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November 11 Remembrance Day

by Carolyn Gossage | November 1, 1999

On November 11, many of us remember those who have died serving Canada at war. War changes the lives of all those it touches. Think what the two World Wars meant to women. To women living in Canada. To the women in all those countries where the battles were fought. Have a talk with a woman in your family who lived through some of these times, or wars in other places around the world. How did she live? What did it mean to her then? What does it mean to her now? Does it mean anything for you, or for all of us in society?

Wars that bring such deprivation, destruction and discrimination also offered opportunities for women.

“When you passed your exams and you received your flags,” one member of the Women’s Naval Service recalled, “it was like getting your degree. It had a big effect on our lives. We were proud of ourselves as individuals, as well as women, for we succeeded under the same conditions as the men, and for many this changed our outlook toward our place within society.

— Cited in Prentice et al, Canadian Women: A History, second edition, pg. 347, footnote 18, Harcourt Brace & Company | 1996

On August 4, 1914 Canada went to war. The only way for a woman to join up was to join the nursing service. In 1885, nurses received official recognition in the military in the North-West Rebellion. They were part of the Yukon Field Force of 1898 and the Canadian contingent to the South African War (the Boer War). Between 1914–1918, some 3,141 joined and 80% of those women (2,504) went overseas to military hospitals in England, Egypt, Greece. In France and Belgium, they also served in casualty clearing stations close behind the battle lines.

Women contributed significantly to the war effort. As volunteers, they supported the men in the armed forces with needed goods, services (like running canteens, rolling bandages, knitting socks, scarves and mittens) and donations. In many parts of Canada, women enrolled in civil defence courses to protect their homes, or joined home guards in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Toronto and Montreal. Womens’ contributions to the war effort were a major reason women achieved the right to vote. It’s too bad women weren’t allowed to continue in those jobs. Women had the option of getting married and being home makers, or teachers, nurses, or waitresses etc., but not working in the ship building factories.

In September 1939, when World War Two started, women could enter the armed forces only through the nursing service. But things were a-changing, and women’s skills and talents were needed, so women got to do a variety of things, like decipher clerks, air control operators, the care and packing of parachutes, ambulance drivers, operating the wireless. Men’s lives were dependent on the performance of women. In July 1941 the Canadian Women’s Auxiliary Air Force was created (it was later named the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Division). In August, 1941, the Canadian Women’s Army Corps was created. In July, 1942, the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Services was created.

Molly Lamb signed up with the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1941. Molly had grown up in Burnaby Lake, British Columbia, hating school (except kindergarten and learning to draw and paint). At 16, Molly went to the Vancouver School of Art in 1938. Canada was at war in the fall of 1939. By the summer of 1942, Hong Kong and Singapore had fallen and the “relocation” of the Japanese on the West Coast had commenced. The Battle of Britain was still being fought. For the first time in Canada, women were being actively recruited by the armed forces, but there was pressure on women not to enlist:

During the Second World War, there was a steady undercurrent of publicity directed toward young women, discouraging them from enlisting in the armed forces. It took the form of a whispering campaign – really nice girls would not do such a thing. It was picked up by the newspapers, not to mention fathers, mothers and brothers. As the result, the majority missed the opportunity to be involved equally in the most significant event of their generation.

— Nancy Keifer, They’re Still Women After All: The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood by RUTH ROACH PIERSON, McClelland and Stewart | 1986

Whispering campaign or not, strong women like Molly Lamb enlisted. Women enlisted from all parts of Canada and from all walks of life:

  • 16,000 in the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Division;
  • 20,000 in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps;
  • 6,500 in the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Services;
  • 4,400 in the nursing service and 38 medical doctors.

By the middle of the war, nearly a million women were involved in the production of war goods, accounting for more than 30% of the aircraft industry, almost 50% of the employees in many gun plants and the majority of munitions inspectors. Remember Rosie the Riveter? Once again, women ran farms and households and directed massive volunteer efforts. This is significant, as Canada’s population was only 11 million.

Molly Lamb was determined to be a war artist. She had role models. Her father was the friend of several members of the Group of Seven, Canadian men who painted in Canada with a very distinctive style, including A.Y. Jackson, who had been commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to record World War One. Canadian women had also received commissions – painters Florence Carlyle and Caroline Armington, Dorothy Stevens and Mabel May, as well as sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle who made several bronze figures of “various types of girl war workers” for the Canadian War Records of the government. Mary Riter Hamilton was refused official commissions, and went overseas on her own in 1919, staying for three years, producing over 300 sketches, drawings and paintings of the battlefields of France.

It would take Molly Lamb three years to achieve her goal, and even then she would not be sent overseas until after the fighting had stopped in Europe. From 1942–1945 Molly kept a newspaper-style cartoon/illustrated diary of her life in the army. From enlistment at Vancouver Barracks (“Girl Takes Drastic Step!”) on November 22, 1942 until May 24, 1945, she was promoted to lieutenant in the Canadian Army Historical Section, the only woman to be appointed official war artist in World War Two (“Lamb’s Fate Revealed! 2nd/Lieutenant Reels in Street”), she exuberantly recorded life in the army. In 1989, she donated her war journals to the National Archives of Canada and they have since been published as Double Duty: Sketches and Diaries of Molly Lamb Bobak, Canadian War Artist (Carolyn Gossage, ed., Dundurn Press | 1992).

Molly Lamb’s official art work is in the Canadian War Museum. There were also other women commissioned to paint women’s contribution to the war effort, including Pegi Nicol Macleod and Paraskeva Clark, who painted women in Canada propping up the Canadian economy, running the factories and building airplanes.

After the war, Molly Lamb married artist Bruno Bobak, eventually settling in Fredericton and teaching at the University of New Brunswick. She has said of herself: “She remains an optimist and an enthusiast, though she gave up writing awful poetry years ago and contents herself with painting.”

In 1946, the 3 women’s services were disbanded, leaving only a small number of nursing sisters in uniform. In 1951, (well into the Cold War), women could join the reserve forces and the regular air force, but not the regular army and navy until 1954-1955.

resources for this story
  • The theme for 2005’s Women’s History Month: Women and War – Contributions and Consequences
  • The 1-hour film called And We Knew How To Dance about Canadian women in WWI by the National Film Board of Canada. There are wonderful old women telling their memories and their anger at being sent back home as home makers and thrown out of the factories and their jobs. Marriage was almost inevitable. They talk about how hard it was for the single woman to find work.
  • Women in the ’40s and ’50s: How They Saw Us, National Film Board of Canada, #0177374. This is a video compilation of 8 films made about women during the 1940s and 1950s. Women’s roles in society were defined, and then redefined, over this 20-year period. During the war years, there was a demand for women to participate in the workforce, but when peace came, they were expected to give up those jobs for returning servicemen. The films reveal, often unintentionally, society’s preoccupation with “appropriate” behaviours for women and how these notions were shaped and reinforced by the media. A pamphlet entitled, How They Saw Us places these films in their historical and philosophical context.
  • A History of Women in the Canadian Military, by BARBARA DUNDAS, Editions Art Global
  • Making History, Building Futures: Women of the 20th Century, Status of Women Canada
  • Women’s military contributions, Western Sentinel | March 10, 2005
  • Wildflowers of Canada: Impressions and Sketches of a Field Artist, by MOLLY LAMB BOBAK, Pagurian Press | 1983
  • Double Duty: Sketches and Diaries of Molly Lamb Bobak, Canadian War Artist by CAROLYN GOSSAGE, ed., Dundurn Press, ISBN 1-55002-166-4 | 1992
  • Greatcoats and Glamour Boots: Canadian Women at War, 1939-1945, by CAROLYN GOSSAGE, Dundurn Press, ISBN 1-55002-368-3 | 2001
  • Props on Her Sleeve, The Wartime Letters of a Canadian Airwoman, by MARY HAWKINS BUCH, with CAROLYN GOSSAGE, Dundurn Press, ISBN 1-55002-294-6, email orders to: | 1997
  • Back the Attack! Canadian Women During the Second World War, by JEAN BRUCE, Macmillan | 1985
  • They’re Still Women After All: The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood, by RUTH ROACH PIERSON, McClelland and Stewart | 1986
  • The Battlefield Paintings of Mary Riter Hamilton (1919-1922), by ANGELA DAVIS and SARAH McKINNON, University of Manitoba Art Gallery | 1989
  • Female Gazes: Seventy-Five Women Artists, by ELIZABETH MARTIN and VIVIAN MEYER, Second Story Press, ISBN 0-929005-99-6 | 1997
  • The Girls: A biography of Frances Loring and Florence Wyle, by REBECCA SISLER, Clarke, Irwin | 1972
  • Daffodils in Winter: the Life and Letters of Pegi Nicol McLeod, by JOAN MURRAY, Penumbra Press | 1984
  • Other Images of War: Canadian Women War Artists of the First and Second World Wars, by TERRESA McINTOSH, Carleton University | 1990
  • Canada’s Nursing Sisters, by G.W.L. NICHOLSON, Historical Publication 13, Canadian War Museum, National Museums of Canada, Samuel Stevens, Hakkert, Toronto | 1975
  • Visions and Victories: Ten Canadian Women Artists (1914-1945), by NATALIE LUCKYJ, London Regional Art Gallery
  • Claiming Women’s Lives: History and Contemporary Studies, by PAT STATON, Green Dragon Press, ISBN 0-9696977-0-8 | 1994
  • Women in the Military, by JANE O’HARA, Maclean’s magazine | May 25,1998
  • Canadian Women: A History, 2nd ed. by ALISON PRENTICE et al, Harcourt Brace | 1996
  • Women Changing Canada, by JAN COOMBER and ROSEMARY EVANS, Oxford University Press (Canada), ISBN 0-19-541281-8 | 1997
  • Toronto Women Changing Faces 1900–2000: A Photographic Journey, by JEANNE MACDONALD, NADINE STOIKOFF and RANDALL WHITE, eastendbooks, ISBN 1-896973-04-3 | 1997

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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