World War Women

From September 29, 2018 to January 6, 2019

A travelling exhibition developed by the Canadian War Museum.


Photo: After D-Day on June 6, 1944, Canadian nurses followed troops as they advanced across northwestern Europe. Library and Archives Canada, PA-132851


World War Women explores the contributions made by women to Canada’s participation in the First and Second World Wars. During these periods of extraordinary change and hardship, women served in the military, took on paid and volunteer war work and, in many cases, waited and worried about loved ones in uniform, some of whom they would never see again. This exhibition explores the challenges women faced during two World Wars, examines the choices they made, and highlights objects that tell their stories. 

Divided into four thematic zones, World War Women uses artifacts, images, audiovisuals and archival materials to delve into the personal stories of Canadian women during the World Wars.  


In 1914, Joan Arnoldi and Mary Plummer founded the Canadian Field Comforts Commission. The Commission organized the efforts of Canadian women in creating comfort boxes, which contained small luxuries such as soap, candies, food and clothes to be sent to soldiers on the front lines. Among the most popular items in the boxes were woollen socks and gloves, created by a veritable army of home-front knitters who wielded their needles for the war effort. In this section of the exhibition, visitors will see photographs and artifacts relating to the creation of knitted clothing and comfort boxes.  

The theme of volunteering continues with photographs and panels exploring the role of women and girls who raised funds by selling War Savings Stamps during the Second World War. 


Photo: Wearing her white veil and blue working dress, First World War nurse Blanche Lavallée appears calm and professional. Nursing Sister - Richard George Mathews - CWM 19710261-6070 - Beaverbrook Collection of War Art Canadian War Museum


Women’s service with the Canadian military was significantly different during the First and Second World Wars. During the First World War, women were only permitted to serve as nurses. During the Second World War, however, women took on many new service roles in the army, navy and air force. This part of the exhibition focuses on the experiences of the more than 50,000 Canadian women who served during the two World Wars. 

Nurses’ work took them close to the front lines, sometimes within range of enemy fire. Medals, souvenirs and archival photographs allow visitors to explore the stories of women who tended to ill and injured soldiers, often under perilous conditions.  

By 1942, women were replacing men in non-combat positions in every branch of the military. This part of the exhibition includes a digital selection of paintings showing the experiences of servicewomen, created by artist Molly Lamb Bobak — the only female Canadian official war artist to be sent overseas during the Second World War. Also in this section, uniforms and photographs tell the stories of women who served with the Canadian military.  


As men left for the front, and wartime conditions increased the need for weapons, vehicles and food supplies, tens — and later hundreds — of thousands of women joined the industrial and agricultural workforce. During the First World War, thousands of women worked for the Imperial Munitions Board, manufacturing items such as high-explosive artillery shells. During the Second World War, approximately 300,000 women held jobs related to war production, many in traditionally male sectors such as heavy industry, agriculture, medicine and aviation. Artillery shells, war worker’s badges and artificial eyes illustrate the work performed by these women. Dismissal notices and unemployment insurance books reflect the fact that thousands of skilled women also lost their jobs at war’s end, as servicemen returned from overseas.  

The objects in this section depict women’s war work and the policies put in place to ensure their participation, including daycare and a national employment registration system. 

Photo: Workers at the Canadian Car and Foundry plant in Fort William, Ontario, assembled Curtiss Helldiver aircraft. At the height of production, the plant employed more than 6,700 workers, 40 per cent of whom were women. IMG2015-0347-0002-Dm Canadian Museum of History


Worry and Loss 

Jeannie Cassels Boucher wrote to her son, Robert, who was serving in France, saying, “My Dear boy, with my count you are in the line this week. Hope you ... come out all O.K.” The letter was returned to her, unread, after Robert’s death in 1917. 

Her experience matches that of hundreds of thousands of Canadian women who saw their husbands and fiancés, fathers and sons, brothers and friends march away in uniform. More than 115,000 Canadian men died in the two World Wars. Many others returned physically and emotionally scarred.  

The exhibition concludes with an array of photographs and artifacts evoking the worry and grief of women whose loved ones were killed in action. Bureaucratic form letters and telegrams contrast with private letters of condolence, keepsakes from sweethearts and lockets containing photographs of lost sons — reminding visitors of war’s terrible toll and the need to endure in the face of tragedy.