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100 years of women's service to Red Cross

Women have been at the forefront of Red Cross since its foundation in Australia.

Wednesday March 19, 2014

As Red Cross celebrates 100 years in Australia, we pay tribute to the critical role women have played throughout our history. It's a remarkable story about the hundreds of thousands of women who gave their time, enthusiasm and dedicated service to Red Cross over 100 years, a significant part of the social history of women in Australia.

Women have been at the forefront of Red Cross since its foundation in Australia.
In the days after the outbreak of World War I, the wife of the then Governor-General, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, established the first branch (as part of the British Red Cross Society) in Australia on 13 August 1914. She wrote to the wives of each State Governor to secure their support and Red Cross branches were quickly formed in each state. Australian women flocked to the cause.

Australian women's efforts on the home front to support the nation during WWI and WWII were monumental. They worked tirelessly for Red Cross in response to the national emergency, serving the humanitarian needs of the nation.

During WWI, Red Cross formed the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs) in Australia, based on the British Red Cross model. The vast majority comprised of women and girls, known as VAs, who were trained in first-aid and home nursing to carry out unpaid domestic and quasi-nursing duties in hospitals and convalescent homes. They became the public face of Red Cross.

Red Cross enabled women to do something tangible for the war effort. Women volunteered in the Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureaux that researched the whereabouts of soldiers serving in Europe and sent word to their anxious families. Australian women also raised funds - over one-third, or almost £5 million pounds, of all monies donated in Australia over the four years of WWI to the patriotic funds.

Women produced millions of pounds worth of in-kind support through volunteer labour and goods, sending an astonishing volume of goods overseas to servicemen and prisoners of war. They knitted and sewed socks, towels and vests for soldiers, much of the work done by hand in small rural communities where there was often no electricity.

By June 1918, the Red Cross had established member based branches in each state, with 886 in Victoria, 632 in NSW, 369 in SA, 225 in Queensland, 148 in Western Australia and 175 branches in Tasmania. Most of these branches were run by women, many of whom went on to give a lifetime of service to Red Cross.

Between the wars Red Cross women volunteers continued to care for sick, injured and recovering returned servicemen and their families. They worked in hospitals and community health to support national health emergencies, such as the Spanish flu epidemic, the spread of tuberculosis, and the Blood Transfusion Service.

At the outbreak of WWII many people who had supported Red Cross during the earlier war were mobilised once again to provide first aid, social services and nursing care at home, and to produce and send goods overseas. Their experience allowed Red Cross to expand to become the largest charitable organisation in Australia. From a national population of seven million, nearly half a million people, mostly women, were Red Cross members.

During WWII women served overseas on the front line as Red Cross Field Force officers, as nurses and specialised aids trained in disaster relief, working in units in Italy, the Middle East, Ceylon, India and Burma. Red Cross Field Forces, comprised of both men and women, were attached to the armed forces. By August 1945 a total of 548 Red Cross members had enlisted in the Field Force, including almost 200 women. At the end of WWII, Red Cross VAs were enlisted to travel across the Pacific in the British aircraft carriers HMS Formidable and HMS Glory to help repatriate prisoners of war.

In the post-war era from 1945 to 1965 many women, largely through their branches, cared for returned servicemen with disabilities and expanded their work into other social services, including assisting war brides, supporting women and children in need, working in hospitals and helping new migrants to Australia. Their experiences of voluntary public service during times of war had laid a strong foundation for service to Red Cross during peacetime.

As one of Australia's largest, oldest non-government voluntary organisations, Red Cross adapted and flourished to become the diverse national organisation it is in the second decade of the 21st century. Women have remained an integral part of Red Cross, volunteering across the broad range of national and state based programs including disaster and emergency services, social services, community development, first aid training, overseas aid and the blood service.

Today the vast majority of Red Cross members are still women, many of whom have proudly given a life time of service to helping people in need and raising the much needed funds that support Red Cross' everyday work in communities across the country and further afield.

In our Centenary year, Red Cross pays tribute to the millions of women who shaped our history. We continue to have a strong cohort of women leaders throughout the organisation, from the branches to our National Leadership Team. Women serve overseas for Red Cross, providing humanitarian relief in conflicts from South Sudan to Afghanistan, and working as emergency and disaster relief specialists and community aid and development workers.

As we look ahead to the next 100 years, we invite the next generation of young women to join our humanitarian cause.

See our moving video about three Red Cross women who have served on the front line with Red Cross.

Melanie Oppenheimer The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014, Sydney, Harper Collins, forthcoming, August 2014.
Melanie Oppenheimer, Red Cross VAs: A History of the VAD Movement in NSW, Walcha, Ohio Productions 1999.


Centenary 2014

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Explore 100 years of Red Cross in Australia and learn how you can be part of the great Australian story. Go to the Centenary 2014 site »