Women in World War One propaganda

Professor Jo Fox considers the use of women as symbols, victims and homemakers in World War One propaganda.
Women, awake! ‘Tis yours your men to sway,
Bid them beware the confidence they feel.
Bid them cast sloth and apathy away:
The foe is brave and worthy of our steel.

This appeal to the women of Britain by the Imperial Maritime League is redolent of the famous poster convincing potential recruits to enlist: while their loss is keenly felt, mothers, wives, and daughters sanction the departure of their menfolk to the battlefields of Flanders in order to defend their honour and way of life. Propagandists exerted pressure on prospective volunteers by urging that women and children were under threat and required their protection, as the reports emanating from the occupied territories of rape, torture, and mutilation seemed to confirm. Equally, women themselves were called upon to mobilise, to assist in the care of troops at the Front, to fill roles on the Home Front vacated by the nation’s soldiers, and to work in factories producing munitions for them to fire.

Poster 'Women of Britain say ‘Go!’'

'Women of Britain say - "GO!"', a propaganda poster appealing to Britain’s women to ensure their men enlist.

'Women of Britain say - “GO!"', a propaganda poster appealing to Britain’s women to ensure their men enlist.

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Mobilisation and duty

Propaganda tended to depict women as guardians of the home, their gentle nature and vulnerability making them both objects of men’s affections and victims of the enemy’s barbarous acts, and yet also as resilient, active participants in the war effort. 

Women served as reminders of the necessity of the fight and of the companionship that awaited soldiers upon their return. The idealised family home symbolized stability, safety and peace, the description of life under German occupation only serving to underscore the need to protect it. Those who refused to do so, propagandists argued, would face accusation and recrimination (‘What did YOU do in the Great War, Daddy?’) and would be spurned by sweethearts. Propaganda urging women to ‘wait, weep, and be worthy’ (Braybon, 2003: 98) accompanied direct appeals to mobilise. Campaigns exhorted them to nurse injured servicemen, temporarily take up untraditional occupations, and to manufacture arms for the front. Numerous publications valorised ‘our adaptable women’, now farmers, station-masters, stokers, railway greasers, bricklayers, carpenters, butchers, brewers, and chimney sweeps. 

Suffragettes seized upon the mobilisation of women to argue that active female participants in the war effort were more worthy of citizenship than were male pacifists or conscientious objectors. But the image of such women was far from clear-cut. Female nurses, who risked their lives to care for the troops at the front, were still described in gendered terms (as carers, sisters or ‘angels’), while munitions workers were simultaneously depicted as capable of demanding physical labour and as compromising their maternal instincts. How to reconcile the paradox that the same women who made the bullets and shells, responsible for the deaths of so many, would also be the mothers of the next generation?

National symbols

Women served as the embodiment of the nation: Mère-Patrie, Marianne, ‘the spirit of Australia’, Mother Russia, ‘Liberty’, and Britannia all took the female form, appearing as both demure and combative. Frequently deployed at times of national crisis, these symbols epitomized the nation’s moral rectitude, its virtue and innocence, the justice of its cause, and its determination to overcome the enemy. They evoked the fertility and wealth of the nation’s natural resources and its historic foundations. French propaganda, for example, drew parallels with the principles of the Revolution and with the levée en masse (mass mobilisation during the French Revolutionary Wars), while the Alsatian community recalled the defeat of 1871 when memorialising their dead. Women also served as allegories for the brutalisation of the nation. The violation of national boundaries and the suffering inflicted upon the occupied was expressed in graphic and gendered terms (for example, the ‘Rape of Belgium’). Such language was particularly expressive when complementing the prevailing narrative of the war: that Prussian militarism, with cold, masculine efficiency, had overcome and subdued the ‘feminised’ nations (the national mythic construction of France and Belgium). This narrative found expression in numerous graphic representations of German soldiers menacing and defiling the feminised national symbols, literally or by allusion, while conversely the invaded nations’ menfolk were emasculated, unable to defend their women while on duty in the trenches.

Victims of violence

The desecration of the nation by the invader was also evoked through atrocity propaganda that drew attention to individual barbarous acts against women, whether young women (who tended to be the victim of brutal sexual assault or murder – this included children) or old ones (subjected to beatings or psychological torture). This propaganda, no doubt receiving widespread publicity due both to public moral outrage and to the lurid details contained within eyewitness testimonies, was intended to signify the bestiality of the enemy. As such, it obscured the suffering of the victims of assault and minimised the dilemmas they faced. As the historian Ruth Harris has demonstrated, particular attention was given to those women who fell pregnant following an assault: could the ‘child of the barbarian’ ever be raised as a Frenchman, and, if not, would the State and the Church sanction abortion to remove the enemy foetus not only from the violated woman but also from the entire body politic? ‘The enemy is the enemy’, declared Dr. Paul Rabier, ‘and wherever he inserts himself and digs in, we have to dislodge and kill him, that is war’ (Horne and Kramer, 2001: 305).

The ‘New Woman’

Contemporary commentators recognised that the war had complicated traditional conceptions of gender in the public and private spheres. The Editor of Women of the Empire suggested that women’s contribution to the war effort would ‘mean a totally new world when peace once again holds sway the world over. It means an entire regeneration, not only of womanhood, but of manhood also, for you may be quite assured that the new woman will not rest satisfied with the old man.’ Such pronouncements cast the war as a ‘watershed’ moment in the history of women’s liberation. Of course, the reality was different, and new tensions soon emerged.

The extension of the suffrage and the growing voice of women’s rights campaigners underscored a perception that ‘women prosper[ed] as men suffer[ed]’, another example of how war produced gendered dichotomies. As the historian Gail Braybon noted, propaganda tended to reinforce such divisions: ‘[Just] as mobilisation was polarised by gender, the men marching away, the women staying behind, so too victory and defeat. In victory, the men were to march home and the women were to cheer. In defeat, the men were killed and the women were raped’ (Braybon, 2003: 88, 121-2). The reality, as Braybon suggests, was more complex: relatively few women either experienced or embraced the notion of sexual, social and political liberation promised in the interwar years, epitomised by the Weimar Republic’s ‘new woman’, but equally the status of women had fundamentally changed and would undergo further upheavals during the second major conflict of the 20th century.

  • Jo Fox
  • Jo Fox (FRSA, FRHistS) is Professor of Modern History at Durham University. She is a specialist on the history of propaganda and war. Her publications include Film Propaganda in Britain and Nazi Germany: World War II Cinema (Berg, 2007) and (with David Welch) Justifying War: Politics, Propaganda and the Modern Age (Palgrave, 2013). She is a National Teaching Fellow (2007) and the Director of Communications for the Royal Historical Society. Jo Fox is currently researching the history of rumour in the First and Second World Wars.

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