Women at War
The role of women in the war was a highly debated topic. When twelve Creston women graduated from the Voluntary Auxiliary Drivers Corps, Col. E. Mallandaine stressed the importance of women in this war. He claimed that women were "more skillful than men for precision work and for every woman who worked in a war industry a man was let out for active service.” However, a July 1941 editorial published in the Creston Review bluntly states “the idea of women doing men’s work is nauseous.” Clearly, not everyone shared the same sentiment when it came to enlisting female auxiliaries in the armed forces. With these conflicting opinions taken into account, in what capacity were women really encouraged and expected to serve?
Regardless of public scrutiny, the Second World War enabled women to serve their country in ways that had not been seen before. All three branches of the Canadian armed services had women’s services: the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force; the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service.
A significant motivation in the establishment of these women’s services was the fact that men were desperately needed for combat duties. In joing the armed services, women had to battle everything from significantly lower pay – as little as one-third what men would make to do a similar job – to outright discrimination and derogatory treatment. Nevertheless, young women from across the country quickly joined up, and soon proved their worth in every area of operations.
The Royal Canadian Air Force was the first to welcome women; the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was established in July 1941 (its name was changed to Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division in February 1942). The Canadian Women’s Army Corps followed in August 1941. The Navy was relatively slow to acknowledge the role that women could play; the Wrens (Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service) was not established until July 1942.
By the end of the war, 22,000 women were serving in the CWAC, the largest of the three women’s services. 17,000 women joined the Women’s Division of the Air Force. The Wrens, in comparison, numbered only about 7,000 members, due partly to the slowness of the Admiralty in establishing the service.
These proportions are echoed in the numbers of young women from the Creston Valley who enlisted. At least forty-five local women served in uniform during the Second World War. Of them, nineteen are known to have joined the Army and sixteen served in the Air Force; only two are known to have served with the Wrens.
Women in the services took on an astonishing variety of jobs, many of which were the traditional roles of women. Margaret Bathie, for example, served as a telephone operator; Ethel Fleck worked as a secretary. Staff Sergeant Daisy Trevelyan, with the CWAC, was a stenographer with the chief of general staff at Ottawa; Sergeant Mae Kennedy served with headquarters staff also at Ottawa.
Mary Abbott served as a nursing sister with the Army Medical Corps; Lieutenant Phyllis Hamilton served with a Canadian Naval medical unit aboard the Canadian hospital ship Lady Nelson. Verna Fowlie and Mabel Lowden were both nursing sisters with the Air Force. Verna was in charge of an RCAF hospital in Swift Current before transferring to Regina in April 1944. Mabel was one of the first four flying nurses in western Canada; her role was to meet wounded soldiers returning to Canada and accompany them on their flight to Canadian hospitals. As a nurse, she would have dealt with any medical emergencies on the plane.
Women in the services filled many non-traditional roles, as well: mechanics, signalwomen, photographers, drivers, weather observers, and more. Marble Phipps spent several years with an Army Intelligence unit in Halifax.
In general, most of the Canadian women served at home, with only a few being sent overseas. This is also reflected in the experiences of the women from the Creston Valley. In the Air Force, Margaret Sinclair served in Ottawa, while Mary Imhoff was stationed at Vancouver. The Army Corps stationed Eileen Pendry at Chilliwack and Ella McCulloch at Nanaimo. Mary Abbott was one of the few to serve overseas during the war itself. More Canadian women were sent overseas after the peace to serve on occupational duty in Europe; Mille Beard, serving with the Army, was one of these. When the war in Europe was over, some women, such as Stella Beard, volunteered for service in the Pacific.
In all three services, the role of the women was critical to Allied success. Although women were prohibited from taking on any combat role, they did virtually every other job available in the services. They proved their ability in all these roles, and paved the way for a much broader involvement of women, both in the armed services and in civilian life.