Veronica Foster, popularly known as "Ronnie, The Bren Gun Girl", worked for the John Inglis Co. producing Bren Light Machine Guns and became the Canadian propaganda 'Poster Girl', representing the nearly one million Canadian women who worked in the manufacturing plants that produced materiels during World War II.
The clever public relations/propaganda poster campaign by the Canadian Government generated huge support for the war effort and produced Canada's first genuine tabloid celebrity. Wide spread public fascination erupted over the beautiful young woman and the now famous image of her with Machine gun in hand, appeared in numerous major newspapers around the world including being on the front page of the New York Times on October 4th, 1941 as part of a feature on women absorbed in to the Canadian War Industry.
'Ronnie' can be seen as the precursor and model for the much better known, American fictionalized character called popularly as 'Rosie the Riveter'. Pre-dating the American poster girl images by over 2 years. It is very likely the idea of 'Rosie' was born from the New York Times article.
Veronica Foster, who was never actually called 'Ronnie' by anyone, became overwhelmingly popular after the series of propaganda posters were widely produced and displayed. Some of the photographs featured her working for the war effort in the factory, but interestingly and conspicuously others depicted much more casual and intimate settings such as Foster doing her hair, dancing the jitterbug and attending fancy dinner parties. Serving as both an inspiration for Canadian Women while simultaneously as a sex symbol for the troops in the field her image and her choice as a symbol in the war effort had, of course, been carefully cultivated and perfectly accomplished.
As most able men trudged off to European battle sites, their jobs in Canada were left empty. Who was left at home to build the cars? Who was left to keep the munitions factories in production? Who was left to build what needed to be built?
The Women were.
Women readily took over these empty posts in almost every capacity – heavy equipment operators, scientists, loggers, shipyard workers, munitions manufactures – nearly any and all positions. Canadian women, for really, one of the first times enjoyed the freedom and experience of working out of the home and of gaining their own paycheque. Employers learned that women had equal skills, according to Anne Fromer’s 1942 comment in the popular book, Back the Attack! by author Jean Bruce. “In addition to handling tools and machines women have shown great skill in production planning, in routing and control of operations connected with production, drafting, tool and store tending, dispatching and timekeeping, any and all work that needs to be done.”
Some of the newly-working women felt that equality had been reached during WWII, “when Canadian girls left desks and kitchens, elevators and switchboards,” said Loretta Dempsey in Back the Attack!, and “stepped into overalls and took their places in the lines of workers at lathes and drills, cranes and power machines, tables and benches in the munition plants of Canada.” It was a fresh, exciting time for women of all ages. 'Ronnie', most certainly had a large part in the inspiring of confidence in the Canadian women.
Veronica Foster was a dark-haired, beautiful young woman who assembled guns on the Bren Gun line. Under the direction of the National Film Board of Canada and other photographers, Veronica was filmed and photographed at her work and in her private time. Veronica quickly became the most popular Canadian icon for women’s successful involvement in the war effort. By wars end, some 800,000 Canadian women will have joined the munitions and equipment factories workforce.
There had actually been over 14,000 other Bren Gun Girls who worked with Veronica at the heavy-manufacturing Inglis Company plant on Strachan Avenue in Toronto . The factory had been converted from building large machinery and pumps into a gun-making plant, specializing in the Bren machine gun. The unimaginably massive facility was expanded to cover 23 acres with 1 million square feet of floor space. The largest line, where Veronica spent long hard hours, was for the Bren, a light and reliable machine gun used by the British and Commonwealth militaries. The Inglis facility was contracted by governments to make the weapons for both British and Canadian soldiers, producing over 40,000 Bren Guns over the war years.
At the end of War, the men returned home and to their jobs. The majority of these hard working women found that many employers had considered them only temporary, for the duration of the war, and were abruptly let go. Notably, women were not given opportunity to stay on at their job at Inglis, in any position , after the war. While some were glad to return to their home lives and raise families, others were distraught – the stress of many years of war and the lingering poverty of the Great Depression before the war, still weighed heavily on their minds and they did not want to lose their new-found strength and financial independence, but in all too many instances, that is precisely what happened.
Who knows what Veronica Foster thought of is. No one ever, seemingly, thought to ask her. There was no follow up interview or story by the National Film Board, or anyone else for that matter that an be found.
The war was won and over. No one needed Bren Guns anymore.
'Ronnie, The Bren Gun Girl' was a remarkable figure and an important moment in Canadian History and one of our most unique and intriguing icons.
Copyright © Andrew R. Hutchison 2011
All images unless otherwise stated Copyright © Andrew R. Hutchison 2000 - 2014