of a Global Community: Australian Red Cross and Volunteer Work at Home
Through international organisations such as the Red Cross, Australian women were able to create an imperial community that offered them a space to feel more actively and effectively involved in the war. Elsewhere, I have focused on some of the leading female viceregal protagonists in Australia at the time—such as Lady Marie Galway, who, as wife of the Governor of South Australia, Sir Henry Galway, was President of the
South Australian Division of the Australian Red Cross and Lady Margaret Stanley, who held the same position in Victoria—and their relationship with this oldest and largest global humanitarian organisation.9 I examined their roles on the periphery of the British Empire as they led, and influenced, the activities of Australian women as part of the broader British Empire’s response to the First World War. These women were led by the extraordinary Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, foundation President of the Australian Branch of the BRCS, and its leader in every sense of the word from 1914 through to 1920. Endowed with a range of skills and expertise, gained by her long-standing philanthropic service and her position as the daughter of an illustrious Victorian diplomat and Viceroy of India, and as the wife of a Scottish Liberal politician and Australia’s sixth governor- general, Lady Helen established the Australian Branch of the BRCS on 13 August, ten days after the declaration of war. In doing so, she mobilised the women of Australia more quickly than the military mobilised its male citizen soldiers.
As the “guiding hand and controlling brain of the Red Cross network,” Lady Helen created an organisation that had at its core concepts of service, obligation and patriotism.10 She believed that Red Cross work was women’s work, and that it offered Australian women a chance to show their capacity and to shine during the war. Clearly, Australian women agreed. They flocked to the Red Cross and formed branches across the length and breadth of the country, with the movement particularly strong in rural areas. This community of women at the periphery of empire helped to shape imperial and national ideologies that offered opportunities for women to contribute to the public sphere during a period of global warfare.
Through these imperial networks and communities of service, the war provided Australian women on the physical margins of the British Empire with “undreamt of opportunities” and offered them a direct connection to the war being fought on the other side of the world.11 The First World War saw a rise in the numbers of middle-class women becoming involved in the public sphere through their volunteer war work. They built on the concept of noblesse oblige of the Victorian era and the new world of female philanthropy, informed by a heightened sense of moral and social obligation. Increasingly, educated and articulate middle- and upper-class women, concerned with the position of women and reform in a range of social, political and economic arenas, moved outside their traditional domestic sphere and into the public domain. Such women were usually associated with Christian churches of various denominations, and championed the virtues of femininity, religiosity, purity and concern for others less fortunate than themselves. As Kathleen McCarthy has demonstrated in the American context, women’s voluntary labour as philanthropists and volunteers was not only valuable in its own right but had a positive impact on the public sphere.12
The war brought enhanced paid work opportunities for working-class women in certain industries (to a lesser degree in Australia than elsewhere), especially in munitions work, war-related industries and transport, and some public service professions such as policing.13 For middle-class women, however, options were limited. Although nursing skills were in high demand, it took years to qualify. Women who were denied access to the paid workforce, therefore, forged careers and provided leadership in the increasingly large wartime voluntary sector. For some time, historians have ruminated on these often-contradictory motivations of women, examining concepts such as the power of nationalism, the appeal of traditional women’s work and, as Donner suggests, a “feminist impulse for emancipation from traditional gender roles.”14 What made women’s desire to participate so actively in the war? Why did they want to engage with such laborious work undertaken in often the most challenging of circumstances? And, in some cases, what made Australian women, such as the Murdoch sisters, want to travel overseas, a journey in itself that was not without danger, in order to undertake volunteer work that facilitated their “entry into a rough and alien world” of war?15
Benedict Anderson’s concept of imagined communities is a useful theory to suggest here, especially in terms of how Australian women responded to the war through their voluntary war work with the Red Cross.16 Anderson refers to the creation, difficulties and challenges in the definitions of “nations, nationality, nationalism ... it is imagined as a community because... the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”17 With the Red Cross Movement, it was the organisation itself, as a global, transnational institution already fifty years old in 1914 that provided the structure and mechanism for Australian women to belong to—and be a part of—the war effort through the home front activities of knitting and sewing and raising funds. The Red Cross was established by nation states (although independent of government) and only one organisational body could exist in each country. Simply being a member of a Red Cross branch—and there were over two thousand established across Australia during the First World War—provided a sense of belonging and contributing, self-worth and sacrifice, that was craved by most Australian women. Thus, it was the voluntary organisation itself—through its extensive local branch network and the various larger state divisions—that allowed the women of Australia to be active and involved members of the international community of the Red Cross Movement.
There are many examples through the war to illustrate this sense of belonging and identity that encompass this global exchange. Australian Red Cross donated hundreds of thousands of pounds to its parent society, the British Red Cross, who in turn distributed the funds to other national societies, especially the French and Belgian Red Cross. During the period 1914-19, over ?250,000 was donated and remitted to the BRCS, with an additional ?65,000 to Allied Red Cross Societies.18 These figures do not include the value of goods such as foodstuffs, clothing and medical items that were also supplied. Special ‘Days’ were held and monies sent from Australian Red Cross members to a variety of other national Red Cross Societies, including the Serbian, Polish, Italian, Mesopotamian, Belgian, and Russian Red Cross Societies. The appreciation of this philanthropic largesse was conveyed to Australian Red Cross members through their journals and annual reports as well as being reported in newspapers. Other efforts included that of members of the New South Wales Division, who funded the erection of a large sandstone building in Malta, named Australia Hall, for soldiers’ recreational use. During the Gallipoli campaign, many thousands ofwounded and sick Australian troops were nursed back to health and convalesced on Malta, which was aptly named the “Nurse of the Mediterranean.” At a cost of nearly ?3,000, the majestic building that could seat two thousand people was opened in January 1916 by the governor, Lord Methuen.19 The international nature of the Red Cross Movement through the war, particularly its connections and networks with a range of Allied countries, helped to directly connect those working within the Australian Red Cross to the war effort in ways we have rarely understood.