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The Canadian forces and their families represented the nation overseas during the Cold War. As a result, their lifestyle and comportment crossed between the public and private spheres, creating challenges which impacted their lives in unforeseen ways. What sort of choices did they have and how did they negotiate important life goals? How do they remember these experiences? Whole life oral history methodology[1] offers a valuable tool to explore lived experiences and to answer these specific questions. This piece will examine the constructed memories of two women, Fanny, the wife of Melvin McMillan, and her daughter, Shirley McMillan.[2] Both are feisty and talented individuals. Their contrasting stories are not intended to represent the thousands of individual military family lives; rather, the reiteration of these oral histories highlights the particular McMillan family dynamics, including how specific childhood experiences and circumstances ultimately affected their adult perceptions and choices. The McMillan family stories reveal how military service, personnel policies, gender, age, class, education, culture, geographic location, birth order in the family, and individual personality and capabilities played out in their lives.

These two women warrant historical attention. Their constructed memories challenge normative assumptions about polarized gender roles in Canadian military families during the Cold War. By closely examining the detailed memories of the wife and the daughter of an air force subaltern, it will become apparent that whole life oral history accords their experiences, the attention, and respect traditionally reserved for top military commanders. Instead of merging these women’s stories with others into anonymous quantitative data, this method exhibits their unique voices, in the process peeling back the idealized family of elite postwar proponents and exploring lived realities of these two family members. Whole life oral history testimonies expose complexities and contradictions with regard to idealized families, generational differences, and polarized gender roles that might remain otherwise hidden when relying primarily on archival sources.

This methodology allows these two women to colour outside the lines of traditional history. Before analyzing their detailed stories, a look at the historiography of Canadian postwar families and then of Canadian Cold War military families briefly touches upon points of intersection and conflict between this literature and these two women’s experiences. Depending upon the changing circumstances of their lives, these two women alternatively challenged or conformed to the binary gender roles of an idealized postwar family. Fanny’s story and then Shirley’s story will demonstrate how defence decisions, personnel policies, and other factors such as gender, class, education, and family dynamics actually played out in their lives. Their stories highlight key moments when they challenged patriarchal expectations, suggesting also how differently constructed memories underscore contrasting generational viewpoints.

The family in the postwar context

A host of Canadian historians have examined aspects of the Canadian family (including civilians) during the Cold War. As Magda Fahrni demonstrates in her work on household politics in Montréal, Mackenzie King’s Liberal government emphasized how the traditional family was central to post Second World War re-construction, with explicitly described and constructed gender roles: “Fathers were to be breadwinners, mothers the ‘queens of the home,’ children ‘the hope of tomorrow’.”[3] Fanny and Shirley challenged this traditional paradigm; their stories expose generational differences, family tensions, and shifts in societal expectations as women participated more fully in the public sphere during the Cold War.

Other scholars have addressed the significance of the postwar universal family allowance programme. For his part, Raymond Blake states how “for many parents, especially mothers, the family allowance program was seen as the state’s recognition — finally — of its commitment and responsibility to the family.”[4] His scholarship emphasizes the family as an important stabilizing institution, arguing that constructed gender roles and party politics were only two of multiple factors behind the family allowance policy. While recognizing the sometimes important economic impact allowances had on (especially rural) families, Dominique Marshall has also emphasized that the Québec 1943 compulsory education law and the Federal 1945 family allowance simultaneously served the interests of political elites.[5] Fanny McMillan’s story reveals the inadequacies of Saskatchewan’s compulsory education during the 1920s and 1930s. In contrast, as an adult, she benefited from postwar family and military married allowances and exercised some independent control over household expenditures.

While the above historiography analyzes government policies through a gendered lens, several historians have focused on the workings of gender within the family directly. Mona Gleason discusses how Canadian experts normalized middle class family ideals based upon gendered binaries, with fathers responsible for breadwinning and mothers for managing the home.[6] According to Christopher Grieg’s study of postwar boyhood in Ontario, “Canadians confronted a profoundly gendered insecurity” heightened by fears of atomic annihilation.[7] Experts and political elites alike believed that idealized gender roles would prevent criminal behaviour, communism, and homosexuality, and shore up a patriarchal system.[8] Fanny tells us how early in her marriage she challenged expectations, refusing to stay at home and maximizing her freedom to participate in paid work and recreational activities. Shirley discusses how the remnants of postwar gendered constructions operated in her family and working life during the 1980s and 1990s, creating conflicting demands and stresses. At times, both women compromised, conforming to gender role norms.

Canadian fathers also faced changing and complicated demands. Robert Rutherdale’s oral history interviews with Cold War fathers reach beyond middle class, suburban, idealized constructs and offer contrasting models of “the tyrant,” “the teacher,” and “the workaholic” to describe a range of fatherly practices in postwar Canada.[9] Rutherdale allows for nostalgia, observing how fathers recalled their privileged family time with fondness and expressed regret for time apart. Breadwinning and traditional masculine tasks upheld a patriarchal system.[10] He situated the notion of privilege and idealized time at home as a tactic of patriarchal power and observed that the popular discourse about “family togetherness” has not yet been fully explored by social historians. Unfortunately Melvin McMillan died in 1983. He and Fanny’s father appear merely as figures in these women’s stories, yet Rutherdale’s theme of fatherly practices and the issue of family togetherness can be easily discerned in their stories. Both stories challenge traditional assumptions about masculine breadwinning, allowing for a partial deconstruction of a long-standing myth that has functioned against women’s equal participation in the paid labour force.

Canadian historians have brought critical perspectives to Cold War families more generally, but military family life has received less historical attention. One of the best studies on this topic, by sociologist Deborah Harrison and family legal expert Lucie Laliberté, draws upon extensive oral history interviews with Canadian military wives at the end of and after the Cold War.[11] Both scholars are military wives, and their feminist scholarship exemplifies how military spouses work outside the military hierarchy to expose military family problems and to lobby for changes in government policies to address their concerns. They recount how the Canadian military believed that male bonding contributed to combat readiness, thus reinforcing a rigidly constructed masculine-feminine polarity during the late Cold War. The military recognized the right of women to serve in combat roles (1989), common-law marriages (1991), and the rights of lesbians and gays in the military (1992), only after Human Rights legal challenges forced them to do so.[12] Their work draws upon American political scientist Cynthia Enloe’s important insights about the exclusion of women from combat, the gendered separation of roles within the military, and the appropriation of women’s labour to support a social order which revolves around presumptions of male pre-eminence.[13] Enloe has also argued that military wives supply cheap or unpaid labour and serve as child-bearers producing future soldiers for militaries, taking part in activities fundamentally at odd with feminist goals.[14]

These North American feminist findings stand in stark contrast to the findings of German historian Frauke Brammer, who conducted numerous oral interviews with Canadian military families who served in West Germany during the Cold War.[15] In this research, Brammer was puzzled by the predominance of positively constructed memories.[16] These positive memories, addressing only German postings in interviews conducted several decades after those experiences, are almost the opposite of those shared in the interviews with Harrison and Laliberté. Harrison and Laliberté covered the entire period of marriages affected by military service with the spouses of those still serving. Complaints included difficulties pursuing education and careers with frequent moves and social isolation and a military leadership which relied upon largely unpaid female labour to support mostly male careers. Most of those interviewed in their work were born between 1945 and 1970 and exposed to Second Wave feminist ideas during their formative years.

Whole life methodology extending beyond the Cold War parameters provides a different framework and comparisons. The McMillan family stories suggest that profound generational differences, shifting gender roles, and the intense social life experienced by Canadians posted to Europe, account for some of these apparent discrepancies between these two studies of Canadian military families. How did different generations perceive family gender dynamics and construct their memories? What were the contradictions they encountered as normative gender roles and life circumstances evolved? Fanny had a deprived, difficult childhood and viewed her years as a military wife from 1946 to 1967 as the “happiest” period in her life. During these years, she made life choices to maximize her independence, a core aspect of feminist ideology. Her daughter Shirley (born in 1956) became a civilian wife, but faced similar challenges to the military wives of her own age group as an adult. These included social isolation, uneven division of household tasks and child care, as well as difficulty pursuing education and a career. Like her mother, she looked back on the German postings with nostalgia, highlighting adventuresome, enriching aspects of this formative experience in her life. Earlier published research on the Canadian brigade in Germany analyzes an active public relations campaign, recreational programmes, and other measures taken to improve morale and relations with the local Germans.[17]

How did these policies and the polarized gender roles described in the early Cold War historiography play out in military family life? Those who became fathers and mothers during this period grew up in the 1920s and 1930s; the circumstances of their childhoods impacted their adult expectations and choices, their perceptions about military service, and what it offered. While they benefited from these postwar pro-family policies, they did not necessarily embrace polarized gender roles, expert opinions about innate masculine and feminine characteristics, or idealized middle class notions about family life.

The McMillan Family

Our story begins with Melvin McMillan and Fanny McClintock who were born in rural Saskatchewan in 1919 and 1921 respectively. Melvin completed Grade 10 education before entering the workforce as a railway engineer and joining the militia at age 19 as a private.[18] He was accepted as a RCAF pilot in late 1941 and met Fanny while training near Regina. He then served with Bomber Command in Britain, until September 1945, when he married Fanny and left the service, seeking a better civilian life. Disappointed with his job shovelling coal for the railway in Edmonton, he rejoined the RCAF as a technician at the rank of sergeant.[19] As his family recounts it, he was a perfectionist who saw the world in black and white. Melvin died in 1983, leaving behind a wife and daughter who remember him from contrasting perspectives, stressing the characteristics most evident to them based upon generational and relationship differences.

Fanny, his wife, was the eldest daughter of eight children. Her childhood memories echo with bleak long hours of drudgery.

You don’t know what kind of a life I had.… Before I was ten years old, I did everything. I did the washing, the ironing, the cooking, the cleaning, and everything. I used to have eight loaves of bread ready for my Dad to bake before I went off to school … I used to get up at four o’clock…. I scrubbed the floors. Everything. Washed the clothes. Lot of the clothes scrubbed with a washboard by hand … [using] rainwater.… You heated it.… I used to do the washing on the weekend. I had to scrub most of them [diapers from all her siblings]…. My hands used to be so sore there were just cracks in them.… No lotion or anything to put on them.… Mom used to make something [laundry detergent] there was lye in it. That was hard on your hands…. I was the main one [of the children helping with chores]. I know my sister. She used to get away with murder.[20]

Figure 1

Fanny and the sister “who got away with murder” ca. 1928. Reproduced with the permission of the McMillan Family.

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Fanny’s 1920s and 1930s rural childhood contrasts with the idealized middle class family life of the postwar expert proponents.

The fact that her father, not her mother, baked the bread is a small hint that within this home, gender roles did not operate within traditional middle class boundaries. Bread baking aside, a constant theme in her story is her father’s inadequate breadwinning skills. He was:

Lazy. You better believe it. If he would have worked, we would have had a better home because the farm … he lost that. Mother said he used to tie the horses up and go into town and get drunk. So they lost their farm. So grandpa gave him this house to live in. He [my father] used to say to me, if you weren’t so lazy you wouldn’t have to work all day long. I used to do the washing. He’d sit there and he never offered to turn the machine or anything for me. He didn’t have the money to drink with [then].[21]

Fanny’s sharp criticisms of her father were offset by her deep appreciation of her mother’s determination, intelligence, and accomplishments.

Mother she worked and worked and worked. Mom could do anything and she did everything…. Mother only had Grade 3 education and she was self-taught. She could read, write, she could do anything. She used to take newspapers and cut patterns to make clothes for us. She used to knit and crochet and tat…. She used to milk the cows, go out and help dad get hay in and that.[22]

Figure 2

Mother McClintock still working hard in her garden many years later. Reproduced with permission of the McMillan Family.

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Fanny’s childhood perceptions about masculine and feminine gender roles reflected the blurry lines between inside and outside work on the farm and her particular family dynamics.

While her father exercised paternal authority and performed some household and farm tasks, his lethargy contrasted with her mother’s creative resourcefulness. Thus, Fanny did not perceive an innate masculine strength and corresponding feminine weakness that might especially suit men to the workplace and confine women to the home. Those notions about natural suitability, touted by postwar experts and others to justify polarized gender roles, were at odds with the reality of her childhood. Her family relied upon her mother’s vitality and determination for its survival.

Her story provides additional insights into how compulsory schooling worked for the poorer segments of the Canadian population in the decades before family allowances and other benefits came into effect. Although schooling was compulsory in Saskatchewan, Fanny often missed school to work. Against her will, she left school at age 15.

He [her father] always told me I couldn’t leave [the farm]. I wanted to go to school. They wouldn’t let me carry on with my schooling. I never got anything. I used to walk to our neighbour’s and scrub all her clothes by hand and put them outside and bring ‘em in. I’d go back the next day and I’d iron her clothes for fifty cents…. They wouldn’t let me start school until I was seven years old.… I loved school. I’d have gone to school 365 days a year if they’da let me.… The teacher he said to me once, I don’t know how you ever make the marks you do.… I missed so much school.[23]

Her situation was not unique. The historiography related to working class and rural Canadian families during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries reinforces the bleak picture Fanny paints. After compulsory education came into effect, many boys and girls missed school to perform work essential to family survival. Historian Neil Sutherland also observed that older siblings of Fanny’s generation “grew up in similar routines of chores and duties involving care of their younger brothers and sisters,” often developing ambivalent feelings as a result.[24] Thus she and many of her generation were denied the educational and recreational rights which became commonplace for the postwar generation.

Despite Fanny’s lack of education, she developed determination and resourcefulness and, by age 19, she challenged her father’s authority and left the family farm against his wishes.

Dad always told me I could never leave unless he said I could. So I got a 2 cent stamp. And I wrote a letter to Prime Minister Mackenzie King and asked him what I could do. And I got an answer back from him. He said once you’re 18, you don’t need your Dad’s permission. You can leave and so I went. I went to Regina. I got in touch with a cousin. … He said you can come in and stay with us. And I’ll help you look for a job. … I wanted to get a job in Woolworth’s or something like that. You couldn’t get a job in 1939-1940. So I did housework for ten dollars a month. And you did everything. You did the washing, the ironing, the cooking, the cleaning.[25]

Fanny’s father had always insisted that she was going to marry “some old farmer.” Her job as maid was a first step away from this destiny.

She began to date men of diverse backgrounds brought to Regina as a result of the war. One stood out. “We were out at a park. All us girls. A bunch of guys came along and I met him [Melvin]. He was ITS, Initial training school. I thought he was a very nice guy.” Yet almost immediately her relationship with Melvin restricted her life choices, discouraging her independence and participation in the forces. “Before I met Melvin, I was going to join the air force. He talked me out of it.” Her mother similarly opposed this move, based upon its perceived risks. Fanny, like many others, wanted to join the air force for the “adventure. I wanted to go overseas. Mom says why [do] you want to go? That’s where the war is. I says Mom I want to see [that] part of the world.”[26] From a young age, Fanny ached to leave the farm and travel, but despite mixed feelings, she remained in Regina for the moment.

Her dating relationship with Melvin, a young pilot in training, exposed her to new possibilities. Birth control was illegal in Canada until 1969, but the military supplied condoms to its members for the control of disease, making this birth control measure easily available. Importantly, these condoms gave the young couple a measure of sexual freedom and control over their fertility, choices not necessarily available before the war. However, as Fanny recounts “Nobody ever talked about it [birth control], not when I was around anyways.… When I met Melvin, he said they [the military] gave him them [condoms]….” When Melvin was posted to Britain to serve in Bomber Command, he continued the relationship by correspondence. “He [Melvin] sent me an engagement ring. I said yes.”[27] However, she was not content to sit and wait for marriage.

Before Melvin returned home, Fanny left Saskatchewan and took a job with a decent working wage. “They kept asking for people to go down to Ottawa, Toronto or around there to do war work. So I got down to Toronto and worked for General Engineering. We made fuses that they used to bury in the ground. I liked it there. I always wanted to go to Toronto. The most friendliest place I have ever lived. Ottawa is no comparison to it…. The most wonderful people.”[28] In Toronto, she also achieved independent control over her own fertility, something not widely available to women of her generation, which would benefit her in the years to come.[29] “Sometimes there was this round thing [a diaphragm]. I used that. I had a very good doctor in Toronto that I used to babysit for. And he’d do anything for me.”[30] Many women feared giving birth to a child out of wedlock. Fanny particularly valued birth control because she had spent so much of her impoverished childhood engaged in rearing younger siblings.

From the beginning of her relationship with Melvin, she was clear on the issue of reproduction. “I said I didn’t want any family until I had a decent home to live in … because we grew up in a shack.… He saw the place. He knew what I was talking about.… He [Melvin] more or less had to [agree with me].… I looked after enough. I didn’t want to look after more.” Her views were not negotiable. Moreover, family and friends accepted her decision. “They didn’t put pressure on me [to have children]. I would have ignored it anyway.”[31] While most of her generation took part in the postwar baby boom, after her marriage in September 1945 Fanny continued to control her fertility. This measure gave her considerable personal freedom, although she encountered other gender issues.

Melvin left the air force for a civilian railway job in Edmonton, but was crestfallen to discover that after being promised a top job on return, he was stuck shovelling coal. Despite his low wages, Melvin insisted that Fanny stay at home. Thus, her initial experience as a young wife reinforces the polarized gender roles depicted in postwar Canadian family historiography. “I always liked doing hair. I made arrangements to do a hairdressing course. And he [Melvin] said, I want you at home. I don’t want you down there…. If I would have been a hairdresser, I would have had something to fall back on.… I should have said the heck with you and gone ahead and done it.”[32] He also refused to let her work as a hostess at a restaurant. However, as indicated above, despite the prevailing social attitudes and Melvin’s wishes, Fanny did not easily accept the notion that she belonged in the home and she awaited another chance to prove her point.

In the meantime, when Melvin decided to rejoin the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) in late 1946, she welcomed the opportunity to move and see new places. Life as a military wife fulfilled her childhood dreams of adventure, companionship, financial stability, and in her case, a sense of freedom and independence. The young couple moved to Aylmer, Ontario, and Melvin began training as an air force technician. Once again Fanny looked for paid work.

Where we lived there was a cotton mill not far … and they said sorry we’re not hiring anybody. The next week they came and got me in a taxi…. We were running back and forth all day long.… And I used to run when we got out of work from there to the store to get something going so I’d have supper ready when he [Melvin] got home.… When we first went to Aylmer for the few first months, I paid for everything because his pay was behind. And he was never one to push to get it.[33]

Unintentionally, delays in the military pay system supported Fanny’s right to work, creating a situation that weakened Melvin’s exclusive breadwinning claim. Yet, her paid work had no offsetting value in the private sphere. Melvin expected his supper on time, and she ran to make it. Cold War polarized gender dynamics disadvantaged women who worked outside the home; many, like Fanny, still performed all the traditional unpaid housekeeping duties on top of outside work.

In Fanny’s case, several things stood out. First, unlike most married women of her age, she delayed childbearing. Second, the couple boarded in civilian homes for the first decade of their marriage, and her housekeeping duties were light. Also Fanny’s stories about these years glow with remembered pleasures, her close friendships with other women, and bonding with landladies. She was never lonely when Melvin was away. In Aylmer, “We had two rooms but we had a wonderful landlady. Oh she was great. I had a two-burner gas plate … but I could take things down and bake them in her oven if I wanted to…. She was a wonderful person.… I’ve met a lot of good friends like that.”[34]

During the first ten years of their marriage, Fanny and Melvin lived in Aylmer, Trenton, Borden, and Clinton, Ontario, and Fanny loved it. In most communities, she found work in factories or stores.[35] Contrary to those who disliked moves and left the military, Fanny stated: “You moved around and you met new people. I enjoyed it. In a way I missed them [my family], but not that much. I had freedom before I married him.… A lot of our friends were military…. We used to get together and play cards and go skating and go to the hockey games. There was always something to do.”[36] The above quote contains a brief allusion to her single working life. Her memories from that period onwards resonate with optimistic confidence and joy not apparent in her childhood stories. Fanny’s constructed memories emphasize the intense socializing and close friendships she formed and the good relationship she enjoyed with Melvin, only briefly touching upon their disagreements. [37]

The warm bonds with people in the community offset the hardships of military life — the moves, renting rooms, and Melvin’s frequent absences on training. Fanny’s social network included civilian men and women. “I bowled and I curled.… Some people said I was good. I played lead. I asked my skip. I used to say to him. Now I want to know why you’re throwing a rock, this way or that way. Tell me every time you ask for a rock — where you want it and why. That’s how you learn.”[38] Fanny took these recreational accomplishments seriously, collecting valued trophies still displayed in her home. She was part of what historian Shirley Tillotson has called “the public at play,” joining in sports, card games, and other leisure activities denied to her as a child. Indeed, postwar Ontario saw a rise in community recreational facilities or shared public spaces that catered to an “individualistic liberal democratic demand.”[39] Canadian military communities reflected this growth in shared public spaces for group activities, benefiting surrounding civilian communities by providing facilities, reinforcing social ties and positive community relations. Military families were encouraged to actively socialize as a means of improving morale and exemplifying postwar values.[40]

Fanny participated in these activities and paid work without worry about child care; women with children faced more difficulties. Her unique story contributes to a more nuanced view of the return of women to domestic roles, the subsequent baby boom, and the rigid gender stereotypes of the immediate postwar period. Historian Mona Gleason observes that while the percentage of paid working women who were married fell after the Second World War to 27.2 percent in 1946, this percentage increased to 43.5 percent in 1958.[41] Thus, almost one-third of married women continued paid work outside the home immediately after the war. Like Fanny, a few stayed home for only a short period, rejoining the workforce in growing numbers, and in some cases, providing vital income for family survival.

Fanny, like other spouses, could not find paid work in Germany after Melvin was posted there in 1955. During this period, she exemplified the postwar feminine ideal, staying at home and becoming a mother, but she carefully maximized her independence. The McMillans were comfortable compared to others in the same socioeconomic strata. Melvin assigned part of his paycheque to Fanny for household expenses. They did not gamble or drink heavily and she carefully implemented thrifty household management to save money each month. “There was a lot of fellows on payday, they used to gamble.… A friend of ours was very good at playing cards. He said to me one time, my wallet is full of IOUs.… A lot of people did a lot of drinking.”[42] Also, “There was [sic] people over Germany. Like the air force got paid twice a month and they used to say to me: how come you never run out of money? I’d say well I take so much and put [it] in an envelope for this week. Well what if you run out? Then you run out. Don’t you run out? No that’s for next month.[43] Fanny and other military wives had a measure of independent control over household expenses because the military enforced a compulsory assignment of married allowances to spouses, as means of mitigating cases of neglect.[44] As well, the favourable exchange rate for the Canadian dollar during the 1950s and 1960s gave military families in Germany a better lifestyle than they had in Canada and helped compensate those who lost a wage.[45]

Canadian military families like the McMillans were part of a Canadian government campaign designed to showcase an idealized family lifestyle in Europe. From the military’s perspective, the McMillan’s lack of children was no disadvantage. Military leaders opposed large families, which cost more, distracted members from service, and sometimes created a demand for compassionate postings.[46] The young couple exemplified the mobile, engaged, and adventuresome types the military sought to attract. Military commanders promoted friendly interactions among the Canadians and their European neighbours, publicizing hockey, curling, bowling, and other sports and social activities in the local and base newspapers. The government built housing, community facilities, and schools on bases in Europe to support families and to improve local relations with the Europeans.[47]

Families like the McMillans commemorated their athletic, social, and vacation activities in photo albums, including pictures of trips to the Alps, England, and Spain, and vacation spots that few Canadians could afford. Such albums contributed to the vision of an idealized military family life and the nostalgic, positive memories that Brammer found in her interviews.

Figure 3

Our Tour in Europe. Reproduced with permission of the McMillan family.

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Figure 4

Ski vacation at the Austrian border. Reproduced with permission of the McMillan family.

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Figure 5

Zweibrücken married quarters with the playground on the left. Reproduced with permission of the McMillan family.

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Canadian military communities, such as the one in Zweibrücken, resemble traditional garrison towns and the more modern phenomenon, the “company town,” often built with paternalistic characteristics.[48] The military community was set apart from the base and had a hierarchical living arrangement with the highest ranking officer at the top of the hill and families grouped by rank in ever smaller dwellings as one descended the hill. Unmarried, lowranking soldiers lived in communal barracks on the base. Although these arrangements encouraged a community pecking order, officers’ wives and children mingled with the other ranks at church, in sports, and in other activities. In Zweibrücken, the McMillan family lived near the middle of the hill in a low rise apartment. These facilities were much better than the rooms the McMillans had rented in Ontario. “We had a PMQ. I’d never lived in a PMQ before. … You had bedroom, living room, kitchen, dining room and bathroom.” After Shirley was born in September 1956, “we moved to a two bedroom … on the ground floor which was better.”[49]

The intense social schedule offset boredom and loneliness. “We had a car when we got there.… If Melvin wasn’t going to use it, I’d have the car.… We used to go to the American base, to the bingo there.… I’d just take a bunch and go.… I belonged to everything they had going there.… I bowled. I worked with the church.”[50] The military depended upon spousal volunteer labour to run community activities, and friends and neighbours helped each other out. “The Wards were about the closest [of other military families in Germany]. When Melvin was sent back to Canada on course, they used to take me with them shopping. Or if I had the car, I’d take her [Mrs. Ward] with me…. There were others that were good friends there.”[51] At age 94, Fanny remembers her years as a military wife as “a life I loved.”

Her positively constructed memories did not change with the birth of her first and only child, Shirley. After her birth, “I cut down on some of the things I used to do, but it was fun. I enjoyed having her.”[52] Despite her limited education, Fanny read Chatelaine and books with parenting advice. “I never read Benjamin Spock. I read some other ones. Well I thought that’s good advice, but I’ll do what I can … [but] I think I just drew on my own experiences [for child rearing and other life decisions].”[53] Fanny was aware of expert opinion, including notions about idealized feminine qualities, but based upon her own independent ideas, she expected females to be intelligent, strong, and capable. These were the qualities that she identified in her daughter almost from the moment of birth. “To me, she seemed to be smart.… At three months, she’d lay on the bed and lift her head up and look around and everything. She was strong.”[54]

Fanny also took pride in Shirley’s earliest intellectual accomplishments, comparing her favourably to little boys.

She [Shirley] was very good.… She always had to have a challenge. One of our neighbours started school at kindergarten. And he learned to print his name. She was three and he was five. He said to her. You’re stupid, Shirley. You can’t even print your name. I can. And she said I want to print my name. So I showed her how. She wrote it all by herself. Just past three. She went downstairs.… Come and see. I’m not stupid. I can write my name.[55]

Figure 6

“Come and see. I’m not stupid.” Shirley McMillan, ca. 1960. Reproduced with the permission of the McMillan Family.

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Thus, Shirley played and competed with little boys, easily demonstrating equality and even superiority from her youngest days. Neither she nor her mother entertained the notion that she was weaker or less capable than the males around her.

From Fanny’s perspective, Shirley had a privileged childhood with every opportunity for education and extracurricular activities, including Brownies, sports, and choir. Fanny stayed home to care for Shirley during two postings to Germany (1955 to 1958 and 1962 to 1967) and a short posting to Ottawa (1959 to 1961). She began paid part-time work only when they moved back to Ottawa in 1967 and carefully arranged her work schedule around Shirley’s school hours. She believed that their family life was well-ordered, stable, and fulfilling. Her life story stresses the family’s exemplary characteristics, diminishing disagreements and difficulties.

Yet Shirley remembers things differently; from her viewpoint, her parents were cold, perfectionist, and strict. Her father was especially demanding.

You didn’t cross him [Melvin] or you were punished. Punishment was usually a spanking in those days … there was a need to be black and white because of the amount of precision required in their jobs during the war.… I was told you’d don’t speak unless you’re spoken to. You just sit in the corner … and just be quiet.… It may have been because of the rules. I always thought I could never do anything right for him. My mom brags about how she could take me anywhere. I was very quiet. I wouldn’t disturb anyone, but that’s what my instructions were.[56]

This strict exemplary family life was “really tough” for a little girl.

However, Shirley’s stories also reveal complexity and contradictions, especially with regard to her mother’s notions of correct feminine comportment and cleanliness.

My mom had rules too. I was never allowed to go out and play and get dirty. Because girls don’t get dirty. We lived in a neighbourhood where there were a lot of young boys. So I’d go out and play in the mud with the boys and I’d come in and I’d get royal heck because I was dirty and I’d have to get cleaned up…. Recently when I’ve been hiking in the Adirondacks. There are times I’ve been up to my knees in mud. I often joke if my mom could just see me now. I’m taking pictures of the mud up to my crotch and shown her and she’s like “Oh my god. You got so dirty.”[57]

Their teasing dialogues demonstrate negotiations about Shirley’s challenges to gender boundaries, rather than a strict enforcement of Cold War polarized gender roles.

I should have been a boy. I remember when I was very small, probably about six or seven years old, I remember asking my Mom, why do I have to be a girl? Boys like climbing trees and swinging around on the bars.… My girlfriends were not allowed to because they might hurt themselves. My mom would say some times the boys are going to see your panties. I’d say so at least I’m wearing something.[58]

Shirley’s question about her gender identity related mainly to her observation that boys were allowed to do the things she wanted to do and other girls were not. Because Fanny did not consider girls to be weaker than boys, she merely warned Shirley about modesty and she never stopped her from risk-taking behaviours.

According to Shirley’s memories, boys and girls often played together on this military base. She particularly remembers the Zweibrücken playground (in Figure 5 above) which was located in front of their building and attracted military children from all around. There Shirley escaped her rigid home life and parental rules for the world of boisterous childhood play.

There were so many kids around. It was awesome. I was in heaven. Being an only child.… All of a sudden there were twenty or thirty kids. Often there would be a race to see who could get out to the playground first thing in the morning. I got the swing. Oh you’re too late. It was fun. There were trees to climb.… I liked challenges. There were ten of us who liked to run. We’d get together in front of my building. We’d start in the front and one person would run in each direction and we’d see who get back to the front the fastest. I was like six or seven, eight years old. We’d do that all day long. There was always something to do. It was like having a big family.[59]

The playground in Germany was an important public space — providing an environment where boys and girls interacted with little adult supervision or guidance. These formative experiences in Germany affected her all her life. As she recalls, she learned to take risks, to compete, and to have fun. These positively constructed memories of joyful play inspired her during her later tough adult years.

When she was ten, the family moved and “We went from beautiful, beautiful weather, having been out in the playground for weeks and coming to Ottawa at minus 30 and tons of snow and stayed with my great aunt until my mom could find an apartment because my dad was posted to La Macaza [Québec].[60] It’s a missile base.… I think I cried the whole way back on the plane. I didn’t want to leave [Germany].”[61] The move was hard on the entire family. According to Shirley, Fanny refused to live on the isolated missile base and Melvin, who visited Ottawa only every second weekend, objected to Fanny’s decision to work outside the home again. Fanny’s account gives no hint of these differences, mentioning only her success in finding a job and Melvin’s discontent with the work on the isolated base.

In the end, Melvin took early retirement from the military a year later and found a job as a technician at the Experimental Farm, so that he could live with his family again. Fanny’s account stresses her deep regret over Melvin’s decision to leave the military and its adventuresome lifestyle. She particularly missed Europe, its vibrant social life, and the freedom she had to enjoy time with friends. She didn’t like Ottawa. “I never dreamed I’d spend 57 years of my life in Ottawa. I always wanted to go to Toronto.”[62] Both Fanny and Shirley found Ottawa boring and lonely; there were no local playgrounds and few community activities, and its lifestyle compared very poorly to the base in Germany.

However, Shirley continued challenging traditional gender boundaries, especially in sports, at which she excelled.

Alta Vista [an Ottawa grade school] had activities … that was fun. The orchestra, the volleyball team, learning how to play basketball, gymnastics.… The boy’s gym teacher.… He asked me if I would like to train with the boys’ gym team. So I used go to their practices. I liked it.… Mr. Leggett did that at Lisgar [an Ottawa high school]. The gymnastic coaches [for girls] were terrible. I went to him. I don’t think I’m getting enough. Could I train with you? He must have said yes. I don’t remember feeling uncomfortable. I did my thing. They [the boys] did their thing.”[63]

Likely these coaches hoped that her outstanding performance might motivate their male teams, but her participation also signalled broader changes afoot for female activities in Canadian society. Shirley started high school in 1970, the same year the Royal Commission on the Status of Women insisted upon the right of females to participate in what had been exclusively male activities.[64]

Shirley’s stories reflect the excitement she felt when various male coaches recognized her skills and offered her new opportunities to train and perform as an athlete. She began skiing at age 16. “On my fifth lesson, the instructor said I think you should race.… The next day I placed 13th out of 69 people. Wow I can do this. Definitely it was exhilarating. It was challenging.”[65] Shirley competed in skiing and other sports, but faced discrimination and discouragement in her own home.

Reflecting his traditional working class notions about what was appropriate for a teenage girl, Melvin opposed Shirley’s career plans, while insisting she work and pay rent at home.

He [Melvin] was very closed minded. Women do not go to university. If you want a career, you can be a secretary or receptionist or you could work as a cashier, but that was pretty much it. I started working when I turned 16. My dad told me when you’re 16 you have to have a job and you have to start paying rent because you need to learn to manage your money. After high school, I applied to the dental hygiene program and I was accepted and he said no you’re not going.[66]

Shirley’s ski coach encouraged her to leave her Ottawa family home and go to college in Thunder Bay. “That was not well-received [by her father]. I was really fortunate that my mom was supportive and she helped me pay the tuition and books. There’s no way I could have made enough money working part time at a grocery store. If you had been living at home you didn’t qualify for anything [student loans].”[67]

Echoing Fanny’s coming of age defiance of her father, Shirley had to disobey her father and leave home to achieve life goals. Fanny’s job allowed her to support Shirley and she sent her money in Thunder Bay. Over the next years, Shirley completed college training in dental hygiene, raced for the Thunder Bay ski team, and then began working as a ski coach, with short stints replacing dental hygienists, and doing office management over the next few years. By 1982, she got married and both she and her husband Kyle decided to go to the University of Ottawa as full-time students. Her father, who disapproved of these decisions, died unexpectedly the next year, while Shirley embarked on the most hectic phase of her life.

At this point, Shirley’s life story becomes messy and disjointed, reflecting the conflicting demands and difficulties she faced. She recounts: “Lots of student loans.… We took little jobs here and there. … We both graduated cum laude. He [her husband] applied to a Master’s program at Western. By then my daughter was born. My god that was tough. She was a year old when we moved to London.… As a very young baby, she didn’t sleep very much. For months and months and months, she got up every night.”[68] The years of working, studying, and raising children took a toll. When the couple returned to Ottawa after a short unhappy stay in London, Shirley found a job in information management.

At first, her entry into a male-dominated field seemed to signal success for women in the public sphere, but the normative behaviours in the information management field reflected a traditional masculine value system, requiring long hours of work with little flexibility for family demands. “It was very, very demanding. I was there three years and the last two years I was working on average 60-70 hours a week. Even through the pregnancy with my son.” Her difficult situation was exacerbated by her husband’s unemployment.

He [Her husband] was without work for a long time. On one salary at a junior level it was very, very difficult. He didn’t want to look after her [their daughter] during the day because he said he needed time to look for a job. He would on occasion take her to the day care centre or pick her up but he saw that as my job.… When the demands for overtime came up, I’d have to run out and pick her up and then go back to work. He would generally make supper and look after her, but he wouldn’t bath her and she’d be crying. And that went on for quite some time.”[69]

While Kyle was willing to make meals, he faced a tough job market with frequent layoffs and unemployment between jobs. Not enjoying child care, he never considered taking over the traditional feminine tasks in the home, while Shirley excelled at her career.

Shirley ended up squeezed between a workplace that assumed total dedication to the task and deadlines, and her home life where she depended on her mother more than her husband for child care. She recounts:

There was an issue with people who had families. The majority, I would say 95 percent, were young and single. There were a handful of us that had families. I was constantly relying on my mother to look after my daughter.… It was tough. The feeling at home from Kyle was that you’re not carrying your load. Kyle was working on and off. I had to hire a sitter to come and stay with the children because I couldn’t count on Kyle to be there … he wasn’t comfortable being alone with the children by himself.[70]

Given this stressful situation, Shirley was relieved when she was laid off, though she also perceived it as systematic discrimination against working mothers. “All the women who had children were laid off.… I took a year off. That year I spent with the kids. It was amazing. Just absolutely amazing.”

Like her mother, Shirley enjoyed being with her children. … “I could take Sam skiing in the winter. Diane was in school. Whenever she was off, we went for a hike in Gatineau Park.” Happy memories like the ones recounted here echoed her childhood stories about the Canadian military base in Germany. Both Fanny and Shirley genuinely treasured these interludes when they seemingly conformed to postwar idealized family norms, but neither was content to stay at home for long. Shirley soon re-entered the workforce on a part-time basis for the next five years, but “Kyle wasn’t getting along with the kids. My daughter had been diagnosed with ADHD. Sam had been diagnosed with ADHD. We were seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist. Kyle discovered he had ADHD. … Things were not going well.” As circumstances declined, Shirley found full-time work and divorced her husband. Both children dropped out of high school. Shirley makes no attempt to gloss over these difficulties, frankly discussing the messiness and chaos of her family life.

There are clear differences and commonalities between Shirley’s experiences as a civilian spouse and those of the military spouses interviewed by Harrison and Laliberté. Shirley did not have to face frequent moves and could rely upon her own mother to help out with child care. Despite these important stabilizing supports, her complaints mirror those of military spouses of her generation — difficulty pursuing an education and balancing a career with the expectations that she perform most of the unpaid labour in the home. In her case, Kyle’s uncertain civilian employment created additional financial strain, and did not result in greater support for her career. Military wives faced uniquely challenging circumstances, but there are definite parallels with civilian wives of this age group. Many women of this generation objected to the various conditions in the public and private spheres that worked against their meaningful equal participation. While some fulfilled a traditional role of dedicated mothering, savouring special moments with their children, they also protested being solely restricted to this role. Many lived messy lives, unwilling to hide their family troubles behind a well-ordered façade.

This latter observation highlights the generational differences between Fanny and women of her daughter’s generation, including military spouses of this age group. Fanny savoured the well-ordered, stable aspect of her married life, even though she defied expectations that she remain at home. Her constructed memories emphasize all the benefits she had as a military spouse, the travel, the adventures, the intense socializing, the financial security, and a quality of life that compared favourably with her deprived childhood. Whole life methodology is particularly valuable in demonstrating how childhood experiences affect adult expectations and perceptions. Her whole life story reveals complexities and contradictions, with shifting family dynamics from her childhood until as a grandmother, she returned to the traditional feminine role of child care to support her daughter’s career. Fanny genuinely enjoyed her role as an exemplary military spouse in Germany, and she filled that role well, maximizing her independence.

When it came to her own interests, she defied Melvin, but in her stories, she glosses over their quarrels, not mentioning her own refusal to live on an isolated missile base or their other unpleasant marital disputes recorded separately by her daughter. Fanny’s memories stress Melvin’s steady employment and the good life they shared. Melvin left the military after his 1967 posting resulted in a separation from his family. Family togetherness mattered to him, but it could also be oppressive. Shirley resented Melvin’s strictness and especially his attempt to restrict her education and future career choices. Her memories of Melvin are much more critical than her mother’s. Both McMillan women rebelled against patriarchal authorities, leaving their fathers and husbands when necessary to achieve important life goals.

Shirley’s stories exposed her parents’ and her own married difficulties, allowing the chaos and messiness of family life to come to the fore. Even as a young child, she chafed under the strict rules of an exemplary home life, questioning gender roles and ideas about feminine cleanliness and modesty, while taking part in risky boy’s play whenever she could. The Zweibrücken playground provided an important public space for boys and girls to play freely, something she missed in Ottawa’s cold suburbs. The military’s investments in PMQ, schools, and recreational facilities clearly benefited the McMillan family. Importantly, Fanny never perceived her daughter as less capable or intelligent than the males in her life, and she supported her choices at key moments. Both women crossed back and forth between normative and shifting gender boundaries, sometimes conforming to the ideals of dedicated mothering and even savouring moments of freedom from the demands of a masculine working world, but refusing to accept that their place was solely in the home.


The McMillan family and thousands of other Canadian military families lived overseas during the Cold War. Their lives were transformed in a multitude of ways, many of them unpredicted and unintended. Each family experienced these postings in different ways.[71] The McMillans do not represent all military families, though their lives reflect broader Cold War developments, such as a shrinking global community and the increasing participation of women in the public sphere accompanied by discrimination, generational differences, and challenges to masculine workplace practices. These two women’s contrasting stories shed light on the complexities of family life and generational differences during a period of shifting gender roles. Their negotiating of gender boundaries intersects with the historiography, sometimes reinforcing the polarized roles described, and at other times, conflicting with them. Whole life methodology provides an important tool to access unheard voices, stripping back idealized family images to expose the harsher lived realities and allowing generational and gender differences in perception to be explored.[72]

These two stories touch upon the richness of the struggles, inconsistencies, and contradictions of lived experiences. Fanny’s story does not reveal how many other military spouses practised birth control, but the military policies to discourage large families, the military’s distribution of condoms, and the unofficial availability of devices such as the diaphragm undoubtedly impacted others in these decades before birth control was legal in Canada. Fanny emphasized the choices she had. Some military policies, such as the compulsory assignment of allowances to spouses, along with Canada’s universal family allowances enhanced feminine independence in the home, while discouraging cases of neglect. These policies, reflecting prevalent notions about feminine nurturing and an idealized postwar family model, affected a multitude of military families. While both women savoured carefully constructed, positive memories about their exemplary family life in Germany, they challenged normative ideas about masculine superiority and feminine weaknesses in their daily lives. Whole life oral history interviews help demonstrate how high-level policy filtered down to individuals, impacting their daily lives and the construction of their memories, but these interviews also reveal how families, individuals, and even children acted as agents of change, defying the normative boundaries between the public and private spheres.