As the dated expression goes: Behind every good man is a good woman.
For the record, women have fought for more than a century - perhaps longer - to have an equal place beside men. Before laws around gender equality changed in this country, it’s fair to say that women were at the heels of their male cohorts and not behind them. This bodes especially true with the roles of women in Canada’s wars and military service.
On Remembrance Day, a day of reflection and honour for members of Canada’s armed forces and those who lost their lives in the line of duty, Canadians don’t immediately think of the role of women.
Let’s not forget.
Women have had a role in the Canadian Forces for more than a century. In the First World War 3,141 Canadian nurses, all women, served in the Canadian Army Medical Corps. Nurses were paid $4.10 a day while men on the front lines took home about $1.10. This wage discrepancy shows the value placed on nursing positions.
During World War II women occupied non-combative positions in the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) including nursing, cooking, communication, logistics and administration. Women in the early 1940s lobbied the government to form military organizations designed for women. During the war more than 50,000 women served in the armed forces in various non-combative capacities including the Canadian Women’s Army Corps, the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (Wrens).
It wasn’t until 1971, following recommendations from the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, when CAF expanded the range of positions women could fill. Women could now work as vehicle drivers and mechanics, aircraft mechanics, air-traffic controllers, military police, and firefighters.
In 1985 the Canadian Human Rights Act and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms set a new accepted standard. CAF policies were reformed to allow women to serve at sea, in army battalions, field ambulance units and in most air squadrons. Two years later, women were allowed to occupy direct combat posts on the ground and at sea.
The Government of Canada reports, as of January 2014, the percentage of women in the CAF, Regular Force and Primary Reserve combined was more than 14 per cent. Approximately 9,400 women work in the Regular Force and more than 4,800 women in the Primary Reserve. More than 18 per cent serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force and the Royal Canadian Navy, and about 12 per cent in the Canadian Army.
Women have come a long way in filling roles that were previously occupied by men. Before women were allowed to wear the uniform alongside men, their place in society was still on the home front. The 1940s saw an uprising where women laboured in factories to help with the war effort, ran charitable organizations and stepped into the workforce all the while balancing caregiving and household responsibilities. Since that time women have pushed towards recognition and equality on the front.
Veterans Affairs Canada reports that since Confederation more than 200 women have lost their lives while serving in the Canadian military. The first Canadian woman killed in combat was 26-year-old Nichola Goddard. Goddard, a combat soldier, was killed in 2006 in Afghanistan. Her husband Jason Beam was the first widower to receive the Memorial Cross (or Silver Cross). The honour is typically presented to widowers and mothers of Canadian war dead.