History, according to one definition, is a word with three distinct meanings. First it refers to the actual events that took place in the past, then the memory of those events and finally the historian’s attempt to understand and interpret the surviving evidence. The third kind of history is always written from the perspective of the present–even when the historian makes a conscious effort to avoid imposing contemporary values on the past.I was sharply reminded of this while reading a variety of books and articles on the 50,000 women who served in the Canadian Armed Forces in WW II. Memoirs like Phyllis Bowman’s We Skirted The War or Rosamond Greer’s The Girls Of The King’s Navy convey the sense of excitement, adventure and achievement that so many women who served recall. As “Fiddy” Greer writes: “Of course nobody was liberated in the navy, but during the time we spent as members of the (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service) we did consider ourselves to be a very important part of a very important mission.”

When the war ended, Greer, like most of the other women who served or worked in industry, “returned home, married, bore children and according to the mores of the time remained at home to care for them.” This experience, which seemed so natural to women in the 1940s, was viewed very differently by academic writers who took their cue from Betty Friedan’s 1963 book, The Feminine Mystique. Friedan argued that the progress women made towards greater equality during the war was quickly reversed by deliberate policy and elaborate propaganda. Women were denied ‘men jobs’ and forced to return to their traditional role.

The view of the wartime years as a time of responsibility–and then lost opportunity–for Canadian women was challenged in the mid-1970s by Ruth Pierson, who was then teaching a course on the history of feminism at Memorial University in Newfoundland. Pierson questioned the view that women had made significant strides towards equality during the war, and argued that the “sexual division of labour re-emerged stronger than ever” in 1954. She was particularly critical of the record of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps. Despite publicity photos and headlines claiming that “Jill Canuck Has Become CWAC of All Trades,” the overwhelming majority of CWACs were employed in traditional women’s occupations as stenographers, clerks and kitchen workers.

Of the 11,706 CWACs serving in Canada at the end of the war, just 111 had been trained as driver mechanics, 69 as wireless operators and 22 in the highly publicized role of kinetheodolite operators testing the accuracy of anti-aircraft gun equipment. At the peak period, in the spring of 1944, half of the 853 other ranks serving in England were clerks. The next-largest occupation was laundry worker. There were just 24 CWAC drivers in the United Kingdom, two of whom had been trained as driver mechanics. Overall, more than 21,000 women served in the CWAC in WW II.

The subordinate position of women in the army was further emphasized by the legal position of the corps, and its decision to set women’s basic pay at two-thirds of that paid to men of the same rank. The army was initially reluctant to increase pay rates, but it did agree to change the status of the CWACs, who had been recruited as a separate organization “broadly similar” to the army. In March 1942, women were incorporated within the army and placed on active service. A “volunteer” became a private, a “junior commander” a captain, and the “honorary controller” a colonel. Standard rank badges replaced beaver and Maple Leaf insignia.

These changes helped to remove one of the most obvious barriers, but the army was still not attracting enough women volunteers. An official inquiry conducted in the spring of 1943 surveyed both women serving in the army and public opinion across the country to try to determine why women joined up and “why more young eligible women are not offering themselves for enlistment.” The survey results help us to gain considerable insight into Canadian society in 1943. According to the 1941 census there were 800,000 women in the country eligible to enlist. Seventy thousand of these had made enquiries, 37,000 had been medically examined and 28,000 enlisted in one of the three services. Three-quarters of them were under 25 years of age and only seven per cent were over age 34. They were from Canadian cities and towns, not rural areas, and more than 80 per cent had left paid employment to join up.

When asked why they joined, most women spoke of wanting to contribute to winning the war. More than half had brothers in uniform and many had fathers, sisters or boyfriends in the services. The biggest single obstacle to recruitment was the lack of any sense of urgency. The CWACs did not seem to be doing much of vital importance to the war effort, so many women felt they were of more use in war industry and should be left there. But the issue of wages and wage rates were also important. By the end of 1942, public opinion polls showed that the majority of Canadians supported the principle of equal pay for equal work. Systematic discrimination against women in the services–where the pay was already low–seemed especially unfair, and in July 1943 pay for servicewomen was raised from two-thirds to 80 per cent of the men’s rate. Trades pay was made the same for everyone.

Whether it was these improvements or a new sense of purpose related to the commitment of Canadian troops to action in Italy, many more women joined the services in late 1943 and 1944 and no further changes in their status occurred. When the war ended some women wanted to make a career in the army, but the CWAC–along with the Wrens and Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force–were disbanded. A few years later, a hot war in Korea and a Cold War in Europe brought women back into uniform, this time for good.

What do we make of this experience with the perspective of 50 years available to us? Pierson, now a professor at the University of Toronto, remains unconvinced that the wartime experience brought any “increase in power to women as a group.” In her book They’re Still Women After All she argues that because women were denied combat roles, and could not rise to the highest positions in the army, their military service did little to advance the overall status of women. She maintains it may even have reinforced their subordination. Pierson also emphasizes the negative impact of government publicity designed to reassure an apparently nervous public that servicewomen were both respectable and feminine. Press releases emphasized that servicewomen were still attractive to men and could get married while serving. Photo stories pictured beautiful, ladylike women with carefully coiffured hair and full makeup. A great deal of effort was required to counter the whispering campaign about “loose women” in uniform, all of it directed at proving that the army was protecting traditional feminine values. When the war ended such women would return home, making way for men to reclaim all that was their due as the “superior sex.”

Is Pierson right? Was the wartime experience of service so much different than the official memory? Certainly public opinion shifted dramatically once the war was over, with 60 per cent reporting that they favored preferential treatment for men and just 25 per cent opting for equal opportunities. Among women alone, 62 per cent favored preference for men. But this kind of evidence doesn’t allow us to understand how the wartime experience affected the way women saw themselves or their place in society. Nor does it tell us anything about the attitudes and values they passed on to their children. For example, the 1943 survey asked CWACs what they liked about the army. One in three women placed companionship and fellowship first. Most enjoyed their jobs, the discipline, meeting new people, travel opportunities and the healthy life. They didn’t like restrictions on their social life, deplored favoritism and complained about unequal pay.

Before we decide that the wartime experience had little impact on women we had better explore these issues. And before that can be done, we need to know something about the experience of nurses and of the women who served in the navy and the air services. Perhaps the navy and the air force did things differently.

  • Originally published in Legion Magazine, on October 1st 1996.