Military Service (CWAC and WDs)
Prior to the Second World War, the only women in the Canadian military were those affiliated with the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CMAC). Nurses, members of the Red Cross, served with the Corps, but were not officially members of Canada's military.
From the onset of the war, women began exerting pressure on the government to allow them to join the military. To demonstrate their eagerness and capability, some women formed paramilitary organizations such as the Alberta Women's Service Corps. These groups were organized along the lines of the military and trained women in drill and etiquette and in non-combat duties considered suitable for women such as first aid, mechanical repairs, and communications.
The government and the military initially refuted all such requests. The impending labour shortage, which by 1941 had grown into a crisis, resulted in a change of policy. By 1942, each of the major services within the military had women's divisions.
The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) led the way creating the Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force in July 1941. This unit was renamed the Royal Canadian Air Force Women's Division (RCAFWD) in February 1942. In Alberta, many of the women in the RCAFWD worked at British Commonwealth Air Training Plan (BCATP) bases and schools. These individuals served as nursing assistants, cooks, stores women, and clerks and took on non-traditional roles such as drivers, vehicle mechanics, armourers, instrument makers, aircraft technicians, electricians, and signallers.
The Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC) was formed in February 1942. The CWAC was organized and commanded by Colonel Elizabeth Smellie, a veteran nursing assistant and matron-in-chief of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Members of the CWAC were initially employed as cooks, waitresses, and clerks and later took on tasks in the logistics and planning, administration, industrial trades, driving, coding, and signalling sections of the Army.
The Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS), known as the “Wrens” was formed in July 1942, represented the smallest of the three women’s divisions. Members worked primarily in communication-related positions as signallers, wireless operators, telegraph operators, coders, and technicians and as dental assistants and sick-berth attendants.
Thousands of women signed on during the initial recruiting campaigns during 1942. This waned considerably by 1943 on account of a whisper campaign suggesting impropriety among the ranks. The media began spreading rumours that many of the enlistees were loose women—even prostitutes—and they were responsible for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. There were cases of venereal diseases and illegitimate pregnancies, but the numbers and circumstances had been greatly exaggerated by the media.
The Canadian government tried to counter the whisper campaign and the subsequent drop in recruitment by increasing pay and benefits and developing a media campaign that included the release of such National Film Board productions as Proudly She Marches and Wings on her Shoulders. CWAC recruiters adopted the motto “Shoulder to Shoulder” in an attempt to show women in a positive light and to convince them that their participation in the war effort was equal to that of the men. These tactics met with limited success: enlistment continued to drop.
During the war, 50,000 Canadian women served in the Canadian military. Their participation was viewed as an emergency stop-gap measure by politicians and senior commanders. With the Allied victories in Europe and the Far East came the dismantling of the women’s divisions and the discharging of all female personnel from the Canadian Forces. These entities would be reconstituted several years latter during the 1950s, but that was too late for many women who served in uniform during the Second World War and who were eager to continue their service in peacetime.
Bannister, Lisa, ed. Equal to the Challenge: An Anthology of Women's Experiences during WW2. Ottawa: Canada Department of National Defence, 2001.
Morin, Renée. “Women after the War.” Canadian Affairs. 2, 4 (1945).
Pierson, Ruth Roach. “They're Still Women After All.” The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1986.
Veterans Affairs Canada. “Women's Contribution during Wartime.” (accessed September, 2007).