The Military Museums

Women in Service

During the Second World War, the role of women in Canadian society changed dramatically.

Women in Service

During the Second World War, the role of women in Canadian society changed dramatically.

Women in Service

Canada needed women to pitch in and support the war effort from their homes, to work at jobs that were traditionally held by men, and to serve in the military. Canadian women enthusiastically embraced their new roles and responsibilities and helped contribute to the success of Canada's "Victory Campaign".

Out of a total Canadian population of 11 million people, only about 600,000 Canadian women held permanent jobs when the war started. During the war, their numbers doubled to 1,200,000. Women's manual dexterity helped them develop a great reputation for fine precision work in electronics, optics and instrument assembly. Women in the services filled many positions, including mechanics, parachute riggers, wireless operators, clerks and photographers.

Women in the Services

On a May afternoon during a battle with Taliban insurgents in the Panjwayi district of Afghanistan in 2006, Captain Nichola Goddard, 26, achieved a set of combat firsts: She was the first Canadian woman to command troops and direct artillery strikes, and she was also the first officer to direct artillery since the Korean War. Sadly, Goddard was killed that same day, making her the first female Canadian soldier killed in combat.

Goddard’s remarkable set of firsts—and sadly, her unfortunate death—demonstrate how far women in the services have come. But for Goddard to get there, to that battlefield in 2006, in command of a forward observation team, was the result of a long legacy of women in the services.

Canadian women first began serving alongside Canadian soldiers during the 1885 Northwest Resistance as nursing sisters. They continued in this capacity through the South African War and the First World War. The Second World War, however, brought a dramatic change for women in the services. They stepped into an increasing number of roles beyond nursing in Canada's armed forces (army, navy, and air force). They drove vehicles; built, maintained and ferried aircraft and other vehicles; worked in hospitals and field dressing stations; and even interpreted top-secret aerial photographs.

However, it wasn't until 1989—104 years after the Northwest Resistance—that women were finally permitted to move beyond nursing, logistics, and administrative roles to serve in all arms and trades of Canada's armed forces, facing the same risks as men.

Pre-First World War

The first nursing sisters, so named as the first nurses were nuns, served alongside British troops during the Crimean War. This conflict, which ran from 1853 to 1856, pitted Russia against France, the Ottoman Empire, Piedmont-Sardinia, and the United Kingdom. Nursing sisters quickly proved their worth by improving hygiene, which increased the survival rate of wounded soldiers.

In Canada, the Northwest Resistance of 1885 saw the Canadian government send soldiers to Saskatchewan after a group of Métis, led by Louis Riel, along with their First Nations allies, the Cree and Assiniboine, sought to assert their rights. Seven nursing sisters joined the medical and surgical teams in caring for wounded soldiers.

Like their British counterparts during the Crimean War, the Canadian nurses who served during the Northwest Resistance proved their service had great value. As a result, when Canadian soldiers left for South Africa in 1899, four nurses, all of whom were paid as if they were lieutenants, went with them as members of the newly created Canadian Army Medical Department. Another eight nurses joined those original four after the Canadian Army Nursing Service was created in 1901.

Following the South African War, also known as the Boer War, the Canadian Army Medical Corps, which began operating in 1904, created the Canadian Army Nursing Corps in 1908. At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the CANC employed only five nurses. However, by the end of the First World War, 2,845 nursing sisters had served with the Canadian Army Medical Corps.

First World War

Prior to the First World War, integrating nurses with the armed forces began slowly. In 1904, when the Canadian Army established the Canadian Army Medical Corps, it had a staff of two nurses. That number grew to five, but it wasn't until the start of the First World in 1914 that the service grew rapidly. By 1915, 419 nursing sisters were serving in hospitals in Europe, and by early 1918, that number had grown to 828 nurses.

Nursing sisters were well-educated and highly trained, especially those chosen for overseas duty. Less qualified applicants were also chosen, but they usually served as domestic workers, known as home sisters, who worked, for example, as housekeepers responsible for the nursing sisters' quarters and mess or dining area.

At first nursing sisters served far behind the front lines, but towards the end of 1914, nurses were being posted to casualty clearing stations that were located near the battlefields, putting the nurses in harm's way.

As Cynthia Torman, author of Sister Soldiers of the Great War: The Nurses of the Canadian Army Medical Corps, writes, it was "inappropriate in 1914, even scandalous, to have women close to an active theatre of war, (but) the level of carnage made medical and nursing care a necessity." Nursing sisters, meanwhile, wanted to be at the front lines rather than behind enemy lines as they felt they would be more useful given the high rate of casualties among soldiers.

But being near a battlefield was risky, and nursing sisters were killed and wounded as a result. Of the fifty-eight nursing sisters who died during the war, twenty-two were killed during enemy attacks. Gladys Wake, for example, was killed during an artillery attack on No. 1 Canadian General Hospital, for example, while three nurses were killed when a German submarine sank the Canadian hospital ship, Llandovery Castle off the coast of Ireland.

Along with serving at casualty clearing stations near the front lines and at larger established hospitals usually located a safe distance from the front, nursing sisters also served on ambulance trains and hospital ships.

Women also volunteered with an aid organization, the Voluntary Aid Detachment, or VADS, during the war. They were not paid and did not have a rank, like the nursing sisters; however, they did receive more training than home sisters, including basic first aid. As a result, they did provide some care to wounded soldiers, but that was limited to changing dressings or bathing them. VADs also worked as cooks, cleaners, clerks, and drivers.

Second World War

While the First World War gave women more opportunities to join the services, it wasn't until the Second World War that women saw a dramatic change in how they participated in war both at home and overseas. The Second World War began in 1939, and when Great Britain declared war, Canada—as a British dominion—was pulled into the conflict.

By 1942, the air force, army, and navy had all created women’s divisions. The Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps already included nursing sisters. The Royal Canadian Air Force Women’s Division (CWAAF), which later became known as the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Division (known as WDs for short) was the first to form, founded on August 12, 1941. It was followed by the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC) and the Women’s Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS or better known as Wrens).

While not a Canadian organization, the British Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA) gave women, including Canadians, the opportunity to fly all manner of aircraft from reconnaissance planes to fighters and heavy bombers.

Finally, with so many of Canada’s men serving with the armed forces, women were also needed in large numbers to work in factories manufacturing equipment needed for the war effort, including vehicles, aircraft, and ammunition.

Nursing Sisters in the Second World War

Just as they did in the First World War, nursing sisters played an enormous role during the Second World War. In all, 4,480 nursing sisters served overseas during the war with 3,656 of them assigned to the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps. Another 1,029 nursing sisters served at military hospitals and other military facilities in Canada.

As nurses, they worked at every type of medical facility in use from small field hospitals to large general hospitals. They also served on hospital ships and hospital trains. Some nursing sisters even served on air-sea rescue missions. A group of RCAF nursing sisters specialized in burn care at the Queen Victoria Hospital at East Grinstead in Sussex. The Second World War also saw them take on new duties as physiotherapists, occupational therapists, and lab technicians.

As it was in the First World War, nursing continued to be difficult and dangerous work. Nursing sisters often experienced artillery and aerial bombardments and submarine attacks. In October 1942, Nursing Sister Agnes W. Wilkie became the first Canadian nurse—and the first Canadian woman—to be killed during the war.

She died, along with 136 other passengers and crew, in the Cabot Strait off the coast of Newfoundland after a German submarine torpedoed a ferry, the SS Caribou. Wilkie was not the last, either. In all, twelve nursing sisters died during the Second World War, but unlike Wilkie, they died of accidents or disease.

The Women’s Divisions

At the start of the Second World War, it quickly became clear that the call to serve in Canada’s armed forces was draining the nation of men. As a result, the women’s divisions were used to bolster the number of needed personnel in both the armed forces and industry.

In all, 50,000 women served with the three women’s divisions during the war. The Canadian Women’s Army Corps had the largest number of members with 21,000, followed by the Royal Canadian Air Force, Women’s Division at 17,000, and finally the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service had 7,000 members.

Many Canadians still did not like the idea of women serving in uniform as it was generally believed that a women’s place was in the home. To help win over Canadians, the women’s divisions ensured that women worked in jobs typical of what they were already doing outside of the armed forces in medicine, communication, logistics, and administration.

As a result, the members of the women’s divisions had little choice: They could be clerks, cooks, hospital assistants, or drivers; however, that changed as the war progressed, and women soon found they could work in some 65 different jobs, including air frame mechanics, aircraft plotters, photographers, signalers, welders, wireless operators. A small group of select women even worked in the intelligence field.

But for those 50,000 Canadian women, who served at home and abroad in the U.S. and Great Britain, serving in Canada’s three branches of its military did little to advance their lives after the war. The government disbanded the women’s divisions in 1946.

Air Transport Auxiliary (ATA)

The Air Transport Auxiliary was unique because it gave a small group of women, including Canadians, the opportunity to fly everything from training aircraft to heavy bombers. At the end of the war, a few female members of the ATA even had the opportunity to fly the first British jet fighters, the Gloster Meteor.

The ATA was an aircraft delivery service, and its pilots flew aircraft from the factories or repair facilities to air bases throughout England. Just like the Women’s Divisions, the ATA—a British civilian organization—chose to use trained female pilots for this job along with men who were too old or were disabled to fly for the British Royal Air Force, freeing young, able-bodied men for wartime service.

At first, women who joined the ATA had to have 250 flying hours; but as the war progressed, the ATA dropped that requirement to 150 hours, then 100, and finally, as the need grew, it began training female pilots.

These women lived up to the ATA motto, "Anything to Anywhere" as what aircraft they were required to fly changed with every flight. Often, they would have to fly these planes with no training and had only briefing notes to guide them—exceptional circumstances that would have challenged any pilot.

By 1944, the ATA had 15 ferry pools that included 166 female pilots and 600 women in other roles.

After the Second World War

While the three women’s divisions gave women the opportunity to serve their country, travel, earn a wage, and fulfill their patriotic duty, the gains they made during the war were quickly lost as women returned to domestic life and the duties of home.

But with the start of the Cold War and the Korean War (in 1951), the armed forces were quickly expanding, and the Canadian government acknowledged that women could once again fill administrative and logistical roles, as they did in the 1940s. The armed forces set out to recruit 5,000 women for the Canadian Army Women’s Corps and the women’s division of the Royal Canadian Navy.

Only the RCAF recruited women for its regular force at this time. Most of those 5,000 women served in Canada. There were, however, 60 nursing sisters assigned to hospitals in Korea and Japan. Another 40 nurses served with the RCAF as flight nurses. They cared for injured personnel on flights back to Canada.

The Korean War ended in 1953, and between 1954 and 1955, the army and navy, like the air force, began recruiting women for the regular force. But women continued to have limited opportunities in the armed forces, and, as a result, their numbers dwindled. By 1966, only 900 women were serving in the regular force.

In 1968, the three services were brought together to form the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), women still faced a limited choice of trades, mostly nursing and other duties, including administrative, communication, and logistics, and an enlistment cap of 1,500. Following the 1971 Royal Commission on the Status of Women, however, the CAF lifted its enlistment cap and expanded the roles women could fill. For the first time since the Second World War, women could drive and maintain military vehicles. They could also maintain aircraft and work as air-traffic controllers or serve with the military police or as firefighters.

Two final pieces of legislation finally pushed aside the remaining limitations: the 1978 Canadian Human Rights Act and the 1985 Canadian Charters of Rights and Freedoms. With those in place, women were now able to serve on ships and with army service battalions, field ambulance units, and air squadrons.

Even so, one final area of the armed forces was still closed to women: the combat trades; those jobs that could put them directly in harm’s way, including the infantry, armoured corps, field and air-defence artillery, signals, field engineers, and naval operations.

Finally, in February 1987, the Minister of National Defence began studying the question of putting women in combat roles with the Combat Related Employment of Women trials, and by 1989 all military trades, including combat, were open to women (except for service on submarines; that opened to women in 2001).

The trials applied only to the Army and Navy as the Air Force chose to open all of its trades to women, and in 1989, it qualified its first two female pilots of the CF-18 jet fighters (Maj. Dee Brasseur and Capt. Jane Foster). That same year, the CAF announced its first female gunners and its first female infantry soldier (Pvt. Heather R. Erxleben).

Women continued to prove themselves, accomplishing first after first so that by 2017 the CAF had twelve female generals and flag officers. By 2022, women comprised sixteen percent of officers and non-commissioned members in the Regular Force and seventeen percent of the Primary Reserve. Twenty percent of the RCN and the RCAF are women, nearly fourteen percent of the army are women. By 2026, the CAF is working toward the goal of women making up twenty-five percent of its armed forces. Women currently make up ten percent of Canada’s special forces, as well.


Captain Nichola Goddard is remembered by the Captain Nichola Goddard School in Calgary and the Canadian Coast Guard patrol vessel, the CCGS Captain Goddard M. S. M., along with numerous other recognitions, including a book, Sunray the Death and Life of Captain Nichola.

She remains an inspirational figure and a powerful reminder of what women in uniform can accomplish, but allowing women in the services as full members was a long road that stretches back to 1885 with the first nursing sisters who cared for wounded soldiers.

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