Toronto Women Working During WW II: Rosie the Riveter and Beyond
For International Women's Day, March 8, I want to share some photos and books about the roles women played during the World War II, focusing on Toronto and Canada. You maybe have watched the show Bomb Girls or read the book Bomb Girls: Trading Aprons for Ammo?
There is quite a bit written about the subject, including an exhibition catalogue, World War Women, from the Canadian War Museum.
The Canadian War Museum has done some interesting work on the role of women during the wars. They've excerpted a number of articles from wide variety of period newspapers on their website that make really interesting reading. There is nothing like primary source material to excite a librarian. Did you know that TPL has both the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail in full text so you can do your own research online (you need to have a valid TPL card).
To give you an idea of the scope and numbers of women:
In 1942, Ottawa registered all women ages 20 to 24 into the Selective Service to meet possible labour shortages. In 1943-44, some 439,000 women were in the service sectors of the Canadian economy. A further 373,000 had jobs in manufacturing. Of these, about 261,000 worked directly in the munitions industries, a large number doing tasks traditionally considered the work of men. Women, for example, worked in shipyards and in the smelter at Sudbury. They made up 30 percent of the workforce in Canada's aircraft industry.
Many more women worked in the home or on farms, and often combined this with volunteer work for the Red Cross or in military canteens. They also organized salvage drives or helped to prepare packages for the military overseas or for prisoners of war in the Axis countries. The Department of National War Services coordinated many of these voluntary activities at a national level.
These are some other books that might interest you about Canadian women in World War II:
- Extraordinary women, extraordinary times : Canadian women of World War II
- They're still women after all : the Second World War and Canadian womanhood
- The Memory of all that : Canadian women remember World War II
- Fighting for home & country : women remember World War II
But it was a series of WW II era photographs from the Toronto Star Archives that piqued my interest. These show women working in various factories locally and across the country. They are available in our Digital Archive or in person in the Marilyn and Charles Baillie Special Collections Centre. It's especially interesting how many local factories like Inglis or General Electric were involved in this work. (Those GECO uniforms are kind of spiffy in a white/science fiction sort of way.) You have an interesting combination of younger women and also older women doing a wide variety of fine/detail work. But there are also those doing factory line work and hard manual labour.
1943 Toronto Star Archives: "Too bad Hitler's not here, lament these eight war-working grandmothers as they train Sten guns on the photographer's assistant. There are some seventy grandmas working at this small arms plant near Toronto, most of them anxious to prove they can shoot; as well as make guns."
1942 Toronto Star Archives photo: "Points count with Dorothy Hyslop, Toronto, inspecting bayonets for the No. 4 rifle."
The photos are captioned for the newspaper and have a gung-ho quality to them that is both propaganda and inspirational. They were marketing tools that showed women of all ages in the factories, but also at play and at leisure. And if you believe that a photo is worth a thousand words, then I hope these powerful images of women will move you.
1943 Toronto Star Archives: "That's all muscle on the arm of Mrs. Robert Wright, 235-pound sandblaster at John Inglis Co. in Toronto. Mrs. Mollie Robinson feels the muscle, while Charlotte Charion, left, another sandblaster, looks on with interest."
1944 Toronto Star Archives: "At The General Engineering Co. plant at Scarboro and the Defence Industries Ltd. plant at Ajax, 3,400 women workers are needed to help make shells so that the guns can be kept in action. Margaret Miller, fuse maker at General Engineering, asks for help to fill the gaps in the line - to keep the guns supplied."
1941 Toronto Star Archives: "As never before, women are running the entire scale of jobs in Canadian war industry. Grinding, welding, assembling, drilling punching, pressing, packing, shaping on machines big and small are jobs for women today. This girl is an expert on a grinding wheel. She is working on an airplane part"
1943 Toronto Star Archives photo: "Trigger Guard Inspector at Small Arms, Mrs. Norma Sieffert declares: The boys who fire these rifles can count on us to keep producing them. Her husband, Sergt; Anthony Sieffert, R.C.A.F. navigator, has been missing since June. Her only brother is serving at sea."
The photos also speak to the sacrifices and the personal engagement in the war of the people who are near and dear to these factory-working women.
1943 Toronto Star Archives photo: "Mrs. Agnes Harper, 51; of Cooksville, has lost a son in action with the R.C.A.F. Two others of her eight children are in the navy. She has been late once in 18 months. Says her foreman: I'd like to have a whole shop like her"
1942 Toronto Star Archives photo: "Make small arms big for our fighting men is the slogan of 3,000 women and 1,000 men at work in the small arms plant at Long Branch. A product of their work is displayed by Mary Starchuck, New Toronto, who handles a sten gun like a veteran."
1945 Toronto Star Archives photo: "She's helping to keep those Lancasters rolling: One Lancaster bomber a day is the current production record of Victory Aircraft at Malton"