Women In World War II
– Far From Dormant Essay, Research Paper
When the war across seas broke out in 1939 Canada was called to the front as a part of the British Empire. Canada?s work force was now severely depleted. Everyone remembers the prestigious men and women of Canada for their effort in the war helping the Allied side defeat the German enemy. We must remember though that the soldiers were not a self sufficient army, navy, and air force but rather part of the larger war machine that was Canada. When Canadians think of the war they must remember the country that stood behind our soldiers in Europe. As Canadians we must especially remember the women who stayed home and were major contributors to holding together the labour force. As well their volunteering in society helped push Canada through the War. By temporarily assuming non-traditional roles in the labour force and in society, Canadian women became an important part of the war effort from 1939-1945.
In 1939 the war broke out in Europe. Canada was still fighting the struggle to rebuild their economy from the depression of the 1930’s . A great number of Canadian Women were affected both directly and indirectly. As more then a million of our full time service men and Militia went across seas to fight the war many women were left home alone with no husband?s, son?s, brother?s or any other male relatives . The Depression sported more the 900,000 Canadians out of work, and 20 per cent of these were women . The Military Recruitment and the new war industry put an end to the Depression, and the widespread unemployment that accompanied it. By 1941 the population of women in the labour force had already jumped by 100,000. The employment of women was now highly evident in almost all of Canada .
It is obvious now in retrospect that for the most part the Second World War divided Canada?s men and women. But to fully understand this we have to first know why men and women, in most aspects of the war, were given this sexual division. We must also get a good scope of what was accepted and expected of men and women before the war broke out.
From the first natives in Canada to the industrializing society of today men and women have had different gender roles in society. These have reflected the norms, values, and beliefs of our culture that have been in Canada as long as the ?white man? has. Although these are rapidly changing now, at the time of World War II, they were set in traditional ways. Based on the biological differences between men and women, separate spheres were formed within society . Traditionally there was such beliefs as a women?s brain had inferior capabilities, women were fraught with problems, women were incapable to comprehend university education, and women were genetically made to bear and rear children . These are only a few of the labels that were put on women to keep them in a ?separate sphere? of a society. Through history women were given these labels to keep them at home while the men were to support the family. ?The care of the children appeared to be mother?s sole work and the work of the mothers alone.? As for those young women that were not yet mother?s, they were to stay at home and help tend to the house chores and child care. Canada was a society that believed competition, between men and women, to bring the money home would break down the traditional ways that ?nature? set about . Because of the roles and beliefs that tied women down at home, mobility into other work was both difficult and frowned upon.
With the onset of the twenty first century we see more female mobility out of the home to ?women?s occupations.? Most of the industries women were employed in were teaching, office work, telephone operation, sales, textile and canning factory work, and nursing . For example, in 1941 the top male jobs were farmers and labourers. The top female positions were baby sitters and maids . Considering that there was widespread unemployment in all of these industries before the war women were still playing their traditional role at home, the keeper of house and children . On the other hand the men did just about everything in society and the work force, from farm work to medical work. Usually men were the ones who brought home the money to support the family. Men were the ones that did the majority of the labour and military work that had to be done in the country.
When the war broke out it was seen (as had been in the past) that ?war is considered a male enterprise, while peace is considered a female preoccupation.? War belief?s seemed no different from the belief?s about society already mentioned. This gendered division seems to be reflective of the norm, men will go across the seas to do the hard work, while the fragile women stay back to take care of home(in this case the homeland). Although there were some women who went overseas, and some men that stayed home, for the most part we see a huge gender division with the war. In retrospect I tend to think that this actually benefited Canada in the war.
Now that we see the gender role that was in place, it can be better understood why the role women played in the war was both important and necessary.
?These women experienced, for at least the wars duration, a broadening of opportunities for employment, mobility, and education.? In viewing the war we must look at some aspects of women on the home front. The three major contributing roles of women in the Second World War were
1) Volunteer and unpaid work.
2) The paid labour force that was the backbone for the war.
3) The importance of domestic activities and consumer reduction during the war.
Although it is probably the paid labour force that was most important for finished products sent overseas, the volunteer aspect on the home front kept Canada afoot. It should be mentioned that although women had normally filled volunteer positions, I used them as non- traditional roles because of the great extent of their use. The main purpose of the volunteer labour force war to take some of the pressure off the huge number of women that were working in the ?essential? industries . It must be noted that the majority of women in Canada contributed immensely to the war without even getting paid. The largest percentage of women at home were not in the paid labour force . ?The declaration of war placed even greater demands on women?s volunteer time.? When viewing volunteer work women did during the war we must look at some sub-aspects.
The first of these is the role of the women in salvage contribution and collecting. In response to the push from the Women?s Voluntary Services Division(WVS) and National War Services women collected fats, paper, glass, metals, rubber, rags and bones to contribute for recycling in the effort to make war supplies . The government even got women to save old toothpaste tubes, shaving cream tubes, old socks and other seemingly useless things, the turned out to be priceless for the war effort . Women were unimaginably important in this effort. Women were told to ?Dig In and Dig Out the Scrap.? Women were encouraged to save all that was useful, such as some of the items listed previously, for use in the war effort . Women and children would often search the junk yards for metal and batteries, and take all elastics out of old stockings . Women at home learned that old clothes could be remade, old oil could be used in munition, and much more . It even got to the point that women would take the rubber seals out of their jars, and kids were asked to turn in their lead toy soldiers to be melted . There was certain days that everyone could bring anything that they gathered in to the local schoolard . The ?scrap that women turned out was used by the paid women in factories to turn out a finished product. The material that was recycled was priceless. These items took the pressure off the industries that would normally have to make these materials, and it gave the government more money to concentrate on the war effort(they no longer had to pay to factory produce most of these things) . Not only were these materials voluntarily contributed by women, women in the Women?s Voluntary Services Division(WVS) also collected them and brought them where they were needed .
A second aspect that we must look at is the contribution of items from home to the war effort. During the evening most women would knit sweaters, socks, mittens, under-clothing, Balaclava helmets, scarves and much more . Women did all that they could to pack little ?ditty?s? at home. In them they sent tiny things that would be useful to them men overseas. They would pack some hygiene items, maybe some shaving blades, soap, or maybe even a nice little letter of support . The items that women packaged at home, out of their own time and will, not only provided the soldiers with essential little items. In the worst of times, where the men were in the trenches losing hope, these seemingly meaningless little items seemed to spread cheer and let the soldiers know that they were not alone and Canada stood behind them at home .
The last sub-aspect that to be analysed should be an overview of other volunteer activities on the home front. I have listed these last, and in shorter context because although they are important, I tended to see a lot of emphasis in the first two aspects of volunteer work at home. In addition to women?s volunteer work already mentioned, other fields remain important. Women involved them selves in organizing, fundraising, producing, packing, and shipping. Women also ?distributed salvage cards, staffed blood donor booths, arranged hospitality for service men on leave, collected clothing bundles and raised milk money for Britain.? Between 1943 and 1945 volunteer Canadian women raised over a half a million dollars in cash alone . In Nova Scotia women at Pier II unpacked, sorted, and repacked supplies that the government was to send to allied troops . Canada?s women citizens did all of these things without pay, to help they?re Country over seas. The last major mention of volunteer work was the buying and selling of ?victory bonds? and ?War Savings Stamps.? These gave the government money to support the allied forces . It was said that ?$5 invested in War Savings will buy one round of anti-aircraft shells!? Now we also start to see a large amount of volunteer women?s organizations poping up all over Canada to help coordinate groups of volunteers for specific tasks . The bulk of these groups were headed up by the main group of the WVS in Ottawa. Looking back, it can be seen that through these aspects of volunteer work, the paid women workers, government, and troops fell back on these women for essential support during the war.
The second major aspect we must now look into is the aspect of the paid labour force during the war. The best understanding of the contribution by women in the paid labour force can be better appreciated if we take a look at how it came to be, and why it was needed.
On 24th March, 1942 Prime Minister Mackenzie King said ?the [Canadian women are the] most important available reserve of manpower.? It must be kept in mind that the population of Canada at the time of WWII was about 11,300,000 . At the peak production of the war there was over 1,100,000 Canadians in the paid war production, at least one half of these were women . It must also be know that there was more then a million women in the ?general? paid labour force, which was also a part of the war effort . The government pushed these paid women into the labour force, telling them it was their ?patriotic duty? to serve for their Country.
Although women were significant in the early war effort, by mid- 1941 the reserve pool of male civilian workers was in dire need of supplement . This is when we really start to see a large drive by the federal government to get women into the labour force. They are needed to keep Canada on it?s feet. By this time there is over a half million women in paid work. This however excluded all rural homemakers, for they provided irreplaceable work on the rural farms . I will get to that particular point. The National Selective Service (NSS) was aiming at 1.5 million women working for the war effort. A surplus of women is now extracted from the west and the Maritimes, sent to Ontario and Quebec to serve in the bulk of the paid labour force . By 1942 there is a compulsory registration of married and unmarried women age 20-24. These women were the first group that was actually recruited to the paid labour force . The need for women had now become so important in Canada that some provinces, such as Quebec, changed their legislation to allow more groups of women to enter the paid labour force . However by 1943 it has even gotten to the point that the women?s labour force is starting to dwindle down. This is when all the women in Canada are asked to serve their ?patriotic duty.? The federal Government starts to recruit just about all women from single to married, and young to old .
Now that the paid labour force is on its way it is important to see where and what impact these women made in their new roles. Some of the major industries that the women were now in were welders, painters, riveters, tractor drivers, cleaners, boilers and more . Women were not only working in their ?own spheres?, but they were also becoming increasingly dominant in pre-war ?male spheres.? In Pictou, Nova Scotia there was a major wartime shipping industry that employed about 300 women. They were important in receiving and shipping many of the war supplies that were produced in Quebec and Ontario factories. Another important industry that women became a driving force in was the aircraft industry. More then a third of the planes in the war effort were built by women back home in the plants on Canadian soil. We also see a very important contribution by women who had previously stopped working to raise a family. They played a big part coming back into the paid labour force. They brought with them both numbers and experience that was needed to train new war recruits . The largest, and probably the most important war industry Canada was Munitions work in Ontario and Quebec. In 1944 there were about 42,000 women employed in this industry and by the 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 big as munitions was food producing. This industry was almost totally women based. They turned out 4,500,000 barrels of flour, 5,249,000 hundredweight of bacon and ham, 4,375,000 pounds of eggs and so much more essential food It cannot all be mentioned . The food and munition were only two of the major products that were produced by mainly Canadian women. Canadian women were producing everything from aircraft right down to boots. Canada made every one of the 2,000 items that was needed by the Canadian army . Thanks to the help of the women, Canada could equip a division of infantry every six weeks . From the Canadian soldiers helmet to the plane that was flying over his head, Canadian women back home had an important hand in its manufacture. There is now a simple fact that no war educated Canadian can deny. Without the working women at home the forces would never have had the essentials to help win the war.
The third major aspect I have to draw attention too is the domestic role and the consumer role that women played in the war. In light of my topic it is important to look at these roles because they were both new aspects of life that women had to endure for the length of the war. The reason that I did not include domestic duties under volunteer or paid work is because these women could both make money from these activities, and also women who worked most domestic positions(like agriculture) were not participants in much else but that.
For a large amount of women left at home, they had to take responsibility for their husband?s or fathers family farm This tied into the major role of domestic food production . Although agriculture from family farms was coordinated by the government during the war, it tended to be a separate labour force from all others. During the war there was about 760,000 people working on farms, most of them, women thrust into these roles . For the women who had to work on these farms it was a huge step. These women were now balancing child care, house care, and the farm. I guess that it would be silly to think that the finished food product that factories shipped out came from nowhere. It was the women on the farms that milked the cows, fed the chickens and ran the farm tractors. That were the raw food producers for these plants. By the middle of the war it is evident that the wives and daughters running the farms needed some recruitment help . Now the need for food production was so great the government had recruited teacher and student volunteers to help do farm work at various times of the year . Eventually three farm groups emerged to help cultivate the farm jobs. They were the Farm Girls Brigade(women under 26), Farmerette Brigade(summer student/teachers), Women?s Land Brigade(volunteer housewives/housewives) . These three groups of wives and daughters were the primary providers of food for the allied men over seas. To supplement this production other women planted ?victory gardens? that consisted of what most women could grow in their back yards. These small gardens provided small donations to help the food production industry .
Finally the last role that women had to step up and fill was the role of the conservative consumer. This sounds funny to add, but this was both a new role for women that came with the war, and an important part of helping the war effort. Canadian women now had to be more conscientious about what they would consume. You may ask how this role was important in the war effort? Well first of all this helped the federal government conserve food for troops over seas. Secondly, it helped to conserve anything that was not immediately needed by women, to help supply the war effort. Canadians now had rationing systems and coupons for things like gas, sugar and liquor . Many Canadians had to do without a lot of things because they were needed for the war effort. ?Homemakers helped the war effort by coping with shortages, accepting rationing, and preventing waste.? Consumers, over three million women volunteered to help monitor the prices and goods in Canada for possible inflation. With women?s new role as a primary consumer it was vital to the war effort that prices were monitored, and consumption was kept to necessity only. Although this was a hard role for women, and all Canadians, it was an important role.
Now that the war is over it is easy to look back on the role that both the men and women played. I sometimes have to ask: what was easier, the men shooting on the front lines or the women that stayed home and multi-tasked to keep a country together. I think in retrospect it would be unfair to try and say that one was more important then the other. The only thing that satisfies me is to know that without Canada?s women on the home front, there may have been no chance to win the war. It is obvious with all the information given that by temporarily assuming non-traditional roles in the labour force and in society, Canadian women became an important part of the war effort from 1939-1945.