8 Inspiring Feminist Posters From The 1910s That Prove Women Have Always Been The Backbone Of America
One of my favorite parts of studying history is exploring the visual culture of a particular time or place. For reasons unknown, war propaganda posters have always held a particular interest for me. One of the first truly interdisciplinary modern endeavors, propaganda posters were a cost-effective way to quickly spread messaging throughout all levels of society. The messages and motifs were meant to be simple enough to be understood by all: from those who were not educated to people in positions of national significance. These eight inspiring feminist posters from the 1910s had a clear message during a time of war: American women were on the rise.
Propaganda may have sinister connotations to some, given the novel ways in which the regimes of Nazi Germany and, to a lesser extent, fascist Italy manipulated public opinion to deny the fundamental humanity of groups like the disabled, Jews, Gypsies, and Poles. But these archived works of art were employed to nudge women to join the war effort in non-combat roles and to encourage the efficient use of consumer goods on the home front, thus reducing the demand on the global logistical network as well as reducing waste. From canning food, to knitting clothes, to learning how to drive as part of the motor pool, WWI was a moment in American society where there were no shortage of ways to pitch in.
This poster shows a young woman decked out in a star-spangled outfit and holding aloft something familiar to us still: the humble mason jar. Printed in 1918, possibly even after the war's official conclusion, given the title "Win The Next War Now," the likeness is wearing a Liberty Cap, or what the French Revolutionaries called the bonnet rouge. Pictured could be the personification of the French national spirit, Marianne, or it could be a youthful Columbia with a canning jar of garden vegetables instead of an alight torch. Either way, callbacks to France, like the red cap here, would have served as a subconscious reminder of the close bond between France and the United States since their early days as nation-states.
This poster, also from 1918, invokes the image of the Maid of Orléans, Joan of Arc, clad in a stylized suit of armor and chain-mail with her sword held aloft. It advertises War Savings Stamps, micro-bonds which paid out a fixed return after a certain number of years. War stamps and war bonds were basically a vehicle for the federal government to take out a loan from the American people as a whole, and were sold to the public as a patriotic financially savvy thing to do with extra money. In contrast, spending extra cash on superfluous consumer goods was seen as unpatriotic, and German U-Boat attacks paralyzed trans-Atlantic shipping, making it too risky and costly to even get imported perfume, stockings, or scarves. Buying war stamps or bonds meant that money was being centralized to the war effort; however, the legality, and necessity of special war financing was part of the Nye Commission findings into defense misappropriations during WWI.
This austere charcoal portrait of a young woman in a smocked blouse or shirtwaist knitting a flat piece on straight needles — the body of a sweater, a warm scarf, or a baby's blanket perhaps — was by artist W. T. Benda. It reminded women that crafting skills and industry were necessary for the war relief effort. This is especially true given shortages in many kinds of consumer products during wartime, not only on the Continent but on the home front as well.
The United States Food Administration was the central coordination authority for managing the Allied food supply. This poster shows a rosy-cheeked woman in a simple white blouse preparing a feast of corn-based products in her home. Corn muffins, pancakes made with corn flour, sweet corn syrup in lieu of molasses (made from cane sugar which had to be processed and shipped from far away), and jars of corn meal, grits, and hominy are in the background. She stirs a piping hot casserole dish of fresh grits, while next to her head, the caption extols the virtues of corn.
Since European agriculture production and processing capacity was greatly reduced as a consequence of the fighting given the scope and nature of the conflict, the United States coordinated the agricultural production and food processing efforts at home and in places far from the fighting, like sourcing beef from South America and grain from Australia. By advertising corn products to women, the cheap filling substitute was meant to fill the caloric gap in the civilian population brought on by the need for increased production levels.
The Motor Corps of America was an effort started later on in the war years to staff the logistics needs of the American and Allied war efforts both in the States and abroad. The Corps provided training to young, energetic women who wrangled heavy trucks — without power steering! — and early versions of motorcycles to deliver goods, information, supplies and people where they needed to go. The Corps was dissolved in 1920 and was not reconstituted in WWII.
This one is relatively self-explanatory; however it shows a young, French Revolutionary Columbia asleep in a wicker armchair on an overstuffed pillow while smoke billows ominously in the distance.
The Woman's Land Army of America was an effort to fill the gap left by rural soldiers who were fighting on the front lines, disabled in battle, or who didn't make it home at all.
This poster shows off a telephone switchboard operator working the lines with a mass of marching soldiers in the background, moving in the same direction as her hand. The poster was commissioned by the Young Women's Christian Association and the United War Work Campaign, a central coordinating committee which matched communities of women and minorities to take over essential roles vacated by leaving soldiers.
It shouldn't take a major international incident to inspire you to think about new ways that you can be of service to your community and country. But if it does, please feel free to check out this list of all the current wars going on in the world — just in case.
Images: Getty Images (8)