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Mary Anne's Air Force journey

March 14, 2001

WGCDR Mary Anne Whiting has a unique perspective of the changing role of women in the Air Force. She is one of last women who joined when it was the WRAAF.

When Wing Commander Mary Anne Whiting says her career in the Air Force has taken her 'on a journey', she's not exaggerating.

Mary Anne's journey, which began 32 years ago, has given her a unique perspective on the Air Force, particularly the changing role of its women over three decades.

Mary Anne is one of the last remaining Air Force women who joined when it was known as the Women's Royal Australian Air Force (WRAAF).

'I grew up in an Air Force family (her father spent 27 years as a Navigator) and always had this very romantic idea of what the Services were like,' she recalled. 'All the men in my life were heroes.'

After sampling a few different jobs in her teens, Mary Anne approached her father to say she was 'thinking of joining the Forces'. Within a month she'd joined the Air Force as a Stenographer, and a distinguished and diverse career was launched.

Mary Anne undertook a four-week rookie's course at the Edinburgh Base in South Australia and remembers the WRAAF as 'very different to today'.

'We were entirely segregated from the men. From accommodation to training to how we were looked after - we were very much protected,' she said. 'We ate in the Mess at different times to the men and we were literally marched with blinkers on so that we didn't see them.'

Women recruits, Mary Anne said, never saw a weapon and the only physical activities they did were 'girlie-type' sports such as basketball (netball).

'It was never anything too physical. We were never actually expected to work up a sweat - that wasn't ladylike.'

Even after graduating from the rookie's course and being sent to work on another base, Mary Anne remembers being treated very differently to her male counterparts.

'At least then we were allowed to eat in the same Mess as the men, but it was frowned upon if you made a habit of sitting with them too often.'

She also said any hint of pregnancy or marriage among the WRAAF was an immediate ticket out of the Air Force.

Rank structures, too, differed immensely; when Mary Anne joined, the highest rank she could achieve was Sergeant.

'We may have been in the Forces, but we were all trained to eventually become good housewives and mothers in the end. There weren't too many girls who stayed on into their 30s.'

It wasn't until the mid 1970s - the height of the women's liberation movement - that the decision was made to amalgamate the WRAAF with the RAAF.

'If ever there was a revolution in the Defence Forces then that was it, that was a major event,' she admitted.

Suddenly, women were able to compete on an even keel with men for positions, postings and, further down the track, equal pay.

'You've got to remember that in the old WRAAF days, women were only getting 75 per cent of the male wage.'

Certain changes came slowly but, as Mary Anne puts it, now there's virtually nothing that women in the Air Force can't do.

'The role played by the Chief has also changed,' she stressed. 'Back when I started, CAF was someone who you only saw in photos on the wall. Now he's someone much more approachable.'

She may be a little biased but, for a myriad reasons, Mary Anne highly recommends a career in the Air Force for young women today.

'Oh absolutely. There's a whole range of things open to women - or men for that matter - these days. Every job I've had has been different from the one before,' she enthused.

'I've been very lucky in my Service career in that I've seen it from different perspectives - as a child of a RAAF member, as a troop, a junior officer and now a senior officer.'

Story and photograph by Ben Caddaye