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Australia's courageous war widows

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

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When World War Two ended the men and women who fought and died were not forgotten – but what about their families? For the War Widows’ Guild the fight for rights and recognition had only just begun.

A new book by ECU graduate Melinda Tognini tells the true story of the War Widows’ Guild and the courageous and determined women who were, and are, part of this organisation.

Many Hearts, One Voicealso includes 100 black and white photographs of people, events and documents and was written as part of Ms Tognini’s Masters by Research degree.

Ms Tognini said when the Second World War ended many Australians celebrated, but thousands of war widows were faced with an uncertain future. With the war widows’ pension well below the basic wage many faced living in poverty.

“The women who joined the War Widows’ Guild found friendship and support from others who understood their loss,” Ms Tognini said.

They also became a powerful lobby group, influencing government on such issues as pensions, education benefits and health care.

“These women fought for public recognition and expression for their loss. They campaigned for subsidised aged-nursing care and built affordable housing,” she said.

“Many of the benefits that war widows have today are a result of the courage of those early Guild members who resisted a life of poverty, social isolation and invisibility.”

Why this story?

Ms Tognini said she is passionate about creating space for invisible or untold stories that challenge dominant narratives in our history – and empowering others to find their voice.

“A friend showed me the War Widow’s guild advertisement for a writer. It was about the time of my interview that I read an article by Melanie Oppenheimer where she commented about the increasing invisibility of women in the war narrative,” Ms Tognini said.

“I thought, yes, these war widows were a group of women who had been enormously affected by war and it fuelled my motivation to want to tell this story, to give a voice to these women, whose stories had remained largely untold.”

The research

She trawled through books, archives and digital resources, however Ms Tognini said the oral research she conducted was vital. Working closely with the War Widows Guild in WA, she formally interviewed approximately 30 war widows and children of founding members of the Guild and informally chatted to dozens more.

“As a way of getting to know current members I based myself each Monday at the Guild administration and community centre in Menora,” Ms Tognini said.

“Over the eight years of working at the centre I got to know many of the women, and it became quite comfortable to ask them informally for additional information.

“I have woven their stories into the book because to me they are central to the telling of this story” she said.

Many Hearts, One Voiceis published by Fremantle Press. The book will be launched on Sunday, 1 November at the War Widows’ Guild of Australia in Menora.

The Guild was formed in 1945 and remains an influential organisation with more than 18,000 members across Australia.

At ECU, we’re committed to research that has strong social, economic, environmental and cultural impact. If you want to make a practical difference to people’s lives, enquire now about a postgraduate research degree.

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