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Women of WWII: Canada's own 'Rosie'

Canadian women were not allowed to fight during the Second World War but they did just about everything else. Tens of thousands joined the women's divisions of the Armed Forces. Hundreds of thousands stepped into jobs in wartime industry. At home and abroad they were welders and pilots, nurses and clerks, the homemakers that kept families together, protecting the home front and the Canadian way of life. These are some of their stories.

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America's "Rosie the Riveter" may be the most famous image of a woman toiling in a factory to support the Allied war effort, but she's just a cartoon. "Rosie the Crane Operator" -- 19-year-old Rose Young of Whitney Pier in Sydney, N.S. -- is real. She's one of thousands of women who sign up for traditional "men's work" in Canada's factories and foundries. She frees up an able-bodied man to fight in Europe...and marries him when he returns! 
. The Second World War put an end to employment problems that began in the Depression of the 1930s. In September 1939 alone almost 60,000 men enlisted. Over a million Canadians served in the Armed Forces by the end of the war. That opened the door for women to step into workplaces previously reserved for men, including factories, machine shops and farms. Before the war the majority of employed women worked in clerical or domestic jobs, nursing or teaching.

. Women workers were paid considerably less than their male counterparts even when they did identical jobs. There was a longstanding perception that men needed the money to support their families and women did not.
. On average in 1911, women earned 52.8 per cent of what men earned. The number had increased to just 58 per cent by 1971 and 66 per cent in 1996. (Source: Canadian Encylopedia, McClelland & Stewart, 2000)

. The government offered women incentives such as free nurseries and income-tax concessions to get them working. These were withdrawn after the war when women were encouraged to leave the workforce.
. By 1943 about 261,000 women were employed in the production of war goods. They accounted for 30 per cent of the aircraft industry, half the employees in gun plants and the majority of munitions inspectors. (Source: Canadian Encylopedia, McClelland & Stewart, 2000)

. In the United States, Rosie the Riveter symbolized the millions of women who entered the workforce. Rosie the Riveter was the name of a 1942 song written by Redd Evans and John Jacob Loeb to encourage women to enter the workforce. In 1943 painter Norman Rockwell created an image of a muscular, coverall-clad Rosie for the Saturday Evening Post.
. On May 22, 2002 the Rockwell painting sold at an auction for almost $5 million US.

. The Rosie the Riveter Memorial in Richmond, CA features the following quote: "You must tell your children, putting modesty aside, that without us, without women, there would have been no spring in 1945."
. Canada found its own role model in a real person. Elsie MacGill was known as "Queen of the Hurricanes." The 35-year-old aeronautical engineer supervised Canadian production of Hawker Hurricane fighter planes at the Canadian Car and Foundry Company.

. In 1940 'CanCar' employed 200 women; by 1941 they had taken on 3,000 additional workers — 40 per cent of them women. The company, located in Fort William, Ont. (now Thunder Bay), produced 2,000 Hurricanes by the end of the war.
. Elsie MacGill became a war hero and was a symbol of the miracle of Canada's economic wartime transformation. In January 1942 a comic book called Queen of the Hurricanes was devoted to her exploits.
Medium: Television
Program: Cape Breton Report
Broadcast Date: Nov. 11, 1988
Guest(s): Rose Young
Host: Jack Columbus
Duration: 3:18
Photo: Ronny Jaques / National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque / National Archives of Canada

Last updated: March 12, 2012

Page consulted on September 10, 2014

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