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From Litho Stone to Pentium Chip: Interpreting Gender in U.S. World War I Posters


Untitled (Buy more Liberty Bonds), ca. 1917-1920
offset lithograph mounted on board
40 1/2 x 30 in.

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The Humble Mother by Michelle Fletcher '00

During World War I, Liberty Loans created an opportunity for people to support the effort without actual participation.  The United States government rallied support for the bonds by using war posters which "constituted an appeal to the viewer's patriotism." (1)  Women in the posters were depicted in numerous gender roles, each designed to attract certain audiences.  The poster entitled "Buy More Liberty Bonds" suggests a poor "motherly authority" figure which attracted sympathy from all classes of American society. (2) 

The poster suggests that the woman is from the lower classes.  Her clothing depicts her class because it is old and tattered, and standard of living is also low because the room is cluttered and messy.  The motherly authority represents the manager of the household and the soft clinging woman.  This poster portrays the woman as huddling her children close to her.  Her embrace displays the strength she has to uphold her family life.  Ironically, her need to embrace also suggests that the woman expects to be protected from the war. 

The poster reflects the image of women as both courageous and fragile.  It is a model of the conflicted and changing role of women in American society at this time. 

1.  Shawn Auditz and Gail Stern, "Americans All!  Images in World War I Posters," from Prologues Portfolio (1987). 
2.  Peter Paret, Beth Irwin, and Paul Paret, Persuasive Images:  Posters of  War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1992. 

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Mobilization by Shame by Natali Smith '01
In the United States as well as Great Britain, many propaganda posters appealed to men's ideals of masculinity.  This particular poster invoked a man's belief that he had to protect and provide for his family, playing on the view that women and children were weak and dependent and only a courageous and honorable man could protect them.  This poster depicts a needy woman, pleading in vain, perhaps for her husband's or son's return, while her children are crying.  The woman is shown poorly dressed with her hair disheveled as if, since the departure of the male(s) in her life, she and the children are vulnerable and destitute.  They are surrounded by the chaos and rubble of a woman's life gone to shambles without the stability and succor of the man of the house.  She is not making eye contact with the viewer, a tactic that most posters with women in this exhibition have employed, because she is too busy pleading for her man's safe return.  Turning her back to those who are not supporting the war, she is a symbol of the nation rejecting those not courageous enough to give their all to the war effort. 

This poster is motivational, intended to encourage the purchase of war bonds.  It is "mobilizing by shame," using guilt and pride to spur its audience to support soldiers and their families, at least monetarily. (1)  It is aimed at a broad audience, the entire nation, and at a universal set of human values, but particularly those men who have not otherwise supported the nation.  This support could have been by "sacrificing" a loved one and sending him off to battle or by joining the forces themselves.  These men were motivated through posters such as this because they undoubtedly wanted to be able to say that they took part in the Great War and helped to bring glory and honor to their family and country, even if they did not fight. 

The poster does not emphasize the actual monetary value of the bond.  Rather, it emphasizes a general civic duty of the citizen to purchase bonds.  The poster stresses Americans' sense of responsibility to their nation, and whether or not those who had little to do with the war were real Americans or patriots.  The message sent here is that such a purchase is directly attributed to protecting lives, rather than the simple monetary addition to the war effort. 

1.  Peter Paret, Beth Irwin, and Paul Paret, Persuasive Images:  Posters of  War and Revolution from the Hoover Institution Archives (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1992), 38.

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