Grabbing their opportunities

Not long ago I accidentally channel hopped to the good old British movie, The Cruel Sea (1953), and stayed to watch once more the loss of the brave little Compass Rose convoy escort ship and to blub, as I had over the book of the same name by Nicholas Monsarrat. I read it in my…

Not long ago I accidentally channel hopped to the good old British movie, The Cruel Sea (1953), and stayed to watch once more the loss of the brave little Compass Rose convoy escort ship and to blub, as I had over the book of the same name by Nicholas Monsarrat. I read it in my last year of school, not letting on to my Mum. I learnt quite a bit about sex from it. A lot of blue-stocking girls got their knowledge of sex from novels at that time. Mum probably knew and was grateful for being spared the need actually to say anything to me about it. Sixty and more years on, though, I was struck by something said by the female lead (the voice-over at the beginning tells us that the “heroines are the ships”) WRNS o fficer Julie (Virginia McKenna), when her boyfriend (Donald Sinden as Number 1) explains that the relationship he has with his captain (Jack Hawkins) is “David and Jonathan”. Julie says that she envies that, and women don’t have that kind of relationship. Here we had depicted the stereotype of women not getting on well with each other; doing their wartime jobs, of varying degrees of danger, but not being accorded the mateship nobility that was dished out in spades to the men of Compass Rose and the like. They were not even credited with the wonderful close, enduring friendships that helped them survive those harsh war years. Beautiful Julie, with her restrained speech and corseted emotions, whom I had so envied when I was 16, now made me furious. Silly cow. The myth of female passivity in war, of women being unable to have true and noble friendships, “mateship”, survived for years after this film appeared. Yet nothing could be further from the reality. I thought of it again when I read Jacqueline Dinan‘s Between the Dances, a new book being launched in Adelaide this month about Australian women in World War II. She has travelled widely to get this brimming grab bag of enthralling stories, first-hand when possible, from a fast-vanishing generation of women. It is a treasury of yarns about young Australian women snatching the opportunity to serve their country and supporting each other and their families in any way they could, in Australia or overseas, during those days when we believed invasion was imminent. The title is jolly, pointing to the wartime dances most of these young women loved for romance and to lighten the mood, but it hardly does justice to their bravery, solidarity, ingenuity and sheer bloody strength. Women of those times often chose to depict their role as supportive of their “menfolk,” but that underestimates their war e ffort. They took over management of organisations, made vital contributions to scienti fic work, worked on the land (lots of Land Army Girls in SA!), in munitions, in all the services, as suddenly the doors were open to them, grudgingly or otherwise. As Dinan says, the stories “expose their struggle with gender stereotypes, the difficult release of social liberties and the dawning of new opportunities for all Australian women”. Jacqueline Dinan has found so much material that her stories bubble over and into each other. She has interviewed hundreds of women and their relations in all parts of the country about how and why they did their bit, whether it was a dangerous job, in or out of the services, or working on clever and resourceful inventions to make up for what was unavailable or scarce. They took it upon themselves to keep up the morale of those in the services on leave or overseas. They supported each other in facing the new, and in what otherwise have been unbearable loneliness of raising children without partners. They challenged themselves in ways their mothers hadn’t had a chance to do. They put up with fear and hardship, constantly going into the unknown and beyond their wildest dreams of their own capabilities. They made and kept friendships every bit as noble and enduring as those of the chaps. I fell in love with almost all of them: brave, resourceful, funny, inventive, cheeky women. I wish I had been old enough to be in their ranks, as my eldest sister was. A lot of men fell in love with them. A lot of men admired them, saluted them, promoted them, respected them. And not all of them went quietly back to the typing pool after the end of the war. @mollyfisher4 Between the Dances is published by Jane Curry Publishing, Sydney

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