“Women were not bystanders in the Great War, quietly knitting for the duration: in a multitude of ways they were actively engaged in wartime society and deeply affected by the vagaries of war.” (p 2)
“The war, in short, affected many people who never wore a uniform.” (p 196)
A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War is a step toward reinserting women into the story. Editors Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw bring together twelve historians to explore how women fared in WW1. The title comes from a message from Queen Mary to the women of the British Empire in December 2018: “we have been united in all our work, whether or head or hands, in a real sisterhood of suffering and service during the war.”
The authors examine Canadian and Newfoundland women’s war experiences under four themes. Two chapters in Mobilizing Women focus respectively on Aboriginal women on the Six Nations Grand River Reserve and Newfoundland women in the Women’s Patriotic Association. Their shared experiences in rallying energies to raise funds and provide support and supplies for their troops were marked as well by class and ethnicity. The Six Nations women faced discrimination by the dominant culture. The WPA morphed into a group to push for women’s suffrage after the war.
The chapters in Women’s Work? ask whether the expansion of women’s options in the paid workforce was transformative or temporary. New jobs for women were as likely to be seen to conform to conventional views of feminine as to be legitimate expanded roles. Propaganda of the day could exploit women’s mothering role or define women as soldiering, both in the name of patriotism and sacrifice. Either way, “home front” was coined to highlight the importance of women’s work to the war effort.
There were few chances for women to serve overseas. Professional nurses were part of the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) or British nursing units. Some women were trained as practical nurses or aides through St. John’s Ambulance Associations and assigned to Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD).
Family Matters and Creative Responses round off the themes of the essays.
An issue running through the book is the impact of women’s war work (paid and voluntary) on the fight for suffrage. Two laws adopted in 1917 enfranchised some women for federal elections. The Military Voters Act gave the vote to men and women (British subjects) in active military service. The Wartime Elections Act gave the vote to wives, widows, mothers, daughters and sisters (again British subjects) of soldiers serving overseas. At the same time, it disenfranchised “conscientious objectors, male and female members of pacifist religious groups like the Mennonites and Doukhobors, and all men and women born in enemy countries … who had been naturalized after 1902.” (p 16) The Act was a political manoeuvre to gain support for conscription.
I have, of course, vastly oversimplified the information and analysis presented in the book. It is well worth delving into the details to learn more about the ways that women’s experiences of the war were diverse and distinctive. It starts the conversation and opens the door for further research.