Mixed Messages: The Portrayal of Women in World War I Posters—Part I

ON the second floor of the Delaware History Museum, a boot threatens to flatten a cowering Kaiser as eerie green flames surround a terrified Belgian girl. Nearby, an angelic nurse implores viewers to join the Red Cross while Lady Liberty encourages them to buy war bonds. In planning for the Delaware Historical Society’s latest exhibition, The First State at the Front: WWI and the Road to Victorious Peace, the curatorial staff thought long and hard about how best to display a wealth of original wartime propaganda posters housed in our archives. To create a more immersive and authentic experience for museum visitors and to highlight as many posters as possible, we opted to reproduce the fragile originals and present them as a Delawarean might have viewed them a century ago-not as material objects to be framed and displayed as art, but as an inescapable onslaught of powerful, pervasive images in a public space.

Sometimes the simplest exhibit design decisions prompt us to look at collections in a new light. As we placed and layered posters along our gallery wall, a highly effective—and often disturbing—propaganda machine began to emerge before our eyes. Surrounded by visual messages as potent as any other weapons of war, we were struck by the level of emotional and psychological manipulation employed to gain the support of a hesitant public. In this two-part series on World War I propaganda posters, we’ll explore some of these complex and often mixed messages as they relate to gender conventions and the depiction of women. Many resonate as strongly today as they did during the Great War.

By the time the United States entered World War I, the fight for women’s rights, education, and suffrage was well underway. Civic and social activists like Delaware’s own Emalea Pusey Warner and Florence Bayard Hilles were leading the charge throughout the state, founding the New Century Club and the Women’s College at the University of Delaware, and working closely with the Delaware Equal Suffrage Association. Women were volunteering as military and Red Cross Auxiliary nurses in record numbers and taking on positions of responsibility in munitions factories and community organizations outside the home. It seemed that the early 20th century was ushering in an era of new possibilities and independence for American women.

Propaganda posters of the period, and the messages they conveyed to and about women, paint a murkier picture. The government’s massive Committee on Public Information (CPI), formed specifically to sell the war to the American public, had its own vision of a woman’s role in wartime and didn’t hesitate to manipulate it for its own ends. Despite the mighty efforts of Warner, Hilles, and many others on the ground, these images seem to foretell that the path to womens’ rights and equality would not be straightforward.

The female figure portrayed in each poster serves a specific purpose. She is alternately a warrior, a seductress, a victim, a dutiful wife and mother, or a beacon of mercy. At first glance, she is presented as a one-dimensional character- there is never a hint of acknowledgment that women can and do embody several of these roles at once.

The female figure portrayed in each poster serves a specific purpose. She is alternately a warrior, a seductress, a victim, a dutiful wife and mother, or a beacon of mercy. At first glance, she is presented as a one-dimensional character- there is never a hint of acknowledgment that women can and do embody several of these roles at once. Messy realities are conveniently ignored in favor of simple, direct designs. Some of the images are clearly sexualized to appeal to men being recruited for military service. But many others, including those intended to appeal directly to the female sense of patriotic duty, reflect complex and changing attitudes toward womens’ roles and service that would extend into the postwar era.


The Christy Girl_Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Noted illustrator Howard Chandler Christy created the supposed embodiment of the modern woman with the “Christy Girl,” a strong female image that appeared on recruitment posters for the military, the Red Cross, and the Liberty Loan campaigns.  In “Gee, I Wish I Wish I Were a Man,” her sly smile and alluring poses are tools of seduction. She is clearly intended to be enticing, often pictured in a male military uniform, yet she is confident and in control of her own sexuality-men, it seems, should enlist in the Navy to please her. Is it possible, though, that she’s using this confident femininity to “enlist” women to serve as well? Her uniform, while attractive to men, also suggests that she is ready to work—on the homefront if not the battlefield—and is encouraging women to do the same. The image becomes all the more interesting because it is so prophetic; a mere generation later, the woman on the poster did not just entice men to join the Navy. She challenged women to join themselves.

Lady Liberty_Fight or Buy Bonds

In several of the Liberty Loan posters, including “Fight or Buy Bonds!,” the Christy girl morphs into an allegorical figure of Lady Liberty, with flowing locks and a diaphanous, suggestive gown. This likely raised some eyebrows a century ago and today’s viewer could hardly be blamed for interpreting Christy’s approach as blatant objectification. Sex sells, after all. But look closer- this Lady Liberty is a dynamic, unapologetically erotic figure issuing an urgent challenge, and it resonated with both sexes. To men, she was a fantasy and an ideal worth fighting for. To women, she embodied an exciting, unexplored piece of themselves. Her fierce patriotism and call to action was powerful and highly seductive to women on the verge of exploring new roles and opportunities.

For Home and Country, Alfred Everitt Orr, 1918

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the depiction of the dutiful wife and mother is a common, if oversimplified, theme among poster artists of the period. Alfred Everitt Orr’s “For Home and Country,” shows a family tableau where the proud but wistful wife prepares to send her husband off to war. Here, the strength clearly resides with the husband, the family protector. From the way that he holds both wife and child, we sense that there will be a void, a weakening of the household while he is away. Yet social convention at the time dictated that a wife’s role was to support her husband by managing the business of home and family. This meant that she was already fully equipped to take care of both in his absence- she’d been doing it all along. The only difference was that she was now called upon to expand her role outside the home, whether through volunteer activities or paid labor. Still, the poster sends a message of expected selflessness and sacrifice, not of empowerment. This woman might meet the challenges of wartime living and shoulder the responsibilities of full citizenship, but there is no expectation that she will reap its rewards.

Mixed messages, indeed. Lady Liberty and the suffragettes had a long way to go.

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