A century after the conflict, few records remain of the Women's Home Guard, a "vibrant and popular, albeit brief, movement in wartime Toronto" launched to great fanfare in 1915 only to fade from public view following weeks of infighting and mounting backlash, according to an expert on the group.
In its first two weeks, the organization — led by a militant suffragette and a former concert musician — enlisted as many as 1,000 women eager to learn military drills, fencing and shooting, Kori Street wrote in her research titled "Toronto's Amazons: Militarised Femininity and Gender Construction in the Great War."
Dressed in a Norfolk-style service tunic, long slit skirt, peak cap, military belt and knee-high boots, the Women's Home Guard practised marching in formation and performed physical exercises on the sprawling lands of their founder, Jessica Clare McNab, the daughter of a prominent Toronto lawyer, the historian said.
"The Home Guard was literally to free up those who were standing guard at home," Street said in an interview.
"So you don't need a squadron of folks from the light infantry to be sitting around at home, you can send them overseas to help the real war effort because we have a squadron of women who can guard the munitions factory or who can operate home defence and keep the streets safe."
While most histories of the First World War chronicle the volunteer efforts of women and the gruelling work of more than 2,800 nursing sisters, there is little mention of their struggle to carve out a military or paramilitary tradition of their own.
In wartime, women were thrust into what had previously been male-only spaces as they stepped in for the growing number of men sent overseas to do battle. But even then, traditional gender roles endured.
"There's a pretty hard and fast framework in the First World War for what women are and aren't allowed to do," said Sarah Glassford, co-editor of "A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War."
Most channelled their patriotic energies into knitting socks, rolling bandages and fundraising. Nursing was the "most dramatic" option for those keen to serve their country, Glassford said.
At the same time, the growing militarization of Canadian society in the lead-up to the war had seen women form cadet-style groups and drill forces without raising eyebrows, Street said.
So when an ad was posted in the newspaper on Aug. 17, 1915, calling for women to join a new paramilitary group aimed at protecting home ground, it was welcomed by prospective members and observers alike, she said.
Enrolment in the first few weeks was so high that city council voted to provide the Home Guard with a tent to carry out its recruiting. Similar groups later cropped up in other cities such as Edmonton, Montreal and Hamilton.
No membership lists for the Toronto group have been found, but newspaper records show early recruits appeared to belong to influential families.
"These are middle-class women trying to find their footing," Street said.
The movement began to fall out of favour after a bitter and public dispute between McNab and her second-in-command, a vocal feminist named Laura McCully.
McCully accused McNab of poor organization and bookkeeping, and alleged she had a dictator-like approach to leadership. The argument played out in the newspaper and eventually roped in Lt.-Col. James Galloway, a retired militia colonel who agreed to conduct the drills.
The group split into two factions, but continued to operate at a lower level even as media coverage dwindled, Street said. It's unclear what became of it and its members as time went on.
"The vitriol that comes back is because the women, in having a public argument, they had gone too far," she said.
McCully defended the movement in an op-ed the following year, calling those who mocked it and its troubles "misguided."
"These women are made up of wives, sisters and sweethearts of the men at the front, and their earnestness is convincing," she wrote in the April 1916 issue of Maclean's.
"One hears them on drill nights talking over the news and comparing notes regarding the German treatment of prisoners and the stories of cruelty which are forever seeping through. Nothing loud or threatening is said, but there is an undercurrent of feeling so intense that the enemy might get a surprise if only it could be loosed on them in an effective way."
By then, however, the war had reached new peaks of violence, making the concept of a force of middle-class women seem "more ridiculous," Street said.
The group's short-lived success shows gender roles were constantly being renegotiated during that time, speaking to "a much more complex and interesting history of women than perhaps we've talked about (regarding the First World War), particularly in Canada."Suggest a correction