF respectively.[7]

The ADF was not sufficiently prepared for integrating women into all units. Integration was hindered by entrenched discriminatory attitudes, sexual harassment and a perception that less demanding standards were applied to women.[1] This led to a number of scandals, including allegations of sexual harassment on board HMAS Swan, and the RAN's mishandling of these complaints.[7] These scandals did great harm to the ADF's reputation at the time when it most needed servicewomen.[1] The Defence Equality Organisation was established in 1997 in response to these problems, and it developed frameworks to facilitate the acceptance of women throughout the ADF.[8]

Wing Commander Linda Corbould, the first woman to command a Royal Australian Air Force flying squadron.

Women have formed part of ADF deployments around the world since the early 1990s. Female sailors were sent into a combat zone for the first time on board HMAS Westralia in 1991, 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.[9] Women also began to be promoted to command units in the late 1990s, and Air Commodore Julie Hammer became the first woman to reach one-star rank in 2000.[10]

Female Australian soldiers in Afghanistan

In 2001, the Royal Australian Navy allowed female clearance divers for the first time.[11]

Despite the expansion in the number of positions available to women, there has been only limited growth in the percentage of female permanent defence personnel. In the 1989–1990 financial year women filled 11.4% of permanent ADF positions. In the 2005–2006 financial year women occupied 13.3% of permanent positions and 15.6% of reserve positions. During the same period the proportion of civilian positions filled by women in the Australian Defence Organisation increased from 30.8% to 40.3%.[12] The percentage of female members of the Australian labour force increased from approximately 41% to 45% between June 1989 and June 2006.[13] In 2008 defence minister, Joel Fitzgibbon instructed the ADF to place a greater emphasis on recruiting women and addressing barriers to women being promoted to senior roles.[14][15]

On 27 September 2011, Defence Minister Stephen Smith announced that women will be allowed to serve in frontline combat roles by 2016.[16] Women became able to apply for all positions other than special forces roles in the Army on 1 January 2013; it is planned that this remaining restriction will be removed in 2014 once the physical standards required for service in these units are determined. Women will be directly recruited into all frontline combat positions from late 2016.[17]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Dennis et al. (2008), p. 605.
  2. Hetherington, Les (January 2009). "The Bluebirds in France". pp. pp. 58–60. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Darian-Smith (1996), p. 62.
  4. "Women's War Effort". Brisbane, Qld.: National Library of Australia. 1 July 1940. p. 4. Retrieved 26 April 2011. 
  5. Darian-Smith (1996), pp. 62–63.
  6. Horner (2001), pp. 321–324.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Horner (2001), p. 324.
  8. Horner (2001), p. 325.
  9. Horner (2001), p. 326.
  10. Horner (2001), pp. 325–326.
  11. Women in the Royal Australian Navy
  12. Khosa (2004). Page 52 and Australian Department of Defence (2006). 2005–06 Defence Annual Report. Page 281.
  13. Australian Bureau of Statistics Labour Force, Australia.
  14. Allard, Tom (2008-03-24). "Women, your armed forces need you". The Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved 2008-03-24. 
  15. "Plan to put women in combat roles". 2008-03-02. Archived from the original on 2012-12-03. Retrieved 2008-03-23. 
  16. "Women cleared to serve in combat". ABC News. 27 September 2011. 
  17. "Lifting of gender restrictions in the Australian Defence Force". Media release. Department of Defence. 1 February 2013. Retrieved 3 February 2013. 


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