Canadian Women at Wartime Work
Women took on jobs when men were drafted to fight in WWII. New and challenging careers opened to women in munitions factories, sciences, and job sites – anywhere men worked.
Women Took the Lead
As men (and a number of women, too) trudged off to European battle sites in World War Two, their jobs in Canada were left empty. Who was left at home to build the cars? Who was left to keep the munitions factories in production? Who was left to build the weapons? Women were.
Women readily took over the posts in almost every capacity – heavy equipment operators, scientists, loggers, shipyard workers, munitions inspectors – almost any position. They enjoyed the freedom of working out of the home and of gaining a paycheque. Employers learned that women had great skills, according to Anne Fromer’s 1942 comment in the book, Back the Attack! by author Jean Bruce. “In addition to handling tools and machines they have shown great skill in production planning, in routing and control of operations connected with production, drafting, toolcrib and store tending, dispatching and timekeeping.” Women’s skills as inspectors were exceptionally able, she said, including, “passing on munitions, inspecting gun barrels and gun-carriage part, explosives, radio equipment and rejected materials.”
Women in Munitions
Some of the newly-working women felt that equality had been reached during WWII, “when Canadian girls left desks and kitchens, elevators and switchboards,” said Loretta Dempsey in Back the Attack!, and “stepped into overalls and took their places in the lines of workers at lathes and drills, cranes and power machines, tables and benches in the munition plants of Canada.” It was a fresh, exciting time for women of all ages.
But similar to today’s wage gaps, women were paid less than men for doing the exact same work. Some women accepted it, others vocally objected without much success. According to author Jean Bruce, the employers argued that women did not have “the same family responsibilities as a man” and therefore did not require the same pay. It did not matter if they were as good as, or better than, men on the jobs.
Representing the women working during wartime, Canada’s version of “Rosie the Riveter” was the “Bren Gun Girl”. Veronica Foster was a dark-haired, beautiful young woman who assembled guns on the Bren Gun line at a converted factory. Under the direction of the National Film Board of Canada and photographers, Veronica and other women were filmed and photographed at their work and in their private time. Veronica became the popular Canadian poster girl for women’s successful involvement in the war effort. As many as 75,000 Canadian women had joined the munitions factories workforce during the War, according to Mike Filey’s August 2005 column in the Toronto Sun.
Bren Machine Guns
The Bren Gun Girl worked at the heavy-manufacturing John Inglis Company Ltd. plant. The factory was converted from building large machinery and pumps into a gun-making plant, specializing in the Bren machine gun. The facility was expanded to cover 23 acres with 1 million square feet of floor space, according to Library of Western Ontario. The Bren was a light and reliable machine gun used by the British and Commonwealth military. The Inglis facility contracted with governments in 1939 to make the weapons for both British and Canadian soldiers, producing 12,000 guns over the war years.
Occasionally, management of various factories attempted to make their workplaces into pleasant venues. Some, according to Collections Canada, installed housing and well-stocked cafeterias for their workers. Others added entertainment facilities such as bowling lanes and baseball fields. A few munitions factories even installed a system of piped-in music to keep the women happy on the job.
At the end of World War Two, the men returned to home and jobs. The women found that many employers had considered them temporary for the duration of the war, and were abruptly let go. Women were not given opportunity to stay on the job and the Bren Gun Girl became a remarkable page in history. While some were glad to return to their home lives and raise families, others were distraught – the poverty of the Great Depression before World War Two still weighed heavily on their minds and they did not want to lose their new-found financial independence.
Back the Attack! Canadian Women During the Second World War – At Home and Abroad, by Jean Bruce, published by Macmillan of Canada, Toronto Ontario, 1985. Pp. 56 – 59, 169.
This article first appeared on suite101.com in 2008. Copyright Susanna McLeod