Remembrance day in our community begins when small knots of people gather at the cenotaph that overlooks a quiet mill pond. The township has built a children’s playground nearby so we share the space with swings and a brightly colored slide. On a cold, crisp November morning the children are in school so they miss the skirl of pipes that announce the arrival of the men and women of the Legion color party.We participate in these acts of remembrance because they re-establish our connection with those who died and help us reconfirm our fragile Canadian identity. But will there be anyone left to observe such moments in the 21st century or will a new generation discard this part of our past as irrelevant to a future in which regional, ethnic and group identities dissolve the last bonds of patriotism?

My thoughts are prompted by the academic literature I’ve read on the role of women in WW II. For if we teach our children that women were recruited largely to do laundry and other domestic chores then there will be less reason to remember them as role models or to honor their wartime contributions. This negative view of the experience of women in WW II still dominates Canadian historical writing, but a new generation is beginning to challenge the wisdom. In 1992 a young doctoral student, Barbara Winters, presented a paper to the Canadian Historical Association that asked: “Why did so many women view their service in the military favorably while revisionist historians continue to portray it as oppressive and non-liberating?”

Winters chose to answer her own question by suggesting that too much attention is given to the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, the service in which the least progress on women’s issues was made. The story of women’s part in the war effort is very different, Winters argues, if the history of women who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force is considered. Although they were recruited through the slogan They Serve That Men May Fly, women were an integral part of the RCAF from the beginning and were employed in a number of non-traditional roles. This equality of status led the air force to drop the name Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and adopt RCAF (Women’s Division). Nicknamed the WDs, women held the same rank and were subject to the same chain of command as men. Female officers and non-commissioned officers issued orders to airmen as well as airwomen. When posted overseas the RCAF insisted that WDs, known affectionately as WIDs in Britain, serve under RAF or RCAF command and not with the British Women’s Auxiliary Air Force.

Women in air force blue were not permitted to serve in combat roles and were therefore excluded from aircrew trades. However, everything else was open to them and by 1944 WDs were working in 65 of the 102 RCAF trades. Men and women trained together, served together and were promoted according to merit not gender. The minister of national defence for air, C.G. Power, favored the employment of women as ferry and staff pilots, but the War Cabinet hesitated, withholding approval until there was a shortage of male pilots, a circumstance that never developed.

By allowing women’s basic wages to remain at 80 per cent of the men’s rate, the RCAF never resolved the issue of pay equity. This was rationalized by claiming that all men in the air force were trained for, and could be committed to, a combat role in the event of any enemy attack. But as Winters points out, one of the strongest supporters of equal pay for equal work was the man responsible for all personnel questions. Air Vice-Marshal J.A. Scully did not hesitate to campaign for equal rights for women. In a memorandum written in 1942, he noted that since “women who enlist in the air force are obliged the same as men, to fly” and are also “obligated to serve overseas” the principle of equal pay for equal work ought to be accepted. He dismissed the combat role argument by noting women who serve overseas in Britain “take more risk than male personnel in Canada”.

Scully failed to carry the day on basic pay rates, but on other issues, including allowances and post-discharge benefits, women were treated as equals. Of perhaps greater importance was the actual work women performed. There were of course cooks–male as well as female–and clerks, nursing orderlies and stenographers, but many women were employed as wireless operators, code and cypher clerks, aero-engine mechanics, meteorologists, parachute riggers, air photo interpreters and in entertainment shows.

One WD described her job in the control tower of a training school to Jean Bruce for her 1985 book, Back the Attack! Canadian Women During the Second World War–at Home and Abroad. “I was the NCO in charge of the Orderly Room…. I never ran into the feeling that a woman shouldn’t be there. I did quite a bit of flying. When the weather flight went up, they always wanted a weather observer who could report any visual flight problems to the meteorological officer aboard.”

Another WD recalled “learning the basics of intelligence and air photo interpretation” before arriving at No. 6 Group Headquarters in Yorkshire.

“Intelligence officers interrogated crews when they came back from a bombing mission…. It was very high powered. You got raw answers to questions…. You had to find out where the concentrations of power were, where the searchlights and ack-ack guns were…later we examined the photographs they’d taken during a bombing raid.”

More than 17,000 women served in the WDs during WW II and at peak strength there were 600 officers and 15,000 other ranks in uniform. Among the honors and awards bestowed were 50 mentioned in dispatches.

Winters has made a pretty solid case for her argument that the air force did things differently and with different results.

What then can be said about the senior service that resisted enlisting women until the summer of 1942? The Women’s Royal Cdn. Naval Service was based on the British model but with one important difference; women were recruited into the Royal Canadian Navy and not an auxiliary.

Recruiting literature emphasized the same themes as the air force, exhorting women to Join The Wrens And Hasten Victory. You Too Can Free A Man To Serve At Sea. Initially women were enlisted to take on jobs as cooks, stewards, clerks and stenographers. One trade category, communications and operations, promised access to jobs as plotters, coders, telegraphists and other more war-related postings, but recruits had first to train as general clerks. Wrens began their career at HMCS Conestoga, the stone frigate on the outskirts of Galt, Ont., where recruits learned to call the kitchen the galley and the bathroom the head. They also learned drill, discipline and the firm navy doctrine that a Wren was first and foremost a lady. Women were up against a very traditional service ethic, but gradually it became clear to all that Wrens could contribute more than domestic service to the navy. By 1944, women were employed in a variety of operational, communications and intelligence postings in Canada and overseas. Wrens served at remote naval stations, including ones commanded by Wren officers.

The navy recruited more than 6,500 women and 1,000 of them served overseas. The purpose of the Wrens to release men for duty at sea was fulfilled, but more than that happened. Wrens proved to themselves and to men that they could succeed and excel at jobs reserved for men.

The navy also offered women a chance to enlist and perform in one very traditional occupation, that of dancer and showgirl. This was true of all services, but it is the company of Meet The Navy, an extraordinary touring show that required 15 railway coaches to move cast, props, costumes and equipment, that is best remembered. The cast included the Rockettes and the most famous Wren of all, Blanche Lund who became an international star along with her husband Alan. Meet The Navy played to half a million people in Canada before going overseas where it became the hit of 1945 in London.

The spirit that animated the Wrens and other women in uniform was particularly strong among nursing sisters of all three services. The Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps recruited 3,656 nurses, 2,625 of whom served overseas. The RCAF with 482, and the RCN with 345 nurses brought the total to more than 4,400. Nursing was, of course, a traditional women’s occupation so at first sight it may appear the military offered little that was new.

The reality is very different. The prewar nursing profession in Canada suffered a serious loss of prestige when the Depression reduced salaries and encouraged the employment of untrained practitioners. The Canadian Nurses Association hoped the war would reverse the declining status of nurses and assist their campaign for decent wages. The government did its best to oblige. Nursing sisters were enlisted into all three services as officers, as were other medical professionals.

After training, nurses were full lieutenants while matrons served as captains or majors. All received pay, allowances and officer privileges that contrasted sharply with their lot in civilian life. Author Jean Bruce interviewed one nurse who recalled: “It was hard to get into the RCAMC. The pay was fantastic, $150 a month compared to $70 I was making before and our accommodation and meals were paid.”

The services provided new opportunities as well as better status and improved pay. Army nurses worked close to the front lines in Italy and Northwest Europe. They served on hospital ships that carried the wounded to Canada through U-Boat infested seas. In England and in Canada nurses took on new responsibilities as specialized medical units were created. No one could doubt that the war experience had changed the nursing profession by laying the foundation for postwar reforms.

After demobilization, servicewomen had the same opportunity as men to attend university or register for vocational training. However, they faced two barriers: One, a general climate of opinion in which fears of a postwar recession reinforced traditional beliefs that married women should stay out of the workforce; and two, their own desire to marry, raise a family and stay at home to look after husband and children. Not all women felt this way and not all adjusted to a world that denied women equal access to jobs. Many stayed in the labor force, struggling to develop new careers. Those who returned to remain at home had also been changed. Perhaps that is why they raised their children to believe a woman should expect the same rights and opportunities as a man.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on November 1st 1996