The Overlooked Majority

Recovering stories of women and children from the Great War’s home front

The labyrinth-like trenches of the Western Front loom large in our collective memory of Canada’s Great War. Those underground cities, teeming with citizen soldiers living in mud and filth, were relentlessly pounded by high explosive shells, raked by machine-gun fire and corrupted by lung-searing chemical clouds. The wartime poetry and prose, along with post-war cultural products such as novels, television series and films, have focused heavily on that ribbon of death, the 700-kilometre long trench system that wound snake-like from Switzerland to the North Sea, and that barely moved throughout the course of the four years of battle.

Yet the Great War is also widely accepted as a total war where societies were engaged in and directed toward the pursuit of victory, at any cost. For Canada, then a British Dominion of only eight million, the war ushered in enormous political changes, such as the introduction of income tax, the enfranchisement of women, the disenfranchisement of recent immigrants from Germany and Austria, the suspension of habeas corpus, the internment of more than 8,000 Canadians and, by late 1917, the forcing of young men to fight against their will through conscription for military service. There were also profound changes to the social fabric of Canadian society, from food consumption to popular culture. And all of this was set against the mounting butcher’s bill that would eventually reach more than 60,000 dead Canadians.

In A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the First World War, academic historians Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw have mobilized scholars in academia and outside to reappraise the impact of the war on women and children, who made up most of the seven and a half million or so Canadians and Newfoundlanders left at home. Through twelve articles, drawn together through a number of key themes, the authors offer deeper insight into the impact of total war on the Canadian home front.

With the country mobilized for war, Canadians were encouraged to support the conflict in multiple ways. While men were pressured to enlist, women were often expected to serve in patriotic organizations. Several articles explore volunteer work on the home front, from raising money for soldiers’ families to large-scale recruitment parties, to the knitting of socks for overseas soldiers. In these volunteer spheres, women dominated the work and many framed their support as a means of “doing their bit” for the war effort.

Women were also engaged in paid labour. Kori Street explores how women saw themselves serving the wartime economy by engaging in clerical work or replacing men in banks, even though they were never paid equally and expected to be temporary workers until the soldiers came home. She also examines women in the dangerous munitions factories, where workers were often poisoned from the chemicals they handled. Nonetheless, one newspaper reporter who visited a factory found that every woman on staff “felt that they were helping win the war.”

Three essays explore the mobilization of women in various forms, such as the support of the women of Six Nations of the Grand River in Newfoundland, raising funds for overseas soldiers, and the pressure on students at the University of Toronto to conform to patriotic expectations. Alison Norman explores the seemingly intriguing contradiction of Six Nations women supporting the war effort, even as they were ill treated by white Canadians. But just as thousands of Native men enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, women, too, renewed a sense of allegiance to the British king, while others hoped that service and sacrifice would affect long-term changes for good. They rarely did, although we are introduced to Edith Monture, a Mohawk who served as a nursing sister, and who, through her overseas service, received the right to vote in the 1917 election, 43 years ahead of other First Nations women.

Kristine Alexander explores the multiple ways that girls experienced the war, be it through school, books, sheet music or performing patriotic war work. Across the country, girls missed their brothers and worried about their fathers, while at the same time being heroicized by society for their plucky reserve and personal sacrifice. Thousands of children were issued buttons emblazoned with the words, “My Dad is at the Front,” and they were worn with pride.

One of the most original articles is Suzanne Evans’s examination of material culture artifacts related to grief. With tens of thousands of wartime dead, Evans explores the wearing of mourning clothes, the issuing of official medals to mark the death of a loved one and the adornment of service flags outside houses that revealed how many family members were serving overseas (through a number of small blue maple leaves), and if any had given their lives in the conflict (a red maple leaf). This ground-breaking research opens up the field of public grieving in war-shattered Canada.

To round out the essays, there are two devoted to nurses in the Great War, a field of study that is already rich and nuanced, and three articles that examine the writing of poetry in Newfoundland and Canada, and, even more specialized, the display of gender norms in representations of disability in Canadian novels.

Only a few of the essays engage directly with Joan Sangster’s influential thesis that women’s paid labour and wartime work offered few tangible benefits for the advancement of women’s rights or the search for more equality in society. However, with several of the authors focusing on patriotic unpaid labour, it is clear that women had a tremendous impact on the war effort. The historical elephant in the room is a brilliant 1994 National Film Board documentary, And We Knew How to Dance: Women in World War I, which presented a dozen or so women at the end of their long lives (most in their early nineties) reflecting on the war and what it meant for them. Many of the women in that film speak openly of how the war transformed their lives, with their wartime roles—be it nursing, munitions work or professional driving—providing confidence or new skills. Quite a few of the feisty ladies also commented on how they refused to return to the domestic sphere at war’s end. These eyewitnesses to history make it clear that the war had a long-term effect on their lives, if perhaps not on all women as a whole or a class. This, surely, is a critical question in understanding women and the war. Moreover, while all essay collections are, by their nature, episodic, no author confronts the question of women and enfranchisement in the 1917 election, and that too would have shed light on the question of whether the war was a transformative event in the lives of women. Pulling apart the factors that led to enfranchisement deserves some greater commentary in a book devoted to women and war.

While A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the First World War may win the award for the most awkward title of the year, the stories and analysis contained within offer much new insight into the Great War’s impact on women. As we march steadily toward and then through the centenary of the Great War from 2014 to 2018, I suspect that much of the focus—perhaps nearly exclusively—will be on the overseas soldiers in the trenches of memory that haunt us still, but this book reminds us of the importance of casting our gaze widely and remembering those who, in the words of Nellie McClung, “wait and wonder,” and whose stories of sacrifice and support have largely been silenced or untold over the last hundred years.