Yes, women can do it — it’s just that too often, they don’t get credit for it.
This Remembrance Day, as Canadians honour those who made incredible sacrifices for the country we call home, we’re celebrating some of the lesser-known achievements and acts of courage that women undertook during The Second World War.
“Remembering the role of women in the war reminds us to look beyond the battlefield as we commonly think of it,” says Dr. Peter Mersereau, course instructor in the department of history at Ryerson University. “Whether that is to the factories or to resistance groups, or on the home front, the war was an all-encompassing experience, one that drew in and shaped the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
For women in the Second World War, Rosie the Riveter’s unforgettable “We can do it!” tagline meant more than stepping into factory jobs to replace the men who’d gone off to fight in the war, though 600,000 Canadian women did just that.
The war also inspired women to lobby the Canadian government for permission to assemble all-female military organizations and sign up 50,000 Canadian women to officially serve for the first time.
"Daily life back at home could not have gone on as it did without women and the extra responsibilities and labour that they took on," says Mersereau. "Women also played a valuable role in non-combat positions in many of the allied militaries.
In Canada, thousands of women enlisted in the Canadian Women's Army Corps, the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service and the Canadian Women's Auxiliary Air Force. They may not have been on the battlefield, but the work they did was integral to the functioning and the success of the Canadian war effort.
"When we think of women in combat, we tend to think of women in official capacities, in uniform," Mersereau explains. "But more widespread were women who were heavily involved in resistance activities. Many sacrificed their lives or ended up in concentration camps as a result."
Don your (digital or real) poppy and read on for some noteworthy accomplishments from women during the war:
British women cracked codes at Bletchley Park
If you’ve seen “The Imitation Game” or the ITV mini-series “Bletchley Circle,” you might know a little about the female code breakers that worked in secret alongside Alan Turing. Among them was Mavis Batey, who decoded a message that deciphered the wiring of a German Enigma machine that had been deemed unbreakable by her colleagues.
Canadian nurses risked their lives on the front lines
Between the air force, the navy and the army, there were 4,480 Canadian military nurses serving in WWII, often close to the battlefields. Their safety was not guaranteed and many lost their lives. Canadian nurse Margaret Brooke was aboard the S.S. Caribou when it was hit by a torpedo in 1942. She was responsible for saving the life of a fellow nurse and awarded the Order of the British Empire for her heroism.
The world’s first female aeronautical engineer came from Canada
Mechanics, photographers and parachute riggers were just a few of the jobs done by women in uniform. In the private sector, Canada’s Elsie MacGill graduated as an aeronautical engineer (a first for women across the globe) and went to work with a team that produced hundreds of Hurricane airplanes for the Allies in an incredibly short time.
An all-Black, all-female unit protected the Allies from spies
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, led by Maj. Charity Adams, the first black officer in the U.S.’s Women’s Army Corps, was a unit made up entirely of Black American women.They were responsible for protecting one of the most vital lines of communication: the mail. Each piece was inspected by these women in order to make sure that military intelligence was not tampered with by the enemy.
Russia had more than 2,000 female snipers in its service
One of the Soviet Army’s standout shooters was a Ukrainian woman named Lyudmila Pavlichenko. Recruiters tried to talk Pavlichenko into working as a nurse but she was already an accomplished sharpshooter and insisted on fighting at the front. She killed 36 enemy snipers and 309 enemy soldiers in total. She toured Canada in an effort to rally support for the war and trained dozens of other snipers.
One Polish woman saved 2,500 Jewish children
Nurse Irena Sendler did more than tend to the wounds of soldiers. She organized an underground resistance movement to get Jewish children out of Poland's Warsaw Ghetto after the country was occupied by the Nazis. Oskar Schindler may have had a film made in his honour, but Sendler saved more Jewish people than he — or anyone else other than those in the diplomatic service — did.
More from HuffPost Canada:
A female spy outsmarted the Gestapo
If you've ever wondered where author and MI6 operative Ian Fleming found inspiration for his Bond Girls, look no further than Krystyna Skarbek (aka secret agent Skarbek, who worked with the British to form resistance groups inside Poland). Her list of heroic deeds is as long as it is impressive, but one standout incident saw the spy picked up by the Gestapo and interrogated. In order to be released, she faked a case of tuberculosis by biting down hard on her tongue and pretending to cough up blood. After the war, she was made a member of the Order of the British Empire.
Also on HuffPost: