On November 4, 2018, historian and author Charlotte Gray spoke to attendees in Cobourg, Ontario about “Women in the First World War”.
She started her lecture by discussing the stories we tell as a country about our own history:
“Aspects of the First World War have passed from history into mythology. The stories we in this country have told ourselves about our national origins evolve with each generation. The re-emergence of Vimy into collective memory is part of one such origin story. And it’s a story that the federal government in fact of the early 20th century promoted: Canada as a warrior nation. This story now runs parallel to other national origin stories.
For instance, in the late 19th century, the story of Canada was seen as the story of the Dominion of entirely British character. This is the imperial story: it’s the colony to nation story. Then, in the mid-20th century, another version of Canadian history surfaced, this one in which East-West links defined the country. First the mighty waterways, then the railroads were the glue that kept this country together. Suddenly it wasn’t history that defined Canada, it was our geography.
Can we separate myth from history in this post-truth era? Most of us have actually come to realize that every version of history is laden with value judgments, biases, and assumptions about whose voices should be heard – and particularly, whose voices should be ignored.”
Charlotte then mentions that it is now commonly believed that the Great War revolutionized women’s lives: “It’s always been said that it liberated working class women from the drudgery of domestic service by opening up other opportunities. We also assume that within the limitations of the fiercely segregated gender roles back then, women were all as committed to the national effort as the men.” However, as she will point out, some of the ways that the First World War impacted women’s lives were not as straightforward as we like to assume today. But for women the most radical impact on their lives was that most of them would be granted the right to vote in federal elections.
In this short clip, Charlotte Gray discusses the dilemma faced by suffragists at the outbreak of war in 1914:
What about our traditional understanding of the roles of women during the war?
Margaret Atwood writes in They Fought in Colour about some of the changing roles for women at this point: “Many people had war-connected jobs. Women stepped into jobs that would have been done by men if there had been enough men remaining to do them. Women ran farms, worked in factories making shells and other military equipment, and sewed uniforms and war gear, including the trench coats that became such an important garment for those living in the cold wet mud-tunnels of the front. Women also tended gardens, ran canning clubs to preserve food, sold Victory Bonds, and helped with recruitment drives. They joined war committees, raising money to send care packages to the troops, or to train nurses to serve not only overseas but — increasingly — back home, tending the soldiers who were too mangled to be patched up and sent back to the trenches.”
But even in less-traditional roles, tensions still existed within the women’s movement. Watch this clip of Charlotte Gray discussing the work of women in munitions factories:
After years of effort, the right to vote was finally extended at the federal level to (some) women. From Charlotte Gray: “And then, in September 1917, the Union Government led by Prime Minister Robert Borden, passed its Wartime Elections Act. The government’s motivation in introducing this bill was transparent and had little to do with commitment to equal rights or social justice. The government’s preoccupation was its commitment to send yet more men to the front, but the supply of volunteers had dried up.
Conscription appeared to be the only solution but it was deeply unpopular with many groups, particularly within Quebec. The Prime Minister realized he needed to demonstrate popular support for conscription, so he extended the franchise first to nurses, who looked after hospitals in France, and then to the wives, widows, mothers and sisters of soldiers serving overseas. All strongly in favour of conscription. Their boys were in the trenches. They knew they needed help. Many of them had been fighting without any kind of break or relief for more than a year, more than two years. It was unbelievably hard.
But whatever the government’s Machiavellian motivation in 1917, the cat was now out of the bag. There was no way that suffrage at the federal level could be rolled back. It had to be granted more widely. And in May 1918, all women over the age of 21 and not alien-born, and meeting the property requirements of their province, were allowed to vote in federal elections.
However the Act did not apply to all women. Besides the alien-born, women from minority groups, including women from Asian backgrounds, were not granted voting rights. And it would be another 42 years before indigenous women, alongside men, got the unconditional right to vote.”
In summary, Charlotte Gray believes that: “Despite the appearances, World War One’s impact on women’s lives was less than it has often been painted.”
– Charlotte Gray quotes Nellie McClung as saying that if women had been in charge of the world, the First World War would not have happened. Do you think this is the case? Are women more attuned to peace-making than men? Do women run countries differently than men? Look at current and past political female leaders around the world as you consider your position.
– We often think of the First World War provided a chance for women to take on new jobs and roles in society. Why would the impact of the First World War on women’s lives have been exaggerated?
– Imagine you are the wife, daughter or sister to someone in an ethnic group who was interned during the war, such as Ukrainian, German, or Polish. Is it fair that you would not have the right to vote at the same time as other women? Describe how you would feel after the Wartime Elections Act of 1917.
– Imagine you are a woman working in a factory during the war, producing munitions for the war effort. When the war ends, you no longer have a job as the returning veterans take up jobs at the factories. How would this make you feel?
– Motherhood is a theme that comes up regularly in discussions about the suffrage movement during the First World War. Why was this so central to debates about women voting?
– Charlotte Gray posits that the voices we exclude from our history stories are just as informative as the voices we include. Are there still voices missing from our understanding of the First World War? Where should we look to fill in some of those voices 100 years later?
– This page contains photos that have been colourized. Use the Vimy 100 in the Classroom guide on ‘Photography in the First World War‘ to analyze the photos and the addition of colour.