Rosie in the Empire: Gender in British and Australian Film Propaganda during the Second World War

Bandages and Telephones: Depictions of Stereotypical Women’s Work

While some women worked in factories and on farms, in the services and civil defense, others continued to work in stereotypically feminine jobs, many of which remained relevant during wartime. When we think of stereotypical women’s work during the 1940s, we think of nurses in white caps and secretaries taking down appointments, telephone operators and elementary school teachers. The British film “Fires Were Started” and the Australian film “They Serve” depict women in two of these occupations, and the same kind of analysis can be applied to them as to women in stereotypically masculine work. In British films, women in stereotypically feminine work are celebrated for their masculine traits, and in Australian films, for their feminine traits. This means depictions of women workers between the two countries both tell the same narratives whether the women are in stereotypically masculine or feminine work.

“Fires Were Started” is a 1943 British documentary that demonstrates the heroism of London firefighters during the Blitz. In this clip, women answer phones at a fire station in order to direct firefighters where they are most needed during one night of the Blitz. When a bomb lands near the fire station, the women are nonchalant, one apologizing to the person on the other line “for the interruption” as she dives beneath her desk for safety. While these telephone operators exhibit the masculine characteristic of stoicism, the nurses in the 1940 Australian film “They Serve,” display female characteristics only. The film highlights the importance of the Australian Red Cross to the war effort and depicts female Red Cross workers as merciful, caring, and sympathetic—all stereotypically feminine characteristics.

What do these two depictions of women in stereotypically feminine work suggest about the willingness of British and Australian propagandists to reinterpret or uphold traditional gender roles?

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