Women in wartime shipyards break gender barriers

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Navy News / October 23, 2020

A Mi’kmaw mother and her co-workers were trailblazers in breaking gender barriers in the shipbuilding industry in Canada during the Second World War.

Mrs. Martin (or Malti, the Mi’kmaw name for Martin) and other female workers were praised for their tenacity and work ethic in all weather conditions. But they also faced numerous challenges, including gender biases, lower wages than their male colleagues and a pressing need for childcare.

An archive photo of Mrs. Martin tightening bolts at the shipyard in Pictou, N.S., in 1943 with a toddler strapped to her back is a small glimpse into the lives of the 4,000 women who helped build Canada’s naval and merchant vessels during the war.

Information about Mrs. Martin, like many other women involved in the war effort, is sparse, and her first name is unknown. Very little information was collected about the women who worked behind the scenes during the war.

Roughly one million women were employed in Canadian industry during the Second World War. As war production increased and more men enlisted for military service, women filled the labour shortage by entering traditionally male-dominated jobs – including in Canada’s shipyards on both coasts and along the St. Lawrence River.

The yard in Pictou was the first in North America to employ women. Hundreds of women shipbuilders like Mrs. Martin laboured alongside their male counterparts, building 24 Park-class cargo ships for Canada’s Merchant Navy.

At peak production in 1943, more than a third of the Pictou yard’s 2,000 employees in various trades were women – the highest of any shipyard in the country.

On the West Coast, the first women arrived for work at the Burrard Shipyards in North Vancouver in September 1942. According to an article in the Wallace Shipbuilder, foremen and yardmen were less than impressed and “cold shouldered the intruders into a man’s world.”

But the women buckled down and went to work, soon winning the respect of their male colleagues with their hard work and dedication.

From 1942 until the end of the war in 1945, women made up about seven per cent of the company’s work force. Although women worked alongside men, there was strict workplace segregation – typical at the time in many walks of life – with women expected to eat separately and use their own entrance/exit gates.

In March of 1943, the company’s north yard opened a women-only building with a lunchroom, nurse’s room, offices, locker rooms and washrooms. By August, the south yard had one too, with accommodation for 250 women per shift.

By the spring of 1944, there were 1,000 women in the Burrard yards building ships. They did not work in just office and custodial jobs, but also excelled in the precision detail work of the electrical, sheet metal and machine shops. The women pulled their weight alongside the men in the pipe, plate and blacksmith shops as shipwrights and reamer’s helpers, welders, burners and bolters.

In 1945, the Globe and Mail reported that over the course of the war Canada had produced 773 naval vessels, 363 large merchant ships and 4,350 small craft of various types. More than 126,000 people were employed, with women pulling more than their weight to get the job done.

When men returned from overseas at the end of hostilities, most women left the shipyards and returned to their domestic roles.

But times had changed and the evolution of women in the workplace began to take hold.

The industrious legacy of Mrs. Martin and her trailblazing shipbuilding coworkers across the country continues to this day.