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As I stood on the beach in Dieppe on the hottest day of the summer in 2015, I thought about the hundreds of men who had died there. The pebbled beach made walking difficult, and the cliffs were even more formidable than I had pictured. Over a two-week road trip in France and Belgium, I also went to Juno Beach, Vimy Ridge and Ypres. I wanted to make the pilgrimage to the battle sites, memorials and cemeteries that mark the Canadian presence in the First and Second World Wars to honour the sacrifices that were made there.
Since then, I’ve also found myself wondering about the lesser-known wartime experiences, the stories of those who supported armies in small and invisible ways. That’s why this quote from Kate Adie’s Corsets to Camouflage: Women and War hit me like a ton of bricks: “What history usually fails to record or recall is the non-heroic side of war: those who cooked, cleaned, supplied, did the washing, tended the wounded and comforted the warriors. Baggage-trains and camp-followers, battlefield scavengers, wives and tarts.”
I’m Kate Hopwood, a digital editor at The Globe and Mail, and Adie’s words made me realize just how many people are swept up in the events of warfare. I’ve spent the last few years since my road trip seeking out these obscure narratives, especially those of women.
Books such as Tessa Dunlop’s The Bletchley Girls can offer unique insight. Dunlop interviewed 15 women, at an average age of 90, who had worked at Bletchley Park, the site of Britain’s main code-breaking operations during the Second World War. The women had different roles during the war and offer a variety of perspectives, from how tedious the work could be to how it felt bicycling to their billets after a 12-hour shift. It’s the small-scale stories that grab me the most: the 17-year-old who chose the naval service over the army or air force because she liked the uniform best, or misunderstandings due to differing slang during conversations with American soldiers.
Historically speaking, it’s easier than ever to access stories on the screen as well as in print. TV shows such as Bomb Girls, a Canadian series about women at a Toronto munitions factory during the Second World War, are available for streaming. (Bomb Girls is available on Amazon Prime Video; a British show called Land Girls is on Netflix, and there are plenty of other offerings out there too).
Still, there are many more stories that aren’t being told, especially those about women who are directly involved as soldiers. Earlier this year, author Sarah Hall more broadly tackled this idea in an essay for The Guardian, asking why the idea of female soldiers is still a struggle, even within fiction writing. “Feminism in relation to violence and male power is a common literary theme, but there are very few female occupational fighters [in literature],” she writes. This may be a reflection of the world as it exists, but our collective failure to imagine something different speaks volumes.
In many ways, militaries are more diverse than they’ve ever been. In the Canadian Armed Forces, women can serve in all occupations. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Quite apart from the difficulties of forging a career in a male-dominated field, there are subtler ways women who serve sometimes feel like outsiders. “It isn’t difficult to understand why the stereotype of the elderly, male, war-hardened veteran exists,” writes Kelly S. Thompson, a former captain in the Canadian Armed Forces and the author of Girls Need Not Apply: Field Notes from the Forces. TV, movies, even historical footage often leaves the impression that men were the only people fighting, particularly during the World Wars. But Thompson rightfully bristles when told she doesn’t look like a veteran. She is a veteran.
Here’s the thing: the stories we already know matter a great deal. Let’s keep remembering them. But each Nov. 11, let’s try to find additional room for a new story. Consider visiting the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, if you’re able, or your local Legion Hall if Ottawa is too far away. Read books like Thompson’s memoir. I like to think about the groundskeepers who care for the spaces where Canadian soldiers are buried with such respect. War is such a sweeping thing but in the end, it comes down to the people whose lives are caught up in historical events. Let’s be sure to remember all their contributions.
What else we’re thinking about:
I’ve never been known for my athletic ability – my high school activities, for example, skewed more toward student council and model United Nations – but the intersection of women and sports matters to me because so many stories in this realm are symptomatic of wider gender inequality.
The New York Times series Equal Play has zeroed in on some of these stories, beginning with a two-part look at pregnancy, motherhood and athletics. The story of track-and-field athlete Mary Cain is one of the most affecting things I’ve watched this year. Cain was a record-breaking rising star until she joined an elite, Nike-sponsored track team, when everything came crashing down. Along with the reported story is a video op-ed where Cain describes what happened in her own words: The pressure she faced to lose weight left her with physical health problems as well as mental health battles. Not only was the treatment counterproductive, it was based on athletic standards created to match male physiques. Women’s bodies are different, and it’s beyond time for the medical and athletic communities to operate as such.
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