Corazon Miller looks at the roles women have played in the course of New Zealand's military history.

A nurse tends to a fallen male combatant, a chain of women toil in factories on home soil, a woman waves her husband off to war.

But alongside these demure images of women at war were also those of the woman who drove an ambulance amid the falling bombs, the one who kept an ear and eye out for the enemy plane and the one who climbed up the military ranks.

University of Auckland gender politics lecturer Victoria Woodman said historically it was seen as the women's "duty" to be "the more peaceful, nurturing sex". They were expected to "sit down and sew things ... to give labour and time freely".

But many were determined to directly contribute and did so, she said, regardless of expectations.


Some paid their own way, working as nurses, teachers, clerical workers, intelligence officers and ambulance drivers - in or near the battlefields.

War historian Ian McGibbon said despite women's work being seen as more supportive, "it wasn't a cushy number". The 10 nurses who drowned when the Germans sank the Marquette on October 23, 1915 in the Aegean Sea gave one example of the risk women faced going to war.

But their efforts and abilities within the military have been recognised only recently. A Defence Force spokesperson said it wasn't till 2000 that all combat roles were opened to women.

In the years since the force has continued to encourage and retain women among its ranks - but this remains a work in progress.

Massey University senior lecturer in security studies Anna Powles said New Zealand had come some way and had "demonstrated we are on the right track". But there was still work needed to attract and retain women in the male-dominated profession.

SECOND BOER WAR: 1899-1902

The Kiwi angel
Elizabeth Rennie Hay, 1869-1944

Tireless toiling in a British hospital ward in South Africa during the second Boer War led to one nurse being named the "New Zealand Angel".

A letter from a Dr Fenwick to the Otago Daily Times described how Elizabeth Rennie Hay, one of the first New Zealand nurses to head overseas to war, earned her nickname.

"When I left I begged her to get a week's furlough ... she was extremely overworked, but she indignantly refused ... She never seemed to sit down, but as one convalescent remarked 'she can't sit down because it will clip her wings'."

The Auckland War Memorial Museum recorded Ms Hay, the eldest of 10 children to Scottish immigrants, as having approached Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward for permission to send nurses to war.

She was one of a 13-strong contingent sent to South Africa.

In her final posting for the war, she was the only New Zealand nurse posted to the Langman Hospital, during a typhoid epidemic, and was also the last to leave.
She was rewarded with the Union Jack and Red Cross flags.

Jillian Airey said her impressions of the grandmother she never met were that she was strong and hard-working.

After the war Ms Hay married a farmer from Pretoria, but later returned to New Zealand alone with her three children.

Mrs Airey said nursing seemed to be a calling for her grandmother.

"She was obviously quite a caring person too ... she used to hold clinics in the back garden. The head house boy used to bring all the mothers with the sick babies to her."

WORLD WAR I: 1914-1918

The keen motorist
Gladys Sandford, 1891-1971

Sheer determination, an inability to take no for an answer and skills tinkering with motorcars is what drove one woman to the battlefields of WW1.

Gladys Sandford, a motoring enthusiast living in an era where men did most of the driving, has become the subject of a children's book released in time for Anzac Day; Gladys Goes to War.

War historian and author Glyn Harper said the keen driver was a determined young woman who wouldn't back down readily.

When her offer to be a motorcar driver during the war was turned down by the Government, Ms Sandford decided to pay her own way over and joined her husband, William Henning, in Cairo, Egypt.

"She was determined to go regardless," Mr Harper said.

"She said [to a women's magazine in 1969], 'when I was young, women weren't supposed to do anything much, even express myself ... For my own part if I found a barrier I'd crash right through it'."

Once in Egypt Ms Sandford drove ambulances for one of the large hospitals until her husband was called to France.

She followed, as close as she could, to London where she initially worked as a cleaner before talking her superiors into allowing her to take charge of an ambulance.

She spent two years dodging air raids as she drove injured soldiers to safety. "It was pretty strenuous, working long hours, but she loved it, she felt she was making a valuable contribution."

After the war, Ms Sandford continued to forge her way within traditionally male-dominated occupations.

She became the first woman to work as a car sales representative in New Zealand, the first to get her pilot's licence and one of the first to cross Australia in a car.

WORLD WAR II: 1939-1945

A wartime love story
Sylvia Tait 1920-2014

There's little good to come out of the carnage of war, but for one Kiwi woman a WWII army camp in Cairo sets the scene for her own love story.

Sylvia Tait was a cashier at Dunedin's Octagon theatre when the war broke out in 1939.

Her daughter Barbara Morrison recalled how her mother was not content to spend the war slogging away in a factory.

She joined the New Zealand Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, trained as a gunner and learned to operate the searchlights before being granted an overseas post at the Maadi Camp.

There she worked as an army clerk, assisting Kiwi men to return home from the battlefields.

Mrs Morrison said her mother was introduced to her future husband by her brother, who was also in Cairo.

"Mum was very taken with Dad from the moment she met this tall handsome man who was full of fun and loved music and dancing as much as she did. He was equally smitten."

The future Mrs Tait was left behind in Egypt in 1945, but distance failed to extinguish the budding romance.

"All the while they wrote each other love letters before they married in June 1946.

"They met in a unique time and were participants in a historic event that reshaped the world and that reason alone gave their relationship a different footing from many," she said.

Mrs Morrison said even years after her father was gone, her mother never forgot the love of her life.

"She had 39 years of marriage to Dad, but another 25 on her own without her beloved Max, whom she still talked about and missed every day of those 25 years."

Moya McKechnie, who served in the Royal Observer Corps during World War II. Photo / Supplied
Moya McKechnie, who served in the Royal Observer Corps during World War II. Photo / Supplied

The observer
Moya McKechnie, born 1916

Enemy aircraft approaching Britain in WWII from the sea were picked up by radar but once they crossed the coast it was up to a keen set of eyes and ears to detect them.

One of those bearing the responsibility was Moya McKechnie, a British woman now living in Auckland.

She was one of thousands in the British Royal Observer Corps dotted around the countryside making up the human surveillance system.

While Mrs McKechnie never spotted an enemy plane, she recalled one incident: "There was one we heard a lot, it worried us and we reported it. In the end we found it was just one of the air force boys having a bit of fun."

Asked if it was tough living through the wars, the soon-to-be centenarian seems to shrug it off. But her daughter, Gaye Lunt, said her parents left Britain for South Africa not long after the war ended in search of a "better life".

Ms Lunt believed the war had left its mark. "Mum's [wartime] generation are people who are happy with less, they don't expect a lot. They make the best with what they have."


A family first
Lieutenant-Colonel Emma Marie Thomas, born 1975

She's the first woman in her family to serve in the armed forces - and has done so successfully for almost two decades as far afield as East Timor and Iraq.

Lieutenant-Colonel Emma Marie Thomas said it was a rewarding career that made her feel as if she was playing her part on the global stage.

"It's one of the reasons why I'm still where I am today."

While she's never been directly involved in combat, being in the logistical service, she's still been to conflict-torn regions including East Timor in 2000 and Iraq in 2004.

There her role was more about the rebuild and providing logistical support to the army.

She said seeing people living in poverty and conflict-torn areas was eye-opening and taught her to appreciate the good things in life.

Ms Thomas joined the army as a cadet in 1997 and had 12 months of training at the Waiouru military camp.

"In hindsight it was the most challenging time in my career to date," she said.
"I went from a cotton-wool environment to being thrown into the army ... it's very regimented."

She was one of 12, from an original contingent of 40 who enrolled, who graduated - about five of them women.

Although combat roles opened to all females a few years after she joined the logistical service, Ms Thomas happily stayed where she was.

"At the end of the day I don't think women want to join the combat trade, but they want the choice."

Ms Thomas, who currently lives in Christchurch, hopes to again head overseas at the end of the year.

But with a long-term partner, Liana Stark, and 2-year-old daughter Sydney Thomas-Stark, it would be a tough call.

"Before I thought I was bullet-proof ... it's going to be a harder thing to do going away with a little family."