Written by Kelly Morgan
Last week we looked at a few selections of World War I propaganda posters promoting enlistment culled from the New-York Historical Society. This week, we’ll examine how the posters called on women to support the war effort and utilized female imagery both for the purpose of enlisting soldiers and for their participation in the Red Cross, mobilization efforts, and the newly incorporated Motor Corps. All posters discussed in this blog reside at the New-York Historical Society.
Many enlistment posters incorporated images of women, appealing to male sentiments with sexualized imagery. Howard Chandler Christy’s infamous Gee! I Wish I Were a Man! I’d Join the Navy! (1917) depicts an iconic “Christy” girl dressed seductively in a sailor’s uniform, her alluring stare imploring men to enlist both for the American cause and to satisfy any girl’s desire. Christy employs these seductive women in other enlistment posters, the rarest being If You Want to Fight, Join the Marines (1915)—its production two years before the war make it a rare example of artist’s involvement on the eve of World War I. This Christy girl, unlike her Navy counterpart, is less seductive, with her stance and her uniform more directly corresponding to a soldier embarking for the front lines, reiterating that men should assert their own masculinity and join the Marine Corps.
Another common theme, the image of the mother, proliferated propaganda posters. The mother sacrificing her son to the cause resonated deeply with a population that until April 1917 remained steadfast in their neutrality. Charles Dana Gibson’s U.S. Navy—“Here he is, Sir” (ca. 1914–1918) illustrating a mother sacrificing her son to the United States Navy struck a deep chord with families whose sons and husbands had left for “over there.” Yet, in spite of the difficulty in sacrificing their sons to Uncle Sam, the mother and son’s respective duties to their nation overrode the domestic duties of mother to son.
A woman’s maternal and caring nature (as portrayed in posters) also qualified her for duty abroad and on the home front. Posters for the Red Cross, both for enlisting nurses into their ranks and for raising money to support their efforts in Europe, utilize the “caring mother” trope to extend beyond the domestic family unit to include the soldiers on the front line. Alonzo Earl Foringer’s The Greatest Mother in the World (1917) was incorporated into numerous Red Cross posters, both by itself as a statement to the work of the Red Cross and as part of the Christmas Roll Call, which strived to raise money to support the nurses. In this image, which clearly evokes the Pieta, the mother is cradling a wounded soldier who is strapped to a gurney and reduced to the size of a child. While the soldier is immobile and unable to continue his fight, the nurse consoles and protects him just as if she was his mother.
Technological innovation affected women’s work in the war, too. The American Red Cross Motor Corps enlisted female drivers to transport soldiers and supplies to hospitals and camps. Women in these positions were required to maintain a high level of physical fitness, mechanical knowledge of cars, and driving expertise, all of which were now accessible to women due to the needs of the war effort. In Howard Chandler Christy’s The Motor Corps of America (1918), Christy dresses the woman in the designated Motor Corps uniform, unlike his other depictions of women in military uniform, such as the aforementioned Gee, I Wish I Were a Man. This woman, while idealized, conveys expertise in her field and authority in her responsibilities as a Motor Corps member.
Women worked with the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) and the Young Women’s Christian Association (Y.W.C.A). assisting soldiers who lived abroad. The Y.W.C.A. financially supported women entering the work force in order to increase physical participation in the war effort. Women were hired for jobs traditionally held by men both domestically and in Europe, completing the tasks necessary in spite of the absence of men now fighting abroad and supplying the front lines with weapons, gas masks, parachutes, and machinery.
By financially subsidizing women’s work, the Y.W.C.A. assisted thousands of women who desired to work, but due to high cost of living or low wages, could not afford to do so. Ernest Hamlin Baker’s For Every Fighter a Woman Worker (1917) depicts female workers marching while holding wrenches, hammers, and other tools that indicate their various occupations. All wearing different uniforms, the crowd of women extends back into space, implying that as the numbers of soldiers increase, so do the swelling ranks of “woman workers.” In Back Our Girls Over There (1918), a woman manages the telephone lines to convey messages for the front line, while soldiers congregate in the background, marching to their next battle. This image clarifies that women, too, served overseas in several capacities.
On April 19, 1917, the United States incorporated “Wake Up America Day”—a day dedicated to the widespread mobilization of cities throughout America. Every city hosted their own parades, and New York was no exception. Jean Earle Moehle, a feminist and ardent supporter of suffrage, dressed as Paul Revere and rode around the streets of Manhattan.
James Montgomery Flagg used this image of Moehle for his poster, Wake Up America Day April 19, 1917 (1917). Moehle herself was extremely interesting – she prided herself on her mechanical abilities, often taking apart car engines to put them back together to prove that a woman, too, could work on a car. Aside from her participation in Wake Up America Day, Moehle also worked for the Y.M.C.A. in France during the war, and continued to work for the organization until 1920.
Propaganda posters appealed to women in a variety of ways, while also using the female image to convince men to enlist and participate in the war effort. From sexualized images of women in soldiers’ uniforms to beautiful depictions of women as allegorical Liberty, the feminine ideal served to influence men to enlist as soldiers and to live up to their masculine roles as protectors of the home front. However, many posters called on women to serve, too. From the Y.W.C.A. and the Red Cross nurses to the Motor Corps and Wake Up America Day, women, and their representations, served the American cause from the home front and “over there.”
- Borkan, Gary. World War I Posters. Atglen: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2002
- James, Pearl. The New Death: American Modernism and World War I. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013.
- James, Pearl, ed. Picturing This: World War I Posters and Visual Culture. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009.
- Kingsbury, Celia Malone. For Home and Country: World War I Propaganda on the Home Front. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
- Lubin, David. Grand Illusions: American Art and the First World War. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.