Wars are not fought by men alone. That’s the clear message of the “World War Women” exhibit now on at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. The exhibit displays the contributions of Canadian women in both world wars and proves that the war effort was not all about men in uniform.
Thousands of Canadian women worked in factories making weapons and munitions during both world wars. They were not working as just office staff either. They were welding, hammering, and fabricating machines and products to equip the military. A hammer and lunch box used by women assembly-line workers are shown. Postwar domesticity is evident in a pair of candlesticks made from repurposed shell casings that a woman kept as a souvenir of her job in a munitions plant.
While many women worked on wartime assembly lines, few were in management positions. An exception was Elsie Gregory MacGill, an aeronautical engineer in a field already with few women. MacGill supervised the production of 1,500 Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during WWII as the Chief Aeronautical Engineer of a Canada Car and Foundry factory.
Women who worked in war production filled a major labour shortage while the men who traditionally held factory jobs were away in combat. During WW II, the Canadian government set up day care centres where children were cared for while their mothers worked their factory shifts. The boost towards equality was short-lived though. The exhibit notes that many women who worked in factories during both wars lost their jobs as soon as it was over. Men returned home and got their old jobs back. One woman’s story in the exhibit tells about how she received her final factory paycheck with an Unemployment Insurance book when WWII ended.
“World War Women”highlights how farm labour was in short supply in wartime. Women took over many farm jobs while hired men were overseas. In Ontario during WWII, the Department of Agriculture organized the Ontario Farm Service Force. Women who joined were sent across the province to tend livestock and harvest crops. I found this part of the exhibit especially interesting as I recalled a late great aunt telling her stories of serving as a “Farmerette” during the war.
Canadian women served in all branches of the military in the world wars. Wilhelmina “Willa” Walker of Montreal was in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). She achieved the rank of Wing Officer—a commanding officer rank, which is the same as a Lieutenant Colonel under today’s structure. Nurses, stenographers, photo developers, and military musicians were more common wartime trades for Canadian women in the military.
The exhibit showcases women of all races and cultures who contributed to Canada’s war effort. Private Eva May Roy of Halifax, a black woman, worked in a servicemen’s canteen during WWII.
The story of Edith Anderson Monture in WWI is especially notable. She was a Mohawk woman from the Six Nations Reserve in southern Ontario. Under restrictive laws of the time prohibiting indigenous Canadians from pursuing professional education, she was not allowed to train as a nurse in Canada. Determined, she went and trained in the United States instead. When the United States entered WWI in 1917, she enlisted in the U.S. Army and served at a base hospital in France.
The “World War Women” exhibit also tells the story of the domestic war effort. Women’s clubs actively raised funds and sent knitting or care packages to the men serving overseas. Clubs carefully chronicled their domestic contributions to the war effort. The WWI work-log book of the Morrisburg Women’s Institute is on display in the exhibit as an example. Rationing posed a challenge for housewives too; learning how to make do without ingredients or make do with what was available was often a community effort.
It isn’t easy to tell the story of how Canadian women contributed to the fight in two major wars. Most of us are probably quite aware of family members or residents of our communities who were themselves part of the effort. The World War Women exhibit manages to give a thorough, yet concise explanation. It continues at the Canadian War Museum until April 3.