Women and World War I

December 22nd, 2017

From Nanaimo all the way to St. John’s, the First World War was a tragic time for all Canadians and the bloodiest conflict in our nation’s history. Despite the profound trauma that many experienced during this time, there was one group that indirectly benefited from these hardships, in what would be the beginning of the most important movement of the 20th century – the fight for women’s rights.

In the years leading up to WWI, women had little rights outside the home. Women of a higher class were not able to work, confined to domestic roles that involved taking care of the home and family. Women in lower classes who had to contribute to household income were only able to work in menial jobs with tough working conditions. Regardless of class, women were considered unsuitable for positions in government, or other professions like law or medicine. They were also not considered to have any place in politics, let alone the right to vote.

It wasn’t until WWI that women’s rights started to move forwards. Many women across the country actively participated in the war since men were in short supply, joining public service organizations, journeying overseas to be nurses, or working in factories to make weapons. In 1917, the Canadian government made a drastic move by passing a law that would force men to fight overseas. While women weren’t included in this mandatory military service, this act meant there were few men left to vote on home soil. Faced with this new issue, politicians introduced a new measure: the Military Voters Act, which allowed female relatives of soldiers to vote in elections.

As men returned home after the war, women still faced many hardships and challenges in the fight for equal rights. However, the unlikely events surrounding WWI served as an important catalyst for the women’s rights movement and brought a new level of freedom to many of Canada’s women. Elexies Millar Waugh, pictured here on the Esquimalt & Nanaimo Railway tracks in 1915 was one such woman. Local history goes that Elexies was engaged to a man who was killed in WWI. In the years following the war, Elexies was employed as a bookkeeper at the Nanaimo Free Press Newspaper, enjoying a successful career and future as an unmarried woman.

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