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  • Sheila Reynolds

How war changed the perception of women

With November being a time of remembrance, it's important to note the evolving role of women in times of global conflict and how their contributions permanently altered the view of female capabilities and rights in society.

During World War One and wars prior, women mainly contributed as nurses, tending to the sick and wounded. Nicknamed the Bluebirds – with their trademark blue dresses and white veils – more than 2,800 women served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps. They were not allowed to serve in other military roles in the First World War.

The Canadian Nursing Sisters, as they were called, returned again in the Second World War, this time with 4,500 women bringing their compassion to hospitals and front lines. Nursing the injured during wartime allowed women to prove their patriotism and usefulness, as well as enabling them to pursue some independence and adventure.

Of course, the charitable work done by women on the home front during wartime was always valued. With rations and wartime shortages a stark reality, moms and wives and daughters learned to do more with less. They sewed their own clothing, knitted socks and mittens and made care packages to improve moral of soldiers overseas. They planted gardens at home for their families and communities and donated cookware and other household goods for scrap metal required to make guns and ammunition.

But while they were credited with "keeping the home fires burning," women slowly began straying from their traditional wartime roles.

The Canadian military was forever altered in the early 1940s, as women's forces were created. More than 50,000 served in airforce, army and navy positions – some as mechanics and engineers, others as photographers and operators.

New Brunswick's Celia Brown had always wanted to fly and didn't hesitate to join the air force. Though she knew some didn't approve of females in the military, she experienced first-hand the impact of women's' changing roles in society.

"We weren’t just an object to sit home and wash dishes and cook all the time… they realized that women could serve a very good role in life," she's quoted as saying.

Doris Shoultz, who served in the air force for three years, has no doubt that female military service opened the door to the equal opportunities enjoyed today.

"Women realized that they could work out in the world like... just like men and they could do jobs just like men did and they suddenly felt they had freedom to do what they wanted to do. And I think that has made a major impact on how women work today."

In addition to the women in the military, those remaining at home began entering the workforce by the thousands, due to the need to fill the array of jobs vacated by men who went to war. For the first time, women were working alongside men, driving buses and building ships, proving they were just as skilled and capable as their male counterparts.

When the war began, only about 600,000 Canadian women (the total population was about 11 million) held permanent jobs. During World War Two, that number doubled to over 1.2 million.

Vancouver-born Rosemond Mildred Greer became a Naval Secretary stationed in Halifax during the war, and firmly believes the evolving responsibilities of females at that time marked the beginning of the women's liberation movement. Times, as they say, were a changin'.

"I think it was a wonderful experience and something that changed all of us. I mean, they came home and... they weren't the same little shop girls that they had been when they joined up. We had all changed."

When Second World War ended, many of the jobs at home were given back to the men and women were expected to return to their traditional roles. But attitudes had already taken a sharp turn and the fight for equal rights continued to gain momentum.

Women's contributions to war efforts had a crucial and lasting impact on Canadian society. They helped advance a greater understanding of female value and potential, ultimately changing the face of the country.

- with files from Veterans Affairs Canada

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