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Lt. Col. Shirley M. Robinson, CD(Retired)-Nurse

by Carolyn Gossage | November 6, 2000

Remembrance Day is an annual event that touches each of us in a different way. For some, it’s the memory of a person, or a place, or a time. For some, its a longing for peace, the absence of war, the memory of the suffering of the “comfort women” or the women and girls raped in Bosnia. For some, it’s the memory of the aboriginal soldiers who fought for Canada or even the work of the War Amps. For others, it is the solemn pageantry, or the sense of sustained emotion. The imagery of Remembrance Day is rich and evocative of many emotions. The imagery also reminds us that serving Canada in uniform, through combat, is something that men have been allowed to do and women forbidden to do. Barriers to women in the Canadian military that existed in 1900 still exist in 2000, although undoubtedly some things have changed. Lt. Col. Robinson is working to remove the remaining, real barriers so that women may pursue the aspirations and careers of their choice.

My concern about inequities relating to women in the Forces goes back a long way. And during my time as Deputy Director of Women Personnel, I heard more than enough to confirm my own view that it was time for someone to stick their neck out and try to deal with these issues.

United by a firm commitment to the advancement of career opportunities for women in the military, early in 1985, Lt. Retired Col. Robinson, Maude Barlow, Adelle Karmas, Suzanne Simpson and others, each presented a persuasive brief on Canadian Forces women to the Parliamentary sub-committee on Equality Rights which had been formed as a result of the 1982 Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Their recommendations met with the committee’s unanimous approval and the government responded by promising that women would be able to compete for all positions in the armed forces. In October, 1985, the four founding members officially established the AWECF – Association for Women’s Equity in the Canadian Forces. Although buoyed by the positive response to these briefs, they were well aware that their work had just begun.

In essence, the key issue at stake was whether all occupations – including combat roles – should be open to women in the Canadian Forces. The answer to that thorny question has been hotly debated for decades, yet historical evidence and public opinion polls indicated that time was on the side of the advocates of equal opportunity.

As Robinson points out, even today, how many Canadians are remotely aware that there is a history of women warriors extending as far back as the 5th century B.C? Or that in the American War of Independence many thousands of women took up arms, as did Chinese women in the rebellions of the 19th century? During World War II, more than 800,000 Soviet women served in combat roles, while in Yugoslavia’s partisan army, women fought side by side with their male counterparts. The same can be said of the Israeli women soldiers in the wars of 1948 and 1967 and those in the Viet Cong who served in the guerilla army – often in positions of command.

Women have proven that they can fight with skill, courage and perseverance, and no evidence has been produced to suggest the presence of women in combat causes any deterioration in their units’ combat effectiveness.

According to Shirley Robinson, following the 1978 Human Rights Act, SWINTER, a series of trials for servicewomen in non-traditional roles and environments were conducted from 1979–85 and proved conclusively that women could perform successfully. At this point, a Human Rights Tribunal hearing was already underway to determine if all occupations in the Canadian Forces should be open to women. Subsequently, the Minister of National Defence announced in 1987 that the air force would open all occupations. Women could now assume full combat roles, including the operation of tactical helicopters and fighter jets. Two years later, a Human Rights Commission Tribunal ruled that all military occupations (with the exception of submarine duty) were to be opened to women within ten years. Robinson was the consultant to the Human Rights lawyers during those hearings and there is no question that without the doggedly persistent efforts of Shirley and her fellow AWECF members, these decisions might still have been little more than a distant dream.

On the other hand, the inescapable fact remains that official policy is one thing and its implementation is another. In the intervening years since the 1989 Human Rights Tribunal ruling, there have been clear indications of internal resistance and incidents involving intimidation and harassment. In a recent seven-page letter to Minister of Defence Arthur Eggleton written in April, 2000, Lt. Col. Robinson does not mince words:

Women have told me that after (completing) a course, they have requested access to their personnel files and discovered that documents had been altered after they had been signed, in order to portray the women candidates as less capable ... They allege that they have been required to meet a higher standard than required of male counterparts.

She goes on to contend that there is a subtle hidden agenda at work and has called for immediate investigations by the Department of National Defence and the Canadian Forces Ombudsman.

The irony in of all this is that 60 years ago, at the outbreak of World War Two, when the concept of enlisting women into the Armed Forces initially came under discussion, many of these same attitudes prevailed in certain quarters. The time-honoured status quo was suddenly in jeopardy and every imaginable obstacle was conjured up to prevent the potential incursion of women into the military. Nursing sisters, of course, had been a notable exception since 1885, but what of the damaging effect the female presence might have on military discipline and morale (to say nothing of morals)? Fortunately, when put to the test, these fossilized notions were eventually laid to rest. By 1941, the war overseas had taken a turn for the worse and before long women from all across the country were flocking to the recruitment centres set up by the RCAF Women’s Division, the CWACs (Canadian Women’s Army Corps) and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (known as “the Wrens”) in answer to such slogans as “We Serve That Men May Fly.” And when it was all over, in the summer of 1945, with a new sense of accomplishment and pride, the majority of women in uniform were quite prepared to put the War Years behind them and get on with their lives on “civvie street.” Not only had they won the acceptance of all but a minority of their male counterparts, but - almost fifty thousand strong - they had proved they could take anything that military life dished out ... regimentation, drafty barracks, route marches, scrubbing floors and non-gourmet food, to name but a few.

And, yet as we embark on another millennium, there are still disturbing echoes of the same mindset that stood in the way of enlightened progress in the 1940s. Small wonder that Lt. Col. Robinson is incensed!

Now that the law has changed, attitudes must change ... The lives of women today contradict the stereotypes that many Canadians grew up with. So-called “male” and “female” traits are, in fact, human traits having nothing whatever to do with the sex of the individual.

Through education and innovative programs, we can hope that the future for women in the Canadian Forces will hold out the tangible promise of changes from within that reflect the realities of life in the 21st century.

publications and articles by Lt. Col. Robinson, C.D. (Retired)
  • The Canadian Forces Policy on the Employment of Women: Time for Change, brief presented to the Parliamentary Committee on Equality Rights | July, 1985
  • Women in Combat : The Last Bastion, published by Canadian Women’s Studies, volume 6, number 4 | winter 1985
  • Response of the AWECF to the Department of Justice: Toward Equality, (co-authored), Women in the Armed Forces | May 1986.
  • The Right to Serve: Women and the Combat Issue, a series published in Forum and sponsored by the Conference of Defence Associations | 1988
  • Canadian Military Women: The Struggle for Equity, paper presented to the Learned Society, Queen’s University | June 1991
related resources
  • Greatcoats and Glamour Boots – Canadian Women in Uniform (1939-1945), by CAROLYN M. GOSSAGE, Dundurn Press, Toronto, ISBN 1-55002-368-3 | 2001
  • Women in Combat – The Revolutionary War Experience, by LINDA GRANT De PAUW, George Washington University, Armed Forces Society | 1981
  • Female Soldiers: Combatants or Non-combatants , Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, by NANCY LORING GOLDMAN, Greenwood Press, Westport, Conn., London England | 1982
  • Double Duty: The Wartime Journals and Sketches of Molly Lamb Bobak, Dundurn Press, Toronto | 1992
  • Props on Her Sleeve – The Wartime Letters of a Canadian Airwoman, with Mary I. Buch, Dundurn Press, Toronto | 1997
  • Florence Nightingale, by ELSPETH UXLEY, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, London | 1975
  • Women Warriors in a Men’s World: The Combat Exclusion, by LORI S. KORNBLUM | 1984
  • Women in Battle, by JOHN LAFFIN | 1967
  • Canada’s Nursing Sisters, by COL. G.W.L. NICHOLSON, Samuel Stevens Hakkert and Co., Toronto | 1975
  • Canadian Women and Canadian Mobilization During the Second World War, by RUTH ROACH PIERSON | 1980
  • The Argument for Female Combatants, by MADY WECHSLER SEGAL Chicago | 1980
biographical profile
  • A native of Lucknow, Ontario until secondary school graduation.
  • Completed training at the Owen Sound General and Marine Hospital as a Registered Nurse in 1953 and the following year was enrolled as a Pilot Officer in the RCAF.
  • Robinson’s 30-year career included successful completion of courses in Military Nursing and Nursing Administration. She is a graduate of the Canadian Forces Command and Staff College course, as well as French language training and advanced Management courses at St. Jean, P.Q.
  • Before retirement in 1984, Lt. Col. Robinson was Deputy Director Of Women Personnel at National Defence Headquarters.
  • In 1985 she became a founding member of the Association for Women’s Equity in the Canadian Forces ( AWECF ).
  • Acted as consultant to the Human Rights Commission lawyers during the Tribunal hearings of 1986–88 and the Status of Women on the role of women in the Canadian Forces.
  • Worked in close association with members of the legal profession in discrimination cases.
  • Appeared frequently in the media to publicize the importance of equity for women in the military
  • Lt. Col. Robinson is a past vice-president of the Nursing Sisters’ Association of Canada and a past president of the Ottawa Unit. She is also a member of the Council for Canadians, the Human Rights Institute of Canada and the Ontario College of Nurses.
  • In October 1992, for her significant contributions to the cause of improving the role of women in the Canadian Forces, Lt. Col. Robinson was awarded the Governor-General’s Award in commemoration of the Person’s Case. Currently she serves as a committee-member for this award.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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