Women in the Military

Number 2 company, Canadian Women’s Army Corps, Calgary, Alberta | Photo by W.J. Oliver | May 23, 1943 | Glenbow Archives NA-4940-2

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During the Second World War, Canada’s military was facing labour shortages and needed to find a way to free up capable men from administrative and support work so they could enter combat duty. Inspired by voluntary civilian women’s organizations seeking official recognition in Canada and the formation of the British Auxiliary Territorial Service for Women in 1938, the Canadian Forces formally organized a female support contingency of the army. On 13 August 1941, the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary (later Army) Corps (CWAC) was created.

Window display promoting Canadian Women’s Army Corps | c. 1943 | Glenbow Archives NA-4784-6

 

Women’s involvement in war efforts was not something new. Women had previously served as nurses, volunteers, and support workers on the home front, but never in Canadian history had they been officially recognized as part of the Canadian Army.

Alberta played a key role. The town of Vermillion was the primary CWAC training facility for recruits from British Columbia to Northern Ontario. It opened in July 1942 and ran the first course the following month. This training centre accommodated 400 women at a time and provided 4-5 weeks of initial training. Next, women were assigned to a military district in Canada to begin working.

Canadian Women’s Army Corps Training Centre, Vermilion, Alberta | c. 1940-1945 | Glenbow Archives PA-3689-1104

 

While the creation of CWAC created new opportunities for women, it was also the first time the Canadian military had to engage with the complexities of gender as it attempted to integrate women into the armed forces. Members of CWAC were expected to maintain their femininity while serving, and there was a focus on respectable femininity in physical appearance, hairstyles, cosmetics, and uniforms.

The roles available to women were often limited to traditionally female tasks, such as administrative duties and cooking, although mechanical work was also performed. Women were also paid less than their male counterparts. These limited, non-combatant opportunities reinforced the idea that women should serve in secondary and subordinate roles to men, and perhaps unsurprisingly, exposed rather than undermined the discriminatory practices of the Canadian military.

Proudly they Served | Courtesy of the Canadian War Museum

 

At the same time, pre-existing gender biases also manifested themselves in a whisper campaign to undermine female servicewomen’s respectability by spreading rumours about the morality and sexual conduct of members of CWAC. Serving in the army was seen as traditionally masculine, and so women who served were seen to have broken with convention and there was an assumption that they would also abandon other conventions related to femininity, such as chastity.

These contradicting standards of behaviour highlight some of the difficulties women encountered as they began to participate in a male-dominated occupation. Some of these difficulties continue today. The last occupational ban for females in the military, which restricted women from serving aboard submarines, was lifted in 2001. While women currently make up 14.8% of the Canadian Armed Forces, those who obtain officer status are mainly concentrated in the personnel and nursing fields, and no woman has ever served as the head of an operational unit.

Want to learn more about women in combat? Visit Calgary’s Military Museums.

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