Everyone loves a man in uniform. Even married, you won’t see me turning down the chance at a double-take when a Canadian soldier walks down the street or comes across the screen of the TV. Besides the obvious yummy and salacious reasons, I drool because the uniform represents a set of appealing principals including courage and self-sacrifice that should be gawked at and revered no matter the campaign that soldier fights for.
The stereotypical man in uniform is changing. More and more, those uniforms are worn on empowered shoulders of women fighting for our country in the same combat fatigues, toting the same gun and focused stare as the men beside them, but this was not always the way. Like in many other facets of life, women have been fighting for years for the chance to prove they can stay strong in the trenches with the “big boys” and lead on in victory regardless of their sex but only recently was this become a more common image in times of war.
Supporting roles are immeasurable when considering the alternative without them. Before World War 1, women were told their place was in the home with an affixed apron and dishpan hands. When times changed and men were drafted to the front lines, the loss of man power granted the preconceived “fairer sex” the opportunity to prove their capabilities surpassed universal gender roles.
Without the man of the house, how did the farming get done? Who worked the line of munitions factories? Women did. They were the conducting war machines behind the scenes making battle on the front lines possible. And not only did they lace up steel toes to forge ammunition shells for $9 a week, they donated their pots and pans and household items, including their hair curlers, to the factories to be recycled into scrap metal to create guns and military vehicles and made due with the bare necessities like rolled tissue to keep their hair perfectly curled while doing it.
On top of factory work, Nursing Sisters (women from religious organizations) and other women trained with the Voluntary Aid Detachment, Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance to become nurses, some travelling overseas, 200 of them receiving medals for bravery as they risked their lives in field hospitals.
In times where men were gone, politics never stopped and with suffragist movements made by women like Margaret Gordon of Ontario in 1917, the fight for equal rights led to extreme measures of protest across train tracks and hunger strikes, all leading to the Wartime Election Act giving mothers, sisters, wives and wartime nurses the right to vote, paving the way for women in parliament by 1920.
All possible because women saw opportunity and refused to stand down when ordered.
When conflict brought Canada into World War 2, British Columbia started a Women’s Service Corp trained in auxiliary roles doing first aid, clerical and administrative duties as well as motor mechanics in factories. Ontario and other provinces created much of the same called The Women’s Volunteer Reserve Corps as well as an Auxiliary Territorial Service. Across Canada these women were purely volunteer and on their own time learned Morse code, signalling and map reading, infantry drill, arms drill and physical conditioning.
Joan Kennedy from BC was the driving force against Ottawa to include women when considering war needs and in 1941 the creation of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps had thousands of women in supportive roles like many had during WW1. Displaying their uniforms and insignia with the helmeted visage of Athena, the Goddess of War, they were brimming with pride yet still jilted their ranks never equalled that of men’s, they only received 2/3 the wages ($0.90 to men’s $1.30/day), and were not permitted to conduct guard duty or other roles deemed too hazardous for women.
After the army, the snowball effect took over and air force created the ‘Royal Canadian Air Force – Women’s Division’ where 17,000 women were not permitted to fly though served on flight decks with the slogan “We serve the men that fly”, and the Navy created the ‘Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Services’ where 7,000 women completed clerical tasks, were radar and coding techs on ships excluding submarine work and worked as cooks as well as nurses.
Women’s Institutes across the country created cookbooks outlining recipes that could be created with the limited rations each family were afforded, city women were encouraged to help out with the harvest of local farms, canning clubs canned fruits and vegetables to keep up with the demand, everyone pitching in to serve community even if serving with a gun at the heads of their enemy was impossible.
On the flipside, not everyone was overjoyed with the evolution of the face of war including female features and a drop in enrollment occurred when word went round that only “loose women” joined the forces. As much as the army advertised otherwise with famous colourful ads still circulated today, these judgements were not merely from men, but from traditionalist women as well who prevented their daughters from joining for fear of public scrutiny. Family or not, enough pushed on and refused to abide by standards that kept them tied down and away from fighting for their country and found a sense of belonging and solidarity.
When WW2 ended, approximately 570,000 women in industry and clerical positions from all women’s divisions of the Army, Air Force and Navy were disbanded. After all their hard work and sacrifice, once the nations need for their female driving force ended, women were returned to the home as day care units were no longer operated, even though many wanted to stay on when the war horse was put to rest.
Never ones to quit while ahead, women continued the fight and in the early 1980’s were allowed enrollment in military colleges and then won the battle when a law was passed that it was discriminatory to refuse women be in active duty. Over a period of 10 years, women were integrated into all facets of the military, it taking until 2003 when Master Seaman Colleen Beattie was the first women to serve in a submarine.
In classrooms of today the wars in Afghanistan are highlighted and for the first time in history within that campaign 310 women fought in combat roles such as Infantry, Field Artillery, Combat Engineers and Pilots, while 1350 held supportive combat roles. Some were even held as invaluable when entering countries exhibiting female oppression such as the Congo, Afghanistan and Iraq, so women of those regions can see the options given in free countries.
In the same breath, I feel it’s important to mention 26 year old, Captain Nichola Goddard (picture on left), a Forward Artillery Observer and the first female to die in front line military combat in a firefight in the Panjwaii district in Afghanistan. War is not pretty. No matter how you spin it, or the face that represents it, it’s bloody and negative and has plagued the human race for thousands of years, but war effects all people within those warring countries, not only the select burly men movies make big bucks on.
The whole point is choice. Not every girl grows up wanting to wear army boots and fatigues but for the ones who do, this dream would be impossible without the trailblazing of stubborn women refusing to be told they don’t have a choice due to flimsy arguments about inferior upper body strength, possible pregnancy, morale of predominately male units, and the mental rigors on the fragile female mind during the horrors of long standing battle.
This Remembrance Day when you donate change for a poppy, wear it proudly and remember all the people who sacrificed their lives for their country and safety of their families and the struggle of women who had to fight a war before they even stepped foot on the battlefield.
I invite you to please share with us the brave women in your lives who have in the past or are currently making those sacrifices in any role, in their family homes, community or deployed across the world and we will be sure to remember them as well.
On the YWCA’s behalf, please thank them for all they have done and all they are doing to continue the war for equality while servicing our country.
(Sources: www.historyarchive.whitetree.ca, www.warmuseum.ca, www.veterans.gc.ca, www.sistersinarms.ca, wwww. canada.com, www.news.nationalpost.com)