Not much is known about Anna Paterson (c.1864-1924), convenor of the Women’s Compulsory Service Petition League and President of the Women’s National Defence Association of Queensland. The few details of her life available to history, however, indicate that Paterson was representative of a dominant strand in conservative women’s organising and experience during the wartime period.

The crisis of the First World War saw traditional notions of women’s role in society, as mothers and homemakers, reaffirmed and strengthened. The patriotic press and government valorised the sacrifice of women who heroically offered up their sons as recruits for the front, while largely dismissing the ability of women to play any active role in the conflict itself.  Typical was the perspective offered in the Brisbane Courier:

It is such a beautiful sight to see a mother say good-bye proudly to her soldier son, although there is a sadness often in beauty. One mother said to her departing son: ‘Do your duty, lad.’, and she never felt prouder of her boy than when he stood in the King’s uniform. (12 July 1917)

While relegated by the state and social attitudes to a passive role, women who embraced the nationalist mould were involved in a range of auxiliary organisations to support the war effort and conscription. Many women were involved in organisations that sent aid packages to soldiers on the front, ranging from the Red Cross, the Soldier Comfort Funds and Sock Funds. Along with these support efforts, conservative women like Anna Paterson set up organisations that campaigned to encourage recruits on the home front and for conscription.

The emotional appeal made by these women’s organisations, such as the Women’s Compulsory Service Petition League (WCSPL) established in 1917, was very strong. Many women involved had their sons, husbands or other male relatives engaged in fighting or had suffered personal loss. Paterson lost a son on the Western Front on September 1917, only a few months after the establishment of the WCSPL, and had two more sons involved in the fighting. In a letter to the Brisbane Telegraph, Paterson called for “the womanhood of Australia” to sign a petition directed to the Prime Minister calling for the establishment of conscription:

In this, the supremist hour of our nation’s peril, the full manhood of the country is required for the preservation of national existence. Nay more, the manhood of Free Australia is required for the preservation of human freedom and the principle of individual liberty. (7 July 1917, p. 7)

Patriotic women were urged during the war to refuse to associate with eligible men who had not enlisted and called upon to shame “shirkers” into joining the military. At a public meeting for women organised by the military in Brisbane, a “Mrs Cummings” who had lost three sons at the Front, raised the spectre of sexual violence being used by victorious German soldiers against Australian women, and concluded by urging the “girls” to “have men who can say, ‘I was not the first to go, but Thank God, I went!’” (Brisbane Courier, 12 October 1917, p. 7). The contemporary poem, “The Test”, addressed directly to the “shirker”, spells out the way femininity was constructed to reinforce masculine pressure on men to enlist:


Those who are God’s true mothers, those who are
              worthy wives,
Think you they value their honour, or only your
              sloth-stained lives?
Will she who is worth the winning, she who is yet
              to be won,
Take to her maiden bosom one who has turned
              from a gun?
Can they not hear their sisters, and babes who wail
              in their woe,
Shrieking for men’s assistance? And yet you have
              failed to go!
Think you that they can love you, men who have
              failed at need?
Could they be proud of the children born of such
              skulking breed? (W. M. Fleming, 1917, p. 134)

Women were thus “enlisted” to appeal to men’s masculinity as “protectors” against the rapine German threat. Women’s organisations, such as the National Council of Women and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union also campaigned to shut down competitive sport, gambling and drinking establishments, on the basis that the men enjoying such social activities were shirking their military responsibilities. The emasculating impact of these campaigns were evidently successful on many men. Men who volunteered but were turned away for reasons of age or physical fitness formed their own “Rejected Volunteers Association”, with its own badge and branches across the country, to avoid such social stigma.

While the social construction of women’s role during the war as mothers and nurturers was largely unchallenged, whether this role leant itself to support or opposition to the war or conscription was another matter. Both sides of the conscription debate made strong appeals to win women’s vote, often revolving around different interpretations of women’s maternal role. The Women’s Peace Army called on women to fulfil their role as peacemakers, while The Worker newspaper highlighted the horror, rather than the nobility, of the sacrifice demanded of women.

There are women in Australia to-day who, in absolute sincerity, are advocating conscription with tearful eyes and breaking hearts, exactly in the same fashion, and exactly from the same motives, that the women of a past Pagan era cast their living children into the furnace fires on the altar of Moloch. (26 October 1916, p. 20)

The conservative women’s organisations were instrumental in arguing for conscription and helping to create the environment that split Australia’s populace into the opposing camps of “loyalists” and “disloyalists.”  Women’s social role, political organising and family commitments became an intensely contested and polarised matter, an indication of just how deep the shocks and strains caused by the war ran in Australian society.

By Duncan Hart

Further Reading

Shute, Carmel. “Heroines and heroes: Sexual mythology in Australia 1914-1918” in Damousi, Joy and Lake, Marilyn (eds.). Gender and War: Australians at war in the twentieth century. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995, pp. 23-42