Manpower? Or is that Womanpower?

How quickly the job front changed with the start of the war. During the Depression jobs were practically non-existent. Once the country moved into a total war economy there were more jobs than men for the positions. The only alternative was women. Every person, man or woman, sixteen and over had to register with the newly created Department of National War Services. Just as World War One had, World War II would further change the role of women in society. The men of the country had to be freed up for combat duty, unless their job was labeled essential. Women replaced them in the workforce. Just months before, what would have been considered unsuitable work for a woman was now a new opportunity to be grasped. Many of these jobs had a good salary attached to them and for the woman who had never earned money of her own, it gave a new spirit of independence. Previously only single women went out to work - now married women were also called upon to do their duty. Day-care centres were put in manufacturing plants and a tax break was allotted for the married man with a working wife.

War Industries
Seven hundred fifty thousand (750,000) Canadian women served in Canada's war industries. Prince Edward Island didn't receive any manufacturing contracts that were handed out by the federal government, but Summerside and Island women are included in that 750,000 figure. They packed their bags and headed to the war plants of the major Canadian cities. (Seven thousand Islanders worked in the factories but breakdown of the sexes is not available.) Factories that had previously produced consumer goods now turned out weapons of war. Women working in the aircraft industry could make thirty-one dollars ($31.00) per week, double their salary prior to the war. They could go out and dance the night away with good-looking soldiers in training. It was an amazing sense of freedom and independence.
Civilian Workforce
Four hundred thousand Canadian women (400,000) entered the civilian workforce. They took over the retail, banking, and office jobs of men. These jobs were mostly in ones' own hometown. Towards the war's end, a trip to Holman's Department Store on Water Street in Summerside would likely see the familiar face of the male clerk replaced by that of a local woman. This too provided both the single and married women of the area an opportunity to contribute to the family finances and learn the ways of the business world.
Down on the Farm
With men being called up daily to fight the war the number of farm workers was growing smaller. Farmers were considered essential but often their sons could not receive an exemption from war service. This created a serious crisis as agriculture was still labour intensive and the farms of Canada were feeding not only our own people, and the military troops, but also civilians in England. Canadian women were again called upon to fill the shortage. Seven hundred sixty thousand (760,000) women tilled the soil and harvested the crops. For many of them it was nothing new. They simply took over the roles of their husbands or brothers along with their own chores, but for the women who came to the farms from the city it was hard work.
The Volunteer
Women knit socks by the thousands along with mittens, sweaters, balaclava helmets, and scarves for the Red Cross to send overseas to troops and civilians. The Red Cross was very particular about the socks. If women didn't knit them with a Kitchener toe they would be returned to them to fix. Canadian women also made clothing for civilians of war-torn countries. They packed boxes of necessities and goodies for the soldiers and wrote letters by the dozens to keep up morale. They held fundraisers to make money for war equipment and war supplies. They ran canteens for servicemen and planned entertainment. In many ways these volunteer women were the backbone of home front communities.

Back to the "Home Front"
When the war was over and the soldiers returned from overseas many of the jobs for women disappeared. Returning service men had to be given their prewar jobs back if they wanted them and society basically expected that women should move aside for men. The women's branches of the forces were closed out. Many of the women leaving the forces took the educational packages offered them and continued their education. While many women were happy to return to the home as fulltime mothers and homemakers, others wanted or needed the independence and economic security of the workplace and found ways to expand their own horizons.

Things To Do!!!
  • Imagine yourself as a child in the early years of the war. How do you think it affected you to have your stay-at-home mother suddenly have to go to work for the war effort?
  • What was the justification of the government for closing out the women's branches of the forces after the war?
  • The government discontinued workplace child-care and the tax exemption. In your opinion, what was the reasoning and how was it justified? Did this sow the seeds for the women's movement of the 1960s? Are women fully equal in today's Canadian society? Look at wages. Look at the percentage of women in various occupations.
  • What role does the volunteer play in today's society? List all the areas of your life that are influenced by volunteers. Could we do without them? List some of the reasons it is getting harder to get people to volunteer.
  • In your opinion, why was the important role women played in World War II neglected by the history books until the 1980's?