Wednesday, March 23, 2016

World War Wednesdays: World War Women at the Canadian War Museum

     Last week I had the pleasure of taking part in a private tour of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa with a group of Members of Parliament. The tour included the museum's permanent exhibits as well as a walk through their current special exhibit, World War Women, with one of its creators. The museum and its contents probably rank among my top five favorite things on planet earth, and it was a great excuse to finally see the new exhibit! The nature of the group and tours meant that I was unable to take any photos to share with you, but I thought I'd share some interesting facts about the exhibit along with images courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

     Here's the official description:
"The First and Second World Wars brought enormous changes to Canadian women’s lives. They adapted to the conditions of total war in practical terms – working, volunteering and serving in uniform. In the wake of war’s inevitable tragedies, they also faced other challenges. The contributions made by women to the Canadian war efforts were crucial, and their experiences forged a new understanding of women’s capabilities both within themselves and within society.
Through artifacts, images, audiovisual material, oral history and text, World War Women delves into the personal stories of the women associated with these materials. It is organized in stand-alone thematic zones, each devoted to an element of the wars that particularly involved and affected women."

     These 'zones' are dedicated to each of the areas in which women contributed to the war effort. For example, there is a section for women who worked in factories, ones who served as nurses, ones who served in Women's Divisions overseas, and all around the outside are little windows into the lives of women who wrote and received letters to and from loved ones who were fighting. At the end, we found ourselves in a room plastered with propaganda posters which gave a sense of how inundated women were at home with instructions to ration, save waste, buy war bonds, not spread any important secrets, and do their duties. It was a powerful ending to a truly moving experience!

Here are some of my favorite featured ladies:
Library and Archives Canada / e010785939
     Lillian Grant, at 23 years of age, was the only woman in the world to sport the Pipe Major’s insignia on her uniform sleeve during the Second World War. An experienced piper, Grant was asked to recruit, train and lead the Canadian Women Army Corps’ Pipe Band.

     Another interesting story which unfortunately does not have an image is that of Minnie Jarvis from London, Ontario. While her fiancĂ© was fighting in Europe during the First World War, he sent her a length of handmade lace. Sadly, he was killed shortly after, and Minnie kept the lace in its original envelope for 62 years before donating it to the War Museum.

CWM 20070060-002. Canadian War Museum
     This item has become one of the exhibit's most familiar symbols. It is an apron worn by Miss Canadas, who sold War Savings Stamps to Canadians on behalf of the government during the Second World War. This particular apron was worn by Barbara McNutt, who was only eleven years old when she signed up to canvass her hometown of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia.

Finally, some interesting facts about Canadian women at war (some might sound familiar if you're a regular reader!):

  • During the First World War, to raise money for prisoners of war, the Ottawa Women’s Canadian Club sold souvenirs made from the debris of the Centre Block of the Parliament Buildings, which had burned down in 1916. (*** Some great examples of these can be found at the Bytown Museum, Ottawa!***)

  • During the Second World War, women could purchase pattern books that they could use to knit items for military personnel, including amputation covers.

  • Women and girls — some as young as 11 years of age — sold 25-cent War Savings Stamps on behalf of the federal government during the Second World War. By the end of the program, they had raised $318 million.

  • More than 50,000 women served with the Canadian Armed Forces during the two World Wars.

  • Personnel of the Canadian Women's Army Corps at No. 3 CWAC, collectionscanada

  • Molly Lamb Bobak was the only female Canadian official war artist sent overseas during the Second World War. She went on to be one of Canada’s most celebrated war artists.

  • Canadian War Museum

  • 3,000 nurses served in the armed forces, and 2,504 were sent overseas with the Canadian Army Medical Corps during the First World War. Canadian nurses were accorded officer status to discourage fraternization and give them authority over patients.

  • Department of National Defense

  • During the Second World War, even with a pilot’s licence, women in the Royal Canadian Air Force-Women’s Division were not permitted to fly.

  • Women's Division, 1942, No. 1 Technical Training School, St. Thomas, Ontario

  • In 1942, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps established the first all-female military pipe band.


  • During the Second World War, more than 300,000 Canadian women held jobs related to war production.

  • Defence Industries Limited, Ajax, Ontario

  • In 1942, more than 100 contestants from Canada’s major military manufacturing plants vied for the title of “Miss War Worker.” The winner, Dorothy Linham, starred in a Palmolive Soap advertisement.

  • At the end of the Second World War, only three of the 3,000 women employed at the Canadian Car and Foundry plant kept their jobs.

  • Women soldering and assembling cables for airplanes, Canadian Car and Foundry Co., 1945.

  • During the two World Wars, approximately 100,000 Silver Crosses were given to the mothers and wives of soldiers who were killed.

  •   Special thanks to the Canadian War Museum for the information and images (unless otherwise labelled). The exhibit remains open until April 3rd so if you have the opportunity, I highly recommend experiencing it while it's still here!

        Thanks for reading,
    Delany (@DLeitchHistory on Twitter)  

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