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Women’s Work

When we think of war we usually think of men—and now women as well—fighting battles on land and sea and in the air. All too often we forget that for these combatants to fight millions of people are required to work behind the front line to provide them with supplies of food, clothing and weaponry and to fill positions the combatants occupied before joining the armed forces. In Canada, during the Second World War, this vital role was filled by hundreds of thousands of women on the home front—in the armed forces, the volunteer sector, war industries, the civilian labour force and agriculture.

Veronica Foster became known as the Bren Gun Girl.

Veronica Foster became known as the Bren Gun Girl.

When we think of war we usually think of men—and now women as well—fighting battles on land and sea and in the air. All too often we forget that for these combatants to fight millions of people are required to work behind the front line to provide them with supplies of food, clothing and weaponry and to fill positions the combatants occupied before joining the armed forces. In Canada, during the Second World War, this vital role was filled by hundreds of thousands of women on the home front—in the armed forces, the volunteer sector,  war industries, the civilian labour force and agriculture.

Until the 1980s, however, the experience of Canadian women in the Second World War went largely unnoticed and undocumented by Canadian historians, museum curators, playwrights and filmmakers. Fortunately, this oversight has now been rectified, thanks largely to the work of authors such as Jean Bruce, historian Ruth Roach Pierson, historians in the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History and Heritage and Canadian War Museum curators. Thanks to these and other individuals, the role played by countless women in Canada’s war effort has begun to receive the attention it deserves. And how richly deserved this attention is. Out of a wartime population of more than 11 million, 261,000 women worked in Canadian war industries, 400,000 in the civilian workforce, 760,000 on farms and countless others in the home and in the volunteer sector.

Women’s enthusiasm for helping out on the home front was anticipated by Alice Sorby of Winnipeg who recalled in 1940, “In September 1939 when the thunder of war first crashed about our ears, the immediate reaction was an almost hysterical desire to do something….”

The urge “to do something” was often inspired by the devotion of many Anglo-Canadians to the Mother Country, Great Britain. Nobody could have expressed it better, if somewhat floridly, than Mrs. A.T. Stikeman, a municipal regent of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, a women’s volunteer service organization. Speaking to its 1942 annual meeting, the Montreal matron said, “I am thinking of that island fortress across the Atlantic—our Motherland, our England—that green and pleasant land. Let us tighten the bonds of union between her and us. Let us sacrifice for her, who has sacrificed so much for us—who bore the brunt of this conflict for so long alone; who has been the great and solid bastion of democracy, and the spearhead of freedom for all the peoples of the world….”

Women arrive for work at a factory in Edmonton, September 1943.

Women arrive for work at a factory in Edmonton, September 1943.

The celebrated Canadian feminist Nellie McClung was convinced women had a major contribution to make to the war effort. Not only that, they were capable of making it in traditional “male spheres.”  In a letter to Prime Minister Mackenzie King, written in December 1940, the veteran activist declared that women should be doing far more than merely knitting socks and packing parcels for soldiers. The federal government, she insisted, should recognize that in Canada “we have come to the place where women must be recognized and allowed to do everything in their power to assist Canada’s war effort. I hope that there will not be any tedious delay.”

In response to this challenge, the armed services began admitting women in non-combat roles in 1941, and in 1942, the federal government launched an all-out campaign to encourage women’s participation in Canada’s war industries.

This move, not surprisingly, was prompted by an insatiable demand for workers to serve in the rapidly expanding industrial sector. In September 1939, Canada, still experiencing the ravages of the Great Depression, had approximately 900,000 registered unemployed. For the first two years of hostilities, these workers were able to meet war production’s increased requirements for labour, but by 1942 this reserve was all but exhausted. With so many men on the fighting front, there was now an urgent need to mobilize and recruit workers for the war industries.

In anticipation of Canada’s future needs, Ottawa had established the National Labour Supply Council in June 1940 and an Inter-Departmental Committee on Labour Coordination in October of the same year. Twelve months later, the committee issued a report revealing that competition existed “between the armed forces and industry, between war and non-war industries and among industrial concerns generally.” So the federal cabinet created a Manpower Committee and introduced the National Selective Service to mobilize and allocate labour.

A welder works on a Bren gun at John Inglis Company Ltd., 1942.

A welder works on a Bren gun at John Inglis Company Ltd., 1942.

When tabling the necessary orders-in-council in the House of Commons on March 24, 1942, King stressed what had become patently obvious: Canadian women “were the most important available reserve of manpower.” To encourage women to work in war industries, King announced that the government would undertake an impressive list of measures. Among the more noteworthy of these were recruitment campaigns to attract women into essential jobs and the provision of nurseries and other means for caring for children.

Six months later, in September 1942, the Women’s Division of the National Selective Service launched a national campaign to register women between the ages of 20 and 24 who could be employed in vital industries.

In the wake of these developments came an all-out campaign to recruit young single women and childless married women to work in war industries. Later the net would be widened to include married women with young children for part-time work and finally mothers of young children for full-time work.

Newspapers, magazines, film, radio, posters and public speakers all repeated the federal government’s urgent message to women, “Roll up your sleeves for Victory!” An article on women’s contribution to the war effort appeared in National Home Monthly in September 1942 and mentioned the magazine’s choice for that year’s Glamour Girl. She was the first woman welder approved by the Canadian government for National Defence work. Explained the editors, “We chose her for exactly the reasons that anyone would choose any glamour girl: for her beauty and for her importance.”

A prominent feature of the government’s campaign was the Bren Gun Girl. Canada’s version of an American cultural icon—Rosie the Riveter—was Veronica Foster, an employee of the John Inglis Company Ltd. Bren gun plant in Toronto who posed for poster photos with a finished Bren gun.

Not all Canadians viewed the recruitment campaign’s objective with equanimity. Many Canadians, both male and female, felt that women entering munitions plants, or even worse, joining the armed forces, might cease to be women, that is, “feminine individuals.”  Equally disturbing was the prospect of wrenching change, as epitomized by the entry of women into the wartime workforce. Recruitment propaganda and wartime advertising therefore sought to minimize the amount of disruption that would occur in everyday lives and to hint that once the war was over, normalcy would soon return.

Some of the strongest opposition to the employment of women in war industries originated in Quebec, where the Roman Catholic Church denounced the hiring of young women for work in urban industries. In Quebec’s National Assembly, René Chaloult, Independent member for Quebec Centre, voiced many of the church’s fears when he claimed that employing women in war plants was “the surest way to destroy the family—Quebec’s sole means of survival.” The exodus from rural Quebec, whose population had been declining since 1870, was “a more serious problem than conscription,” added Chaloult. Conscription would end once the war was over, but the other problem would worsen once the last shot had been fired.

The member for Quebec Centre even claimed the federal government was responsible for corrupting young girls by forcing them to work in war plants. According to him, half the female workers in the Quebec Arsenal were unmarried mothers. This allegation prompted an immediate response from the Liberals, who pointed out that Quebec had the lowest rate of illegitimate births of any Canadian province. Quebec labour also protested against Chaloult’s charges.

Chaloult was not the only member of the National Assembly to speak out against the employment of women working in urban industries—“war plants or others.” Opposition was also expressed by Maurice Duplessis’s Minister of Agriculture, Laurent Barre, who declared that women’s place in Quebec “was on the farm, with her children and husband.”

The recruitment campaign certainly had challenges to overcome. Still, it proved to be a great success. Historian Roach Pierson estimated that by October 1943, some 261,000 women were employed either directly or indirectly in war industries.

As part of its push to lure women into war industries, the government, in July 1942, initiated the Dominion-Provincial Day Nurseries Agreement, which provided for subsidized daycare for mothers employed in essential wartime industries if certain minimum standards were met. Costs over and above those covered by the parents’ fees were shared 50/50 by the participating provinces, which became responsible for operating the nurseries. Each province participating in the scheme was required to set up a provincial advisory committee whose membership included a representative of the provincial department of public welfare and one nominated by the director of the National Selective Services and approved by the Dominion minister of labour.

Surprisingly, only Canada’s two most industrialized provinces—Ontario and Quebec—took advantage of this scheme with Ontario establishing a Day Nurseries Branch to administer the funding and to support the development of new nurseries.

Child-care advocates lauded the province’s 28 centres as Ontario alone developed regulations under the agreement. This was highly significant because hitherto, child care had been a haphazard venture carried out largely by churches and charities that often made no provision for trained nursery workers, early childhood education and organized play. With Ontario’s participation in the agreement, a different scenario prevailed. Thanks to the regulations adopted by this province under the agreement, each Ontario centre was staffed by at least 10 people, including a full-time cook. Organized play and supervised outings also entered the picture.

Despite the significant need for quality daycare, few Canadian centres took advantage of the agreement. Those that did were located only in Quebec and Ontario. Several factors help to explain the reluctance of Canadian urban centres to participate in the scheme. Foremost among these was the widespread uneasiness throughout many levels of society about the rapid increase of women and mothers in the workforce and the reluctance of social workers to sacrifice traditional ideals of family.

Although the wartime day nurseries established under this agreement served only a small number of families, they nevertheless had a significant influence on child care in Canada. For the first time ever, group child care was touted as a normal support for Canadian families. One wartime headline read, “Share Their Care, Mrs. Warworker, With Your Able and Willing Helper, the Day Nursery.” A National Film Board film, entitled Before They Are Six, extolled the benefits of day nurseries for both children and their mothers. Wartime day nurseries, in other words, made group child care an acceptable option for working mothers. Still, as soon as the war ended Quebec’s wartime day nurseries shut their doors. Ontario’s remained open only until the spring of 1946.

With the government’s encouragement, women poured into vital war industries, where they worked not only in their “traditional spheres” but also increasingly in pre-war “male spheres.”  Women became a driving force in the aircraft industry, building more than a third of the planes assembled in Canada’s war effort.

They also played a role in shipbuilding. From 1942 to early 1944, of the 14,000 people who worked at Burrard Dry Dock in Vancouver, nearly 1,000 were women. The largest and perhaps the most important war industry in which they figured prominently, however, was the munitions one. It alone employed approximately 42,000 females and by war’s end the “Bren Gun Girls” had turned out 900,000 rifles and 244,000 light machine guns. The other industry that was almost as large as munitions was food processing, whose workforce was almost entirely female.

War industries outside large urban centres also recruited impressive numbers of women. In Fort William, Ont., (now Thunder Bay), Canada Car and Foundry’s (now Bombardier Canada) plant expanded exponentially during the war years, bringing in women from across Ontario and the Prairies to assemble Hawker Hurricane fighter planes. As a Chief Engineer, Elsie Gregory MacGill, the world’s first female aircraft designer, supervised up to 4,500 workers in the production of this plane. By 1944, nearly half the plant’s workforce was comprised of women. In August, 1945, however, more than 3,000 Canada Car workers were dismissed without notice. Only three women were kept on.

Even the railways employed women in jobs that had previously been the preserve of men. For the first time in the history of Canadian Pacific Railway’s roundhouse at Alyth yards in Calgary, grimy women in traditional blue overalls worked alongside men, clambering over snorting, dirty locomotives. According to these feminine “railroaders,” however, this was not the toughest part of their job. “Getting up in the morning” and “getting the dirt off” had this distinction.

A few women held down very unusual jobs during the war. Ethel Dickson Dingwall, for example, was the assistant harbour master at Sydney, N.S., where convoys of merchant ships assembled for the Atlantic run. Several other women worked as skippers for coastal freighters. For the most part, though, women in civilian occupations held down jobs in the service sector, their traditional employer, or in the textile industry, where wages were usually low and working conditions left a lot to be desired. Many women, therefore, left for higher-paying jobs in war industry. But even here, a woman could not expect to earn as much as a man unless she was a member of a union and this was seldom the case. When female employment peaked in the autumn of 1944, with more than one million women working full-time, their average hourly earnings in industry were 47.9 cents compared with 71.2 cents for men.

Despite the dearth of equal pay for equal work, most women were extremely grateful for the money they could earn outside the home. They had lived through the Great Depression, when jobs and money had been scarce. They knew what it was like to be poor and they never wanted to be in that predicament again. As long as the war continued, they could bring home money to help support their families. The great fear was that the cessation of hostilities would be followed by an economic recession and the closing of doors to female hiring. A delegate to the Trades and Labour Congress convention in 1943 hinted at this, declaring, “Women have no business in industry, except in wartime. After the war women are going to be in competition with their fathers, sons and future husbands.”

With war’s end, most women who had worked in war industries, the civilian workforce and the armed services did as they were expected to do: They returned to the home or to other traditional roles they had previously filled. Still, wartime employment did provide them with a few gains. It proved that they were more than capable of performing many jobs previously carried out only by men and it ushered in a new model for child care outside the home. It also led the way to Quebec granting women the right to vote in provincial elections in 1940 and sowed seeds that would ripen in the future.


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