Photography: The Australian War Memorial
A visit from an American First Lady is an event to rival royalty, so when Eleanor Roosevelt touched down in Australia at the height of a war effort, it was a moment of history feverishly celebrated.
On September 13, 1943 the US First Lady began a trailblazing goodwill tour of Australia visiting American soldiers and the Australian women’s forces, including our WAAAF and WRANS and the women of Monterey, to personally thank them for their work during the war.
The ground-breaking visit of the wife of President Franklin D Roosevelt, who acted as an official ambassador for the Red Cross, has been largely relegated to the annals of history but almost eight decades on, her personal diaries offer a unique insight into role Australian women played during war.
Mrs Roosevelt’s first official engagement was a visit to Canberra to officially open the American embassy. Prime Minister Curtin invited her to be an official guest at a luncheon at Parliament House, the first women ever to do so, before she headed to Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane where thousands lined the streets to catch a glimpse of her.
In Melbourne, she was accompanied by Lady Dugan, wife of the Victorian Governor General, on a whistle stop schedule of visits to wounded American soldiers and the Red Cross headquarters.
But, the tireless campaigner for equality and women’s rights, was particularly interested in highlighting the work Australian women were doing to support the Americans.
"I saw a good sample of the work being done by the women of Australia,"
Mrs Roosevelt visited Government House to see how Lady Dugan had turned the famed ball room into a workroom where teams of women gathered making surgical dressings, then had lunch with the Women’s Australian Auxiliary Air Force before visiting Monterey and the WRANS.
“I saw a good sample of the work being done by the women of Australia,” she wrote in her popular My Day column which was syndicated across America, “and I’m sure what I’ve seen here duplicates itself throughout the country.”
After Monterey, in very quick succession, she met women at work at the Australian Base Postal Unit, women ambulance drivers who, she marvelled “do all their own maintenance work and lift the stretchers in and out.”
“These girls frequently meet our hospital ships and transport our boys. So, you see in how many and varied ways the women of Australia co-operate in war work with us.”
Before finishing the day with a quick whip around a munitions factory, largely run by women and a final meeting with the head of the women’s organisations.
The following morning she was off to Sydney to do the same but before leaving Sydney she insisted on a quick visit to Tooronga Zoo.
“We visited the Zoo so that I might not leave here without seeing some of their prize animals such as the kangaroo (who hopped about so obligingly for us), the little bear (a koala) who is quite a pet and they tell me but whose claws seemed to me to be a menace to my uniform and some beautiful birds.”
At the close of her visit she addressed about 1,000 women at the Earl's Court Theatre Rockhampton, where she spoke of the important function women played by stepping into the roles previously occupied by men.
Prior to her departure from Rockhampton the local Mayor presented Mrs Roosevelt with a special gift on behalf of the citizens of Rockhampton, an engraved emu egg “in a design representing native animals and birds of Central Queensland, in the shape of an electric globe".
The tour was considered a stunning international success.