OTTAWA – Elsa Lessard was 17 when she joined the Canadian Navy at the beginning of the Second World War.
“It paid $55.80 a month, which was a lot in 1939, for a teenager,” she says.
At the time, Canada needed more manpower for its war effort. So the military started recruiting women at home. They were known as WRENS – the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service.
Lessard ended up as a wireless operator at a secret station.
“Now, we’re going to be intercepting the enemies’ messages, sent in the international lingo of the time – which was Morse code.”
Now she’s 93, and doesn’t hear so well. But she’s as feisty as ever.
“Women always supported their countries in the time of war, and they don’t get medals,” she says.
Lessard was one of thousands of women who served in the military during both world wars. They manufactured munitions, worked as clerks and drivers, and even served as spies.
“Women should be proud of their role,” says Lessard.
But their work is often overlooked. The Canadian War Museum is trying to change that, with an exhibit called World War Women running until April 3 next year.
Other women, like Barbara McNutt, sold war stamps.
“Everybody was doing what they could for the war effort,” McNutt says.
Even though she was only 12 when she went door to door in her red apron, McNutt’s effort helped raise $318 million by 1945.
“We somehow had a feeling that even though we only earned a few dollars every Saturday morning, that every little bit counted.”
By the time the war was over, women were expected to return to the kitchen. But Lessard believes her contribution helped paved the way forward for women.
“Women should be equal, and they are,” she says.
“That’s a big pleasure for me to find out women are now commanding ships.”