This Week in History


Making Waves: Women in Uniform

This story was initially published in 1999

On August 13, 1941, as the Second World War raged on, military officials in Canada created the Canadian Women's Army Corps (CWAC), eventually paving the way for women's entry into the armed services.

During the Boer War and the First World War, women were only allowed to participate on a voluntary basis. Most worked as nursing sisters with the Red Cross and other organizations. A few did become officers of the Canadian Medical Army Corps, but were let go as soon as the war ended.

Recruitment poster for CWAC

Recruitment poster for CWAC
© Courtesy of Gala Multimedia Inc.

With a new threat of war in the late 1930s, some Canadian women formed their own volunteer organizations. Many modelled themselves on the British Auxiliary Territorial Service, a voluntary women's organization which offered support to the military. They trained women to work as clerks, drivers, cooks, and stenographers. Some groups also had militia-style training.

Even after Canada declared war on Germany in September 1939, military leaders resisted the idea of accepting women in the regular service. Officials in the three branches of the military, the Royal Canadian Air Force, Army and Navy, feared women in uniform would be "unladylike," would distract the men, and require special barracks. However, by mid-1940, labour was in short supply due to the numerous men needed for combat. On the other hand, there were many women volunteers. Furthermore, Canadians stationed in Britain saw that women were a valuable asset. Thus, the RCAF Women's Division was created in July 1941, the CWAC in August, and the Women's Royal Canadian Navy the following summer.

CWAC recruiting booth

CWAC recruiting booth
© Provincial Archives of Manitoba
Canadian Army Photo Collection 162 (N10857)

Initially, women could only work as support staff. As the war went on, the military trained some of them as pilots, technicians, draftpersons, and mechanics, but they were never allowed into direct combat. Although their salaries were lower than the men's, approximately 50,000 women volunteered for the military, including 22,000 in the CWAC.

All three branches were disbanded soon after the war and the women were expected to start families and return to "normal" life. However, their contribution was not forgotten and within a decade the Canadian military was admitting women. The Canadian Women's Army Corps, the Royal Canadian Air Force's Women's Division and the Women's Royal Canadian Navy have all been designated of national historic significance.

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