During the Second World War, the cry went out again for women to fill the needs in the factories and free men for military service.
In 1942, Ottawa registered all women born between 1918 and 1922 and their names were entered into the National Selective Service registry to meet possible labour shortages.
Women in Wartime
Prior to the First World War, most Canadian women didn’t work outside the home or in a family business and they weren’t often paid for their work. That changed after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Women were desperately needed to work in factories to take the place of men who were serving overseas or working on munitions.
It was a new concept to convince women that they were able to assume the work of men and also to convince employers that women could do the work. The culture of the time had kept women out of the public work force. Of course, women had always worked but they worked in their home, family business or farm. The work women performed at home: cooking, cleaning, sewing, gardening or farming was not considered work. Therefore it was a new concept to employ women who would also be paid.
During the Second World War, the cry went out again for women to fill the needs in the factories and free a man for military service. In 1942 Ottawa registered all women born between 1918 and 1922, who were entered into the National Selective Service to meet possible labour shortages.
In 1943-1944, some 439,000 women were in the service sectors of the Canadian economy. A further 373,000 had jobs in manufacturing, and of these about 261,000 worked directly in the munitions industries, a large number doing tasks traditionally performed by men. Women, for example, worked in shipyards and in the smelter at Sudbury, and made up 30% of the workforce in Canada's aircraft industry.
Women were recruited to work in factories with the challenge to show their patriotism. Industrial training programs were designed specifically for women in Quebec, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.
Women were deemed to be best suited for repetitious tasks which required manual dexterity. Women were employed in ammunition filling, fine instrument mechanics, power machine operating, welding, aircraft sheet metal and woodworking as well as other assembly line manufacturing. Although there were notable exceptions; especially Elsie MacGill who was the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree in Canada and the first woman aircraft designer in the world.
After the Second World War, women were pushed out of their jobs as men returned from service. Employment priority was given to men according to the established principle of male as the breadwinner of the family.
Men were guaranteed to have their former job when they returned from military service but in some rare cases, women who returned from military service also wanted to return to their former employment. They thought they were equally entitled as men to retrieve their pre-war job.
Government sponsored day cares were closed and tax concessions for married women were abolished. But many of these women had managed work and family single-handedly and their new found confidence may have led to the feminist movement.
The war had given the women economic independence and personal autonomy. It was a difficult task to push some of these women back into unemployment and dependency. It was a dilemma that the issue of women’s paid work outside the home could not be dismissed.
These Canadian women encouraged their daughters to be educated and independent and increasing numbers of young women began enrolling in post-secondary education courses and university programs.
A Notable Canadian Women
Elsie MacGill was the first woman to receive an electrical engineering degree in Canada and the first woman aircraft designer in the world. During World War II, Elsie MacGill oversaw the design and production of 1450 Hawker Hurricane airplanes in Canada, and was known as "Queen of the Hurricanes."
In 1934, Elsie MacGill got her start in the aeronautical industry with a job as assistant engineer at Fairchild Aircraft in Montreal, working mainly on bush aircraft. She moved to Canada Car and Foundry Co. in Fort William, Ontario in 1938 where she designed the Maple Leaf Trainer II, used for training pilots.
She was soon elevated to Chief Aeronautical Engineer where she headed the Canadian production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes during the Second World War.
In 1940 Canada Car and Foundry employed 200 women, and by 1941 they had taken on 3,000 additional workers, 40 per cent of them women. The company, located in Fort William, Ontario (now called Thunder Bay), produced 2,000 Hurricanes by the end of the war.
Elsie MacGill was also active in women’s rights issues and in 1967 was appointed to the Royal Commission on the Status of Women.