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What about the women?


Every person has a story to tell. Many Mennonite men became conscientious objectors rather than fight in the war. If that is so, what a Mennonite woman from Canada was doing in Europe during the war? Her name was Mabel Cressman, but you probably haven't heard of her. Few people know the story of the Canadian conscientious objectors during the war, but the story of women COs is even less well known.


What do you think Canadian women did during the war? Women were not expected to serve in the military (although they were expected to register, just like the men) so they could not claim conscientious objector status like men could. Those women who believed war was wrong had to find other ways to support peace.


Some Mennonite women in Ontario organized sewing circles to address relief needs. They knitted and sewed warm clothes for the men and women in Europe affected by the war. They also had canning bees. Fruit, vegetables, and meat were prepared and stored in glass jars that would then be sent to victims of the war. In these ways, Mennonite women tried to lessen the suffering caused by war.


A few women even served overseas. Even though women could not be soldiers, they could volunteer as nurses to help treat injuries. Mabel Cressman, for example, was a Canadian Mennonite women who went to Europe as a nurse. After the war, she went to Holland to distribute food and clothing to those in need. Other women volunteered to work in European homes for orphans, or in any other way that they could demonstrate their love of mercy and peace.


These women, like non-resistant men, showed the strength of their beliefs by taking action. Historian Marlene Epp puts it this way: “Mennonite women acted out their nonresistant love in a variety of ways. Most obvious was their work in material relief – canning, knitting, sewing and performing all manner of organizational tasks to aid suffering people in war-torn Europe.”   


What else do you think pacifist women could do? We have seen examples of their relief work, but they also served in another very important area. They cared for male COs. It is easier doing something when you have the help and support of your friends and family. Mennonite women supported their COs because much of Canada didn't.


Mennonite women sent letters, care packages, and copies of sermons from their home churches. One shocked CO even received a fully-cooked pork roast in a care package! Other, more practical gifts, included socks and pictures. Women recognized that even though they were not in the CO camps, they were representing the same cause as the men. As one woman said, “United we stand, divided we fall.” Even though women had to do extra work at home and around the farm because their men were gone, they did so knowing that it was for a good cause.


Although some women moved near the CO camps to be closer to their husbands, most had to endure as best they could until the end of the war. This raised the morale of the COs, but it also provide a much appreciated economic boost for CO families. COs in camps made only fifty cents a day. One woman, who had followed her husband to BC, found a job as a housekeeper that paid fifty cents an hour!


Marlene Epp summarized the experience of Mennonite CO women in this way: “Mennonite women were COs, in a less recognized way than their menfolk. They worked to clothe and feed war sufferers. They lent moral support to Mennonite men in camps through letters, packages or their presence near the camps. They became breadwinners for their families. Mennonite women also had to cope with the implications of being part of a peace church. As conscientious objectors, they put their nonresistant love into action and alleviated suffering in the world.”

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