Making the Best of It

Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland During the Second World War

Reviewed by Joanna Dawson

Posted September 22, 2021

She exhales a cloud of cigarette smoke while casually inspecting her work. In front of her lies a newly assembled Bren machine gun that would soon be shipped to British and Canadian forces on the front lines of the Second World War.

“Ronnie the Bren Girl,” as she was known, featured prominently on wartime recruitment posters to encourage young women to seek work in munitions factories. In popular memory, she has come to epitomize women’s experiences during the Second World War, when upwards of a million women entered the paid workforce, most of them for the first time.

However, as a new book edited by Sarah Glassford and Amy Shaw demonstrates, not all women in Canada and Newfoundland experienced the war the same way Ronnie did. Making the Best of It is a collection of essays that shines a light on the diversity of women’s wartime experiences.

The essays appear in sections that explore women’s experiences as children, adolescents, and mothers; on the home front as consumers; overseas as humanitarian workers; and as paid workers in war-related occupations. The histories emphasize women’s complex identities as mothers, friends, volunteers, and workers who were united — or divided — by groupings based on age, ethnicity, location, class, or religion.

While it’s a fascinating book for all readers, teachers will find particular interest in Making the Best of It. Not only does it offer new stories to add to our understanding of women’s history during this period, it also provides a crash course in existing and evolving historical scholarship. The essays feature plenty of snippets from primary sources, and both teachers and students will benefit from the nuanced approach that shows how women’s experiences during the Second World War were not all created equal.

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This article originally appeared in the October-November 2021 issue of Canada’s History.

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