Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Department of History and Politics


This thesis explores the reactions of the Curtin Labor Government, employer organisations, trade unions, the Communist Party of Australia and other labour movement groups, to the entry of women workers into 'men's jobs' on munitions production and other areas of the metal industry during the Second World War. Motivated primarily by their concern that the employment of cheap female labour threatened male jobs and wage standards, the union movement demanded that the women entering industry receive the same pay rates as the men they were replacing. Rather than institute equal pay by regulation, however, the Govemment decided on the compromise solution of establishing a special wage-fixation tribunal, the Women's Employment Board, and empowering it to award pay rates between 60% and 100% of the male rate assessed on the basis of the female workers' relative efficiency and productivity. This unique wage-fixing method was a radical departure from the entrenched 'family wage' basis long followed by the Commonwealth Arbitration Court under which female wage rates were set at around 54% of the minimum male rate. However, the potential it represented for a significant change in women's secondary position in the workforce, was contained.

A primary concern of the thesis is to assess the relative influence of patriarchal ideology and Marxist theory, and of social, political, economic and industrial factors, on the attitudes and practices of key actors towards the issue of equal pay; also, the extent to which the traditional gender order was challenged by the wartime shift in the 'normal' sexual division of labour. It illustrates how the impetus for equal pay became dissipated during the second half of the war, in the face of pragmatic political and economic pressures and the dominant pattern of gender relations.

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