- A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War ed. by Sarah Glassford, Amy Shaw
Whether specific wars transform, modify, or possibly preserve and rigidify gender roles has long preoccupied historians concerned with gender, political, military, and social history. While British historiography on women and the First World War is far more extensively developed than Canadian writing, not least because their experience of war, and thus the available historical sources, is far richer and more varied, there is a small body of Canadian writing on women during Canada’s Great War that engages with this question of transformation. As the editors to this volume point out, it is a very difficult question to answer, since women’s experiences varied by class, region, ethnicity, religion, and age, to name a few factors. The editors usefully suggest that we avoid a dichotomous answer – yes or no – though I think this remains difficult to do when popular, more romanticized discussions of women and war, such as the film We Knew How to Dance, or Sandra Gwyn’s claim that the war “liberated women from their own hearth,” (150) remain so accessible and visible.
This collection adds new sources, themes, and approaches to our knowledge of women and the First World War. As the editors note, much Canadian scholarship examines wage labour (not surprisingly, since women’s work was often the crux of arguments around transformation), politics (especially feminist, pacifist, and left politics), social policy (especially pensions for soldiers’ wives), and morality. Areas such as the history of emotion, the family, and culture remained less well developed, and some of the articles in this collection help to fill in these gaps. A useful introduction scans the literature in a balanced manner and explains the organization of the book, which is divided into four sections, each with a short, introductory overview of the [End Page 618] issues raised in it: “Mobilizing Women” “Women’s Work,” “Family Matters,” and “Creative Responses.” In contrast to previous works, this collection includes material on Newfoundland, and some articles address the experience of girls as well as women: both these innovations make the book a valuable addition to scholarship on the war, extending our understanding of women’s lives in important ways. Kristine Alexander’s article on girls, which examines both the mobilization of the image of girlhood for the war effort, and girls’ experience of family loss, is a particularly good example of this new and interesting work.
While previous writing noted the importance of women’s voluntary work, these essays use case studies to explore in more detail the importance of women’s unpaid voluntary labour. Women who worked in the Voluntary Aid Detachment (vads), student volunteers, fundraisers, knitters, and war promoters not only made critical financial and ideological contributions to the war effort, but the authors use their case studies to highlight the dissonances and contradictions of volunteer work. Alison Norman’s piece on Six Nations women war volunteers explores how their labour placed them in opposition to their hereditary council, and in alliance with white allies in government, while Margot Duley’s examination of Newfoundland women knitters suggests their work was “paradoxical and profound” (70), on the one hand encouraging women’s demand for the vote, and on the other, reinforcing a domestic and maternal rationale for why they should have it. In some cases, the sources used in these case studies yield a fairly one-dimensional view of volunteer work: an article on women university students relies heavily on the University of Toronto student newspaper, the Varsity, though the author perhaps inadvertently shows how the overwhelming endorsement of the war was achieved through a pervasive ideological campaign in which everyone from the university president’s wife downwards in the educational hierarchy relentlessly promoted young women’s active support of the war as a noble cause. Despite the editors’ efforts to avoid some of the traditional, simplistic tropes about the liberating...