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The history of volunteering in Australia.

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Thursday 24 June 2004

Melanie Oppenheimer, Senior Lecturer, School of Humanities, University of Western Sydney


The History of Volunteering In Australia  

While research and interest in volunteering has grown substantially in the last decade in Australia, historians have been ‘missing in action’ - they have not been there.  


But volunteering and voluntary action, the history of the non-profit sector and its relationship with government, is a largely neglected topic in twentieth century Australian history. Whilst volunteering and voluntary action are integral to our western democratic traditions and both have played key roles in the development of Australian society in the twentieth century, our national histories remain largely silent. The stories of volunteers, volunteering and the voluntary principle are part of our ‘invisible histories’.  


The role of the historian is crucial in constructing not only how we see ourselves but in selecting what topics we focus on and consider important as a nation. Historians can present a perspective on the past that has relevance to the present. But why has volunteering been ‘invisible’ to generations of historians? I believe that there are four main reasons for this neglect.  


The first reason reflects a broad view that volunteering is really not important; and therefore not of any historical value. Because it is ‘voluntary’, that is there is no financial remuneration for the work undertaken, volunteer work is considered of less value than paid work. It is not measured within the GDP, and remains outside the dominant economic framework of our society.  


The second reason revolves around the stereotyping of volunteers as ‘Lady Bountifuls’ - middle and upper class women with questionable motives dispensing their largesse. This leads on to the third reason. When feminist historians ‘arrived’ in the 1970s, they were looking for ways to promote women in particular ways - women who broke barriers; set precedents; challenged the status quo. These historians were not interested in volunteering - it was too mainstream, too ordinary, something the vast majority of women did. So they decided not to write about it. 


The fourth point concerns voluntary action and its relationship with government in Australia - a relationship which some have called a ‘moving frontier’. The following is a good example of what I mean. Prior to the establishment of the Federal Department of Repatriation (now Veterans’ Affairs) in 1917, most of the work of assisting and caring for soldiers on their return from war, and their dependents, was the domain of the voluntary sector. By 1916, it was clear that the sector was increasingly unable to cope with the demands on their resources. The traditional system of private welfare assisting ex-servicemen and their dependants had to be recast. Thus it is only when major voluntary action is taken over by government that historians write about it, and it then becomes real, legitimate, and ‘visible’ history.  


The Australian experiences of World War II also illustrate this point. As I have detailed in my book, All Work. No Pay, during the war the volunteer activity of civilians on the home front was remarkable. Over 8,000 funds were established across Australia to assist in some way with the broad war effort, and raised about £28 million (approximately A$1.6 billion today).  


Civilian volunteering also crossed class boundaries; it was not the preserve of the middle classes; nor was it only the preserve of women. Men and children also undertook volunteer work.  


But it’s especially relevant when considering the impact of the war on Australian women. Historians of WWII have largely focused on women setting precedents and being able to join the boys in moving into paid wartime work. The focus has also been on the women’s auxiliary services and the manpower directorate created in January 1942 which encouraged, and then directed, women into paid wartime occupations.  


But when we remember that at the peak of wartime employment in 1943-44, there were about 32% of available women in the paid workforce; and that the women’s auxiliaries constituted about 2% of that figure; you have to ask yourself - what were the remaining two thirds of the female population doing during the war? Most of them were undertaking volunteer work. 


There is no doubt that women broke barriers through their paid work, and the importance of this cannot be underestimated. But it is also true that what women accomplished through their participation in volunteer work during the war was equally, if not more important, for women. But this has been largely ignored by historians. This neglect has distorted our history.  


We know that volunteering and voluntary action plays an important part in Australian society. But it is odd that something so fundamental, something which is part and parcel of our everyday lives is not readily part of our history.  


Guests on this program:

Dr Melanie Oppenheimer  

Senior Lecturer, 

School of Humanities, 

University of Western Sydney