Page 1: Biography
Jowett, Vida Eliza
Women’s military administrator
This biography, written by Elizabeth Cox, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2000.
Vida Eliza Berry was born on 8 February 1893 in Waimangaroa, on the West Coast, the daughter of Bertha Louisa Harford and her husband, John Morley Berry, a miner. She attended Nelson College for Girls. Vida married Harold Jowett in Apia on 2 August 1917, where he was serving with the New Zealand occupation force in what was formerly German Samoa. Their first child was born there. They lived in Western Samoa during the devastating influenza epidemic that killed over 20 per cent of the population. She served as the secretary of the patriotic society from 1917 to 1918.
They returned to New Zealand in 1919 and settled in Wellington, where Harold worked as a solicitor in partnership and then sole practice. They had a second child while living in Eastbourne and Vida Jowett became involved in the Royal New Zealand Society for the Health of Women and Children (Plunket). She helped to establish the Eastbourne sub-branch in 1922 and later became its president; in 1935 she became president of the Wellington branch and helped oversee the work of the local sub-branches. She also became a member of the dominion council. After the outbreak of the Second World War she spoke to the Wellington branch’s annual meeting in 1940 and stressed the ‘patriotic nature of Plunket work’ and made a special appeal to young mothers to be loyal to the teachings of Plunket.
In 1940 Jowett helped set up the Women’s War Service Auxiliary, a civilian organisation with official status designed to liaise between women’s organisations and government departments. It recruited women to work in military camps throughout New Zealand as clerks, cooks and waitresses and Jowett also helped select women to work in the service clubs in the Middle East.
The army accepted women into its ranks in July 1942. Jowett’s talent for administration was recognised when she was asked to establish the separate women’s service, the New Zealand Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and was appointed its chief commander. Her first action was to tour New Zealand on a recruiting drive. She found that women were anxious to serve, although few details were available about the work, pay or conditions.
During the war WAACs served as drivers, radio operators and signallers, as well as in welfare and clerical sections. Some trained for coastal and anti-aircraft defence work and were part of artillery units. Five thousand women served in the WAACs during the war, 920 overseas; at least 10 died while on overseas service. Jowett’s job entailed arranging training, work, uniforms, and accommodation for the women, and the general organisation of the corps. She treated problems with understanding and tact, and fought with the military authorities for the welfare and future of the WAACs, occasionally threatening resignation.
At the end of the war an official report stated: ‘It is generally acknowledged that during the war, the WAAC proved its worth. Apart from their value in replacing men, it was found that in certain tasks, women were superior to men’. The WAACs became a permanent part of the army in 1948, becoming the New Zealand Women’s Army Corps. Jowett signed the letter to the Queen that led to approval being given for its name being changed to the New Zealand Women’s Royal Army Corps in 1952.
For her work in the WAACs Vida Jowett was appointed an OBE in 1944, and her portrait was painted by the official war artist Peter McIntyre. She relinquished her full-time appointment in 1947, but retained the honorary position of commandant in the Territorials until her retirement in 1953. In 1977 the WRAC was deactivated when women were integrated into the regular army: final parades were held around the country, at which a message from Jowett was read out to all servicewomen.
In the early 1960s Vida and Harold moved to Patea, where Harold worked part time for a Hawera law firm. He died in 1973. In Patea Vida Jowett became interested in art, especially painting. She kept in contact with those who had served under her and was the patron of the New Zealand Women’s Royal Army Corps Association, an organisation for women who had served in the army both during and after the war. She attended as many corps functions as possible, and the official opening of the Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum in 1978, in Waiouru. She died in Patea on 1 June 1982, survived by a son and a daughter.