Cynthia Toman. An Officer and a Lady: Canadian Military Nursing and the Second World War. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2007. 272 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-7748-1448-5.
Reviewed by Kristin Burnett (Department of History, Lakehead University)
Published on H-Canada (July, 2008)
The Expandable and Expendable Workforce: Canadian Military Nurses during World War II
Cynthia Toman's work An Officer and a Lady investigates the day-to-day experiences of the rank-and-file nurses who joined the Canadian Armed Forces during World War II. The response of Canadian nurses to the military's call to mobilize medical units in 1939 was overwhelming; some were attracted by guaranteed employment after nearly a decade of unemployment and others by a sense of duty and patriotism. More than 4,000 civilian nurses served in the Canadian Armed Forces, and Toman traces their movement through the military apparatus from enlistment and training, to active duty on and behind the front lines, and finally, to demobilization, a return to civilian life, and the creation of postwar memories and imagined communities. Toman draws upon a diverse resource base, made richer by the twenty-five interviews she conducted with former Canadian military nurses in 2001. The interviews provide a valuable human perspective to the corporate records and enable Toman to address previously unacknowledged questions and issues.
An Officer and a Lady is organized into five chapters which provide a comprehensive overview of the place of nursing within the Armed Forces, from the genesis of medical units and hospitals to demobilization and beyond. Chapter 1 begins by examining both the civilian and military contexts in which Canadian nurses joined the military. The second chapter investigates how the military organized and used this "expandable and expendable workforce for the duration of the war" (p. 11). This was a process negotiated by both military and civilian authorities who needed to balance supply and demand with the desire of nurses to serve. Those interested in the work of ordinary nurses will enjoy the third and fourth chapters. These chapters deal with the daily realities nurses faced trying to provide adequate medical and nursing care in extremely difficult situations, while at the same time navigating their place as both "officers and ladies." One of the most noteworthy contributions of Toman's work makes lies in the final chapter where she investigates the career paths military nurses pursued in the postwar period, how they re-entered civilian life, and the their invisibility as veterans. Contrary to popular perception, Toman found that very few military nurses rejoined the civilian nursing work force following the war. Instead, many ex-military nurses chose to go into fields that offered them greater challenges and autonomy in the workplace, like public health.
Unlike other areas of the service, nursing was regarded as a position ideally suited for women given their "natural" maternal and care-giving instincts. The first permanent nursing service was included in the Canadian Army Medical Corps (CAMC) in 1904, becoming an essential part of the CAMC during World War I. The hard work of nurses during that war earned them recognition and, for some, a permanent place within the military. Toman argues, however, that even during World War II military nurses continued to be seen as "women out of place or dis-placed" (p. 5). The need for women to serve in aid stations near the front lines, close to the violence and therefore within the supposedly masculine domain, ran counter to the image of nursing as a gentle and feminine endeavor. The military hierarchy believed that the Canadian public would be uncomfortable with Canadian women subjected to the violence and horror of combat. Therefore, the presence of women on the front lines went unacknowledged by the military and consequently has been largely hidden from history. As Toman justly points out, historians of the Second World War have overlooked the place of women in the field and instead focused on the roles of male doctors, surgeons, and medics. Nevertheless, Toman's research clearly shows the important part that trained, knowledgeable, and experienced nurses played in Canada's military effort(s). Indeed, during World War II the military quickly discovered that swapping trained and experienced nurses for inadequately trained male orderlies was inadvisable. For example, in critical surgical situations the expertise and knowledge of nurses could not be replaced and their presence ensured better patient outcomes.
Even women's historians have overlooked the history of Canadian military nurses. Since the 1970s feminist scholars have failed to include nurses, and particularly military nurses, as part of their attempt to reclaim women's history. The nursing profession has not drawn the interest of feminist historians because of its status as a "pink ghetto" and the subordination of nurses within hospital hierarchies and the medical profession more generally. Furthermore, the association with militarization and war has made military nurses an uncomfortable topic for many nursing historians, who associate their profession with care-giving and comfort, and for feminists who reject the masculine and violent world of the military. However, failing to do so ignores the choices made by individual women regarding their own career paths and their perceptions of citizenship and service to their country. As Toman argues persuasively, in spite of history's (and the military's) unwillingness to view women as soldiers, they saw themselves as such. Toman does us a service by honoring and narrating these women's experiences.
The unease with which history views women, war, and militarism was negotiated, embodied, and acted out during World War II. The entry of women into masculine space and their proximity to male bodies produced a tremendous amount of anxiety. As a result, war conditions served to reify certain gender roles while challenging others. For example, although nurses held the rank of officer and performed a broad range of skilled medical and nursing duties, they were also expected to provide soldiers with recreational entertainment. Nurses were unofficially obligated by their superiors to act as "social secretaries" and regularly attend pubs and parties following long shifts at the hospital. On the battlefield, nurses embodied normalcy and used their presence to provide comfort and solace to injured and dying men. Nevertheless, wartime conditions also placed women in situations that allowed them to challenge contemporary prescriptions around femininity, although such challenges were contingent upon geography and necessity.
Toman complicates the role of nurses in the military. The work environment required nurses to acquire and implement skills and knowledge far beyond regular nursing practice. Yet, as Toman argues, gender operated in such a way that those women's wartime experiences continued to be simultaneously liberating and constraining. Military service offered nurses equal pay; the war provided them with opportunities to develop autonomy within military medical regimes; and the war facilitated the development of new skills and knowledge and acquainted nurses with the latest trauma and medical techniques and technologies. Indeed, military nurses became experts in blood transfusion and the application of new drugs like penicillin. However, the acquisition of new technologies did not necessarily elevate the status of the work nurses performed. Rather, building on Margarete Sandelowski's work on gender and technology in American nursing (Devices and Desires: Gender, Technology, and American Nursing, 2002), Toman contends that new technology was re-imagined as women's work or "dirty work." In the chaos of field stations the work of nurses remained intimately connected to the damaged and filthy bodies of soldiers, and at times, the bodies of nurses were reduced to tools or cogs in the assembly line of the larger military medical machinery.
Toman's work differs from other nursing scholarship which depicts nursing as a calling. Instead, she characterizes the war itself as the calling, and nursing as the vehicle through which women participated as citizens and soldiers. Toman identifies World War II as producing a particular moment and experience for nurses and downplays the long-term impact of the war on the nursing workforce. She found that after the war many nurses were unwilling to return to postwar nursing conditions. Instead of being the catalyst for the transformation of the work and practice of civilian nurses, the experience of military nurses foreshadowed changes that occurred later, as the labor force in hospitals shifted from student nurses to graduate nurses and as technology, nursing, and patient care became more specialized and segmented.
Historians of race and sexuality will find Toman's work more disappointing. In her introduction Toman acknowledges that race informed her analysis only in considering how it shaped the military nursing service, or more specifically, forged a white workforce that reflected the dominant Canadian society. Considering the diversity of theaters in which Canadian nurses served, it is nonetheless disappointing that Toman does not grapple more substantially with anxieties surrounding white women coming into contact with non-white people and "brown bodies." Nor does Toman investigate the range of sexual expression in the military; rather she remains constrained by the heterosexual paradigm. For Toman definitions of sexuality remain deeply rooted in marriage, pregnancy, and childbirth. She acknowledges that the experience of war created intimate and long-lasting relationships but does not pursue the strong possibility that some of those relationships were sexual in nature. Paul Jackson's work (One of the Boys: Homosexuality in the Military in World War II, 2004) shows conclusively that both casual and enduring homosexual affairs were common among men in the Canadian military during the war, and it would be interesting to know whether there was a similar phenomenon among Toman's female nurses.
Despite these reservations, Toman's work is a timely addition to the social history of the military. Histories that concentrate on only the battles and bloodshed overlook the social realities of the military apparatus. Men could not fight without support or medical care, and women played enormous roles within this framework. However, society's general discomfort with associating women and violence, despite women's choices to place themselves in those situations, has perpetuated the invisibility of women who for their own reasons considered themselves to be soldiers. By incorporating nursing sisters into the narrative of military history, Toman has "balanced out traditional accounts of war as political and military strategies" (p. 205).
. Until very recently, the history of the nursing profession has been written almost entirely by nurses.
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Kristin Burnett. Review of Toman, Cynthia, An Officer and a Lady: Canadian Military Nursing and the Second World War.
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