Doing Our Bit: New Zealand Women Tell Their Stories of World War Two
ed Jim Sullivan
High Flyers: Celebrating the Extraordinary Women of the RNZAF 1977-2002
Being in the military is symbolically considered to be the ultimate way for women to get on an equal footing with men. These two books present profiles of women in a man’s world – during World War 2, and then during the past 25 years in the RNZAF. They make a contribution to the popular area of women, war and the military.
Collected by Jim Sullivan, Doing Our Bit comprises 50 personal testimonies, short and pithy, that appear in alphabetical order. This is a book about those who “worked to win the war” through their participation in nursing and the women’s auxiliary services. Although this small group of women was able to make an inroad into technological occupations previously reserved for men, most of the work done was still “women’s work”. As one ex-nurse recalls, “There was no glamour in getting bedpans and carting food around.”
Doing Our Bit reads as the story of a cohort of young women catapulted into a world at war. By accident of birth, the war provided the defining moment for the move into adulthood, often shaping their lives to follow. Now that these women are in their twilight years, how does hindsight affect their memories of VJ Day, VE Day, adventure and travels? For one Tui, a defining moment was making sandwiches in Egypt with New Zealand ham and butter and local chickens.
Are these women able to say more as they get older? On relationships, one woman recalls that the only man she ever truly loved was killed before she met her future husband. Another discusses her failed marriage and her view that her husband was intimidated because she was more a part of the war than he was. Opinions on moral issues have altered considerably since World War 2, leading to diverse recollections of wartime pregnancy.
There are recollections of traumatic experiences involving grief and loss, with the death of friends and family still repressed or considered indescribable. Some testimonies recall the terrible state of prisoners of war, some of whom the women married. Amid such pain and suffering, romance and marriage were to the fore. Notwithstanding the story of the nurse who married an already married man and had to give evidence at the bigamy trial, the reputation of New Zealand servicemen has fared well over the years. There are recollections of “good fellows”, and “real gentlemen”. In contrast, one woman who was a nurse recalls that the New Zealand men found it easier to talk to German prisoners of war than Kiwi nurses, because “they hadn’t been with a girl for years and they couldn’t relate to us”.
Compiled by ex-Air Force insider Bee Dawson, the profiles in High Flyers are to mark the 25th anniversary of the integration of women into the RNZAF. Until 1977, women were segregated in the Women’s Royal New Zealand Air Force. Whereas by the end of World War 2 women could choose from 39 trades, by 1971 it had shrunk to 16, only three of which were technically orientated. After 1977, gender differences and inequalities remained. In 1980, most Air Force women were personal assistants; they had to be single to enlist; and they were expected to leave the service when they married. It was not until 1980 that the first women began to train through the University Cadet Scheme.
High Flyers does not provide an in-depth analysis of structural change. There are some minimal statistics tucked away at the back of the book, but, overall, it reads as a public relations and recruiting exercise featuring “attractive, warm, funny and vibrant women, all exceptionally down to earth, extraordinarily competent and enthusiastic about their careers”. It does reinforce how far women have come – especially in their careers, and also in their family lives. Like the women in Doing Our Bit, much space is spent recalling career highlights and exciting travel.
Overall, the picture is of increasing status, and participation in an ever-wider range of areas. There is a huge selection represented in the pages, from the macho fighter pilot, helicopter pilot, engineer, and navigator, to the mundane but essential clerk typist, secretarial officer and flight steward, to the unexpected royal escort, dog handler and kapa haka performer. Behind this diverse job-mix is a sexist undercurrent of having to campaign to wear trousers, of marriages across the divide of commissioned rank (forbidden until the late 1980s), and of the constant need to push for equal opportunity.
In contrast, the women’s words on how to survive and succeed emphasise individualism and “leaving behind the girlie stuff”. There are statements such as “If a woman finds it difficult to fit in, it’s likely to be as much a function of her personality or interests as the fact she’s female”, and “gender doesn’t come into it”, and, on being the only woman commander and first woman captain, “I can honestly say I never stopped to think about it”. One exception is Viti Flanagan, a part-Fijian, part-Maori and part-European aircraft technician, who joined the RNZAF in 1983. She boldly states that
People thought that you were just there to find a husband, or that if you didn’t have a boyfriend you were a lesbian because you wanted to work in such a male-dominated environment. And the older blokes either treated me like a daughter or appeared to regard me as a possible conquest. A few just accepted me.
Unlike the women in Doing Our Bit, who joined up to win the war, the women in High Flyers joined the Air Force as a career opportunity. The Air Force’s first woman pilot, Angie Dickinson, is now a pilot with Cathay Pacific. Ironically, just as women are finally able to engage in combat, New Zealand no longer maintains a strike force. Coincidence or feminisation?
Katie Pickles is a Christchurch historian.