2001 ASSLH conference – But who’ll get Ted’s lunch?

Julie Tolley
Honours Student, University of South Australia


I have identified three focal points for my honours research: an historical examination of munition sites in South Australia, interviews with women who were munitions workers during World War II, and a textual analysis of wartime and postwar issues of the Australian Women’s Weekly. I will interview five women who worked in munitions factories in South Australia during World War II, to discuss what work they did, how they felt about their wartime jobs and their feelings about their lives after the war. Anecdotes suggest that magazines, in particular, the Australian Women’s Weekly, were a strong influence in the re-orientation of these women.


A significant contribution to the war effort in World War II was made by thousands of women in over a dozen munitions factories in South Australia between 1941 and 1945.1 My research is concerned with their wartime and post- war experiences, and the influences that led them to decide what activities to take up when the factories closed. In broad terms, my thesis has a Cultural Studies and hence a multi-disciplinary orientation, with historical, as well as sociological aspects. It also shares some of the concerns of feminist researchers. The thesis has three focal points: the first will be a brief history and outline of South Australian munitions factories in World War II, the second will be interviews with former munitions workers, and the third will be concerned with a textual analysis of wartime and post- war issues of the Australian Women’s Weekly.

Preliminary research suggests there is little information in print about South Australian munitions sites in the country towns of Port Pirie, Kapunda, Moonta, Clare, Murray Bridge and Mt Gambier, and the Adelaide suburbs of Kilburn, Salisbury, Finsbury, Hendon, Woodville and Prospect. Data about the factories in South Australia, and the work that was done in them, is scattered and fragmented, and the narrative has yet to be written that collates and confirms this information. Morton’s monograph, The Fire in the Desert, is primarily about Woomera, but has a chapter relating to the large munitions factory built on 2200 hectares at Penfield (now Salisbury) .2 Details are given of the types of work done on the site during the war and the uses the buildings were put to after the war. Adam-Smith also describes the work done at Penfield.3

Clarrie Bell, a local South Australian historian wrote a small pamphlet about the 39th reunion in 1989 of workers at the Hendon munitions factory, which operated from 1941 to 1945. He talked with several women, and discussed their work in the factory, but not their post-war activities.4 Helen Crisp’s report was written in 1941, while she was Women’s Welfare Officer in the Hendon munitions factory. It includes information about the previous occupations of the workers, but does not address their intentions after the war.5 In different ways, Morton, Adam-Smith, Bell and Crisp, give accounts of munitions work, but they do not examine the factors that determined the activities of the munitions workers after the war, a theme on which I will focus my interviews.

The second focal point of my research will be interviews with former munitions workers, to bring their recollections and experiences into the public arena. The voices of these workers have barely been heard. Among the very few published accounts of the experiences of the women munitions workers, are scattered newspaper reports of their reunions. At a party to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Penfield munitions factory, several women talked about the difficult and dangerous work they did.6 In 1995, an article in the Murray Valley Standard described the work done at the munitions factory at Murray Bridge.7 I have contacted members of community groups such as local historical societies, and librarians who live in the towns where the munitions factories were established. They have provided me with the names of women enthusiastic about being interviewed. By interviewing munitions workers and bringing into view their personal experiences, there is the possibility of adding to existing knowledge.

The third focal point of the research will be a textual analysis of the Australian Women’s Weekly. Several authors have examined the Weekly , which was reputedly the most influential of the women’s magazines of the period. Bonney and Wilson, and also Wright, discuss examples of persuasive writing in advertisements and editorial material in the Weekly during World War II, designed to overcome the reluctance of women to take part in war-related activities.8 However, they provide much less evidence for their contention that the magazine was equally effective in persuading women to take up home duties after the war.

O’Brien examines the Australian Women’s Weekly during and after the war years, but his primary concern relates to changes in editorial policy, staff activities and appointments. Although some details of developments in editorial content are included, these are neither comprehensive, nor adequately documented.9 The Simmon’s thesis, “Concept of Woman in the Australian Women’s Weekly”, while making a relevant analysis of the magazine’s content, does not cover 1940-1950, the years with which I am concerned.10

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Australian Women’s Weekly was as influential persuading women to take up household duties after the war, as it had been in persuading women to take an active role in the war effort. I have begun to examine copies of the Australian Women’s Weekly. obtained from second-hand shops and donations, and to consult the microfiche collection and Susan Sheridan’s index at Flinders University.

Examination of wartime copies of the Australian Women’s Weekly has revealed many stories, advertisements, photographs and articles about women doing war work. The messages in the post-war issues extolling the advantages of being married, having a family, and being a housewife, are not as explicit as the earlier messages persuading women to take up war work. A Lifebuoy soap advertisement in a 1943 issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly is headed, “What is May’s ‘secret weapon’?” Shown in her job as a munitions worker, May exclaims that, “Life in the factory is great!” though it is harder than her pre-war job, for, “the hand that fills the shells rules the world today!” In the main illustration of the advertisement, May smiles directly at the female reader, and, in spite of her arduous and no doubt dirty war-work, looks reassuringly feminine, with her lipstick, eyeliner and mascara and her coiffed hair held in an attractive beret. Her “secret weapon”, of course, is the soap, which prevents the dreaded “B.O.” Material of this kind, published by the Weekly, was designed to support the war effort, by persuading Australian women to participate in war work, and allaying any fears about loss of femininity or reluctance to do men’s work and take part in the war effort.11

Special Federal legislation was passed in 1942, which allowed women to carry out men’s work during the war, for example as tram conductors, and delivering milk or ice, instead of the caring and nurturing roles traditionally allocated to women. It also allowed women to work in the newly created munitions factories, where they did heavy, dirty, repetitive and sometimes dangerous work, which challenged the traditional notions of femininity. By 1944, the conscription of women for war work had been introduced, and the editorial staff of the Weekly were aware of the need to make compulsory participation more acceptable, as may be seen in an article published in 1944 in which the “Manpower [Department] answers ten questions on the call-up of women.”12 But the new forms of employment were always intended to be temporary, as may be seen in the editorial in the same issue, which called for social reforms after the war “so that women may fulfil their true destiny of motherhood without the doubts and difficulties that now beset them.”13

An advertisement for Ponds cosmetics that appeared in the magazine in 1945 shows a stereotypical pretty and well- groomed young woman who looks directly at the reader while being fervently kissed on the cheek by a young man in an RAAF uniform. She is a full-time war worker, though not in munitions, and “For her husband in uniform, she’s safeguarding her beauty” by using Ponds products.14 Women whose responsibility it was to keep themselves pretty for their men, can be found occasionally in the Weekly in the early years of the war, but they appeared much more frequently as the end of the war approached, signifying a re-assertion of the traditional values of family and home.

My research will analyse the advertising and editorial content of the Australian Women’s Weekly from 1939-50. I will seek to identify and compare persuasive material published in the early years of the war, and the changes that occurred in the last months and immediately after the war, which were designed to re-establish traditional values. In summary, the three focal points of my research will be a brief history of munitions factories in South Australia, interviews with former munitions workers, and a textual analysis of wartime and post-war issues of the Australian Women’s Weekly.

The second part of this paper is concerned with establishing a theoretical framework for the oral history, the most significant component of the research. Tuchman writes, “We all live history…we live out the assumptions of our epoque in the most mundane aspects of our daily lives.”15 Constructing the narrative of people’s lives can reveal disparities in the belief systems and attitudes of different generations; it may result in “facts” about the life of the researched being hidden, deliberately or inadvertently, as other matters are pushed to the foreground of recollection.16

In the context of my thesis, an unexpected pregnancy at the end of the war might be strong motivation for a woman to turn to marriage and set up a home. In an interview, however, it might also be a reason that she will want to conceal, perhaps to avoid causing embarrassment or conflict in her family. She may be reluctant to discuss the social imperatives that led her to decide upon marriage, which might include the religious and moral views of her parents. It will be important to reassure the participant that the interview will be strictly confidential, and her responses will not be able to be attributed to a specific individual.

The researcher’s role is complex. In conducting oral history, the researcher, rather than the respondent, owns the project. Writing in the context of oral histories of women doing production line work in factories, Glucksmann points out that the researcher designs the questions, interprets the responses, assembles the data, and writes the discourse.17 Care must be taken to avoid constructing and editing the interviews in such a way that they substantiate the researcher’s theories, rather than reflecting the experiences of the respondents.

Tuchman states that the assumptions of an era are implicit in a variety of texts, including documentary texts (encompassing writings, screen productions and still images of all kinds) as well as lived experiences, which are also deemed to be “texts”. This multiplicity of texts leads to many-faceted interpretations, of which any may be valid, but none can be held to represent the truth.18 Scott maintains that the historian’s discourse, like that of social scientists and others, is an assembled text reflecting its era. History is constructed by historians; it both reveals and creates relations of power. The selections, interpretations and evaluations are “not objective criteria but politically produced conventions.”19

My project deals with these social and historical concerns, as well as feminist issues. Stanko defines feminist research as listening to the voices of women, speaking from varied contexts, about common themes.20 Purvis states that “finding out about women’s daily experiences and, therefore, where possible, finding women’s own words in the past is a critical aspect of ‘feminist’ research.”21 For Kelly, the purpose of feminism is to “understand women’s oppression in order that we might end it”.22 Skeggs discusses the various influences on feminist research and established knowledge.23

She points out that feminist research is influenced and shaped by the institutional or academic location of the researcher, as well as by those factors that determine her personal standpoint, such as social and economic positioning, as well as gender, class and age.24 Skeggs advises feminist researchers that, when constructing a narrative by listening to voices that have been silent or ignored, they must take account of the paradigms of established knowledge in their disciplines.25 Ribbens and Edwards argue that research projects concerned with the experiences of women tend to fall between the dominant classification systems of public knowledge, or to become marginalised within disciplines that are still dominated by male ways of thinking and perceiving.26 They insist that high standards of reflexivity and openness are essential for academic survival.27

The suppression of women’s voices in the past may be considered a form of oppression. Little has been written about the munitions workers and their contribution to the war effort, and that gives a hint that there may be elements of oppression. The voices of the thousands of female munitions workers have not been heard. These women were persuaded to take up what were previously men’s tasks. They often worked for twelve hour shifts, they suffered poor working conditions, they handled dangerous and toxic explosives,28 and they received only 65% of men’s pay.29 One of the aims of this research is to investigate the women’s feelings and attitudes about their munitions work. In 1991 at a reunion of munitions workers, a former employee said, “We got very little for our work and never received any thanks, but I think we were really quite happy….just getting on with the job.”30 But not everyone was as tolerant of the conditions and the outlook for women. Writing in 1943 about the prospects of women war workers after the war, Bayne warns that Australia “cannot afford a submerged half of females, a subject race within its borders.”31

In an interview, the differences in the positioning of the researcher and the participant can influence the outcome, and several authors have discussed the problems associated with interviewing. Wolf states that for feminists, the dilemmas of fieldwork revolve around power, challenging the underlying tenets of their beliefs, such as the ideal of power equalisation between researcher and researched.32 Phoenix asserts that power relationships between the researcher and the respondent can be seen in differences of race, nationality, sexuality and gender.33 Glucksmann points out that power inequalities may also result from “division of knowledge”. It is likely that the researcher is more highly educated than the respondent.34 Matsumoto warns that the researcher must be aware of inequalities of social standing and privilege.35

Power imbalance caused by race, nationality, sexuality, or gender is unlikely to affect this project, but factors such as social inequality and differences in educational background or age, may make the research more complex. As Phoenix suggests, the nature and extent of the information acquired will be affected by the relationship built up between the researched and the researcher, and by their life experiences.36 Before the interviewing for my project has begun, there are already indications of a power differential, between the prospective respondents and myself. In a telephone conversation, a prospective participant said that she was worried about “giving wrong answers”.37 This seemed to indicate that the respondent was a little over-awed by the prospect of being interviewed. It appeared that we were already in an unequal power relationship. There may be further reasons for the timidity expressed, and it is crucial that the interviewer is sensitive to these concerns as far as possible. The respondents’ expectations, which cannot always be predicted, may affect the research relationship. Phoenix recounts her experience of a negative reaction from both white and black respondents on first meeting her, a black researcher.38 One of my prospective participants expressed surprise when she met me, and found that I was not the stereotypical young university student she had heard in a previous telephone conversation.39

It may be necessary in my interviews to deal with difficult circumstances. Research can be impeded, and the rapport disrupted, by the presence or actions of family members or friends, who may want to influence the interview, or whose proximity may inhibit the respondent. Phoenix describes an occasion when the parents impeded her interview with a young mother because it was feared that it might reflect badly on the family’s life.40 Glucksmann recounts a frustrating experience as an interviewer, when the husband of a participant sat in the room with his head hidden by a newspaper, silent but nonetheless influencing the interview.41 These research experiences indicate the complexity of the interview process, and of the collection, collating and interpretation of the responses. It is evident that both Phoenix and Glucksmann preferred interviews that were free from overt external influences. However, in the examples given, it may be assumed that, whether the parents or husband of the respondents were present or not, their attitudes would have been instrumental in the formulation of the values and beliefs of the interviewees. The researcher’s representations of the experiences of the researched need to be examined to identify the power relationships they embody. Ribbens and Edwards argue that the role of the researcher as mediator evokes its own dilemmas. The voices of the participants cannot be heard without her intervention as interpreter. Inescapably, this places the researcher at the centre of the research account, and the relationship of researcher and researched devolves inevitably into exploitation.42

Maynard notes that feminists have established an orthodox methodology by turning away from quantitative methods, which are perceived as a specifically masculine approach to research. But the favoured qualitative techniques are not specifically feminist, and have their own history apart from feminism. Feminists have appropriated and modified these methods, but they did not create them. Moreover, there is a growing belief that the polarisation of the quantitative and qualitative methods have impoverished research practice.43 Interviews can be used to elicit information, but Kelly, Burton and Regan maintain that using questionnaires is a more reliable way of collecting data, because it removes the personal contact and provides anonymity, so allowing respondents the freedom to disclose uncomfortable experiences.44

A compromise might be reached in a semi-structured interview by using a set of prepared questions to orient and focus the interview. The respondents could be asked what they think the questions mean, and how they might be re-framed, thus giving them the opportunity to make more complex and richer responses. Oakley questions the traditional format of the interview and reveals the difficulty of balancing the degree of friendship between the researcher and the interviewee: “be friendly, but not too friendly.”45 She also suggests some guidelines for obtaining reliable and valuable information without the researched feeling they are merely sources of data.46

The term “empowerment” has been used by Kelly, Burton and Regan, who suggest that while feminist researchers are engaged in the process of discovering and understanding the viewpoints of their respondents,47 they are also responsible for attempting to create change by empowering the participants, thereby altering women’s lives for the better.48 My project will involve research into aspects of munitions workers’ lives, although it is questionable whether it will lead to empowerment as described by Kelly.49 The proposed interviews are not likely to have any considerable direct effect on the respondents, nor to change their lives substantially. However, as Opie suggests, the respondents may be empowered by becoming aware of their contribution to the investigation in helping to increase the visibility of a social issue, and also by the therapeutic effect of being able to reflect upon and re-evaluate their experience.50 However, Maynard is less confident that benefits to the individual will be derived from the direct experience of the interview. She suggests that although the individual may not gain much empowerment or enlightenment from the experience of being interviewed and recalling the early years, much might be gained from the group experience gained by reading the thesis, and learning about the experiences of others.51

A variety of information sources have been used in my investigations of munitions factory sites, including Federal legislation, the National Archives of Australia,52 the Mihilist database,53 the Internet, and several theses. Three art exhibitions contained images of women working in non-traditional occupations, including munitions. An exhibition relating to World War II, and another of works of Australian women artists, contained paintings of women working in munitions factories. A photography exhibition showed women in non-traditional occupations such as welding, and car mechanics.54 It is hoped that the collected knowledge can be evaluated with a view to its use in the wider community, that is, away from the research world of academia. For instance, articles could be published in local newspapers and magazines and oral histories deposited in State libraries. There is potential for a film or video documentary, and publishing on the Internet. As a result, the experiences of the munitions workers will be much more widely known and acknowledged.


1 Morton 1989, p. 45
2 Ibid., p. 44
3 Adam-Smith 1984
4 Bell 1989, p. 5
5 Crisp 1941
6 Koleff 1991
7 Several women who were interviewed talked about making bullets and shells. See “Murray Bridge made the bullets”.
8 Bonney and Wilson 1983; Wright 1973
9 O’Brien 1982
10 Simmons 1972
11 Australian Womens Weekly (AWW) March 27 1943, p. 14
12 See “Manpower answers the questions”, AWW March 25 1944, p. 13
13 See Falling Birthrate”., AWW March 25 1944., p. 14
14 AWW April 21 1945, p. 31
15 Tuchman 1994, p. 313
16 Tuchman 1994, p 315
17 Glucksmann 1994, p. 154
18 Tuchman 1994, p. 316
19 Scott 1989, p. 683
20 Stanko 1994, p. 96
21 Purvis 1994, p. 167
22 Kelly 1988, p. 12
23 Skeggs 1995, p. 6
 24Ibid., p. 9
25Ibid., p. 7
26 Ribbens and Edwards 1998, p. 2
27 Ibid., p. 4
28 Morton 1989; also contemporary observations by Crisp 1941 and Bayne 1943.
29 In 1942 the Women’s Employment Board was established, which addressed the issue of women’s pay. See Hasluck 1965, and National Security Legislation 1942.
30 Mrs Tarrant was interviewed by a journalist at a reunion of munitions workers in 1991. See Koleff 1991
31 Bayne 1943, p. 68
32 Wolf 1996, p. 2
33 Phoenix 1994, p. 48
34 Glucksmann 1994, p. 156
35 Matsumoto 1996, p. 161
36 Phoenix 1994, p. 50
37 When I first spoke to Alice (not her real name) I explained my research and asked if she would be willing to be interviewed. Her response was very enthusiastic, but she did say, in a worried voice, “Oh yes, dear, but what if I say something wrong?”
38 Phoenix 1994, p. 55
39 Before I met Mrs T (not her real initial) I explained my research to her over the telephone. We established a friendly and open rapport very quickly. She invited me to her house, and when she opened the door she was most surprised, “Oh I thought you would be much younger, dear”.
40 Phoenix 1994, p. 51
41 Glucksmann 1994, p. 162
42 Ribbens and Edwards 1998, p. 3
43 Maynard 1994, p. 11
44 Kelly, Burton and Regan 1994, p. 35
45 Oakley 1981, p. 33
46 Ibid., p. 35
47 Kelly, Burton and Regan 1994, p. 37
48 Ibid., p. 28
49 Kelly 1988
50 Opie 1992, p. 53
51 Maynard 1994, p. 17
52 I sent email to the Australian War Memorial, but it was received by the National Archives of Australia. An unknown, but kind person, sent me details of four documents held in the South Australian Archives. I have often pondered on the serendipitous and propitious nature of this event.
53 Axford 1941, McQuilton 1987, Menzies 1940, and Mingay 1946.
54 See Exhibitions