In World War One, posters were one of the most important means of spreading propaganda. Nations were personified by women, such as Britannia: epitomes of morality, virtue, innocence and justice. This appeal to Britain’s women by the Imperial Maritime League to ensure their men enlist complements the male action required by Kitchener’s ‘Your country needs you!’ poster. The home meant security, to be protected from German aggression at all costs. Those who refused to do so would be spurned by sweethearts, and face accusation and recrimination (as in another poster, ‘What did YOU do in the Great War, Daddy?’).
But women’s standard roles were being blurred by wartime demands. In propaganda they are gentle, vulnerable home-makers, both objects of men’s affections and victims of barbarous enemy acts – and yet also as resilient, active participants in the war effort. They work at the front, and go to factories making munitions – active roles, compromising traditionally expected behaviour of future caring mothers. Suffragettes seized on this to argue that women active in the war effort were more worthy of citizenship than male pacifists or conscientious objectors.
New gender roles seemed possible. The Editor of Women of the Empire foresaw a more peaceful world, run on women’s terms. The reality proved more complex than any imagined, but the status of women had fundamentally changed, and would undergo further upheavals during the second major conflict of the 20th century.
- Article by:
- Susan Grayzel
- Civilians, Historical debates
Considering the roles of both men and women during World War One, Susan R Grayzel asks to what extent the war challenged gender roles and to what degree society accepted them.