BOMADERRY resident Elva Kielly played in an instrumental role in helping transform the Australian Army from an old-fashioned and sexist organisation into the more relevant and open organisation it is today.
When she joined the army in 1973, any woman who fell pregnant was discharged.
“I loved being in the army and didn’t want to leave, so when I fell pregnant at the age of 20 I was terrified,” Ms Kielly said.
She hid the pregnancy for nearly six months.
“With the help of proper maternity fittings I was able to wear my uniform for some time, but in the end I had to go to the medical officer and report my condition.”
Instead of being discharged, however, the medical officer said he wanted to discuss something with her but first had to make a phone call.
“The person he phoned was the senior officer in charge of all women serving in the army. We enlisted women called her ‘Madam WRAAC’, after the Women’s Royal Australian Army Corps, but her real name was Colonel Kathleen Fowler.
“For some time, Madam WRAAC had been trying to convince the armed forces, not just the army, to introduce maternity leave on the grounds it cost so much to train new personnel to replace those discharged.”
Ms Kielly said the MO sent her to see Colonel Fowler, who explained she wanted her to be the test case for maternity leave for the army.
“The air force and navy weren’t remotely interested, but Colonel Fowler had convinced the army hierarchy to give it a go. She suggested we plan this together, and then we went over the issues that needed to be discussed like babysitting and accommodation – there was no Defence housing for serving women with a baby.
“For my part, I had to report to her regularly, and most importantly let her know when I was ready to take the six months’ maternity leave, which was leave-without-pay, after which I’d be guaranteed a job to return to.”
Ms Kielly said she could not believe her luck.
“I was the right person at the right time. I loved the army, and now I had a chance to stay in the service. When I told my family about it, my dad was very proud of me.”
“We lived in a unit in Queanbeyan, and I had to document every cost to do with my new life, such as food, rent, utilities, doctors’ accounts – as well as anything to do with the baby.
“Madam WRAAC used all of this information to prove her case that the costs of maternity leave were less than the costs involved in dismissing me and training someone new to take my place,” Ms Kielly said.
“My son, who is now over 40, proudly tells everyone he is the baby that changed the way the army does things.”
Despite the offer of a promotion and any posting she wanted, after a year Ms Kielly decided to leave and spend more time with her son.