There are many images of women associated with the world wars: women knitting and sewing during the “Great War,” factory worker “Rosie the Riveter” in the early 1940s. Yet these images are of predominantly white women. Minority women, especially Chinese-Canadian and Aboriginal women, were also present throughout these cataclysmic world events, say Amy Shaw and Henry Yu. And these women had their own challenges.
“Minority women were sometimes doing much the same thing as other women,” says Shaw, a professor of Canadian history at the University of Lethbridge and editor of two collections on women during the world wars. “This was sometimes a way of trying to prove oneself during a really patriotic time when being different was really not tolerated. And sometimes it was just what they wanted to do, because they lived in the same world as other Canadians, subject to the same emotional appeals. But sometimes they had a really different experience,” says Shaw.
These differences are celebrated by local organizations such as the Chinese Canadian Military Museum Society and the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre Society, which regularly hold events in Vancouver exploring these issues.
Feathers and factories
Canadian women were a key part of both wars, say Shaw and Yu, a professor of history at UBC.
“The two world wars are often talked about as the first ‘total wars,’ in which the total resources of a country are working towards fighting the war.
“Women did a wide variety of activities, some more traditional – volunteer work, fundraising for the Red Cross and yes, sewing and knitting,” Shaw explains. “All this voluntary, traditional work was pretty necessary because some of what we’d now consider the government’s responsibility was done instead by volunteers at home.”
Canadian women were also involved in Britain’s white feather campaign during the First World War.
“It involved women giving white feathers to all apparently able-bodied men who weren’t in uniform,” says Shaw. “The white feather was a symbol of cowardice and getting one from a woman, who was meant to be the audience for men’s heroism, was hoped to shame men into enlisting.”
Some war work was less traditional.
“Women worked in factories; that didn’t start in WWII; it just involved more people in [that war],” says Shaw. “And women worked a lot of other jobs too: in banks, driving streetcars, nursing.”
This employment existed at the local level as well.
“All along False Creek and Mount Pleasant there were shipyards where women were employed,” says Yu.
Voting and Vancouver
Shaw and Yu point out that being a minority was hard. Prejudice was common, and non-whites were not allowed to vote.
“Indigenous people couldn’t vote in Canada until 1960,” Shaw notes, while other minorities cast their ballots somewhat earlier, in 1948.
In Vancouver, a lot of discrimination was directed towards the Asian communities, says Yu, who served on the advisory committee for the recent City of Vancouver apology to the Chinese-Canadian community.
“[There were] segregated public spaces [such as] movie theatres. In the army, often recruiting offices would not take Chinese people. There is one story of [Wee Tan] Louie from Kamloops riding his horse over the Rockies in winter to Alberta to join,” says Yu.
By WWII, racist policies were strongly affecting women in Vancouver’s Chinese community, who became quite scarce.
“Because of the Exclusion Act, there were very few complete families,” Yu explains, speaking of the 1923 law that limited would-be Chinese immigrants to certain work-related categories. “The whole purpose was to prevent women from joining husbands in Canada.
“Every member was incredibly valuable in the community. Some people argued that they shouldn’t go [to war], particularly as Canada was treating them as second-class citizens.”
Sisters and swimming pools
There are positive stories.
“One discussion historians have about women and the wars is about how much [the wars] opened up new possibilities,” Shaw explains. “How [women’s] work in both wars might have contributed to new jobs. [For example], in 1918, the Military Voters Act gave the right to vote to anybody enlisted in the armed forces, includ[ing] nursing sisters.”
Such legislation changed life for Aboriginal sisters, she continues.
“In the Six Nations of the Grand River Reserve, Edith Monture, who fought against a lot of racial barriers to become certified as a nurse, enlisted in WWI as a nursing sister and thus became the only woman on her reserve who could vote,” says Shaw.
A local woman also experienced the benefits of changing attitudes at the end of WWII, says Yu. Vivian Jung, a local woman training to be a teacher, was dealing with routine discrimination when something changed.
“[Yung] needed a lifesaving certificate, to know how to swim,” he says. “There was one public pool in Vancouver, the Crystal pool downtown. Chinese people were not allowed to swim at the same time as whites, [but Yung] needed to go with her class. On that day, her classmates and her teacher [said that] if she can’t swim we won’t either. At that moment, the colour barrier, in place for 17 years, was broken.”
Yung’s action in going to the pool that day was an act of personal heroism, Yu says.
“This isn’t the same as [soldiers] joining and being killed, because that was heroism that women weren’t allowed to participate in,” he continues.
But the stories of Canadian minority women show that these women faced, and conquered, their own challenges.