From knitting socks to buying bombers: The voluntary war effort of local women in the Sackville area, 1939-1945
by Maria Beltz
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In September 1939, Canada entered into World War II. Lives would forever be changed. To help in the war effort Canadian women entered into the work force. While substantial historical research has already been done on Canadian women and paid work in the Second World War; (1) less is known about their regional voluntary war efforts. The women rolling bandages and knitting socks in towns across Canada were just as crucial to the war effort as those who entered munitions factories in major cities. This essay will take a direct look at the voluntary war efforts that occurred in Sackville, and the surrounding area in New Brunswick. (2) The first part will focus on how Mount Allison University women contributed to the voluntary war effort. Also, the Lord Sackville Branch of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (I.O.D.E.), will be examined briefly in this section. Part two of this essay will concentrate on the women of Point de Bute and their voluntary war efforts. This section also includes a case study of Bessie Anderson, a long time resident in Sackville, and explores what her life was like during the war. The third part of the essay will discuss how public fears about the war reaching the home front may have motivated women's volunteerism perhaps as much as patriotism. Here, comparisons will be drawn between Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick, Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia and McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Finally, this essay also explores how local women's voluntary war relief was constricted by gender ideology. Canadian women in the voluntary war effort and the numerous relief organizations contributed to the national war effort primarily through their traditional maternal roles, helping to produce necessities that fueled the Canadian economy. (3) For example, they took charge of positions that had been largely occupied by men before the war such as running a farm. (4) Canadian women worked on all fronts: in factories, where they got paid; and in conjunction with voluntary aid organizations, where their work was just as valuable but they were not paid.
Overall my research has found that the voluntary war effort at Mount Allison took a little longer to organize and initiate than it did within community organizations such as the Sackville Chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire who launched voluntary campaigns from the outset of the war. By 1942, Mount Allison University had established a War Fund and university women had begun numerous fundraising activities with the hopes of raising money on campus. However, The Argosy, Mount Allison's student newspaper, continuously called for further fundraising for the War Fund. (5) Given the persistence in the weekly calls for fundraising one might speculate that not enough money was raised in the ambitious time frame that both the male and female students had set up.
The moment war was declared in 1939 the Lord Sackville Chapter of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire refocused its agenda towards the war effort. Prior to the war the women of the I.O.D.E advanced a peace time agenda which included helping the community and schools. One of the first projects under taken by the women was to bring a branch of the Canadian Red Cross to Sackville. (6) According to I.O.D.E sources, this reflected the strategic importance of Sackville's location in the general flow of goods and persons. The railway line that cut through the Tantramar Marshes, including the bridge that spans over the Tantramar River, was crucial to the Maritime movement of war goods and enlisted soldiers. In her 60th anniversary commemoration of the I.O.D.E of Sackville, Eileen Cuthbertson stated, “this made the bridge outside Sackville of national importance." (7) Within months of the declaration of war, a Red Cross Clinic was opened up in close proximity to the train station. The Sackville Branch of the I.O.D.E also used the train system to send numerous boxes, bundles, and ‘ditty ' bags for the soldiers in England, including clothes or other small necessary items for those in need. For example, they supplied everything from socks, to cigarettes, to pens and paper. The I.O.D.E. members also took advantage of a cigarette sale special offered by the Imperial Tobacco Company; 300 cigarettes for $1, which were sent to the soldiers of the greater Sackville area stationed over-seas. (8)
The Mount Allison women also devoted their energies to assisting the Red Cross Clinic that was set up with the help of the Sackville I.O.D.E. Here, they would use their ‘womanly' skills to knit, roll bandages, donate blood and do anything else that was needed. Such training would have been crucial because of Sackville's strategic location en route to Halifax. During the war period, Mount Allison also held classes to train male officers, and subsequently many soldiers could be seen wandering about in town while waiting for their train to take them on to the next base. Sackville was one of the most important rail stops in the Maritimes; (9) in fact, it was vital for the flow of soldiers and goods to Halifax, Nova Scotia, the port that shipped most Canadian soldiers overseas.
The war effort inspired a wide variety of initiatives at Mount Allison. The most intensive activities began on campus in 1943 when female students and faculty launched typical fundraising strategies to raise money for the War Fund: they held dances and tea socials with different themes, as well as brainstorming sessions about a variety of other fundraising activities including festivals. (10) However, it was under the leadership of a very talented young woman from Yarmouth Nova Scotia that the female students of Mt.A began an energetic fundraising campaign. Katy Lou Killam, a student in the Home Economics department at Mount Allison, was the dedicated president of the Woman's War Work (WWW) at Mount Allison from 1942 - 1943, and started the War Fund on October 19 1942. (11) Her committee was active with the organization of penny drop, (12) dances, teas, and the Leap Year festival, (13) as well as general community work. Following in Miss Killam's footsteps was Jean MacDonald who became president of the WWW between 1943-44. In 1943, sixty-four female students became blood donors at the Red Cross Clinic in Sackville as a result of a campus wide blood typing that occurred earlier that year (and will be further discussed at a later part of the essay). However, in 1944 only thirty-three female students were recorded as regular blood donors. (14) Although the blood donor numbers dropped by almost fifty percent, (15) WWW members who were very active in knitting, quilting and sewing, as well as rolling bandages as regular volunteers at the Red Cross Clinic continued a strong fundraising campaign for the War Fund.
Interestingly, the Women's War Work dances, festivals and activities closely resembled those that the Sackville I.O.D.E had planned. Did Mount Allison university women and members of the I.O.D.E. share ideas for fundraising while meeting at the Red Cross Clinic? If this was indeed the case, then it would show how closely women in Sackville worked together in their voluntary war effort. What is certain however, is that while the I.O.D.E women held a ‘Penny Parade,' the WWW at Mt.A. organized a ‘Penny Drop.' (16) Both groups of female volunteers were also actively knitting and sewing in conjunction with the Sackville Red Cross. (17) The I.O.D.E. also hosted dances to entertain the soldiers in town, just as Mount Allison women planned dances to raise money for the War Fund . In addition, the I.O.D.E devoted a great deal of its energy to war Relief Funds in order to assist specific certain groups of people all over the world that suffered because of the war. (18) At Mount Allison, a Greek Relief Fund was also undertaken by the Women's Student Council. (19) While the extent to which these two groups of female volunteers influenced each other's activities remains questionable, there are too many similarities in their fundraising efforts to ignore the strong possibility of their co-ordination of strategies.
In 1942, the I.O.D.E of Sackville saw the need to appoint at Home Hospitality Convener, given the great number of soldiers wandering around town in order to ensure that the soldiers staying in town would be fed, entertained and have a place to stay while they waited to be moved. This task required a high level of organization given the fact that the War Convener would have to deal with many frustrating situations, such as trains that did not arrive, or the unavailability of local lodging for the soldiers. For entertainment, the I.O.D.E women supplied card decks and organized dances so the soldiers could have some fun while waiting for the next train to come. However, since the position of War Convener was never held by a woman for more than a year, (20) the most important I.O.D.E. war work continued in their collection of bundles filled with good second hand clothes for the people of England, and of course the ‘ditty bags,' that had everything from socks to toothpaste for the soldiers. In addition, the members of the Sackville I.O.D.E also gave Christmas boxes to widows, war brides, families of soldiers, and veterans who would patrol the railway, bridge and the trains. (21)
Like their sisters nationally, it seems that the Sackville I.O.D.E women were very interested in purchasing planes, for the war effort. Across Canada, the I.O.D.E fundraised enough money in the ‘Bomber Fund,' to buy two bomber planes, which they then donated to the Canadian Government. (22) In addition, the I.O.D.E. also had a Spitfire fund (23) to serve the same purpose as the ‘Bomber fund;' they even had a German Messerschmitt fighter plane on display February 22, 1941 in Sackville for all to marvel at. (24)
One might assume that perhaps all I.O.D.E members were very serious women, however the fun-loving side of the membership emerged when they held a carnival. In one fundraising strategy, I.O.D.E. women practiced fortune telling by tea leaves or cards. Though fundraising for the war effort was deemed most important by the I.O.D.E., Mrs. Hunton, the Education Convener responsible for the children's education of the Sackville community, reported at every meeting that the library was well attended by the youth of Sackville and how the scholarship to the high school students should be distributed. (25) Evidently the I.O.D.E also had a social agenda, in addition to their war effort, at this time.
Not only did Sackville women volunteer to help the war effort, but also women in smaller surrounding communities did as well. For example, the women of Point de Bute, in the vicinity of Sackville, engaged activities that included: a ‘March of Dimes,' where they tried to make a mile by laying dimes side by side. (26) Many of the Point de Bute women who had a brother, son, husband, or other family member involved in the war also knitted, sewed, quilted and held dances to raise money for the war effort. The unique contribution of the Pointe de Bute volunteers was their assistance with the eight war brides that by that time called the Chignecto region of Point de Bute home. (27) By examining the greater Sackville area, one can observe that not just town women, but also rural women gathered together to volunteer in the war effort. The great amount of time that rural women donated and the new level of responsibility they shouldered is also important given that they were left alone to manage the farms while husbands or sons left for in the war in Europe.
A glimpse of life in Sackville during World War II has been disclosed in Bessie Anderson's correspondence with her sons at the front. Apart from dances, sewing and knitting sessions, and more soldiers walking around town, the people of Sackville continued to live by the seasons. Pastures were fenced in, bills were paid, and letters to loved ones continued to be written. Bessie Anderson, a long-time resident of Sackville, revealed through her correspondence that life continued much along the same lines as before the war. Bessie's two sons, Thomas and George, sent letters home to their mother describing life on a naval ship, especially detailing the small jokes (28) soldiers would play on each other as well as hardships they faced. In response, Bessie would send them money, (29) so when they went ashore, her sons would be able to have some fun. Meanwhile as a widow on the home front, Bessie was busy paying the bills, and settling disputes over fences that blocked off her right of way into pastures. (30) Her letters reveal her courage and independence as she struggled to straighten out false claims on her land.
The war period offered young Canadian women the opportunity and encouragement to gain new skills, sometimes unusual for women of the 1940s. At Mount Allison, the First Aid Society provided classes in First Aid in order to prepare students for potential emergencies on campus. A further example of emergency preparation was the campus wide blood typing undertaken in 1943 in case of a severe need for blood. The members of the WWW of Mount Allison used the blood typing to aid the voluntary war efforts by donating their blood every week. (31) In addition, The Motor and Engine class was very popular among the Mount Allison female students and encouraged them to learn how to drive. In the context of a national emergency, women drivers were now expected to drive cars, rather than vilified for this activity. In preparation for times of crisis, female students were trained in automobile mechanics, an unusual skill for women to have in the 1940s. (32)
Dalhousie University was not only a more strategic location than Mount Allison, but it also provided greater availability for housing soldiers. In fact, one of the residences was given to the Canadian Women's Army Corps in 1942, and when they left, “to Dalhousie's surprise left it cleaner than it had ever been seen before.” (33) There was also a Red Cross Centre on the Dalhousie campus, situated in Shirreff Hall, that organized volunteer work such as knitting and rolling of bandages. Also, the Red Cross continuously broadcasted the importance of staying alert and ready for any potential danger.
Interestingly, it seems that Dalhousie female students preferred Service men over regular male students. This can be seen in the way both types of men are portrayed: “Servicemen were preferred by Shirreff Hall girls to the callow, less well-mannered students.” (34) Perhaps the soldiers marked the masculine ideal in the eyes of young university women. Conceivably this may also be attributed to lower numbers of male students on campus as local men left to fight over seas. Whereas Mount Allison University dealt with soldiers constantly passing through Sackville, Dalhousie University had the issue of how to keep the studies ongoing even if male student admissions began to drop. (35)
Because Montreal was also a very important center of recruitment in the war effort, both male and female students at McGill University were subject to the War Service Programme between 1941 and 1944. Calling for the youth of McGill to be fit in body in case of a national emergency, the Programme specified that “all women students were required to take gymnastics training for two hours a week.” (36) Evidently, a national emergency made female fitness a priority for the government Women's exercise was now seen as important to their well-being. (37) Also, female students at McGill took classes to learn about handling “war time problems [such] as air raid precautions, nutrition, firefighting, and housing.” (38) In addition, like their counterparts at Mount Allison and Dalhousie, they were taught First Aid and volunteered at local organizations and hospitals. (39) Clearly, the establishment of firefighting and air raid training by the McGill administration and the federal government reflected a reasonable degree of fear amongst authorities that national emergencies might confront the home front, and perhaps this fear furnished an opportunity for women to mobilize voluntary war efforts without stepping on any ‘manly toes'.
Ultimately, all three Atlantic universities made it possible for women to partake in new opportunities which were thought of as ‘unwomanly' years before. While female students at Mount Allison were encouraged to learn about automobiles and become blood donors, at Dalhousie, they flirted more openly with strange men, and at McGill, they learned the basics of firefighting. In this way, women's roles expanded during World War II to embrace both feminized and masculinized tasks. In particular, the voluntary war efforts of the Sackville area reveal that women both challenged and maintained gender boundaries through their public activism. This was demonstrated in the cases of Bessie Anderson, and the Home and Hospitality Convenor of the I.O.D.E in Sackville.
Mainstream historical scholarship on women's World War II contributions has usually focused on their entrance into factory jobs and a previously male dominated work force. As a result, the voluntary war efforts of local communities have been overlooked, although they played a crucial part in the war effort. Perhaps the reason for this lies in the fact that voluntary war work was unpaid and largely feminized, reflecting the equally marginal status of the domestic sphere. In Sackville, New Brunswick, university women along with town women also stepped out of restrictive gender roles by learning skills that would not have been deemed appropriate before the war. The Second World War dramatically changed women's lives on the home front. They continued traditional tasks such as knitting warm socks for the soldiers, but also expanded their ‘sphere' through activities viewed as largely masculine, such as buying bomber planes.
1. See the following for further information: Ruth Roach Pierson. They’re Still Women After All: The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986); Bruce, Jean. Back the attack! Canadian women during the Second World War - at home and abroad. (Toronto : Macmillan, 1985); Forestell, Diane G. "The necessity of sacrifice for the nation at war : women's labour force participation, 1939-1946". Histoire sociale /Social history. Vol. 22 (November 1989); Latta, Ruth, comp. The memory of all that : Canadian women remember World War II. (Burnstown, Ont.: General Store Pub. House, 1992).
2. Also see the following source on Sackville / regional history: William B. Hamilton, At the Crossroads: A History of Sackville, New Brunswick, (Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, 2004).
3. Prentice, et al., Canadian Women. A History, 433.
4. Ibid., 430.
5. “Blood donor Clinic on Campus,” Argosy Weekly, Saturday, October 17, 1942.
6. Mount Allison University Archives. Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire fonds, 7511/8. I.O.D.E Council Minutes. 4 December 1939.
7. Cuthbertson, Eileen. Lord Sackville Chapter I.O.D.E 60th Anniversary History. Privately published by I.O.D.E 1974, 17.
8. MAA, I.O.D.E fonds, 7511/8. I.O.D.E Council Minutes. 1 April 1939.
9. Cuthbertson, 17.
10. The Minutes of the Women’s Student Council notes from 1939-1945 reveal detailed discussions about these events, MAA. Women’s Student Council Minutes fonds, 7722 4/2. Minutes of meeting of Women’s Student Council.
11. Mount Allison Yearbook 1942, The Tribune Printing Ltd, 1942.
12. A penny drop is played as follows: men and women would throw pennies into a suspended bucket from a relative distance away. Those who shot their penny into the bucket were allowed to gloat of their true aim.
13. As 1942 was a leap year, the WWW used this event as a means to have a festival from which all proceeds went towards the War Fund. The festival included many small activities, such as penny drops, and larger ones such as dances. MAA. Women’s Student Council Minutes fonds, 7722 4/2. Minutes of meeting of Women’s Student Council.
14. Allisonian Yearbook, 1944, The Tribune Printing Ltd, 1944.
16. MAA. Women’s Student Council Minutes fonds, 7722 4/2. Minutes of meeting of Women’s Student Council.
17. In the I.O.D.E minutes it is mentioned several times that the Red Cross is in need of more volunteers, but no such mention is made in the Women’s Student Council Minutes. This shows that though the I.O.D.E women managed to bring a Red Cross to Sackville, they did not have enough women to volunteer their services there. Thus the Red Cross heavily relied on the volunteer efforts of the female student body of Mount Allison University. MAA . I.O.D.E fonds, 7511/8. I.O.D.E. Council Minutes.
18. The I.O.D.E had a variety of Relief Funds. Some of the most discussed in the I.O.D.E. minutes were the Greek, Polish, Chinese, English, and Indian Relief funds.
19. MAA. Women’s Student Council Minutes fonds, 7722 4/2. Minutes of meeting of Women’s Student Council. 7 April 1941.
20. The names of the women holding this position changed frequently during the war years. It was recorded in some minute accounts that when members moved away they had to give up their membership in the Sackville I.O.D.E, but it was also noted that loyal members usually joined the I.O.D.E in their new location. MAA. I.O.D.E. fonds, 7511/8. I.O.D.E. Council Minutes.
21. “Lord Sackville Chapter, I.O.D.E. Annual Reports Reveal Active Year of War Work,” The Sackville Tribune, February 5, 1942, p. 6.
22. Cuthbertson, 18.
23. MAA. I.O.D.E fonds, 7511/8. I.O.D.E Council Minutes. 4 November 1940.
24. MAA. I.O.D.E fonds, 7511/8. I.O.D.E Council Minutes. 3 February 1941.
25. MAA. I.O.D.E fonds, 7511/8. I.O.D.E Council Minutes.
26. MAA. Tweedsmuir History of Chignecto, self published by Point de Bute women, 1950.
27. Ibid. The war brides were acknowledged separately in the Tweedsmuir History of Chignecto a brief history of the area dating from its early beginnings to 1970. All that is mentioned from the I.O.D.E of Sackville is that Christmas boxes were sent to them.
28. MAA. Bessie Anderson (Bickerton) fonds, 8610 2/8/1. Papers and Personal Correspondence. Thomas Anderson to Bessie Anderson. Feb. 24. 1945.
29. Ibid., George Anderson to Bessie Anderson. 22 August 1945.
30. Ibid., Bessie Anderson to Mr. Sears. 1945.
31. Mount Allison Yearbook 1944, The Tribune Printing Ltd, 1944.
33. P.B. Waite, The Lives of Dalhousie University , (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994), 105.
34. Ibid., 113.
35. Ibid., 107.
36. Gillet, Margaret, We Walked Very Warily: A history of women at McGill, (Montreal: Eden Press Women's Publications, 1981), 233.
37. This need for physical fitness was the main point of the War Service Programme of 1941-1944.
38. Gillet, 236.
Beckett, Lesley Margaret. The Effect of the Two World Wars on the Education of Women at Selected Maritime Universities: An Assessment, 1900-1970. B.A. Honours Thesis, Canadian Studies Programme, Mount Allison University, 1985.
“Blood donor Clinic on Campus,” Argosy Weekly, Saturday, October 17, 1942.
Bruce, Jean. Back the attack! Canadian women during the Second World War - at home and abroad. (Toronto : Macmillan, 1985).
Buch, Mary Hawkins ; Gossage, Carolyn. Props on her sleeve: the wartime letters of a Canadian airwoman. (Toronto : Dundurn Press, 1997)
Cuthbertson, Eileen. Lord Sackville Chapter I.O.D.E 60th Anniversary History. Privately published by I.O.D.E 1974.
Forestell, Diane G. -- "The necessity of sacrifice for the nation at war : women's labour force participation, 1939-1946". Histoire sociale/ Social history. Vol. 22 (November 1989).
Hamilton, Bill. At the Crossroads: A History of Sackville, New Brunswick. Kentville, Nova Scotia: Gaspereau Press, Printers and Publishers, 2004.
Gillet, Margaret. We Walked Very Warily: A history of women at McGill. Montreal: Ed en Press Women's Publications, 1981.
Latta, Ruth, comp. The memory of all that: Canadian women remember World War II. (Burnstown, Ont. : General Store Pub. House, 1992).
“Lord Sackville Chapter, I.O.D.E. Annual Reports Reveal Active Year of War Work.”The Sackville Tribune, February 5, 1942, p. 6.
Mount Allison University Archives. Bessie Anderson (Bickerton) fonds, 8610 2/8/1.
Mount Allison University Archives. Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire fonds, 7511.
Mount Allison University Archives. Women's Student Council Minutes fonds, 7722.
Mount Allison Yearbook 1942, The Tribune Printing Ltd, 1942.
Mount Allison Yearbook 1944, The Tribune Printing Ltd, 1944.
Pierson, Ruth Roach. “They're Still Women After All: The Second World War and Canadian Womanhood” (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1986).
Prentice, Alison, et al., Canadian Women. A History: Second Edition. Nelson: Scarborough, 1996), 433.
Tweedsmuir History of Chignecto, self published by Point de Bute women, 1950.
Waite, P.B. The Lives of Dalhousie University. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994.