The tiny peacetime military NURSING service of the 1920s and 1930s underwent great expansion again during WWII. By 1945, a total of 4480 nursing sisters had served in the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps and in the medical services of the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). The RCAF also recruited 14 female medical officers. During the war, the demands of women for a larger role and shortages of manpower resulted in the further employment of Canadian women in many military trades that previously had been closed to them. Following the organization of the CANADIAN WOMEN's ARMY CORPS and the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division) in 1941, and the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (familiarly known as the WRENS) in the next year, a total of 45 423 women entered the wartime forces. They served as clerical, administrative, communications and other kinds of support personnel, thereby releasing men for combat. Their success is reflected in the enthusiastic report of a senior air-force officer that they were "just as valuable as men and I would like to have as many as you can possibly spare." Like the members of the medical services, they saw duty in the rear areas of fighting theatres.
In 1946 the 3 women's services were disbanded. The words of one senior naval officer described the sentiment of members of the 3 services: "It seems impossible that there should be a Navy without them ... it is going to be hard for many who have remained to realize that they were, in actual fact, an emergency force." Only a small number of nurses remained in uniform. As the COLD WAR [X-REF 0001747] unfolded, the Canadian forces expanded once more. In 1951 the reserve elements of all 3 services began to recruit women, as did the regular air force. In 1954-55 the regular army and navy also began to recruit women, although in much smaller numbers than the 3000 women then in the air force. By 1966, however, reductions in the size of the Canadian forces, automation in trades staffed by women, and difficulties in recruiting, at least partly because of the limited careers available to women, reduced their total number in the regular services to fewer than 900.
That was the low point, and consideration was even given to closing the RCAF to women once again. The government of the day, however, wanted the Canadian forces to mirror society, where women were increasingly part of the paid labour force. The government used that mandate for guidance on the recruitment and employment of women. Other political influences, such as the 1971 Royal Commission on the Status of Women and the Canadian Human Rights Commission ruling of 1989, combined with military trials of women's effectiveness in non-traditional roles, systematically removed the barriers to full and equal service by women in the Canadian Forces. The last, prohibition on service in submarines, was reversed in 2001. Along the way, women like Heather Erxleben, the first woman to serve in the regular force infantry, took on new challenges with the added pressure of being the first.
While the participation rate of women in the Canadian military is not equal to that of men, nor are women equally represented in all trades, much has changed from the re-creation of women's services for peacetime duty. Equal opportunity exists and with increasing numbers.
See also WOMEN AND WAR.
Author ROGER SARTY Revised: BARBARA DUNDAS
Links to Other Sites
The Archives of Ontario Remembers the Home Front
In honour of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, the Archives of Ontario presents this stirring retrospective of Ontario’s extraordinary Home Front contribution to the war effort. Check out the personal stories, photographs, posters, video clips and other multimedia.
Testaments of Honour Historical Archives
Stunning photographs complement this digital video archive of personal recollections from Canadian veterans who fought in the Second World War. This Blake Heathcote project has been supported by the Canadian Studies Program, Canadian Heritage, and many other organizations. Note: some videos on this site may be inactive.
An Archival Look at the First World War
Peruse soldiers' letters to their girlfriends and other fascinating archival material about Canada's war effort at home and overseas. From Queen's University Archives.
Discover some remarkable women in Canadian history. This extensive site features biographies, stories, illustrations, learning resources, “This Month in Canadian Herstory,” and more. Developed by Merna Forster, a Canadian author, historian, naturalist, and photographer.
Canada’s military is getting a new name — again
A news story about the federal government's decision to change the name of the Canadian military to it's former moniker "Canadian Armed Forces." From the National Post.
CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum
The website for the CFB Esquimalt Naval & Military Museum, located at Canadian Forces Base Esquimalt, Vancouver Island. Special features include ship histories, local heroes, women merchant mariners, characters & controversies, and much more.
The secret life of women spies
About a new exhibit that the focuses on the crucial role played by women in relaying, intercepting, translating, and decoding military intelligence as it flashed over the airwaves during the Second World War. From thestar.com website.
Collections of the CWM: A Historical Resource
This article provides an overview of the Canadian War Museum collection. From the Laurier Centre for Military Strategic and Disarmament Studies, Wilfrid Laurier University.
Women and War
This reading guide focuses on the heroic story of Grace MacPherson Livingstone, who served as an ambulance driver in France during the First World War. About the book "Victory at Vimy: Canada Comes of Age, April 9–12, 1917", by Ted Barris. From the website for the Durham West Arts Centre.
The Soldiers’ Story
An article about the brave men and women who served in the Canadian military at the Battle at Vimy Ridge. From the "Legion Magazine."
Bravely and Loyally They Answered the Call
An article about women who served in the Canadian military during the First World War. From the "History of Intellectual Culture" website, University of Calgary.
Sisters in Arms
Watch the trailer for "Sisters in Arms," a Canadian documentary film about women in combat. See also the photo gallery and profiles of women serving overseas.
The Memory Project: Canadian Women's Army Corps
Listen to an interview with Canadian veteran Corinne Kernan Sévigny who shares her thoughts about women serving in the military during wartime. Also check out related digitized artefacts and memorabilia. From the Historica-Dominion Institute.