Women in wartime

Women in wartime McGill University

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McGill Reporter
January 24, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 09
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Women in wartime

If you had told Susan Mann a few years ago that she would be teaching a course about women and World War I, she would have been incredulous. The former president of York University and an acclaimed historian specializing in Quebec's past, Mann just didn't know a lot about the subject.

The discovery of a diary in Nova Scotia a few years ago changed Mann's life, although she didn't know it at the time.


The diary belonged to Clare Gass, a nurse in the medical corps of the Canadian Expeditionary Force during the First World War.

She was stationed in France at the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital, also known as the McGill hospital because most of its personnel were connected to the University's teaching hospitals. One colleague, McGill pathologist John McCrae, wrote "In Flander's Field" as a military officer stationed with the unit. Its nursing corps was made up of the finest graduates of the nursing programs at the Montreal General and Royal Victoria Hospitals, among them, Gass.

CBC journalists got wind of the diary and, through their reports, Osler Library archivist Pam Miller and her husband, Dean of Arts Carman Miller, a scholar of the Boer War, learned of its existence. The connections to McGill, to military and medical history, and to Carman's native Nova Scotia proved irresistible. "They started scheming about how to get their hands on it," chuckles Mann.

This is where she enters the story. "They thought the diary should be published and get the full scholarly treatment." They considered historians of Canada with a feminist bent who might be up to the job. Miller settled on his old graduate school chum, Mann.

She was reluctant at first. "I'm not a military historian," she reasoned. "But I got swept away as I looked into it. So now I'm becoming a military historian," she laughs.

Mann headed to Nova Scotia and did some historical detective work, turning up other portions of the diary that were in the possession of another of Gass's relatives, as well as photos taken by Gass herself during the war.

In researching Gass's times, Mann became a visiting scholar at the McGill Centre for Research and Teaching on Women and made use of the McGill Archives and the Osler Library of the History of Medicine. McGill-Queen's University Press expressed interest in publishing the diary once Mann completed editing it.

While she found a wave of support for her efforts at McGill, Mann discovered that some people had reservations.

"The family was a bit hesitant -- they weren't sure what I was going to unearth. [Gass] was a notorious misspeller and they feared the book would put her in a bad light. I had to explain that, with historical documents, even the way in which words are misspelled tells us something about the times." No fiddling with history, Mann insisted.

The result is The War Diary of Clare Gass, the first such diary to ever see print, and a testament to the remarkable woman who wrote the diary entries. Gass impressed her superiors in the military and earned some gruelling responsibilities as a result.

"She was sent close to the firing lines, only a few kilometres away from the front, within range of the shelling. That's where the first triage took place. There are some pretty horrendous accounts of some pretty ghastly things."

Once published, the book earned plaudits, from Gass's family and from the historical community. Gass became one of the featured players in CBC TV's Canada: A People's History and Mann served as a consultant for that segment of the documentary.

Now she's back at McGill, as a visiting professor in the MCRTW, and her new vocation as a scholar of WW I continues with her course, "Great Women and the Great War: 1914-1918."

"One of the great assumptions is that women and war don't go together," Mann says. "War stories tend to be men's stories. Does a woman's war story count?"

The answer to Mann is obvious -- of course they do -- and her course devotes itself to the subject, covering war-era feminism, women's wartime work experiences, novels about the war written by women, and the war's connections to the campaign to secure the right to vote for women.

While World War II is often described as a dramatically transformative time for women, sending them into the workforce and planting the seeds for feminist battles in subsequent decades, Mann says those seeds were first planted during the First World War.

Canadian military nurses became lieutenants "and their orders were followed." Women, urged by government propaganda, took on jobs in factories and farms to replace the men who were sent off to war.

"There was a great interest on the part of the government to promote that and then, once the war ended, it was, 'Please go away now and return to the fold.'"

Mann says the war also heralded the beginnings of the British Welfare State, as officials argued over whether or not they needed to pay anything to soldiers' wives while their husbands were away in combat.

"The government, reluctantly, began paying separation allowances," Mann says. But only under certain conditions. "Were the women behaving properly while their husbands were gone? This was a concern for the government. Other women were even hired to spy on them.

"Women were only deserving of state assistance if they had a connection to a man. The man was the citizen; the state had a duty to him to look after his wife while he was away. There was a feeling that fighting in a war was the height of men's citizenship and one of the reasons why women shouldn't have the vote was because they didn't have to fight."

Mann's next project is to look into the life of Margaret Macdonald, who supervised the efforts of military nurses during the First World War as matron in chief. This veteran Quebec historian turned novice military history enthusiast isn't done poking around World War I just yet.

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