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A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the First World War

By Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw, editors

Review By Lisa Pasolli

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 177 Spring 2013  | p. 183-84

When it comes to the history of women in wartime Canada, the Second World War has so far attracted the most attention from scholars. Perhaps surprisingly, given the otherwise-abundant scholarship on Canada’s Great War, those interested in women’s and girls’ experiences during the First World War have had a more limited historiography to draw on. Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw’s edited collection, A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service, brings together twelve new and recent articles that begin to address this scarcity.

Contained within are familiar and important questions about women and war: for example, the changing dimensions of women’s work is the focus of several chapters. But the collection also introduces readers to unique and innovative approaches to gender and conflict. As a case in point, one of the volume’s more intriguing chapters is Amy Tector’s use of disability studies to explore the concern about “authoritative” women and “emasculated” men (303). Suzanne Evans’s exploration of women’s markers of grief is similarly fascinating. Tying all of these interdisciplinary articles together is Glassford and Shaw’s excellent introduction, which provides a thorough overview of the existing literature of women and the First World War and neatly weaves together the articles’ common themes.

The central question that runs throughout A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service is one of the war’s transformative effect. Did the war profoundly change women’s and girls’ places in their families, communities, and workplaces? How lasting were those changes? If there is any sort of consensus across the volume, it is that despite dramatic changes in women’s lives, traditional gender norms were not significantly challenged. Furthermore, even women’s new and exceptional roles operated within the confines of acceptable femininity. The authors of this volume explore the adherence to domesticity and maternalism from the perspective of university women (Terry Wilde), voluntary nurses (Linda J. Quiney), young girls (Kristine Alexander), paid workers (Kori Street), Indigenous women (Alison Norman), in poetry written by women (Lynn Kennedy and Vicki S. Hallett), and through the lens of social policy (Desmond Morton).

Yet transformation is a complex question. The volume’s best chapters are those that go beyond societal prescriptions about gender roles to examine women’s individual experiences. As Margot I. Duley states in her article about the Newfoundland Women’s Patriotic Association, women’s and girls’ experiences of war were both “paradoxical and profound” (70). Diaries, memoirs, and literary works reveal that transformation may have happened on a more personal level, even within the boundaries of gender norms. The poignant stories contained in Terry Bishop Stirling’s chapter on Newfoundland nurses demonstrates this well. Several chapters also remind us that transformation took on different dimensions across class, race, age, marital status, and region. Kori Street, for example, reveals the contrast between middle- and working-class women who took up wartime paid labour. For the former, war work was a temporary patriotic duty. For the latter, the war provided much-needed opportunities to support their families and they feared the loss of those opportunities at war’s end.

Glassford and Shaw readily admit that their collection has conspicuous holes — most notably, the absence of any analysis of Quebec women or girls. Nevertheless, the volume (and the included bibliography) opens the door to the kinds of questions that need to be asked about women, girls, and gender during the First World War. 

A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the First World War
Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw, editors
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 356pp, $34.95 paper