Dawn Eaton was 19 years old and living in the sleepy north Queensland sugar town of Home Hill in 1958 when she decided the Australian Navy was her chance to escape and see the world.
- Women were forced to leave the military when getting married
- Many now collecting their Australian Defence Medal
- Women interested in applying for medal urged to contact local MP
But first she had to convince her father to give his permission.
“When I presented Dad with the papers, he looked at them, he said, ‘Why do you want to do this?’,” she told the ABC.
“I said, ‘I want to travel, Dad … I want to see my country … and this is a good safe way to do it’.”
Papers finally in order, she signed up to join the Women’s Royal Australian Navy, WRAN, travelling by train to Melbourne, where she trained as a radio operator at HMAS Cerberus.
At the time, the men who were in the Royal Australian Navy trained and worked in separate quarters.
“We weren’t allowed on ships in those days,” she said.
“I said to the girls: ‘Would you want to be down in the hold of the ship with all those smelly males? You can have it! Not me!'”
Dawn (now known by her married name, Fletcher) worked in Canberra and Darwin, learning Morse code.
Two years after her enlistment, she was discharged — forced to leave not for misconduct or medical reasons, but because she got engaged.
“These days, they wouldn’t get away with discharging you,” she said.
“I just think all that study, and then I didn’t have a choice.”
Margaret Jones, nee Thompson, joined the WRAN in 1955 at the age of 18 and was also discharged, just before serving her full four-year term.
“I didn’t stay the extra four months. My husband never forgave me because I missed out on 64 pounds,” she said.
“It was a lot of fun. I enjoyed every bit of my service, there was nothing I didn’t like except one chief who underestimated my ability.”
Mrs Jones said she believed she could have risen far higher in the defence force if she had not likewise been forced to leave for being married.
“I would have made admiral — I was so vain.”
Rules slowly changed
Deirdre Elliott served in the WRAAC, the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps. She believed she was the first Queensland woman allowed to stay in the Army after being married.
“I was one of the lucky ones. I was due to get out in ’69. My three years were up and I was due to get out,” she said.
“They said, ‘yes, but married women can now stay in’. So I thought wonderful, cancel it — I’m staying in. But I actually had to get my fiancee at the time to sign permission,” she said.
Mrs Elliott said she was also told she could not get pregnant.
“It was made quite clear as soon as you fall pregnant, you’re out, or if your uniform gets a little bit tight you’re out the door.”
Terri Forsythe, who enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force in the early 1970s, was also allowed to stay on after marriage.
She also returned to the RAAF after a pregnancy, having been given leave and deemed “medically unfit” to serve while pregnant.
But Mrs Forsythe had other obstacles to overcome — she said she was limited in career progression because of her gender.
“In 1973 I reached the peak of my career. I became a corporal, the corporal was the peak for a female,” she said.
“Then I got notification a couple of years later, that they’d decided women could be equal.”
Women in the services
From 1899 until World War II, women who served in Australia’s defence forces were usually restricted to nursing roles.
Special women’s branches were opened in 1941, allowing women to serve in support roles.
In 1951, with the outbreak of the Korean War, the Women’s Royal Australian Navy (WRAN), Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps (WRAAC) and Women’s Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF) were re-established.
Australian War Memorial senior curator Melissa Cadden said conditions for women who served in the 1950s and 60s were very much in line with social values and standards for other professions at the time.
“This meant that women would be discharged if they got married and also if they became pregnant,” she said.
“It actually wasn’t until 1979 where women achieved equal pay in the armed service.
“During the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, women couldn’t deploy overseas … that was a men’s role — and they couldn’t serve on warships.”
Though the service of many women was cut short, many are discovering their time in the military now garners official recognition in the form of a medal.
The Australian Defence Medal was established in 2006 for anyone who served an enlistment period, or a period of four years.
Dawn Fletcher and fellow defence veteran Margaret Jones did not think they were eligible, because they were unable to serve their full terms in the WRAN.
But the medal honours people who were discharged for medical reasons, who died in service or were discharged due to Australian military policies at the time.
In recent years, hundreds of ex-servicewomen around Australia have been coming forward to claim their medals.
“It’s yours and it’s a treasure — nobody else can have that one. They’ve got their own but you’ve got yours too,” Mrs Jones said.
Mrs Forsythe said obtaining a medal for service made her feel more entitled to march on Anzac Day.
“I can’t match the feeling, like I’ve had both my kids and I love them dearly, but when I walk, march on Anzac Day with the other ladies, I get goosebumps,” she said.
“And people are cheering you and this just feels so good, and yet I never served any wars.
“The women today are absolutely amazing, the things they have to go through. We were never put on that level.
“I think it’s such a privilege to serve in the services and I couldn’t have been prouder the day I got my medal.”
Ms Fletcher said there appeared to have been a large number of ex-service personnel claiming their medals.
“It took a good six months or more because they had a lot of medals to make, to sort of make up for all the ones that had been discharged and didn’t have a choice,” she said.
Women who have served in the Australian military, even for a short time, are encouraged to contact their local MP or ex-servicewomen’s association to find out more about the medal.
Topics: womens-status, navy, 20th-century, marriage, maroochydore-4558, qld, brisbane-4000
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