Shedding light on role of women during World War I

By Costa Maragos Posted: March 5, 2017 7:00 a.m.

Presenting at the library are (l-r) Kiera Mitchell, Dr. Donica Belisle, Dr. Katrina Ackerman and Jacqueline Wagner.
Presenting at the library are (l-r) Kiera Mitchell, Dr. Donica Belisle, Dr. Katrina Ackerman and Jacqueline Wagner. Photo by Rae Graham – U of R Photography

The role of women in Canada during World War I had far-reaching repercussions.

The U of R’s Department of History presents, “When Women Went to War: Western Canadian Women and World War I” take place Tuesday, March 7 at 7:00 p.m. at the Regina Central Public Library. It’s free and open to the public.

The presenters are Dr. Donica Belisle and Dr. Katrina Ackerman from the history department as well as honours students Kiera Mitchell and Jacqueline Wagner.

We spoke with Donica Belisle about the event and the key role played by women in the west during the Great War.

History Poster
This lecture is free and open to the public. Please visit here to register.

Donica, what makes this topic so important to you?

“One of the most interesting things about World War I was how it simultaneously challenged and cemented Canadians' gender roles. Some women experienced unprecedented employment opportunities, such as in factories and nursing, while others mobilized their feminine identities to new ends, including getting the vote for white women.”

What are areas of women experiences during World War 1 that you feel need to be told or better explained?

“We often hear of the military campaigns of World War I, including Passchendaele and Vimy Ridge. These are important, but so too are the experiences of the hundreds of thousands of women who both supported and — in some cases — opposed the war.”

You also point out the hardships faced by women as internment camps were set up in Canada during the war. What can you tell us about that?

This is an area that is often forgotten in discussions of World War I and that is the internment camps for so-called enemy aliens living in Canada. Ukrainian-Canadians, German-Canadians, and people recently arrived from other enemy countries were interned in Canada during the war, and were forced to live and work in so-called enemy camps. Some of these existed right here on the prairies. Women and children were not forced to live in the camps, but they did have to go through the war with their husbands and fathers interned. They faced a lot of hardship and discrimination as a result.

As for the event, what will you and Katrina talk about?

I will provide a brief introduction to World War I, during which 60,000 Canadians lost their lives, and explain how it was a gendered event. Women were not allowed in active combat but some did serve behind the front lines as nurses.

In its war campaigns, the Canadian government usually portrayed women as soldiers’ mothers, wives, and sisters. Yet many women engaged in extensive campaigns for the war effort, including not only knitting socks but also raising money, volunteering in war hospitals, holding conservation drives, arranging social events for soldiers, visiting soldiers’ wives and families, and sending care parcels overseas.

Moreover, even while all this was going on, some women remained steadfast pacifists, calmly opposing the war on the grounds of peace.

Katrina will talk about how the war offered an important catalyst for white women getting the vote. She will focus specifically on the vote in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The prairie provinces were the first provinces in Canada to grant white women the vote, in 1916.

The honours students from the History Department are also playing a key role in this event. What will they focus on?

The students are co-organizing the event. They are putting together a visual history exhibit about women and World War I. They are also providing 10-minute talks about the war.

Kiera Mitchell will provide a talk about Regina women in World War I. Focusing on the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire, she will talk about how upper-class Regina women, in particular, volunteered for the war effort.

Jacqueline Wagner will talk about nursing during the war. She will talk about both the women who went overseas, behind the front lines, as war nurses, as well as the nurses who remained in Canada to look after wounded veterans.

And of course, you are encouraging questions and comments from the audience?

Absolutely. After our presentations, we will open the discussion to the audience. I’m looking forward to hearing people share their experiences and ask questions.

Event: When Women Went to War
Date:  Tuesday, March 7, 2017
Time:  7:00 p.m.
Venue: Regina Central Public Library – RPL Film Theatre  
This is free and open to the public. To register please visit here.

This event is organized by The Manitoba Historical Society. This lecture series, held across the prairie-provinces, is part of the launch event for the Journal of Manitoba History’s World War I issue, which is about western Canada at war. It will be for sale at the talk.

This talk has also received support from the Department of History, the University of Regina, Regina Public Library, Canadian Heritage and St. John’s College.