Canadian women during the world wars
During the twentieth century women of the world became indispensable in the world wars because they were total wars that required the maximum effort of the civilian population. While Canadians were deeply divided on the issue of conscription for men, there was wide agreement that women had important new roles to play in the home, in civic life, in industry, in nursing, and even in military uniforms. Historians debate whether there was much long-term impact on the postwar roles of women. However, the role of women was fairly minimal compared to the role of men.
- 1 World War One
- 2 Second World War
- 3 References
- 4 Further reading
World War One
Julia Grace Wales published the Canada Plan, a proposal to set up a mediating conference consisting of intellectuals from neutral nations who would work to find a suitable solution for the First World War. The plan was presented to the United States Congress, but despite arousing the interest of President Wilson, failed when the US entered the war.
During the First World War, there was virtually no female presence in the Canadian armed forces, with the exception of the 3141 nurses serving overseas and on the home front. Of these women, 328 had been decorated by King George V, and 46 gave their lives in the line of duty. Even though a number of these women received decorations for their efforts, many high-ranking military personnel still felt that they were unfit for the job. One notable adversary of the effort was Col. Guy Carleton Jones, who stated that, “Active service work is extremely severe, and a large portion of R.N.’s are totally unfit for it, mentally or physically.” Although the Great War, had not officially been opened up to women, they did feel the pressures at home. There had been a gap in employment when the men enlisted; many women strove to fill this void along with keeping up with their responsibilities at home. When war broke out Laura Gamble enlisted in the Canadian Army Medical Corps, because she knew that her experience in a Toronto hospital would be an asset to the war efforts. Canadian nurses where the only nurses of the Allied armies who held the rank of officers. Gamble was presented with a Royal Red Cross, 2nd Class medal, for her show of “greatest possible tact and extreme devotion to duty.” This was awarded to her at Buckingham Palace during a special ceremony for Canadian nurses. Health care practitioners had to deal with medical anomalies they had never seen during the First World War. The chlorine gas that was used by the Germans caused injuries that treatment protocols had not yet been developed for. The only treatment that soothed the Canadian soldiers affected by the gas was the constant care they received from the nurses. Canadian nurses were especially well known for their kindness.
Canadians had expected that women would feel sympathetic to the war efforts, but the idea that they would contribute in such a physical way was absurd to most. Because of the support that women had shown from the beginning of the war, people began to see their value. In May 1918, a meeting was held to discuss the possible creation of the Canadian Women's Corps. In September, the motion was approved, but the project was pushed aside because the wars end was in sight.
Women at Home
On the Canadian home front, there were many ways which women could participate in the war effort. Not only did women help raise money; they rolled bandages, knitted socks mitts, sweaters, and scarves for the men serving overseas. Women raised money to send cigarettes and candy overseas and comfort the fighting men. Canadian women were encouraged to marshal support for the war by persuading wives and mothers to allow their men and sons to enlist. During the war, an immense amount of pressure was laid on women to do their part. One of women’s largest contributions to the war was in the form of voluntary organisations. Through different organisations women volunteered millions of hours of unpaid labour. One of the biggest organisations that middle class women participated in was the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire. The IODE strongly advocated imperialist sentiment. By WWI the IODE was of the largest Canadians women’s voluntary associations. The IODE organised writing competitions to raise awareness of the war and bring patriotic feeling to Canadian children. Lois Allan joined the Farm Services Corps in 1918, to replace the men who were sent to the front. Allan was placed at E.B. Smith and Sons where she hulled strawberries for jam. Jobs were opened up at factories as well, as industrial production increased. Work days for these women consisted of ten to twelve hours, six days a week. Because the days consisted of long monotonous work, many women made of parodies of popular songs to get through the day and boost morale. Depending on the area of Canada, some women were given a choice to sleep in either barracks or tents at the factory or farm that they were employed at. According to a brochure that was issued by the Canadian Department of Public Works, there were several areas in which it was appropriate for women to work. These were:
- On fruit or vegetable farms.
- In the camps to cook for workers.
- On mixed and dairy farms.
- In the farmhouse to help feed those who are raising the crops.
- In canneries, to preserve the fruit and vegetables.
- To take charge of milk routes.
In addition many women were involved in charitable organization such as the Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club, which helped provide the needs of soldiers, families of soldiers and the victims of war. Women were deemed ‘soldiers on the home front’, encouraged to use less or nearly everything, and to be frugal in order to save supplies for the war efforts.
Women suffrage in Canada took off during the First World War. As many men were overseas in the trenches, women entered the workforces and gained new responsibilities on the home front. As well, wealthy highly educated and Canadian born white women began to question why poor, illiterate immigrant men could vote when they could not. The Suffrage movement met opposition by men and the Catholic Church (Quebec) who believed that women were ill-suited for politics and that women leaving the home would break up the traditional family. This opposition was most prominent in Quebec, where the Catholic Church had a strong-hold on society. The church vigorously opposed women’s right to vote as they believed that women leaving the home would lead to poorly raised children. The church was successful women in Quebec were not granted the right to vote provincially until 1940, fifteen years after the second last province to grant women voting rights. The right to vote in provincial elections was granted between 1916-1940 (see below for statistics).
- MB, SK, AB: 1916
- ON, BC: 1917
- NS, NB: 1918, 1919
- PEI, NL: 1922, 1925
Women’s federal voting rights changed in 1917 with the Wartime Elections Act. This act granted voting rights to women with relatives in the military. This act was a huge step for the Suffrage movement in Canada. And in 1919 the Act to Confer the Electoral Franchise upon Women" was passed granting all women the right to vote federally, except Quebec which held out federally and provincially until 1940.
Second World War
An obligation to fight
When Canada declared war in 1939, women felt obligated to help the fight. In October 1938, the Women’s Volunteer Service was established in Victoria, British Columbia. A recruitment event was held in hopes of gaining around 20 new volunteers; over 100 women arrived to join the efforts. Shortly after, more British Columbian women felt the need to do their part, and when the 13 corps joined together the B.C. Women’s Service Corps was created. Soon after, all the other Canadian provinces and territories followed suit and similar volunteer groups emerged. “Husbands, brothers, fathers, boyfriends were all joining up, doing something to help win the war. Surely women could help as well!” In addition to the Red Cross, several volunteer corps had designed themselves after auxiliary groups from Britain. These corps had uniforms, marching drills and a few had rifle training. It soon was clear, that a unified governing system would be beneficial to the corps. The volunteers in British Columbia donated $2 each to pay the expenses so a representative could talk to politicians in Ottawa. Although all of the politicians appeared sympathetic to the cause, it remained ‘premature’ in terms of national necessity.
Canada was later in granting this permission than the rest of the Commonwealth. The British Mechanized Transport Corps had begun to see the women of Canada as a great asset to the war effort, and began to look into the recruitment of these women for their purposes. In June 1941, they were officially given permission to recruit women in Canada for overseas duty. It quickly became apparent that it would look very odd for the British to be recruiting in Canada when, no there was no corresponding Canadian service. However, many of the women who were active in the various volunteer corps did not meet the requirements to be enlisted women. The majority of these women were older than the accepted age, would not pass the fitness test, or had physical or medical impairments. It was quickly realized that the women needed had jobs and were not free to join.
Canadian Women's Army Corps
In June 1941, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) was established. The women who enlisted took over
- Drivers of light mechanical transport vehicles
- Cooks in hospitals and messes
- Clerks, typists, and stenographers at camps and training centers
- Telephone operators and messengers
- Canteen helpers
An element of the Royal Canadian Navy, the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS) was active during the Second World War and post-war years. This unit was part of the Royal Canadian Naval Reserve until unification in 1968. The WRCNS (or Wrens) was modelled on the Women's Royal Naval Service, which had been active during the First World War and then revived in 1939. The Royal Canadian Navy was slow to create a women's service, and established the WRCNS in July 1942, nearly a year after the Canadian Women's Army Corps and the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division. By the end of the war however nearly 7,000 women had served with the WRCNS in 39 different trades. The WRCNS was the only corps that was officially a part of their sanctioning body as a women’s division.[clarification needed] This led to bureaucratic issues that would be solved most easily by absorbing the civilian corps governed by military organizations, into women’s divisions as soldiers.
Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force and RCAF Women's Division
The Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force (CWAAF) was formed in 1941 as an element of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). Changing to the Women's Division (WD) in 1942, this unit was formed to take over positions that would allow more men to participate in combat and training duties. The original 1941 order-in-council authorized "the formation of a component of the Royal Canadian Air Force to be known as the Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force, its function being to release to heavier duties those members of the RCAF employed in administrative, clerical and other comparable types of service employment." Among the many jobs carried out by WD personnel, they became clerks, drivers, fabric workers, hairdressers, hospital assistants, instrument mechanics, parachute riggers, photographers, air photo interpreters, intelligence officers, instructors, weather observers, pharmacists, wireless operators, and Service Police. Although the Women's Division was discontinued in 1946 after wartime service, women were not permitted to enter the RCAF until 1951.
According to the RCAF the following are the requirements of an enlisted woman:
- Must be at least 18 years of age, and younger than 41 years of age
- Must be of medical category A4B (equivalent of A1)
- Must be equal to or over 5 feet (152 cm), and fall within the appropriate weight for her height, not being too far above or below the standard
- Must have a minimum education of entrance into high school
- Be able to pass the appropriate trades test
- Be of good character with no record of conviction for an indictable offence
Women would not be considered for enlistment:
- If they hold permanent Civil Service appointments
- If they are married women who have children dependent on them for care and upbringing (i.e. Sons under 16 years and daughters under 18 years)
Over 4000 women served as nurses in uniform in the Canadian Armed Forces during the war. They were called "nursing sisters". They they had already been professionally trained in civilian life, but in military service they achieved an elite status well above what they had experienced as civilians. The nursing sisters had much more responsibility and autonomy, and had more opportunity to use their expertise, then civilian nurses. They were often close to the front lines, and the military doctors – all men – delegated significant responsibility to the nurses because of the high level of casualties, the shortages of physicians, and extreme working conditions.
Recruitment and training
Training centres were required for all of the new recruits. They could not be sent to the existing centres as it was necessary that they be separated from male recruits. The Canadian Women’s Army Corps set up centres in Vermilion, Alberta, and Kitchener, Ontario. Ottawa and Toronto were the locations of the training centres for the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force. The Wrens were outfitted in Galt, Ontario. Each service had to come up with the best possible appeal to the women joining, for they all wanted them. In reality, the women went where their fathers, brothers and boyfriends were.
Women had numerous reasons for wanting to join the effort; whether they had a father, husband, or brother in the forces, or simply felt the patriotic duty to help. One woman exclaimed that she could not wait to turn eighteen to enlist, because she had fantasies of assassinating Hitler. Many women lied about their age to enlist, usually girls around the age of 16 or 17. A few girls made it through between the ages of 12 to 15, not unknown to their fellow recruits, as a couple even brought their teddy bears to basic. The United States would only allow women to join who were at least 21, so many considered going to Canada. Recruitment for the different branches of the Canadian Forces was set up in places like Boston and New York. Modifications were made to girls with US citizenship, having their records marked, “Oath of allegiance not taken by virtue of being a citizen of the United States of America.” Interested women were encouraged not to give up their current employment until their acceptance was confirmed by the respective military group, as they may not meet the strict entrance requirements. Women were obligated to conform to the same enlistment requirements as men. They had to adhere to medical examinations, and fitness requirements as well as training in certain trades depending on the aspect of the armed forces they wanted to be a part of. Enlisted women were issued entire uniforms minus the undergarments, which they received a quarterly allowance for.
To be an enlisted woman during the creation stages was not easy. Besides the fact that everyone was learning as they went, they did not receive the support they needed from the male recruits. Women were initially paid two-thirds of what a man at the same level made. As the war progressed the military leaders began to see the substantial impact the women could make. In many cases the women had outperformed their male counterparts. This was taken into account and the women received a raise to four-fifths of the wages of a man. A female doctor however, received equal financial compensation to her male counterpart. One commander argued that it would be impossible for female recruits to reach the location of his station, even though it was located only three and a half miles from the city and was serviced by a paved road and a bus route The negative reaction of men towards the female recruits was addressed in propaganda films. Proudly She Marches and Wings on Her Shoulder were made to show the acceptance of female recruits, while showing the men that although they were taking jobs traditionally intended for men, they would be able to retain their femininity.
Other problems faced early on for these women were that of a more racial stature. An officer of the Canadian Women's Army Corps had to write to her superiors regarding whether or not a woman of “Indian nationality” would be objected for enlistment. Because of Canada’s large population of immigrants, German women also enlisted creating great animosity between recruits. The biggest difficulty was however the French-Canadian population. In a document dated 25 November 1941, it was declared that enlisted women should ‘unofficially’ speak English. However, seeing the large number of capable women that this left out, a School of English was stabled for recruits in mid-1942.
Once in training, some women felt that they had made a mistake. Several women cracked under the pressure and were hospitalized, while others took their own lives. Other women felt the need to escape, and simply ran away. The easiest and fasted ticket home however was pregnancy. Women who found out that they were expecting were giving a special quickly executed discharge.
The women who successfully graduated from training had to find ways to entertain themselves to keep morale up. Softball, badminton, tennis, and hockey were among popular pastimes for recruits.
Religion was of a personal matter to the recruits. A minister of sorts was usually on site for services. For Jewish girls, it was custom that they were able to get back to their barracks by sundown on Sabbath and holidays; a rabbi would be made available if possible.
At the beginning of the war 600,000 women in Canada held permanent jobs in the private sector, by the peak in 1943 1.2 million women had jobs. Women quickly gained a good reputation for their mechanical dexterity and fine precision due to their smaller stature. At home a woman could work as:
- Cafeteria workers
- Loggers or lumberjills
- Munitions workers
Women also had to keep their homes together while the men were away. “An Alberta mother of nine boys, all away at either war or factory jobs – drove the tractor, plowed the fields, put up hay, and hauled grain to the elevators, along with tending her garden, raising chickens, pigs, and turkeys, and canned hundreds of jars of fruits and vegetables.”
In addition to physical jobs, women were also asked to cut back and ration. Silk and nylon were used for the war efforts, creating a shortage of stockings. Many women actually painted lines down the back of their legs to create the illusion of wearing the fashionable stockings of the time.
In 1919, the construction of the World War I Canadian nurses memorial began under the direction of artist G.W. Hills. The monument is located in the Parliament of Canada's, Hall of Honour, Ottawa. The monument was finalized and unveiled in 1926, to commemorate the significance of Canadian nurses during World War I.
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