Educator Resources:
Women in the Second World War

By the 20th century, factors including the distance of the conflicts and restrictive ideas about women's abilities combined to prevent direct action by women as combatants. Nonetheless, during both WWI and WWII, women organized for home defence, outfitting themselves in uniforms, and training in rifle shooting, military drill and other appropriate skills. By 1941, when the first 2 women's services were created as auxiliaries to the air force and the army, many of the new recruits were drawn from the more than 6000 members across the country.

It was the growing wartime bureaucracy that opened the way for women as officially recognized members of the armed forces outside of nursing. Initially, civilian women filled military clerical positions to release ablebodied men for combat, but in WWII, the advantages of having servicewomen under military control and discipline became apparent. By war's end, the RCAF (Women's Division), the Canadian Women's Army Corps and the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service had proved their worth.

While a few women produced ammunition in factories during the S African War, WWI and WWII witnessed the most conspicuous movement into wartime industry. In 1917 there were about 35 000 women in munitions factories in Ontario and Québec. By 1943, about 261 000 women were involved in the production of war goods, accounting for more than 30% of the aircraft industry, close to 50% of the employees in many gun plants, and a distinct majority in munitions inspection.

Always women have worked to ensure a thriving, or at least a surviving, home economy. During WWI and then WWII, they produced and conserved food; raised funds to finance hospitals, ambulances, hostels, aircraft; and volunteered their services inside and outside the country. Primarily through groups, including the Federate Women's Institutes of Canada, the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire, the Young Women's Chistian Association and the Canadian Red Cross Society, they joined forces to sustain the nation.

Whatever the conventional role for women in the social order, war required all the resources of the community and provided a period when roles could be more flexible. At the same time, especially during WWI and WWII, the emphasis on the temporary nature of women's contributions ensured that their wartime efforts did not challenge the established system and that they reverted to conventional female roles after the hostilities. In war, women's labour was essential, but in peace expendable.

For a lesson plan on Women in War, click here.

Miller Chenier, Nancy "Women and War" The Canadian Encyclopedia. Historica-Dominion, 2010. 18 May 2010.

  • Patricia Desmond, during her service in the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), circa 1942-1945.

    Patricia Desmond

  • Inspection time at the RCAF Womens Division in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 1944.

    Glennis (Boyle) Boyce

  • Margaret Brownlee lifting Millie Davis while performing RCAf Women's Divison fitness exercises in England in 1943.

    Margaret Brownlee

  • Lieutenant Carol Hendry (kneeling at right) and comrades in the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service plotting positions on tactical table, 1944.

    Royal Canadian Navy

  • A softball game for CWAC women at Little Mountain Field in Vancouver, British Columbia. Ruth Hurley is on the far right.

    Ruth Hurley

  • Peggy Lee, W.A.C. (St. John's Ambulance), 1942.

    Peggy Lee

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