My keen interest in the lives of Canadian women during WW1 stems from the novel I’m currently writing set in that same era. Prior to the war, women of middle- and upper-class families were monitored by chaperones. Working-class women, in whom I’m most interested, were unchaperoned but constrained by what society deemed “good” behaviour. The status quo took a drastic turn when, starting in 1914, the number of young women moving far from home began to climb. More women earned their own money, spent at their individual discretion. The sight of women smoking and drinking in pubs caused an uproar among traditionalists who were further shocked with changes to fashion. With so many women in the workplace finding long hair unsafe and dresses impractical, hairstyles grew shorter (and masculine in the view of some), hemlines continued to rise, and trousers became common.
Many shared concerns that the women flooding the workforce would result in the erosion of morality, a quality equated with patriotism. Anxieties rose around concerns of sexual impropriety and the sanctity of marriage.
So many women depended on the wages of husbands and sons for survival. Men fighting overseas were allowed to forward a percentage of their soldier pay to wives and mothers at home. Because of bureaucratic chaos, much-needed payments failed to reach these women for the first several months of the war. I read a story about one man who elected to forward half his pay to a mistress. His wife had no recourse for herself and her children. Socio-economically challenged women could apply for an allowance from The Canadian Patriotic Fund (CPF). Before agreeing to give support, the CPF sent volunteers (mainly upper-class women far removed from financial stresses) to scrutinize and report on the spending habits, behaviour and morality of the applicant.
Over the course of the war, 600,000 Canadian men fought far from home across the ocean and the fallen were not repatriated. Canadian families were disconnected from physical evidence of war—the stench of decaying bodies and rows of crosses in graveyards. In her essay, The Mark of Grief, Suzanne Evans wrote that, “The image of death came with the daily casualty lists and in bodily form with the returning wounded and the blackgarbed women wandering the avenues of everyday life.”
Ritual behaviours connected to grief had been modelled by Queen Victoria who wore black for for 40 years after her husband’s death. Mourning wear that once reflected status and class now represented sacrifice. The expense of purchasing mourning clothes posed a burden to many, but a woman who elected not to wear black was met with judgment. A garment’s material was carefully considered, flat black with limited or no sheen. Hats were sold with black straight pins to eliminate the gleam of silver where the veil was pinned on.
The International Order of Allied Mothers in Sacrifice (IOAMS) sent a bronze medal to mothers who suffered loss, and by 1918, a Silver Cross. In the last six months of the war, women also received a service flag adorned with blue maple leaves—and a red maple leaf for each of their men sacrificed. Display of the flag and medals communicated the women’s support of the war effort. Their black garments proclaimed their loss and begged that soldier deaths be avenged. Women’s bodies and homes served as a means of expressing the country’s grief over its war dead.
Photo Credit: Mourning Mother with IOAMS Medal, Ca. 1918, City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244.
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