- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2016 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
By MIDN Jaycob Humphreys, RAN
We have had other essays on this topic by female officers, but this perceptive discussion from a recent New Entry Officer Course student, is by a young male officer.
‘Even in the early days of the war, the decision to recruit women was not greeted with unalloyed enthusiasm by serving officers—there was a distinct feeling in some quarters of the Navy that women around the place boded no good’ (Huie, 2000).
Women have faced a struggle for equality in the workforce for many decades. Throughout history, many fields of work including education, government, law and medicine have accepted women as being capable to perform in what was once considered male jobs. However, in the Australian Defence Force, women were restricted from enlisting even during conscription periods, but this was not the case for the Royal Australian Navy (RAN). The Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service (WRANS) was formed in April 1941 as a result of a shortage of naval telegraphers. Since its’ integration into the Permanent Naval Force (PNF) in 1959 women have played an integral role in the development of the RAN into the professional and diverse naval service that it currently is (Argirides, 2006). The purpose of this essay is to elaborate and investigate on the WRANS and to identify the significance it has had into the growth of the RAN in the 21stcentury.
Formation of the WRANS
On 21 April 1941, a Navy Office letter to the Commodore-in-Charge, Sydney, authorisedthe entry of women into the Australian Navy as ‘The Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service’ (WRANS). This program was in response to the increased needs for naval personnel within WWII. Hence, on 28 April 1941, 12 wireless telegraphers and two other telegraphers who had volunteered to serve as cooks, accompanied by their friend and mentor Florence McKenzie,arrived at the RAN Wireless/Transmitting (W/T) Station, Canberra. These 14 women represented the first wave of women in the RAN; and on 1 October 1942, they were sworn into the Navy as enlisted personnel within the WRANS. On 1 July 1943, the W/T station was commissioned as HMAS Harman. By October 1942, 580 female volunteers had been recruited and enlisted, and four months later the number had increased to 1000. However, they were not permitted to serve at sea or overseas and were limited to 27 naval occupations.Post-war reform in the public and defence service led to the WRANS being disbanded and the last wartime WRANS navy personnel were discharged in 1948. By 1951, however, the need for female sailors and officers was once again recognised and the Service was reestablished. In 1984, the WRANS were incorporated into the Permanent Naval Forces (PNF) (Otter, 1975).
WRANS Involvement in Conflicts
The WRANS have been in existence through many significant conflicts including WWII, Vietnam War, Gulf War and modern peacekeeping and aid and assistance operations over the 21stcentury. Over 3,000 women enlisted in the WRANS during WWII, with 2,671 active at the war’s end, equating to roughly 10% of the overall RAN strength. WRANS performed a variety of shore-based duties, including working as telegraphers, clerks, drivers, stewards, cooks, sick berth attendants, intelligence and cryptanalysis. In December 1959, the WRANS were granted permanent status as a section of the RAN. By the 1970s, there were almost 700 women serving in the WRANS, including postings at all nine RAN shore establishments. Since the end of major conflict, women within the RAN have been allowed more opportunity and access to employment in key areas of operations. LEUTAndrea Argirides, RANRsays: “over the last 65 years it is instructive to consider how far we have come in the Defence Force and the extent to which women have been integrated into the various positions and categories across the RAN. As the role of women in society continues to change, so will opportunities for women in the Australian Defence Force. Women in the RAN are moving through the ranks, with many excelling in their chosen fields, and setting a fine example for other young women wanting to enter the Service. Women in the RAN now serve in almost every area of day to day naval operations at sea and ashore. Female officers now command RAN ships and establishments and many have seen active service abroad. There have also been considerable developments in naval personnel and training in the last decade that has further enabled women in the RAN to tread the ‘road to command’ ashore and at sea.” Within her article titled Women in the RAN: The Road to Command, she outlines that despite women playing roles considerably distant from what society recognises as conflict or war-service, without their involvement within WW11 and other conflicts, the effectiveness and lethality of the RAN during that time would be considerably less. This is purely because logistics and communications are some of the most important elements during a conflict and these were often the responsibility of women (Argirides, 2006).
Inequalities between the WRANS and the PNF
Since the establishment of the WRANS in 1941, those women who have served have faced not only difficulties serving in a conflict period, but also difficulties associated with serving in a male-dominated workplace. This included many significant inequalities between the WRANS and the PNF, such as pay, promotion, postings, employment fields and general treatment from their male counterparts. In 1969, the restriction on married women was removed, and the automatic discharge of pregnant women was dropped in 1974. In 1975, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam announced the intention to investigate the posting of women to ships on non-combat deployments. By 1978, WRANS personnel were receiving equal pay to their RAN counterparts. The opportunity to serve at sea was also a huge restriction which was placed on WRANS, which had only been lifted 25 years ago (Huie, 2000).
Significant WRANS Officers
The WRANS have had many influential women play a part in their development as a permanent part of Australia’s naval force. These women have fought both the enemy and inequality over many years and were integral in the women’s rights movement. One of these extraordinary women was Captain Joan Streeter. Also known as “Ma’am WRANS”, she was the last member of the WRANS original wartime force, joining in 1942 whilst her husband was serving in the RAAF. As director of the WRANS from 1958–1973, Streeter was primarily responsible for the retention of women in the service after marriage, something finally introduced in 1968. She was also responsible for having the entry age for recruits reduced from eighteen to seventeen, as well as being hugely influential in the creation of a WRANS reserve (Australian Defence Force, 2016).
Captain Barbara MacLeod took over from Captain Streeter as director of the WRANS in 1973. MacLeod joined the Women’s Royal Australian Naval Service in 1954. During her service she served in every Australian state except Western Australia. In 1976 MacLeod became the first female officer of any service to attend the Australian Administrative Staff College (AASC). In 1979 she was the first woman naval officer of Captain’s rank to be posted to a command position. In 1982 MacLeod became an Honorary Aide-de-Camp (ADC) to Queen Elizabeth II; the first Australian woman to be appointed as an ADC. She was a strong advocate for equality in the RAN, even though she preferred not to bring that to light. She once said, “if you mean by women’s lib[erty], do I believe in wider job opportunities for women either in or out of the Service then yes, I am a women’s libber. Women are demanding a more meaningful place in today’s changing society and winning their demands.” (Huie, 2000). By the end of her career, she had achieved further equality for women including equal pay and the posting of women to combat zones.
Rear Admiral Walker joined the RAN as a direct entry medical graduate in 1991 with experience in diving medical assistance.In January 1996 Lieutenant Commander Walker assumed the position of Officer in Charge of the Submarine & Underwater Medicine Unit and remained there until July 2000. In July 2002, now Commander Walker posted to Defence Health Service Branch in Canberra as Director of Preventive Health prior to her posting on promotion in January 2003 to captain as Chief Staff Officer Health at Headquarters Joint Operations Command in 2004. In this position she was responsible for coordinating the health care to ADF members in Iraq, Solomon Islands, East Timor and for the Banda Aceh tsunami response.On 04 July 2005 she was promoted to the position of Director General Strategic Health Policy and Plans in the Defence Health Services Division. Walker was posted to the position of Director General Garrison Health Support within Joint Health Command on 11 August 2008 and to Director General Health Capability on 01 February 2010. Commodore Walker became the first female in the RAN to reach this rank and eventually Rear Admiral. Rear Admiral Walker assumed the position of Commander Joint Health and Surgeon General Australian Defence Force in December 2011, the first female to hold this position (Argirides, 2006).
The Significance of the Cultural Change in the RAN from the WRANS
The methods that we as a navy have utilised to increase equality in the fleet include many cultural shifts including the implementation of New Generation Navy (NGN). The NGN program was established in April 2009 as a Chief of Navy Directive which focuses on delivering positive culture change across Navy (Royal Australian Navy, 2016). The culture change looks at moving away from the previous era of Navy which was very male-orientated and does not take into account both political correctness and social behaviours which play a significant role in the workplace. The RAN has moved towards a Navy orientated by Values and Signature behaviours, which reflect these social behaviours that the Australian people expect the ADF to operate in-line with. These signature behaviours include to respect the contribution of every individual, promote the wellbeing and development of all Navy people and to strengthen relationships across and beyond Navy. (Royal Australian Navy, 2016) Through the implementation of these signature behaviours, the RAN has been able to achieve improvements in the workplace most importantly including equality for women. So with the NGN enforced and cultural change effected, is the current culture evident within the RAN good or ill? It is a significant change which is considered to be one of the most important changes made to the RAN. The RAN has been able to develop as an organization and modernize to confine with current social expectations. An organization which recognizes women as equal to be both employed by the RAN, held to the same standards as males and to hold command.
Women’s involvement within the RAN through the WRANS has allowed for substantial growth in the development of equality within the RAN and the wider Australian Defence Force (ADF). Throughout their history, the WRANS have contributed significantly to the RAN as a fighting naval force. Through the implementation of cultural changes in the RAN community and the acknowledgment that women are in fact equal to man; this being in the respect that they can achieve the same results as males in a military environment; equality within the RAN and the ADF is becoming a realistic and achievable goal. There are still areas within policy which require improvement but at least today women have just as much opportunity to fight and win at sea as what their male counterparts do.
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LEUT. Andrea Argirides, RANR. 2006. Women in the RAN: The Road to Command. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.navy.gov.au/history/feature-histories/women-ran-road-command-sea. [Accessed 22 April 2016].
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