The Role of Women in World War II: the Case of Malta
FAA members assembled at Hilltop Gardens, Naxxar on the evening of Monday 15th May 2017 to hear an illustrated talk by World War II researcher Simon Cusens entitled “The Role of Women in WWII – the Case of Malta”, which highlights women’s dedication and reliability during the war. Their wartime contributions were of utmost significance, extensive and absolutely vital in the social, administrative, operational and logistical fields for Malta’s civil and military administration. Simon conducted his research work on wartime women’s history for his Master of Arts dissertation within the Institute of Maltese Studies at University of Malta.
Simon began his talk by saying that in 1935 women started being recruited and engaged for a possible conflict and were being employed in a Civil Defence service. Prior to this, women were under the influence of a strong Catholic Church from cradle to grave, with the Church believing that those who were employed were expected to resign their position upon marriage to be at home seeing to their husband’s and family’s needs. Such was the Church’s influence over women, that they employed a Religious Inspector in schools to check up on female schoolteacher staff to find out if they attended church every day.
The Colonial Authorities envisaged many men would be required for conscription, so they had to find ways to recruit many housewives and young women for the impending war effort or relief work, without raising the ire or wrath of the Church. As the threat of war loomed, both the Government and Church actioned a rally call for men and women, which succeeded in drawing thousands of women to join a Passive Civil Defence Force, renamed Passive Defence Reserve in 1938. In this, women assisted with first aid and rescue, eventually evolving into regional protection officers, air raid precaution (ARP), district committees, and women’s auxiliary reserve (WAR). At the same time, there were foreign women working for Malta from other countries raising huge amounts of funds, to contribute to the plight of Malta.
As war progressed, women proved their dedication and reliability to the various causes they undertook. Women, although absent from all corridors of power, except those engaged in philanthropic institutions and charities, generally ran the schools as classroom teachers, hospitals as matrons, nurses, and sisters of charity who kept the medical services going throughout the war. (Archives show that of 204 female medical employees, 78 were religious nuns). Other positions filled were as private tutors; private school mistresses to take care of unwanted children; baby farmers; women in very secretive jobs in Military Intelligence employed in Dingli underground radar stations; Lascaris plotting rooms, Cipher room as cipherines; secretarial support, risking their lives in Libya and Italy as the allies advanced; geographical land surveying; passive defence volunteers; unofficial propaganda officers; civilian safety officers; and laundry logistical services for the 30,000 strong Garrison. Rural women worked in the fields to grow produce for the running of communal feeding and child-care schemes and the population as a whole as well as offering succour to the homeless. Hundreds of other women led local, regional and even national welfare-related committees backing social relief objectives that would also contribute significantly to the war relief effort. Women whilst employed in their many tasks still fulfilled their traditional household roles tending to and providing for the needs of their young or elderly dependents and relatives in the absence of their men.
There were several female protagonists. Some women stood above the rest, sometimes in Malta or in friendly countries abroad. Mabel Strickland was one such person, being the voice of the media in WWII, was perhaps the most famous female personage in Malta during that time. She ran the ‘Times of Malta’ newspaper, and whilst doing so fought for extra rations her 24/7 staff and was more helpful towards women working in the Maltese Press. However, there were a lot of other personalities large and small who played an important part, one being Mary Ellul, who pulled victims out of the rubble of collapsed buildings destroyed by bombs in Valletta.
Simon concluded his talk by saying that women’s wartime contributions were of utmost significance, more far-reaching and absolutely vital for the Malta Garrison’s success than may have been previously known. They provided the social, administrative, operational and logistical platforms for the country’s civil and military administrations. The war also brought along great social change. The nation-wide mobilisation of Maltese women constituted the single, most impacting, mass-liberation event for women to date and began almost a decade before WWII hostilities ended, thus it was not a product of the post-war era. Post-war, resulted in women’s emancipation whereby they were given equal rights as for men, no gender discrimination, and were given the right to vote in 1947.
Thanks to Hilltop Gardens for hosting the event and to all FAA sponsors.