The war created opportunities for women in white collar jobs as well as labouring. Women found positions in the public service, in clerical jobs in commercial firms and in the banks as tellers and book keepers. Some were promoted into managerial positions, although their employment was always precarious. One woman who found a job in the Public Service during the war was Elsie (surname unknown). Elsie had tried unsuccessfully to join the public service before the war, but decided to try again after the fall of Singapore. Her husband was serving overseas and she was looking for something to do. This time she was successful. She moved to Melbourne from the country, finding rooms in a boarding house in East Melbourne. Elsie’s in-laws strongly opposed her move to Melbourne, which they called ‘the den of sin’, but Elsie prevailed. She worked in the Treasury precinct and recalled that she enjoyed the work, although it was an anxious time. The city was full of American soldiers and her arrival also coincided with a series of terrifying murders of local women, who were thought to have been strangled by an American soldier. Eventually Private Edward Leonski was arrested and charged with these crimes and the city returned to normal, but in the interim Elsie recalled that girls in the office had to be escorted to the tram by male colleagues if they worked back at night.
Elsie enjoyed her job and she loved the city, but she did find that her status as a married woman with a husband serving overseas was a mixed blessing. Sexual harassment was common.
I’ll tell you what I didn’t like. Because you were married and your husband was away, men, it didn’t matter if they were young, old, married or single, seemed to think you were an easy mark. More so than with the single girls, just because you were married - not all men, but a lot of them. I just ignored it, but I used to feel really angry.
Reminiscences like these remind us that sexual harassment has a long history.
With the end of the war and the return of her husband, Elsie’s work came to an end too. Like many former POWs Elsie’s husband suffered both physical and mental trauma and Elsie found herself increasingly isolated. She missed her work colleagues and the work itself.
Elsie’s story was published in Goldsmith & Sandford, The Girls They Left Behind, pp. 196-98.