The Occasional Journal

Love Feminisms

November 2015

Gender and the ANZAC Biscuit

Lindsay Neill

ANZAC biscuits are an invented tradition that have, over time, reinforced constructs of patriarchy.1 Google “patriarchy” and, within 0.32 seconds, 5,200,000 results appear.2 However, a search using “patriarchy and ANZAC biscuits” as key words, among 1,190,000 results, does not generate a single direct link.3 Google can assist with a definition, though, proposing “patriarchy” as:

… a social system in which: males hold primary power; males predominate in roles of political leadership, moral authority, social privilege and control of property; and, in the domain of the family, fathers or father-figures hold authority over women and children.4

This article explores the socio-temporal space of the ANZAC biscuit by asserting that its patriarchal overtones have not changed since its Gallipoli-era genesis. ANZAC biscuits, in Aotearoa New Zealand, are a taken for granted part of national history, culinary and material culture. ANZAC biscuits align to banal nationalism in the same way that the kiwi and the All Blacks are part of New Zealanders’ collective psyche.5 These items form subtle, unquestioned identifiers, providing ways of being and becoming. Yet ANZAC biscuits reinforce outdated gender roles, emphasising a patriarchal world view schema.

Following the recent commemoration of the centenary of the ANZAC Gallipoli campaign, it is timely to explore the patriarchal nature of the ANZAC biscuit and to question its gendered associations. In this sense, the ANZAC biscuit, as part of material culture, reflects a relationship between “active agents, or actants.”6 This view, central to Actor-network Theory (ANT),7 is controversial because it implies that material objects hold equity to the agency of people; a construct referred to as “ontological equity.”8 While associated with Latour,9 ANT was earlier exemplified within the research of Michel Callon. He argued that farmed scallops were active agents or actants because the fishermen farming them had to adapt their own behaviours to suit the needs of the scallops.10 This aligns Callon’s scallops to the social lives11 or “biographies”12 of material culture. Materiality, exemplified by the ANZAC biscuit, becomes actant as distance is created between its capitalist commodity value and its de-commodified status, which brings with it deeper psychological meaning. ANZAC biscuits reflect these constructs as a “signature food because they stand for something more than themselves.”13 

ANZAC Biscuits: A History

ANZAC stands for “Australian and New Zealand Army Corps … [it] was formed in Egypt in 1915 and operated during the battle of Gallipoli.”14 While commonly associated with the military of Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, ANZAC units included the “British 13th (Western division); the Zion Mule Corps; the 7th Brigade of the Indian Mountain Artillery; [and] the Ceylon Planters Rifle Corps.” 15

Recent research by the National Army Museum revealed that the ANZAC biscuits’ association with Gallipoli is at odds with popular thought:

Contrary to popular belief, there were no ANZAC biscuits at Gallipoli. The standard Army biscuit at this time was a rock-hard tooth-breaker also called the ship’s biscuit … It’s a myth that ANZAC biscuits were sent and eaten by troops in Gallipoli. Some evidence suggests a rolled oats biscuit was sent to troops on the Western Front, although this was not widespread.16

It was, in fact, the gingernut and the dry ship’s biscuit that ANZAC soldiers ‘enjoyed’. Sarah Johnston’s research, conveyed via Robyn Martin and Radio New Zealand, suggested that ANZAC biscuits were “likely to have been too fragile to have survived the trip to the Dardanelles.”17 As Martin noted:

We found this recording made in the 1960s of Mrs Helena Marion Bernard [aka The Gingernut Lady] … talking about this amazing feat that she’d baked all these gingernuts … four and a half tonnes [of them] … all through World War One and then through World War Two and she gave the recipe … Ms Johnston said she believed market-savvy home bakers attached the name ANZAC to their oaty biscuits after the war to help promote sales at fundraising stalls. 18

Bernard’s recollections support the position of that “the wives, mothers and girlfriends” keenly supported their soldier ‘families’ by sending homemade biscuits, and that ANZAC biscuits were a post-Gallipoli phenomenon.19

However, ANZAC biscuits are linked in common thinking to the ANZAC/Gallipoli campaign of World War One. While gingernuts and ships biscuits were staple fare, academic literature dismisses the ANZAC biscuits’ direct consumption link to Gallipoli and three popularly-held theories: Firstly, that soldiers may have baked ANZAC biscuits onsite, which has been suggested as unlikely by the National Museum of Australia, as soldiers would not have had access to the ingredients required to make the biscuits.20 Secondly, that ANZAC biscuits may have been made at, then distributed from, the Australian 1st Field Bakery, stationed on Imbros Island, near the Gallipoli peninsular; however, Charles Bean’s history of the bakery recounted that only bread was made there, not ANZAC biscuits. And finally, that ANZAC biscuits were most likely made by women in Australia and Aotearoa New Zealand, then sent to their loved ones serving at in the Gallipoli campaign.21

The final position indeed holds some support; Sian Supski stated that “During World War 1, the wives, mothers and girlfriends of the Australian soldiers were concerned at the nutritional value of the food being supplied to their men … women came up with the answer — a biscuit with all the nutritional value possible.”22 At the time it would have been natural for mothers, sisters, aunts and girlfriends to bake, and send off, biscuits capable of transcending the “tyranny of distance.”23 Supporting this theory are the ANZAC biscuits’ ingredients: no eggs, but the inclusion of golden syrup. Golden syrup has a humectant quality, which serves to engender a longer shelf life in a baked product, enhancing durability during periods of transport/travel.

Food writer Lois Daish noted:

At first I despaired of there being any truth to the myth that I grew up with, that these biscuits were sent in food parcels to soldiers in the trenches of Europe. Then I received a phone call from Beverley Bennett, who told me that her mother, Edith Shore, now aged 92, has clear memories of her girlhood during World War I, when she had helped her own mother pack Anzac biscuits into large golden syrup tins, which were then sent off to the front.24

Later, she continued:

So far, the earliest published recipe to be found in either country is a New Zealand one for Anzac Crispies, published in Dunedin in 1921 in the ninth edition of the St. Andrews Cookery Book … we may feel a touch of national pride that this was two years earlier than the first documented Australian recipe.25

It must be remembered that during the First World War gender roles, in comparison to today, were prescribed. Exemplifying this, the wife of New Zealand’s then Governor, Lady Liverpool made an appeal to New Zealand’s women:

At this moment of our Empire’s needs I appeal to the women of New Zealand to assist me in trying to provide any necessaries which may be required for … the citizen army …. My suggestion would be to start a fund in every centre under a small committee of ladies.

Her request was enthusiastically taken up; around 900 women’s organisations throughout Aotearoa New Zealand operated during the First World War.26 Women were actively engaged in working bees: knitting items for soldiers, stitching clothing, and filling kit bag requirements, including “two pairs each of socks and underpants; two each of woollen shirts and undershirts, towels and cholera belts; and one handkerchief, chest protector, pair of braces, holdall, balaclava cap, service bag for rations and ‘housewife’ [a darning kit]”. Other women devoted their time to supplying hospital and soldier healthcare needs.27

A limited number of women saw war action. During World War One, “550 nurses served overseas with the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, while others enlisted in the United Kingdom.”28 But, for the most part, women at this time were encouraged to take the “traditional role of keeping the home fires burning, and were encouraged to knit as part of their contribution to the soldiers’ comforts”.29 Their contribution reinforced gender roles that endure today. This was reflected in culinary activity. “Women in their everyday lives, through the simple creation of biscuits, contributed to one of Australia’s [and Aotearoa New Zealand’s] most enduring forms of public memory: the remembrance of Anzac Day.”30

A Nation’s Birth without Women

ANZAC Day remembrance is a double-edged sword. The remembrance is not of victory, but of ‘spirit’; the spirited nature of the men who fought at Gallipoli and did not return. For Aotearoa New Zealand and Australia, despite the lack of campaign success, Gallipoli represents birth of a nation via baptism of fire. This baptism of fire is evidenced in the ANZAC casualties; by the time ANZAC troops were evacuated from the area on 20 December 1915, “around 18,000 New Zealanders died in or because of the war, and there were 41,000 instances of wounding or illness; 2779 died at Gallipoli and more than 12,000 on the Western Front.”31

Former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating encapsulated the war loss, and echoed the sense of achievement resulting from it:

It is a legend not of sweeping military victories so much as triumphs against the odds, of courage and ingenuity in adversity. It is a legend of free and independent spirits whose discipline derived less from military formalities and customs than from the bonds of mateship and the demands of necessity.32 

Accordingly, ANZAC biscuits can be seen to link with consumer ideals of ‘boxing above your weight’, adversity, mateship, belonging, necessity and innovation. These characteristics parallel themes common to male Kiwi identity.33

Reinforcing this male Kiwi identity, New Zealand’s Returned Services Association noted that “the ‘Spirit of Anzac”34 was forged when Australians and New Zealanders (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) stood side by side as comrades through two world wars. The term stands for values of courage, camaraderie, compassion and commitment.” Latterly, the New Zealand Returned Services Association has used these attributes to focus values within contemporary society:

Today, the Anzac spirit still represents everything we respect. It’s multi-cultural, multi-generational and inclusive, and now it’s not all about war. It’s about honouring and celebrating courage, selflessness and service wherever it happens in our communities. It requires us to stand strong together, help each other out and try to share a good-natured sense of humour through good times and the not so good. The spirit of Anzac is a stand against loss of community spirit and connection, isolation, loneliness and selfishness. It’s rock solid — built on the traditional values that keep communities strong, and are more relevant today than ever. [Do these traditional values include the role of women?].35

ANZAC remembrance also reflects on the birth of the nation. Yet the birth of the nation omits one key element: the role of women. Women have been excluded from the Gallipoli myth of the nation’s birth, with preference given to their ‘place’ as keepers of the ‘home fire’. Consequently, mothers who gave birth to sons who perished during the war did not have their role attributed as part of the sacrifices made in the nation’s birth. This lack of attribution reinforces patriarchal dominance. New Zealand women (and their Australian counterparts) have been shortchanged; the founding and ‘birth’ of nation has been attributed to men, especially the war dead.

Australian academics have recognised this, and a similar observation is equally applicable in Aotearoa New Zealand encapsulating this ‘oversight’: 

The metaphor of men’s procreation involved a disappearing act. In this powerful national myth-making, the blood women shed in actually giving birth — their deaths, their courage and endurance, their babies — were rendered invisible. In determining the meaning of men’s deeds — their landing at Gallipoli — women’s procreative capacities were at once appropriated and erased. Men’s deeds were rendered simultaneously sacred and seminal. Though women gave birth to the population, only men it seemed could give birth to the imperishable political entity of the nation.36

This observation recognises that Australasian women have been usurped of their rights as women. This is compounded by the nature of how material culture ‘sits’ within gender and how it tends to serve dominating power structures; in this case patriarchy. In a similar way, the contemporary ANZAC biscuit can be read as an enduring tool of patriarchy, designed to keep women engaged in baking and bandage-rolling while men ‘get on with the real business.’

However, the attribution of the men’s role alone, in terms of sacrifice made to the nation’s birth, must be challenged. As a new world nation, Aotearoa New Zealand is uniquely placed and mature enough to recognise a revised history incorporating women as the nation’s co-constructors. The country holds a proud and deserved reputation for social justice. The suggestion that women ‘only’ gave birth to our nation’s cannon fodder does justice to neither the fallen, nor their mothers. New Zealand’s women not only bore children but also bore active witness to history through their participation. The romanticised New Zealand of gingernuts and ANZAC biscuits has endured long enough. The age of ‘golden weather’ is over. The place and contribution of women, within World War One, should stand shoulder to shoulder with that of their male counterparts.

However, clouding gender equity in war history was popular belief of the time. Then, popular rhetoric promoted “man [as] with the warrior knight and women [as] with the damsel in distress to be protected from the bestial foe.”37 This assertion demeaned women as being “weeping, waiting and working as wives, mothers and sweethearts”; themes belying reality.38 The military viewed women as unsuitable, doing “as much as possible to prevent women enlisting and participation in combat out of patriarchal principles.”39 From a militaristic viewpoint women were “the least wanted persons there [in war because they] were ‘hysterical women.’”40 Then, as now, women actively challenged a dominating patriarchy.

An immediate challenge was exemplified by Dorothy Lawrence. Lawrence joined the British Army disguised as a man and, while her service lasted only 10 days, it exemplified the steps necessary to “join up”.41 In Russia, Maria Bochkareva founded a female battalion of 2000 women, of which 250 “saw action on the Austrian Front fighting together with units of male soldiers.” Not only did Bochkareva’s unit engage the enemy, it was “used” to “shame men [who had] grown diffident about the war into fighting.”42 Other war-women of note included Russian Eugenie Mikhailovna Shakhovskaya, the country’s first female military pilot; Loretta Walsh, America’s first naval recruit; and Flora Sandes, the “first woman to be commissioned as an officer in the Serbian army and the only British woman to officially enlist as a soldier in World War 1.”43 These women could be said to have equalled the stature of contemporary New Zealand war hero Willy Apiata.

However, military leadership maintained double standards, situating women not as combatants but as sources of inexpensive labour, best used in support services. As Professor Joanna Burke notes: “In World War One, approximately 80,000 women served in the three British women’s forces as non-combatants.”44 Like men, many women around the globe made the ultimate war sacrifice. Edith Cavell, who bravely aided the escape of Allied soldiers, was executed by the Germans in 1915 as a spy. After an attack by German warships in December 1914, 102 people were killed in Old and West Hartlepool. The deaths included Britain’s first female casualties, “Hilda Horsley … Annie and Florence Kay.”45

Within Aotearoa New Zealand, Ettie Rout stands out as an advocate of women’s rights, authorship, unionism and leadership during the First World War. Rout’s appearance proclaimed her unique individuality:

… unorthodox dress [for the time]: short skirts, men’s boots and sometimes trousers … gain[ing] public profile as a cyclist, vegetarian, freethinker and physical culturist. Tall, fit and endowed with a superabundance of energy, she was one of those women who were ‘peculiar enough to be as God Almighty intended them to be — the equals of men, physically and mentally’.46

Rout was ahead of her time, not only in her dress sensibility but also in her realisation of independence, a theme not generally embraced by other women until after the war. In 1915, Rout initiated the New Zealand Volunteer Sisterhood. The organisation’s open invitation to women aged 30–50 was to care for New Zealand soldiers in Egypt.47 While opposed by government, Rout mustered 12 volunteers who ventured forth.

In Egypt, Rout was shocked at the number of soldiers with venereal disease. Reflecting Rout’s forward thinking, she addressed the issue pragmatically by advocating the use of prophylactics, an idea rejected by the New Zealand Medical Corps.48 Despite this setback, Rout, in 1917, consulted with the foremost experts in London and consequently produced her own prophylactic kits, on-selling them to soldiers. 

By the end of 1917 the New Zealand Expeditionary Forces had adopted Rout’s kit, distributing them to any man on leave. Typifying the denial women like Rout experienced, she:

… received no credit for her role in the kit’s development and adoption, and for the duration of the war the cabinet banned her from New Zealand newspapers under the War Regulations. Mention of her brought a possible £100 fine.49 

Rout moved to Paris in 1918, setting up a sole-charge “social and sexual welfare service for soldiers.”50 There she recommended brothels to soldiers that met her hygiene inspection criteria. Rout’s contribution was recognised by the French, who awarded her the Reconnaissance Française medal. In 1936, possibly reflecting the pressures, she conveyed her feelings to H.G Wells, stating, “It’s a mixed blessing to be born too soon.” Rout committed suicide by an overdose of quinine.51

Rout didn’t make gingernuts or ANZAC biscuits, but her contribution to the First World War was significant. Within a New Zealand context, Rout exemplified not only a unique determinism and forward-thinking perspective, but also the ANZAC spirit. More than this, Rout embodied the characteristics of ‘Kiwiness’ usually attributed to men. These included her ability to turn her hand to almost anything, having a creative and innovative ‘number eight wire’ mentality, borne out of the culture of gendered necessity having experienced discrimination. Rout, and women like her, fought two wars simultaneously: one against the enemy of the day, and another against the ‘enemy’ that is a stubborn patriarchy denying women’s place in war’s theatre and history.

ANZAC biscuits provide valuable historical and contemporary insights. As actant materiality, ANZAC biscuits have taken on a ‘life of their own’. They have become part of Aotearoa New Zealand’s mythology. Like any myth, ANZAC biscuits reflect a combination of traditional historical narrative incorporating supernatural events and being as well as false beliefs and ideas. These domains have served to reinforce New Zealand-ness. However, rather than perpetuating myth, this paper encourages readers to question the taken-for-granted nature of material culture.

About the author

Lindsay Neill is a Senior Lecturer in Hospitality Management at the Auckland University of Technology (AUT), New Zealand. Lindsay has published two co-authored books, The Great New Zealand Pie Cart, and The New Zealand Chef; the latter winning both the New Zealand Guild of Food Writers Judges Special Prize (2013) as well as Best Tertiary Education Book from the New Zealand Publishers and Copyright Association (2013). Lindsay’s research interests include New Zealand’s vernacular culture, especially kiwiana and food as well as wider issues related to themes of New Zealand identity. Lindsay is busy completing a PhD exploring the experiences of migrant communities within constructs of kiwi identity and the materiality of kiwiana.