UNIVERSITY OF TORONTO ARCHIVES AND RECORDS MANAGEMENT SERVICES
A Friend in Need
The Women’s War Service Committee and Benevolence during World War II
During World War II, my grandfather was a young child living in Nazi-occupied Netherlands. Learning about the Second World War, I often think of how the upheaval of the war affected his early childhood. Many children in Europe would have had similar experiences. This situation prompted efforts to evacuate British children to safety in Toronto, as illustrated in a 1940 meeting report of the Women’s War Service Committee.
The Women’s War Service Committee was established at the University of Toronto in 1939, in the midst of World War II, to help distribute clothing and raise funds to support charitable initiatives. One such initiative was the evacuation of British children to Canada, executed by the Sub-Committee for British Overseas Children. Comprising the wives of faculty members, and chaired by Barbara Cody, the Women’s War Service Committee demonstrates the significance of women’s benevolence as a form of public agency at the time.
The Women’s War Effort
Members of the Sub-Committee for British Overseas Children worked with the University of Toronto faculty to contribute to the evacuation initiative, but conducted the bulk of the administration themselves. Initially, some University of Toronto professors contacted former colleagues at British universities to offer their children safe homes across the Atlantic, and the Sub-Committee’s wider initiative was born out of these initial connections. The charitable project became official by the end of 1940.
In this meeting report, Betti P. Sandiford, the Chair of the Sub-Committee for British Overseas Children, describes how the initiative was established in 1940 to help evacuate children of British university professors to Canada during WWII. Source: Women’s War Service Committee fonds, University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services.
In a document titled “Report of the Sub-Committee for British Overseas Children presented at the Annual Meeting, December 9, 1940”, Sub-Committee Chair Betti P. Sandiford outlined the departments of the evacuation project, from handling immigration to ensuring the foster families were interviewed and children placed in homes. Ultimately, the Sub-Committee placed 147 children of British university professors with host families in Canada to live out the remainder of World War II.
Spheres of Influence
An article featuring the Women’s War Service Committee in University of Toronto Monthly, December 1942 issue. The Sub-Committee for British Overseas Children is mentioned toward the end of the article. Source: Women’s War Service Committee fonds, University of Toronto Archives and Records Management Services.
Since women were generally consigned to the private sphere in the 1940s, benevolence projects were one of the few means of exercising public agency. Women’s charitable work still restricted them in terms of their public influence – the Women’s War Service Committee was run by faculty wives and focused on traditional women’s work, such as making clothes and philanthropy. Barbara Leslie Epstein argues that “the spheres of men and women were not so separate as they seemed […] domesticity allowed for an expansion of women’s moral influence, but that influence is not the same as power”. Indeed, women’s agency was more prominent in the twentieth century. While the Committee’s work remained domestically oriented, it was valuable in welcoming and resettling child refugees during war. Placing evacuee children in foster homes was far from trivial, and ensured the safety of vulnerable members of society.
Although the Women’s War Service Committee was officially disbanded in 1946, the project’s legacy remained: a few migrant children stayed in Toronto after the war to finish their education or remain with siblings. As a woman, I find the Committee’s wartime contribution inspiring. Despite societal restrictions on the role of women, the Committee’s efforts in the face of international conflict improved many children’s lives.
Serena Ypelaar is a Master of Museum Studies student at the University of Toronto. A lifelong Torontonian, she moved to Ottawa to complete an Honours Bachelor of Arts in History and English Literature at the University of Ottawa. Serena is primarily interested in public programming, historical interpretation, and biographical research. An avid traveller, she enjoys lengthy road trips across Canada and the United States, as well as the occasional jaunt to Europe when convenient.