When Canada declared war on Germany on Sept. 10, 1939, Canadian women were quick to voice an interest in becoming involved in the war effort. As Alice Sorby of Winnipeg so picturesquely expressed it, “In September 1939 when the thunder of war first crashed about our ears, the immediate reaction was an almost hysterical desire to do something.” (Women’s Work, May/June)
Service in the armed forces became the goal of many of these women. However, unlike their sisters who could quickly find work in war-related industries, those who wanted to enlist in the forces could not do so immediately after the outbreak of hostilities—and for good reason. Hitherto, the armed forces, with the exception of the nursing sisters of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps, were exclusively male and hard-core military types soundly vetoed the idea of women in uniform. How could a woman possibly adjust to the rigours and discipline of military service?
To break with tradition and recruit women required a major shift in social and cultural thinking and this only happened after the forces began to feel the pinch of manpower shortage. Moreover, when they did open their doors to women these trailblazers were barred from combat roles.
Opening the doors to women in the armed forces was mooted as early as June 1940 when National Defence Headquarters (NDHQ) began entertaining the possibility of placing uniformed women in support positions to release men for active duty overseas. The following February, a hard-pressed Britain asked Canada if the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force of Great Britain could recruit Canadian women for service with the Royal Air Force to support the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan in Canada. At the same time, the British government also inquired if the Royal Canadian Air Force could establish its own women’s service.
Meanwhile, thousands of frustrated Canadian women were clamouring to serve their country in uniform. Women in British Columbia were the first to demonstrate this military fervour and it was in this province that it became the most pronounced, reports historian Ruth Roach Pierson. In fact, a volunteer women’s service corps, modelled on the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service of the British Army, had been formed as far back as October 1938. With the outbreak of war, other unofficial women’s paramilitary groups began sprouting across Canada.
The women who joined these self-supporting organizations received training in military drill and etiquette, in physical education and in tasks such as military clerical duties, transport driving and motor vehicle maintenance, map reading, first aid, wireless and visual telegraphy and cooking for large numbers of people. The women had to purchase their own outfits and although some were smartly uniformed, others could afford only an arm band.
Recalling these days of heady excitement, an unidentified Vancouver woman, reports Jean Bruce, wrote: “In February 1939 there was a big ad in the paper for the B.C. Women’s Service Corps about a meeting in the Marine Building. Several hundred of us turned up. There were some women in uniform, and one of them was Joan Kennedy, from Victoria. They passed out papers for people to sign up, and one of them said, ‘Hey! Don’t you want to read what it says before you put your name to it?’ But we were so keen, we just signed anyway.
“We drilled regularly, I remember, in our uniforms. We wore navy-blue skirts, white shirts, and royal blue tams with a maple leaf on them. We had armbands made of felt, with a maple leaf on them, too.”
Not surprisingly, the B.C. Women’s Service Corps and similar organizations began bombarding the Departments of National Defence and National War Services with requests for official recognition. Official recognition posed a real dilemma, however, since federal authorities realized that if they recognized one group, they would have to recognize all of them. Since not all these diverse volunteer organizations could measure up to standard, the government decided not to recognize any.
Although they were opposed to official recognition, bureaucrats in both departments nevertheless concluded that “to ignore the existence of these unauthorized corps” altogether might be “suicidal,” for it was essential that “the personnel of existing women’s [paramilitary] organizations…be utilized.” Having decided that the war effort could not afford to waste the womanpower of these volunteer organizations, the two departments set about establishing the official women’s services, initially drawing many of their recruits from the volunteer corps.
The RCAF has the distinction of being the first service to admit women beyond nursing sisters. On July 2, 1941, an Order-in-Council granted it permission to establish the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force, which would be modelled on and structured like Britain’s Royal Air Force Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (In February 1942, it was renamed the Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division, and its members usually referred to as WDs). A change in federal labour legislation paved the way for this breakthrough development. Included in the revised labour legislation, passed in early 1941, was a provision for the establishment of the Women’s Volunteer Services (WVS) and the National Selective Service (NSS) branch of the Department of Labour, which permitted the Canadian Army and the RCAF to employ women to ease their manpower shortages.
The army was the second service to receive the go-ahead. In response to a personnel shortage in the army’s support staff, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps was established on Aug.13, 1941. Recruiting began in September and by Dec. 31, reports Colonel C.P. Stacey, 1,256 women “had been appointed or enlisted” in the corps, then called the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Corps. Initially the corps was not part of the army and therefore not subject to military law. Accordingly, designations similar to those of the Auxiliary Territorial Service in the United Kingdom were used instead of military terms for officers’ ranks. This changed in 1942 when the CWAC became an integral part of the Army and came under military law. Henceforth CWAC officers could assume army titles and use badges of rank.
Not until July 31, 1942, did Parliament approve the formation of the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service. Why the navy was so slow off the starting block can perhaps be explained by a comment made by a Canadian commodore, who caught the attention of historian Fred Gaffen. On learning that some Wrens were to be assigned to his command, this commodore declared, “I don’t want them and I won’t have them.” It’s also possible, of course, that the navy wanted to observe the experience of the other two forces with female enlistment, but if this was the case it risked the possibility that the RCAF and the CWAC would skim off the cream of the crop by the time women donned naval uniforms.
Once permission had been given to the three services to enlist females, the problem of attracting “suitable women” arose. For their part, the air force and later the navy decided to rely on the experience of the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) officers. On the other hand, the army, reports Carolyn Gossage, elected to rely on its own personnel and the experience of countless Canadian women who had served in the host of unofficially recognized auxiliary corps.
Nevertheless, all three services faced the same issues when mounting a recruitment campaign: how to appeal to patriotism and a women’s sense of duty and how to seek out women who wanted to do more… “to free a man to fight…to serve that men might fly.” From coast to coast these exhortations appeared on posters, in the press and on radio airwaves. Colourful, bold posters were an especially important recruitment tool. Printed in a wide variety of sizes, they appeared on everything from matchbox covers to billboards, shop windows, theatres, buses and streetcars. Two films, Wings On Her Shoulder and Proudly She Marches, produced by the National Film Board, which was established in 1939, also played a role in recruitment.
No matter which propaganda medium was used, thousands of women from all walks of life answered the call. In the early months of the war, farm girls, debutantes, sales clerks, teachers, factory workers and office workers flocked to recruiting centres across the country.
Recruiting did not always go smoothly, though. In the summer of 1942, for example, a vicious and malicious whispering campaign wreaked havoc with recruiting for all the women’s services. Gossip had it that men and women were sharing barracks and that, thanks to rampant immorality, hospitals were full of illegitimate babies. Members of the services didn’t believe the public would swallow such rumours, but nevertheless recruiting was down drastically.
Recruiting was also hampered by the view of many Canadians, both male and female, that women entering the armed forces might cease to be women, that is “feminine individuals.” To counter this view, the army stressed “women’s work” in its recruitment pitch, believing that this would reassure a potential recruit (and her family and friends) that she would not lose her femininity by joining the CWAC. The army would not require her to undertake any job unsuitable for women. Its press releases also emphasized that men still found servicewomen attractive and that they could still marry while in uniform.
The enlistment of women in Quebec posed its own unique problems. In that province, recruitment was hampered not only by the government’s failure to allot resources for French-speaking volunteers but also by the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church. It had grave misgivings about women leaving the countryside for work in war industries and the armed forces. One CWAC recruiter recalls bouncing down Quebec roads in a 1,500-pound truck and stopping in villages, where she and her colleagues would see the mayor, the curé and the president of Les Filles d’Isabelle. “Sometimes the curé wasn’t too friendly. I remember one Sunday going to church and hearing him say these ‘whores’ weren’t welcome in his church.”
In an effort to fill the desperate need for women, the RCAF enlisted the support of Charlotte Whitton, then president of the Canadian Welfare Council. According to Wing Officer Willa Walker, Whitton arranged to “contact all the large women’s groups and clubs, right across the country: church groups, Girl Guides, Victorian Order of Nurses, Red Cross, Women’s Institutes, the YWCA. She also called the press.”
Eligibility for enlistment was not exactly the same for each service. In 1943, for example, a prospective candidate for enlistment in the CWAC had to be either “‘A’ or ‘B’ medical category; minimum height five feet; weight not less than 105 pounds or 10 pounds above or below the standard of weight laid down in the table for her height; no dependants; must have Grade 8 or equivalent education; must be between the ages of 18 and 45 and be a British subject.” A prospective RCAF recruit in 1942, however, must “have attained her 18th birthday and not have attained her 41st birthday.”
One young woman who did answer the call was the distinguished Canadian artist, Molly Lamb Bobak, the first woman to be officially designated a Canadian war artist. After graduating from the Vancouver School of Art, the irrepressible, 20-year-old Molly enlisted in the CWAC. It would be almost three years before her dream to become a war artist would be realized, but in the meantime, Molly kept a series of lively, richly illustrated diaries that chronicle events in her army career before she left for overseas in 1945.
In these diaries, CWAC members are sketched performing the occupations open to them, i.e., jobs considered socially acceptable for their gender. In other words, the women sketched could be laundry workers, cooks, drivers, switchboard operators, dental assistants, postal sorters or clerical workers. As the war progressed, the list became more varied. In fact, in 1942, the Army Council allowed CWAC women to be employed in gun operations rooms in connection with anti-aircraft defence. Still, by the end of the war, of the 11,706 CWACs serving in Canada, just 111 had been trained as driver mechanics, 69 as wireless operators and 22 as kinetheodolite operators who tested the accuracy of anti-aircraft gun equipment, all traditional male roles.
In the WRCN, women were enrolled in almost 40 branches or “categories.” Although most of these required little or no advanced training (e.g., messengers, stewards, cooks) several branches were highly specialized, requiring not only technical and operational knowledge but also command ability.
When women joined the air force in 1941, there were eight trades open to them: cooks, clerks, motor transport drivers, hospital assistants, equipment assistants, telephone operators, fabric workers and general duties. By 1942, the number of trades had grown to 50 and, by the end of hostilities to 65. Until enough Canadians could be trained for this purpose, recruits for these positions were commanded by British officers.
Irrespective of which service they joined, women received lower pay than men for the same occupations. Prior to June 1943, pay was set at two-thirds that of a man’s, the rationale being that three women were required to replace every two men in uniform. That June, the female pay scale moved up to four-fifths that of a man’s. How the new rate was chosen is not clear. In all likelihood, polls showing that a majority of Canadians supported the principle of equal pay for equal work was largely responsible for the increase. At any rate, the number of women enlisting in the service increased significantly in 1943 and 1944.
Although some women disapproved of the discrepancy in pay rates in the services, many women didn’t let this bother them as they had been brought up to expect less than men. Moreover, members of this generation, who had survived the Great Depression, were just thankful to have a job and to have their room, board and clothes paid for.
By war’s end, women had proven themselves to be valuable members of the armed forces, in which more than 45,000 of them served. Nevertheless, most of them did as they were expected to do. They returned to the home or to the traditional roles they had filled outside the home. And not until 1964 was the CWAC abolished as a separate corps and women fully integrated into the Canadian armed forces.