Extending the hand of friendship across generations

Imagine for a second that you are in your early twenties. It is the 1980s and you have married your first love. That love has chosen to serve in the Defence Force. You didn’t choose this life, but you cannot help who you fall in love with. You follow your heart and tell your mind to hush now. Yes, the job your husband does is dangerous, even when there is no war to be fought.

Deployments are few and far between and the risks associated with this life and your relationship are outweighed by the rewards, so your husband commits. You start building a family and then, without warning, your life turns upside down. Your worst fears come true. The inherent dangers in the job are realised.

An accident has claimed the life of your husband. You are alone, with your children, trying to make sense of what has just happened. You are confused, angry, sad, heartbroken, exhausted and want to just run away. You yearn for the life you once had, for the rewards that you risked everything for.

A woman welcomes and offers you a new family, one that you greatly embrace, holding on like a child to a parent. The new family is full of women just like you who have been where you are and give you hope that all will be okay. That family is the War Widows.

The War Widows have helped you along your journey. You have been supported emotionally and mentally through the worst period of your life. You have matured beyond your years but the life you yearned for all those years ago when your husband was taken remains. Your love for your first husband never fades, the loss you suffered never fades, but your heart wants to open to another. You let it.

But … it is still the 1980s and according to the social standards at the time, a woman can no longer hold the title ‘war widow’ if you forsake that ‘status’ to marry another. Hurt, dejected and angry you accept the judgement and move on.

Your devotion however remains to the cause, to supporting your community, remembering your first husband, and honouring your current. You devote the next 30 years of your life to that.

That story is based on the experiences of women who once saw War Widows as a place where they belonged. My heart breaks for these widows. I cannot imagine the judgement they endured. I look back and realise just how far societal standards have come in such a short time.

As a child of the 80s I never experienced this firsthand, though I saw it play out on TV. I remain almost horrified to realise it wasn’t make believe. In the 80s, women who worked outside the home were still looked down on, especially if they had children. Pregnancy was a barrier to work and career. University education opportunities for women were limited and you married once, for life.

Though Australian War Widows have a history of being a semi-rebellious organisation, sadly we are and were not immune to the social standards.

In the 80s, the Government made a policy decision to remove the War Widows pension from the widows who had remarried. As our membership at the time was tied to Government policy and definitions, the membership status of those women changed. Though the Government’s policy decision was reversed, it turns out it wasn’t as easy to amend the War Widows NSW Constitution. It didn’t however stop the organisation from trying and it was finally successful in the early 2000s. The changes then went further in 2020, opening the organisation up even further to all those with a connection to Defence service.  

The changes made last year, and finalised this year, are a once in a generation change. We will modernise this organisation, rectify the misgivings of the past while reflecting the current community standards.

Nearly 90% of the Australian War Widows NSW members voted for this change. They voted to extend the hand of friendship to those they let go of, to welcome new generations of women, to stand side by side with them, and build a stronger organisation.

They voted to realise the vision of Jessie Vasey OBE CBE, founder of War Widows. Jessie never intended a fractured community of widows or women impacted by Defence Service. She never intended for us to replicate existing services and support. She intended to unite women around a cause close to their hearts, to care for and support them as only those who have walked similar journeys can.  

I could not be prouder to be part of this organisation. Together with the Board and our team we lead a change that will reunite old friends, strengthen bonds, build bridges, and unite the silent majority.

You are not alone. Australian War Widows NSW is here for you now and tomorrow. We are stronger when we stand side by side together united by a common bond.

Renee Wilson
Chief Executive Officer
Australian War Widows NSW

Montage of nine photos showing elderly women crying and photos from the 1940s