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War, TAFE and the "dungaree dolls"

Because these women were often unskilled and untrained, some formal training was required

Every year ANZAC Day is an opportunity to reflect on Australia's involvement in overseas political conflicts and the lessons we've learned from those involvements.

It was the two world wars of last century that had the greatest impact on our society, our institutions and the day-to-day life of the time.

Throughout World War I, the Technical Education Branch of the NSW Department of Public Instruction, ("the Branch", which was the then incarnation of TAFE NSW), made many valuable contributions to the war effort. This was both on land and in the air.

The Erskineville Boot Making School churned out literally hundreds of pairs of boots for the military, in addition to offering free repatriation training programs for returned soldiers. In fact, free repatriation programs like these were repeated in many other similar public trade schools across the state. Soldiers returning from overseas deployment in the war, many of them suffering physical injuries or shell shock, often found it very difficult to slot back into civilian life. Learning a new trade could be a practical and effective way of achieving this.

North West of Sydney, the Richmond Flying School trained many pilots for the fledgling Royal Flying Corps. From 1916 onwards, the School was managed by the Branch and by war's end, over 100 students had trained at the School, with 80% of them receiving their pilot's licences.

Women also served in the Australian military in World War I, mostly as nurses and other medical workers. However, this was only if they were already trained. Many of these women who saw active duty had trained with the Branch and served in locations such as Egypt, Lemnos, England, France, Belgium and Greece. In total, well over 2,000 nurses served in these distant locations between 1914 and 1919, some of them receiving the Military Medal in recognition of their services.

By the outbreak of WWII, which was a generation later, the progression of many societal attitudes was reflected in the widespread acceptance, albeit temporarily, of women into the roles of the absent men. Marketing campaigns both here and overseas, such as America's Rosie the Riveter, really pushed the message that women were more than capable of doing what was traditionally considered man's work.

However, because these women were often unskilled and untrained, some formal training was required. Technical colleges around the country experienced a new wave of eager female students – the so called "dungaree dolls" who trained to be telegraphers, drivers, signallers, machinists, searchlight operators, stenographers, welders, medical staff and mechanics. "The women were often unskilled, but they were committed," said the Museum of Sydney's Annie Campbell, who curated an exhibition called Home Front: Wartime Sydney 1939-45, back in 2012.

The dungaree dolls proved that they were perfectly capable of effectively carrying out their home front roles. They proved this in the factories and warehouses, on the roads and railways and on the farms. And their success at keeping the home fires burning was due, in large part, to the ability of the public trade schools and technical education providers of the time, and their ability to adapt to difficult and urgent circumstances.

Image credit: The Sydney Morning Herald