Women

In the face of distinct challenges, women have proven their commitment to Canada's freedom with their dedication and bravery on both the home front and battlefield.

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Nursing Sisters voting at a Canadian Hospital in France

Photo: Nursing Sisters at a Canadian Hospital in France voting in the Canadian federal election. December 1917. Credit: Library and Archives Canada PA-002279

Women in the Canadian military

Introduction

Canadian women have played an important role in our country's military efforts over the years, overcoming many barriers to serve in uniform as nurses and in an expanding variety of other roles. This service continues today, with females now serving alongside their male counterparts in all Canadian Forces trades.

The First World War

Canadian women's first military contributions were as nurses who tended to the sick and wounded in times of conflict. They were called "Nursing Sisters" because they were originally drawn from the ranks of religious orders. More than 2,800 Canadian Nursing Sisters served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War, often close to the front lines of Europe and within range of enemy attack. With their blue dresses and white veils, they were nicknamed the "bluebirds" and were greatly respected because of their compassion and courage. Canadian women were not permitted to serve in other military roles during the First World War.

A Wren operates Direction Fiding equipment

A "Wren" operating Direction Finding equipment at HMCS Coverdale station near Moncton, New Brunswick. August 1945. Photo: Department of National Defence / Library and Archives Canada PA-142540.

The Second World War

The Second World War would see Canadian women returning to serve again as nursing sisters. This time, approximately 4,500 nurses were attached to all three branches of Canada's military, with more than two-thirds of them serving overseas. Second World War nursing sisters wore a military uniform with a traditional white veil. These young women were commissioned officers and were respectfully addressed as "Sister" or "Ma'am." In fact, Canada's military nurses were the first in any Allied country to have officer status. Canadian women would also serve in other military roles during the war, however, and some 50,000 eventually enlisted in the air force, army and navy.

  • Royal Canadian Air Force - Women's Division (RCAF-WD)

    On July 2, 1941 the Women's Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) was created—a first for our country. By the end of the war it totalled some 17,000 members. The RCAF did not train their female recruits to be flying instructors or combatants (indeed, the spirit of their participation is best described by the division's slogan, "We serve that men may fly"). They were initially trained for clerical, administrative and support roles. As the war continued, however, women would also work in other positions like parachute riggers and laboratory assistants, and even in the very male-dominated electrical and mechanical trades. Many RCAF-WD members were sent to Great Britain to serve with Canadian squadrons and headquarters there.

  • Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC)

    The CWAC was officially established on August 13, 1941 and by war's end, it had some 21,000 members. Initially, CWAC members' duties were quite traditional and they worked as cooks, cleaners, tailors and medical assistants. However, these duties would expand to include more traditionally male jobs such as driving trucks and ambulances, and working as mechanics and radar operators. While most CWACs served in Canada, three companies of female soldiers were posted overseas in 1943.

  • Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS)

    The Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (whose members were familiarly known as the "Wrens" after the nickname of their British Royal Navy counterparts), was officially established on July 31, 1942. The last Canadian military branch to recruit women, the Wrens grew to number some 7,000. They initially performed clerical and administrative tasks so more men could be made available for duty at sea. Eventually, Wrens would expand on these roles as well to do things like being on-shore radar operators and coding technicians.

Post-Second World War

After the Second World War, the Canadian military shut down the women's organizations. With the onset of the Cold War and the Korean War, however, the military soon faced a shortage of personnel and some 5,000 women were again actively recruited. While only a handful of nursing sisters were sent to Korea, some servicewomen back in Canada filled the same kinds of roles they had during the Second World War. Their numbers began to decline in the mid-1950s, however, as new technology reduced the requirement for personnel in many trades.

An important aspect of the Korean War was the return of Canadian and American wounded, who were supported by nurses from the USAF, USN and RCAF. RCAF nurse, F/O Joan Drummond (left), and USAF nurses watch medical attendants care for a wounded soldier.

Photo: Department of National Defence

With the unification and modernization of the Canadian military in the late 1960s, the doors finally began to open for good for women to enlist and enter non-traditional roles. Today, women deploy on combat missions, captain vessels and command flying squadrons—their career paths as open as those of men.

Sacrifice

Canadian women who chose to serve in the cause of peace and freedom during the war years had to endure and overcome the inequalities of the Canadian society of the day. For example, women's pay remained lower than that of men of similar rank during the Second World War and military women sometimes faced criticism from those who felt that a woman's place was in the home.

When women chose to enlist in the military, they also volunteered to potentially put themselves in dangerous situations where their lives were on the line. Canada's nursing sisters in particular found themselves in peril, as they often served in field hospitals close to the fighting. More than 40 of these brave women died during the First World War, losing their lives in enemy bombardments of field hospitals, attacks on shipping and due to the sickness that often comes with the harsh conditions of war. The Second World War would see many more women participate in the military with one nursing sister, Sub-Lieutenant Agnes Wilkie, dying when the ferry SS Caribou was torpedoed by a German U-boat while crossing from Cape Breton to Newfoundland. Seven RCAF-WD members also died in service during the war.

These dangers continue today as the evolving roles of women in the Canadian Forces move them into perilous new duties. Captain Nicola Goddard, a forward artillery observer, died in a firefight in Afghanistan in 2006. She was the first Canadian women to be killed while serving in a combat role.

Captain Nichola Goddard. Photo: Department of National Defence.

Legacy

During the First and Second World Wars, many women felt they had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to enlist and help their country in any way that was needed. Their changing roles during these turbulent years helped lead to great changes in the way society looked at women. Their service and sacrifice during the First World War helped influence the decision to grant federal voting rights to many Canadian women in 1917. The efforts of these pioneering women helped open the door for the women who now serve in a broad array of roles in the Canadian Forces today.

Sergeant Viviane Jean Baptiste of the 34th Field Engineer Regiment helps the Canadian Forces medical team by translating the symptoms of the patients who require treatment due to the earthquake that devastated Haiti in January 2010.

Photo: Department of National Defence


Women's memorials

Memorials main page
  • Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

    Nurses' Memorial

    Located in Parliament Hill's Hall of Honour, the Nurses' Memorial honours nurses' contributions to Canada, including the Nursing Sisters who gave their lives in the First World War.

  • Thunder Bay, Ontario, Canada

    Colonel Elizabeth Smellie Plaque

    This plaque was erected in 1975. It is dedicated to Colonel Elizabeth Smellie.

  • Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

    Dutch Tulip Celebration Garden

    This memorial is dedicated to the Canadian Nursing Sisters of the Second World War and Sharon Nield (Director nursing Policy 1943-2002).

  • Kitchener, Ontario, Canada

    Canadian Women's Army Corps Memorial Monument

    Located in Kitchener, Ontario, the Canadian Women's Army Corps Memorial Monument honours the women who served in the CWAC between 1941 and 1945.

  • Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada

    Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service Memorial

    Located in Halifax, Nova Scotia, this memorial is dedicated to the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS).


Women on the home front

In the home

Women have not only made great contributions in uniform, they also played a vital role in our country's war efforts on the home front. Home life could be challenging during the war years. "Rationing" was in effect during both the First and Second World Wars, making it hard to obtain sugar, butter, eggs and other scarce food items that were needed to help feed the men fighting overseas. Goods such as rubber, gas, metal and nylon were also difficult to come by because they were needed for the war effort. Women did their part by donating old cookware and other household items to recycling scrap metal drives and encouraging others to "Use it Up, Wear it Out, Make it Do, or Do Without." This spirit could even be seen in advertisements. "I'm patriotic!" says one woman on a Second World War-era poster as she rolls her hair in tissue rolls instead of curlers, thus saving metal and rubber that could be used to make guns and tires for military vehicles.

The relative scarcity of foods and consumer goods vital for the war effort led to rationing. The Montreal Gazette, Library and Archives Canada, PA 108300.

Tireless efforts

It was not easy for women to fill the new roles that arose due to the demands of wartime, while maintaining the traditional female roles of the time. Many women worked tirelessly in the home, often combining their domestic labours with war-related volunteer work with women's organizations or in military canteens.

The ongoing war increased the need for metal. Civilians, including these children at Hopewell Avenue School in Ottawa, responded by organizing scrap metal drives to support the war effort.

Photo : Malak, Library and Archives Canada/PA-182924

Women also contributed to the war effort by giving blood and buying war bonds. Many also tended their own gardens (known as Victory Gardens during the Second World War) or volunteered in community gardens so more vegetables and fruits could be grown to feed the local population.

On the farm

Canadian farms felt their own pressures to meet the growing need for food for the war effort, while also losing many of their young male workers to military service. Many farm women were faced with the reality that they had to maintain the family farm themselves, as well as raise the children, while the husbands, sons and hired labourers were off at war.

Get Out on the Farm war poster.

Photo : Allan and Sharon Kerr Collection

Mothers and children worked side-by-side on the farm to ensure it survived and prospered, with responsibilities like planting, harvesting, caring for livestock, milking cows and managing the finances being added to women's normal farm chores. Women adjusted well to this shift in roles and, when the men returned after the war, many women continued helping on the farm in these new ways.

Women's organizations

The Women's Institutes (WIs) and other women's groups did their part, as well. Helping neighbours was a part of their members' daily lives and, during wartime, their "neighbourhood" expanded to include those in the military. Making quilts, bandages and clothing for the men overseas were just a few of their wartime projects. These groups sent books, newspapers and special treats to military hospitals overseas. They also held "send-off" and "welcome home" parties for servicemen from their area and, after the war, were in the forefront of efforts to create local war memorials. The WIs also had a "Central War Charities Fund" that raised millions of dollars during the Second World War.

Ethel Mitchell welds magazine clip of a Bren gun in a Toronto munitions factory. May 1941. Photo: Library and Archives Canada C-075211

The WIs used their agricultural connections to cooperate with the government to establish farm labour bureaus to encourage city women to volunteer to help harvest crops. They also held "canning clubs" to keep up with the high demand for preserved fruits and vegetables. Their members' experiences in adapting recipes to wartime shortages also led them to publish special cookbooks. The average homemaker, struggling to prepare meals within the restrictions of food rationing, found these books to be a great resource.

Medals and decorations

Medals main page

In industry

Many men left their civilian jobs to fight for their country during the First and Second World Wars. These jobs needed to be filled and, in the Second World War in particular, women quickly stepped forward to meet the surging demand for workers in a greatly expanding Canadian wartime economy. At the beginning of the war, approximately 570,000 women worked in Canadian industry, mostly at clerical jobs. Five years later, almost a million women would be employed, with many working in traditionally male factory jobs.

Unidentified Lumberjill using pike pole to handle spruce logs, Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C.

Photo : Richard Wright / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / Library and Archives Canada / PA-116159

Initially, there was a reluctance to allow women into new fields of employment. As the war proceeded, however, it became evident that if the country was to make the most of its resources, women's contributions would be vital. Many new factories were established to manufacture guns, ammunition, aircraft, ships and more, and women soon could be seen in almost every factory working alongside their male counterparts.

After the Second World War ended, incentives for women workers—such as company day care centres—ended and they were encouraged to leave the workforce. Many did stay on to work in the growing service industry, however. The war years had changed the face of Canada's workplaces forever.

With so many men absent from home in the armed forces and with industries pushing for more production, the Canadian government actively urged women to work in the war effort.

Photo : © Canadian War Museum AN19900075-081

An impressive contribution

Canada's contributions during the war years would have been very different if it were not for the vital roles women played on the home front. The war effort encompassed all Canadians, and women did their fair share and more, achieving and sacrificing a great deal in the cause of peace and freedom. The impressive achievements of these trailblazing women still echo today.

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