By: Evelyn Mang
For Canadian women, gaining the freedom to work involved centuries of persistence, including some key moments in the Uxbridge community. World Wars I and II drastically changed the lives of all Canadians and had an especially lasting impact on women. With men off at war, women supported national efforts by entering fields of work they were previously barred from, including working in offices and banks along with factories, making everything from airplanes to munitions.
Up until the early 1900s, many Canadians adhered to strict social norms that dictated acceptable gender roles. Women were expected to be the primary caretakers of domestic life and it was uncommon for women to have careers outside the home. However, Canada’s demanding involvement in both World Wars changed these expectations to include women in the workforce.
When Canada aided the Allied efforts of the First and Second World War, enlisting men to fight overseas soon caused problems. Namely, there was a severe shortage of domestic workers needed to make wartime resources. At the time of both World Wars, women could not join the Canadian Armed Forces. It was only in 1989 that most military positions became open to women, with submarine services only accepting women into their forces in 2001.
Although women were strongly discouraged from the workforce before the World Wars, they were now pushed to take on traditionally male-dominated work such as creating weapons in factories. During World War II, wartime factories were built in modern Ajax to support the Allied troops. Women from Uxbridge commuted by bus to work at these factories where they made a variety of munitions. There was even a bomb factory where workers, many of them being women, would handle explosives. One of these factories, Defence Industries Limited (D.I.L.), was the largest complex in Canada at the time. The factory workers went to extensive lengths to ensure safety, requiring shoes to be stapled instead of stitched and having all cafeteria food steamed to avoid explosions. However, workers still risked their safety every day, with several women losing fingers and three working dying due to explosions.
Pictured here is a factory in Ajax, Ontario where women worked during the Second World war to build munitions for the allied troops.
Other activities included Red Cross volunteer groups where women used their needlework skills to support soldiers overseas. There were active Red Cross groups in Uxbridge during both World Wars, where ladies took upon projects such as making quilts, socks, and other fabrics for soldiers. Some of the quilts would raise funds for the war effort by accepting donations to have a name stitched onto the quilt. In World War I, Lucy Maud Montgomery, author of Anne of Green Gables and former Leaskdale resident, served as her local chapter’s president. Some of the quilts made by Red Cross volunteers during this time are housed at the UHC and can be visited in the “Quilts on Quaker Hill” exhibit.
Pictured here is a Red Cross Quilt from the First World War housed in the "Quilts on Quaker Hill" exhibit.
After World War II ended, women were encouraged to go back to their pre-war occupations but some persisted and continued working, changing the face of the workforce forever. Despite societal gender norms at the time, women’s persistence during this difficult era proved that they were just as capable as their male counterparts.