It’s International Women’s Day once more and every year on March 8th the world embraces the chance to acknowledge and celebrate the social, economic, and cultural achievements of women. The first International Women’s Day was held in 1911 to promote the advancement of women and gender equality. So much has changed since then, yet there is still work to be done.

The theme for International Women’s Day this year is Count her in: invest in women. Accelerate progress. There has undoubtedly been progress over the years thanks to this day of recognition, but as always the day provides the opportunity for reflection and change. Especially when it comes to the women who came before us, such as those who served throughout the Australian Defence Force’s history.   

The stories of women in the ADF are rich and varied and many of their experiences paved the way for the women who serve today. Women are best known historically for their role as nurses during WWI and in those roles, the first women started to serve in the late 1800s. Sadly it was a shortage of men that may have fast-tracked the inclusion of women into greater roles in the forces in the 1950s when the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps (WRAAC) was established. Tessa Griffiths joined the WRAAC in June 1966 at the age of 18 but her years of service were cut short due to the strict ADF requirements back then regarding personnel’s choices around marriage and family. 

 Tessa grew up on Victoria's Mornington Peninsula and fondly remembers attending dances at the Portsea Officer Cadet School in her teens. “We’d socialise with a group of NCOs, and this is where I think I got the idea of joining the Army and being an officer, instead of marrying one”. Tessa did her early training in Sydney and was captivated from the very start with her new career. “I remember the first time the bus drove into Georges Heights Mosman, which overlooked Sydney Harbour”, she explains. “The rows of huts, which were to be our accommodation, the parade ground, the amazing views - I was in awe, as I’d never been out of Victoria before. We had a lot of fun amidst a lot of hard work on Rookies, and we all felt very proud at our Marching Out parade”.

 Like many women in the armed forces, Tessa enjoyed opportunities to explore a range of skills and interests and travel between different bases. “I was going to be a driver, so after Rookies, I went to Watsonia Army Barracks, doing mess stewardess work in the Officers Mess while waiting for the driver’s course. From there I went to the 31 WRAAC barracks in St Kilda Rd Melbourne, where we stayed while attending the drivers’ course in Broadmeadows each day. There was only one other girl on the course with me”. 

 After qualifying Tessa was posted to Puckapunyal in the RASC yard and lived at 3 Base Hospital. Her career trajectory was forever changed however when she caught up with an old boyfriend on one of the many weekend trips home to see family. “After a while, he proposed on one of my weekend leave trips. I loved Army life and would have loved to make a career of it and go home weekends, like I had been. Back then though if you were getting married, or were pregnant, you were discharged. I stayed in as long as possible and was discharged just 3 days before my wedding”. Tessa gave birth to a son a year later and never returned to service. 

It’s a different story today, with women in the armed forces working in hundreds of different roles. There is also greater gender equality when it comes to training, salaries and opportunities for career growth and development. Importantly for the Tessa’s of this generation, the ADF now has a dedicated commitment to diversity and inclusion across its workforce. Support in the form of flexible working arrangements, maternity and paternity leave, and ‘on hold’ career options ensure all service people are given the support they need to manage their family commitments.   

Tessa is now on the committee of the Rosebud RSL Women's Auxiliary. “I recently moved into a Veterans unit in Rosebud, and I really feel at home here. The flag flies out the front every day and each time I walk out my front door, and see the flagpole, it reminds me of my days in the WRAAC”.      

Tessa is one of many ex-service women whose early choices forged the futures of those in service today. This year’s International Women’s Day theme encourages everyone to recognise the unique stories and lives of women from all kinds of careers and walks of life. It’s a rallying cry that inspires us to be more inclusive and encourage others to accelerate the progress of women everywhere. 

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