Wartime recruiting posters offering women 80 per cent of the pay that men received pushed Canadian females into what were unimaginable roles for the ‘fair sex’ early in the last century.
With so many men on the front lines, many women had their pick of job opportunities during both world wars.
Lorna Sanger Cooney was hired as a photographer for the Navy after telling a naval recruiter in the early 1940s that she had no interest in cooking for sailors.
Molly Lamb Bobak become a trail-blazing war artist, one of the first females to document Canada’s overseas effort during the Second World War.
And Edith Anderson Monture went on to serve as the First Indigenous female Canadian in the U.S. military.
The new travelling exhibit World War Women, at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery, shows that male soldiers achieved Allied victories with a lot of support from wives, mothers and sisters — for many of these women also assumed heroic roles overseas and at home.
According to the museum display, Monture earned her nursing credentials from an American college in 1914 when she couldn’t get nurse training in this country. She became a savior of wounded soldiers recovering in France during the First World War.
But her overseas job took a high emotional toll. When a young soldier, who had adopted her as his “big sister,” died from an unexpected haemorrhage, Monture wrote: “My heart was broken. I cried most of the day and could not stop….”
The exhibit explores two periods of “extraordinary change and hardship”— 1914-‘18 and 1939-‘45 — when millions of women served in the military, or took on paid or volunteer work on the homefront.
While toiling in fields and munitions factories, mothers, wives and sisters were also worrying about their loved ones in uniform — some of whom they would never see again, said Kim Verrier, the museum’s exhibits co-ordinator.
“I think they took on a lot of jobs that I wouldn’t want… some of them were in dangerous or critical roles, but these women stepped forward and did them,” Verrier added.
They kept their homes, communities and the national economy running, and in the process, discovered their self confidence and capabilities outside the domestic realm.
Photo panels illustrate the many wartime roles that women assumed that helped forge a new identity for what was once known as the ‘gentler sex.’
Artifacts from the Canadian War Museum include a knitting machine used by women volunteers to make socks for soldiers. Visitors will see hand-painted prosthetic eyes made by Kathleen McGrath, a trained nurse and laboratory technologist, and a “Miss Canada” apron, worn by young volunteers as they went from door to door selling War Savings Stamps.
One of the most poignant displays is a brown paper-wrapped box that was sent back to a dead soldier’s family. These kinds of boxes contained personal effects — including goodbye letters often written in advance by soldiers, just in case they wouldn’t be returning home.
The exhibit continues to Nov. 20. Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery, a city owned facility, is part of Alberta’s Restrictions Exemption Program.