Work, Women, and War

Reviewed by Jan Lermitte

The cover illustration on the recent volume by Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw depicts a colourful cluster of four women dutifully outfitting a soldier with his sword and shield. They are absorbed in their work, eyes downcast, their youthful bodies draped in symbols of king and country. This image from 1916 illustrates an attitude of service that was widely expected of women during the Great War. The collection of essays behind this cover successfully examines and discusses the service-oriented lives of women who remained on the home front or worked overseas between 1914-1918. The introduction discusses the relative invisibility of women in traditional war history and cites more recent works, such as Jonathan Vance’s Death so Noble, that include women’s history, but in a limited way. This volume is an important contribution to the many books about World War I because it draws attention to the need for research and analysis of women’s lives on the home front and in the post-war years. An extensive bibliography intended for scholars is included. Although Glassford and Shaw are historians, they include essays that are multi-disciplinary in content and relevant to the work of academic researchers in gender and women’s studies, literary studies, cultural studies, and history.

Shaw and Glassford’s goal is to bring together major elements of women’s wartime experience as a step towards meaningfully (re)inserting the female half of the population into the historical narratives of Canada and Newfoundland at war, from 1914 to 1918. In their pursuit of this goal, they acknowledge the powerful influence of memorialization and commemoration in Canadian war accounts that typically mythologize the male experience (think of Vimy Ridge and Beaumont-Hamel), but they ask some key questions: Did women as a whole … experience their own separate transformation-as women-during the First World War? If so, what was transformed, how, and why? This theme of transformation is a thread that weaves together all the articles in the volume. Although the various writers do not agree on the types or breadth of change, all agree that women of Canada and Newfoundland did not stand by to watch the war take place. Rather, they took their traditional domestic work to public levels and organized distaff work (such as knitting socks and making bandages), fundraising, volunteer nursing, banking, and as the war dragged on, agricultural work, recruiting, ambulance driving, and munitions manufacture. This work was seen at the time as important service done for the country, and a means for women to do their own soldiering.

The collection effectively addresses the gaps in current understanding of the emotional and active lives of women (and briefly, of girls) during the Great War, but I would like to draw particular attention to four essays relevant to literary scholars. Suzanne Evans’ essay, which examines women’s material responses to grief and mourning, includes literary analysis of the novel Rilla of Ingleside by L. M. Montgomery. Vicki Hallett provides an insightful look at the work of Newfoundland poet Phebe Florence Miller. Lynn Kennedy unpacks the motherhood motif in wartime poetry. Amy Tector touches on disability studies with her analysis of the depiction of disability in returned soldiers in post-war Canadian fiction. Glassford and Shaw stress that these articles are starting points for the further in-depth work they want to encourage. Susan Fisher’s recent book, Boys and Girls in No Man’s Land, is a good example of the nuanced, thorough study that needs to be done in this field.

A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service raises questions about the lives of girls and women of Canada and Newfoundland during WWI. We might also ask, how did women serve in Quebec, where there was anti-war sentiment? Or in the North? Or among visible minorities? Did the First World War pave the way for the women’s vote? How did women’s service in the Great War create opportunities for the Second? We cannot find answers in interviews with women of that time; we can only examine the documents, stories, photographs, letters, and leaflets of the day. When we consider the roles women currently play as soldiers, nurses, and specialists of various kinds in the Canadian Forces and the country at large, we can see that transformation has indeed occurred. Ultimately, the success of this volume will be whether or not it inspires more researchers to delve into this history of transformation.

This review “Work, Women, and War” originally appeared in Of Borders and Bioregions. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 218 (Autumn 2013): 161-62.

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