Saturday, January 29, 2011



by Sidney Allinson. 

Joan Kennedy was the first Canadian woman
to receive an Army commission

Canadian women who now rightly enjoy full equality in every walk of life may not realize how much they owe to an almost forgotten housewife who was instrumental in forming the Canadian Women's Army Corps [CWAC] early in World War Two.
More than half a century ago, Joan Kennedy assumed command of the Cana­dian Women's Army Corps that was formed by her personal initiative, despite official short-sightedness and gender prejudice. From local beginnings as leader of a group of volunteers, she went on to spearhead the national formation of the CWAC, in which women became part of the Canadian army for the first time.
She was born Joan Barbara Fensham in Middlesex, England, in 1908, daughter of an immigrant banker who became an Alber­ta farmer. Having contracted malaria dur­ing the First World War, Harry Fensham re­settled his family in the gentler climate of Victoria. After matriculation from high­school, Joan worked as a telephone switch­board operator, then became an accountant with the B.C. Bond Corporation.
Described as "a slim, vivacious girl with short wavy hair and blue eyes, fond of a good time," she married Norman R. Kennedy, a B.C. government engineer in 1929. The bride dutifully quit her employ­ment, as was then expected of women upon getting married. The change to being "Mrs. Norman Kennedy, attractive young house­wife and club-woman," cannot have fully suited her energetic temperament. Still, she occupied herself with vigorous fund-rais­ing for Tiny Tim Cots in Victoria hospitals.
   Evidently, she was also a shrewd observer of world affairs and the    growing threat of war with Nazi Germany. Early in 1939. Joan Kennedy joined with other like-­minded women to form the British Columbia Women's Service Corps,' and became its commandant. Without any government' support, members of the BCWSC made their own military-style blue uniforms and trained themselves in practical skills likely to be needed in a war.
The British Columbia women were first, then similar groups formed in other provinces across Canada. Each proved their foresightedness and value after the Second World War was declared in September, 1939. Few, if any, women in Canada at the time expressed the slightest desire to go into front-line combat. Nevertheless. they held strong patriotic feelings. and were determined to serve in any vital support roles opened to them.
The aptitude of women to perform a variety of military jobs caught Kennedy's imagination. Almost single-handedly, she began a determined campaign to persuade the Dominion government to co-ordinate various women's voluntary organizations into a national army unit. For more than two years, she faced total indifference from politicians and downright hostility from military headquarters. Calmly, she kept' pointing out the successful example of half a million women already serving in the British armed forces. But hide-bound atti­tudes and well-entrenched prejudice towards women prevailed in Canada in those days. One brass-hat spluttered to her, "A petticoat army madness!"
After being turned down by three suc­cessive ministers of defence, Joan Kennedy's persistent lobbying finally paid off. On Aug. 13, 1941, the Hon. John Ral­ston signed an Order-in-Council to autho­rize formation of the Canadian Women's Army Corps. The new unit suddenly gained priority; and Elizabeth Smellie, matron in-­chief of the Canadian Army Nursing Ser­vice, was seconded to organize the CWAC's administration.

 CWACs on parade

Meantime, Joan Kennedv was admitted into the army with the rank of major -- the first Canadian woman to receive an Army commission - and appointed Staff Offi­cer CWAC: Military District 11, head­quartered at Work Point Barracks, Victo­ria. Because of Kennedy’s obvious suitability Chief Matron Smiellie soon recommended her to be appointed as commander of the CWAC, promoted to the rank of lieu­tenant-colonel.
By then, Canada's women had become part of an enormous effort to gear up: the country’s post-Depression industry into a powerful wartime production effort. Previously, the full potential of women had been untapped, relegated to occupations thought of be "suitable women's' work." However, females soon showed their stuff in jobs as welders and lathe-operators, helping build ships and tanks and aircraft.

Even more of a novelty in Canada was the innovative sight of women in military uniform. CWACs were outfitted in well­-cut khaki tunics, shirts, and skirts, plus trousers usually worn only while on such duties as driving trucks. Each individual woman's clothing measurements were forwarded to Army Central Stores in Ottawa, so indi­vidual uniforms were tailor-made. Officers were allowed silk stockings, while other-­rank legs wore lisle, and an allowance was paid for the purchase of civilian lingerie. 
Regulations required female recruits aged between 21 and 40, with a minimum height of five feet, weight no less than 105 pounds, and having no dependents.. They were to have at least Grade 8 education, and be British subjects, as Canadian citizens were at the time.  Basic training consisted of squad drill, marching, physical education, and military, deportment, but without any weapons instruction.
When critics suggested that rigid army life could turn females into masculine indi­viduals, Kennedy snapped, "No, life in the CWAC will never rob a girl of her charm or her womanly qualities! Whatever tasks they undertake, they'll do them in a woman's way:"
She was forthright about what were tasks to be expected. "Any woman who goes into this with the idea of finding glam­our is entirely misled;" she said. "Her job will probably be pounding a typewriter, scrubbing floors, cooking, or something equally commonplace but necessary."
Kennedy's emphasis continued to be on craning women capable of non-combat­ duties to relieve men for front-line service. Early requirements were for clerks, telephonists, cooks, and drivers, out even­tually CWACs were performing scores of demanding military skills, including code-cipher­ing, motor-mechanics; and map-mating.
Whatever their rank, women received only two-thirds the pay of a male soldier. female private got 90 cents per day, com­pared with $1.30 for a man. Lt. Col. Kennedy's daily pay was $6.70. (A man in an equivalent position, commanding an entiire corps, usually held the rank of general.)
In 1943, after some understandable grumbling about inequality of earnings, CWAC pay was raised to 80 percent of a man's rate_
Early on, Kennedy did not see her unit having any revolutionary effect on women's status in society. In 1942, she said, "We are only in for the duration, In post-war years, women will return to the same position they enjoy in the business world. They are the housewives of tomorrow."
Her perception changed rapidly, though, when she saw her womens’ enormous capabilities, and she began to muse publicly about her changed view of the near future. "Canadian women on active service won't be content with a frivolous or idle life after the war is over. A life of teas, bridge, and gossip will be empty, after the important job they're doing now w Most will want to do something more useful in their com­munity.”
 Within a few months of the unit's for­mation. 80 members were sent to Washi­ngton, D.C., working at the British Mili­tary Mission.-They made such an impression in the U.S. capital, a platoon of them were invited to march in a U.S. armed forces parade down Fifth Avenue, New York.

One newspaper gushed, “Those smart Canadian gals in khaki stole the show!"
The first draft of 350 CWACs went overseas in November, 1942, to serve in London, England, and eventually 3000 served overseas. They bravely endured Luftwaffe bombing raids, and in Nothwest Europe, the first female Canadian soldiers to come under fire. Later in the war, 43 CWACs served in Italy, 156 in Northwest Europe, and eventually 4,000 were sta­tioned overseas.  During the war, 25 CWACs died in WWII, as result of accident, injury, or disease. No CWACs were killed by enemy action, but four were wounded by a German V2-missile attack on Antwerp in 1945.

After being posted to Britain for a while in 1944, Lt.-Col. Kennedy returned to Canada to be appointed General Staff Officer in charge of training for the CWAC. Her ability was further recognized by being appointed to an army board to organize formation of the new Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, a highly technical regiment. Having demonstrated her versa­tility yet again, she returned to adminis­tering the CWACs until after war's end in August, 1945.
The competence shown by females in general during the Second World War helped change forever the way in which women were viewed by the military establishment and Canadian civilian society in general. Success of the 21,000 "Kennedy CWACs" not only paved the way to equal status for females in the Canadian Forces. They had an even wider influence on later generations' radically changed perception of women in all career roles.
The CWAC was disbanded in Septem­ber, 1946, then re-formed three years lat­er, including a local Victoria platoon of women in 155 Coy., RCASC, later the 11 (Victoria) Service Battalion. After Canadian unification of the three armed forces in 1968, women blend­ed into the ranks of most units, becoming simply soldiers, sailors, and airforce personnel. Finally, in 1989, the Human Rights Commission ordered that women were to be fully inte­grated into all aspects of the military.
Meanwhile, Joan Kennedy herself had been let go from the army in 1946, She returned to Victoria, obtained a divorce, and quickly adapted to home-town life again. She took mischie­vous fun in telling how previous military comrades of both sexes often passed by without recognizing her in civilian clothes.
The post-war years gradually became more difficult for her. Despite her execu­tive skills, she faced an increasing straggle to make ends meet, and ended up trying to build a small secretarial business.
The whole city was shocked when she died suddenly of a heart attack at her Rock­land Avenue home on Oct.11, 1956. She was only 47 years of age; her early death more than likely the result of strain from overwork during five gruelling years of wartime responsibility.
The only Canadian woman ever to be accorded a funeral with full military hon­ours, her casket was draped with the Union Jack and home on a gun-carriage flanked by six army officers as pallbearers. The pro­cession marched slow­ly; through streets lined by Victorians standing to show their respect. Then Joan Kennedy's ashes were laid to rest in an unmarked grave at Hatley Park Memorial Gardens, Colwood, British Columbia. Forty-three years later, in 1999, a special plaque ded­icated to her was unveiled at the Ashton Garrison Museum, Victoria, BC, where her personal effects are held. It has become the primary museum of the CWAC, which houses a large collection of female uniforms and related artefacts. Other CWAC related materials are held by the Museum of Esquimalt Naval Base, Victoria, BC.
 Further recognition took place in August, 2001, to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Canadian Women's Army Corps. A military guard of honour from the II (Victo­ria) Service Battalion paraded for a spe­cial religious ceremony at Lieutenant-Colonel  Joan Kennedy's bur­ial-place, where a suitably inscribed headstone is to be erected to memorialize Canada's first female soldier.
Lt. Col. Joan Kennedy, founding Commandant of the Canadian Woman's Army Corps (CWAC) and staff officer second to assist in the formation of the Royal Canadian Electrical Mechanical Engineers (RCEME), was the first Canadian Woman to receive a full military funeral in 1956. There was no graveside service after Kennedy's funeral, and this pioneer for all Canadian military women was buried in an unmarked grave and largely forgotten.
Many ex-CWACs stayed in close contact with each other for many years after their demobilization in 1946, to keep alive the memory of their service together. One such group of women in Kitchener, Ontario, proudly arranged a statue to their corps.

However, Joan Kennedy herself and her remarkable achievements had not been entirely forgotten. Aware of Kennedy's shamefully unmarked grave, the Ashton Armoury Museum made representation to Veteran's affairs Canada to rectify things, and also worked in partnership with the Last Post Society to provide a suitable headstone, which was erected in June 2001. Following the Remembrance Day Ceremony later that year, 11 (Victoria) Service Battalion, veteran CWAC's and RCEME, the Royal Canadian Legion, the Korean Veteran's Association, a Colour Party, and a large convoy of vintage World War vehicles made a long slow procession to the gravesite. So Lt.-Col Joan Kennedy finally received the long overdue graveside service and historical recognition that a woman of her accomplishments and stature was due.

Movie about Canadian women in military service during WWII:


Robert Mackay said...

Hi Sidney
Nice job on the story about LCol Kennedy. Very tragic that she died so young; recognition has come late for her.
Bob Mackay

Mrs. Molinski said...

You don't have enough thanks on here...So, thank you for your very readable writing piece on Kennedy and the CWAC!

H. Molinski - photographer, teacher, and adult-learner at the University of Winnipeg.

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