November 1916

Women and propaganda in the Great War

By Alessandro Chebat


During the Great War, the image of women was a key element in propaganda, both in terms of female activism in patriotic organisations and in the use of the female body as an icon by which to generate consensus for the conflict being waged.

Women who left the household during the war to enter the public sphere did not only affect the workplace where they were substituting the men called to the front. During the years of the Great War propaganda developed considerably and led to a public overexposure of the female image. Interest in women materialised on two different, complementary levels: on the one hand those who nursed the combatants, on the other, the wide-scale use of the female body and identity as an icon on posters and postcards and in newspaper illustrations. 

The role of wife and mother into which women had been relegated was translated into mass mothering, in keeping with traditional female roles: cutting, sewing and making warm clothing for the soldiers on the front, nursing the wounded as “ladies of charity” on the hospital trains or in the medical departments. Generally speaking there was nothing revolutionary about this. However, a number of breaks with tradition can be identified in this reassertion of an almost classic model. First of all, women were no longer called on to take care of just their husbands but of all the men called to arms, which presumed they would leave their homes and mix with crowds of men. As Isnenghi states this “overexposure of women in male territory” led to news reports and memoirs describing these women as figures “surrounded by admiration and gratitude” which however often revealed numerous “malicious suspicions towards an otherwise unprecedented promiscuity”. On the whole there was a flourishing of organisations and associations of women devoted to looking after the wounded as part of the Red Cross, to raising funds and collecting donations, making clothes, as well as organising evening entertainment for the soldiers confined to bed and carrying out patriotic propaganda. In January 1917 in Britain, the women’s auxiliary army corps was established which brought together the voluntary associations of women who wanted to play a part in the war effort: at the end of the war as many as 57,000 women were serving as telephone operators, waitresses, cooks and in many other jobs. Female propaganda, which featured tangible work and facts, was in many respects more advanced and effective than male propaganda, which until 1918 remained limited to abstract and mostly ineffective rallying cries. 

An intermediate role between the humble seamstress and the “public” activities of the Red Cross women or ladies of charity was that of the “war godmother”, who offered assistance and comfort not through work but through the written word. Each godmother had a soldier with whom she corresponded by letter. This figure, who was at the same time maternal, friendly and caring, represented a break with the past. For the first time women were able to interact with men they did not know, allowing them to create self-images that the war had rendered less rigid and more dynamic. At the same time patriotic mobilisation took place also amongst the more cultured women: from the suffragists who gathered around Teresa Labriola, who provided support for the moral and political needs of the war being waged, to the primary school teachers who encouraged their classes to write letters in which they voiced their patriotism or attempted to convince the parents of their pupils to undersign war loans.

This complementarity of women to the men’s war effort was also transposed on a massive scale into propaganda iconography, in which, for the first time images, of women abounded. Also in this area, suggestions alluded to the respective traditional roles of mothers, sisters and wives. These are accompanied by the classic rhetoric of the man who defends not only his fatherland but also his family and home. Images of women sewing clothes for the soldiers on the front are a reminder of the mothers and wives waiting at home for their son or companion and whilst they wait, they contribute to the war effort: publicity and illustrations are disseminated with these references, however in general the role of the mother prevailed, because with the passing of time and the increase in the numbers of those who fell in combat, the image of the wife surrounded by her children was a reference to widowhood. 

In other cases, women were used as an element meant to justify the state of war of the nation, supporting and encouraging the departure of men for the front. This is the case of two posters widespread in Britain: the first read Women of Britain say go! and depicted two women observing a column of marching soldiers, while the second exploited the echo of the presumed German atrocities in Belgium, showing an Irish woman who, shouldering a rifle, pointing her man in the direction of Belgium in flames, urging him to fight with the wording Will you go or must!. It is interesting how women, as in this case, (widespread amongst all the warring powers), become the symbolic representation of the fatherland in a sense that is at times aggressive, at times defensive and at times moralising. This is actually a feature of German propaganda, in which images of women dressed in armour or brandishing a sword invited soldiers to be proud of fighting for their mother country, or to keep up their morale. Often these representations of women were closely associated with traditional German mythology such as the legend of the Valkyries or Rhine maidens.

The image of women was not used just to apply a sort of moral pressure on the fighters, but also to convey meanings that were to some degree sexual. In the case of Italian propaganda, often Trento and Trieste, objectives proclaimed by the war, were depicted as sinuous provocative women gripped in the talons of the Austro-Hungarian double-headed eagle. These images were often accompanied by a group of Italian soldiers running to their aid. In this case they refer explicitly to women being “conquered by love” who, just like their defence, were put side by side with the need to conquer military objectives. After Caporetto, closer attention to soldiers’ morale produced a series of pictures that depicted women exchanging affectionate caresses with soldiers, complete with captions that were rather explicit by the standards of the time. In this context the image of women played both an erotic and a political role aimed at motivating the troops and maintaining a high level of patriotism: this is even more apparent in pictures of a half-dressed Italy wrapped in the national flag and often framed by rifles, bayonets and cannons, inspiring sexually allusive forms or threatened by the double-headed eagle.

On the whole, the use of the image of women as part of the propaganda effort of the Great War was in keeping with a reconfirmation of traditional roles, however the temporary slackening of moral standards due to the conflict being waged, the overexposure, both material and iconographic of women and lastly the chance to freely join in with men and make an active contribution to the war effort independently of men certainly helped to create in women a greater awareness of themselves.



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