Proudly She Marches is an 18-minute documentary film made by the National Film Board of Canada (NFB). Directed by Jane Marsh in 1943 (not 1944 like Youtube is suggesting), it was a part of the Canada Carries On series. The film depicts the many different kinds of work that those apart of the Canadian Women’s Army Corps (CWAC), the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and the Women’s Royal Canadian Naval Service (WRCNS or “Wrens”) could be involved in. Training, everyday life in uniform, and women’s contribution to Canada’s military during the Second World War are showcased.
Aside from being a documentary, Proudly She Marches was also a propaganda film—so what was its purpose?
By the end of World War II, almost 50,000 women volunteered to serve in the Canadian military. Getting to that number wasn’t easy though. Although Canadian women had campaigned for female mobilization since WW1, the government basically ignored them. It was not until 1941, two years after WW2 started, that they came around. What happened? The government had been embarrassed by the British government who essentially told them to get on with it and set up an auxiliary air force for women. The army came next and then the navy in 1942.
“Free a man to fight!” Recruitment officers at first tried to appeal to women’s sense of duty. Some women enlisted right off the bat. Others were hesitant because the general perception of women in the military was highly negative. According to a Elliot Haynes Ltd 1943 public opinion survey, some beliefs included that women in uniform had no morals, were STD-ridden prostitutes, and that the government had set up a special building for them to give birth to their illegitimate children. I kid you not. Furthermore, when the survey asked, “How can women best serve Canada’s war effort?” the number one answer was, “Maintaining home life.” Joining the forces ranked 5th.
More persistent was the fear that recruitment would defeminize women. This concern is what the government decided to tackle. How do you combat public perception during WW2? Make propaganda films! Proudly She Marches and Wings On Her Shoulders (1943)* were designed to show that not only could women maintain their all-important femininity in the forces, but that the old adage, “in the home women are good for everything; outside it good for nothing” is a load of nonsense.
* As you may guess by the title, Wings On Her Shoulders focuses on the women’s division of the RCAF. Training and occupations both in Canada and abroad are looked at, in the hopes of encouraging more women to help “keep the bombs falling on Germany,” by enlisting in the air force.
It begins with a young woman thinking about how women are perceived as merely beautiful objects who aren’t good for much outside of housework. She then thinks about all the women she knows who are a part of the armed forces. This part of the film shows the wide variety of jobs that women could be involved in and how those who enlist are from “all walks of life and from all parts of the dominion.” The following positions are shown: A CWAC, a wireless technician, an RCAF photographer, an aircraft recognition teacher, a naval map plotter, a mechanical draftswoman, farmers, stenographers, cooks, technicians, and transport drivers. Once scene even shows a woman attaching a machine gun and bombs to a plane as well as testing parachutes. The female narrator turns out to be a WREN and she concludes, “Yes, the more I think about it, the more dead sure that all this talk about women being merely beautiful and little else is just a lot of bunk. Just give us a job and we’ll go right to it.”
Basic training for women in the forces.
The film is crafted in a way to stress that recruitment does not defeminize or demoralize women. All of the women shown in the film are young and beautiful. (You will also notice that all the women are white too). Church is “a regular part of service life.” While working, women only interact with men on a professional basis. During off-time, the activities where they mingle are entirely wholesome. For those worried that life in the forces is too strenuous, the film stresses that although the training and work done by these women are serious, if you join you will still “have a good time” and women’s lives are in no danger whatsoever. They also show how some of the skills learned in the forces are applicable to home life.
There are some eye-rolling worthy moments though. The whole tone of the film is patronizing by modern standards and then there’s that gem of a line, “There’s nothing like basic training to taking those few extra pounds off your hips.” That being said, the message behind the film is a positive one: that women have value beyond the domestic realm and they are more than capable of hard work. While there are no official numbers that show how well the propaganda films worked, historians conclude that undoubtedly some women were influenced and overtime the general perception of women in the military vastly improved.
Gossage, Carolyn. Greatcoats and Glamour Boots. Toronto: Dundurn Press Limited, 1991. (Excellent book!)
Pierson, Ruth Roach, “Ladies or Loose Women, The Canadian Women’s Army Corps in World War II,” Atlantis 4, 3, Part 2, (Spring 1979): 245-66. Accessed from: http://journals.msvu.ca/index.php/atlantis/article/viewFile/4759/3989
Proudly She Marches, dir. Jane Marsh, National Film Board of Canada, (1943). Accessed from: https://www.nfb.ca/film/proudly_she_marches