Academic journal article Manitoba History

"Are You 'Doing Your Bit'?": Edith Robertson, Letter-Writing, and Women's Contributions in First-World-War Winnipeg

Academic journal article Manitoba History

"Are You 'Doing Your Bit'?": Edith Robertson, Letter-Writing, and Women's Contributions in First-World-War Winnipeg

Article excerpt

Are You 'Doing Your Bit'? Are you ready to share the burden that will fall upon their shoulders? Are you properly fitted to take his place?

Advertisement, The Winnipeg Evening Tribune, 23 June 1917, p. 3 (1)

During the Great War, Manitoban women laboured on the home front both physically and emotionally. Like young men of the same era, young women's lives were changed drastically during the war years. The war not only afforded women opportunities to work in aid of the war effort in both public and private spaces, but they were encouraged to do so. The quotation above, part of an advertisement for Dominion Business College in 1917, captures the attitude towards women moving into more public work. Additionally, through volunteerism and personal occupations such as letter writing, many women found their private lives consumed with war-focussed activity.

To explore the experiences of young women during the years of the First World War, we approach wartime in Winnipeg and the prairies through Edith Robertson. Edith was at once a university student, teacher, engaged citizen, volunteer, as well as fiancee and correspondent to soldier Frederick Baragar who served with the Canadian army overseas during the First World War. Through these roles Edith, and women like her, directly influenced individual and collective experiences of the war. The war simultaneously shaped women's university experiences, political agency, careers, and relationships.

The complex story of women's lives on Manitoba's home front is evident through individual women's stories, exemplified in this study that combines local archival material, historical Winnipeg newspapers, and personal letters sent to Edith Robertson. Here, Edith's story is woven through the greater war experience to contextualize her story within the larger Manitoban experience. Archival records about women in the First World War era, particularly records in their own voices, can be difficult to find as archival silences created by historical record-keeping practices tend to exclude marginal groups. (2) Records from the war period reflect the dominant systems of the time, which privileged white middle- and upperclass men. Throughout our researches, we endeavoured to read archives "against the grain" by examining records for what they omit or reveal indirectly. (3) Using this method we track the experiences of young women in Manitoba within private, academic, and public spheres during the war era.

Our key source for uncovering the experiences of Edith Robertson is through the letters written to her by Frederick D. Baragar throughout the war. The couple met while Fred was in his final year at Wesley College (which was at that time affiliated with the University of Manitoba), and Edith in her first. They became engaged while Fred was on leave from military training in Kingston, Ontario. The day of their engagement was the last time Edith and Fred saw each other before Fred returned to Manitoba in 1919. The couple corresponded throughout Fred's training and war front service; and through Edith's university career, graduation, and entry into the workforce. The letters span almost the entire war period, starting in November 1914 and ending in April 1919 when Fred arrived home at the family farm in Elm Creek, Manitoba. The letters which make up our study showcase the experiences of a young, white, Anglophone, Protestant, middle-class, university-educated couple, and we acknowledge that the wartime realities of individuals from other economic, social, ethnic, religious, or age groups are likely to have been different in a variety of ways. Edith Robertson was born 8 March 1885 to John and Christine Robertson, Scottish immigrants who moved to Canada by 1883. Among the ten children of the Winnipeg-based Presbyterian family Edith was third eldest. When Britain declared war on Germany, Edith was preparing to enter year two of an Arts degree at Wesley College. …

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