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

1

Anonymous
Untitled (The Spirit of America), ca. 1919
offset lithograph mounted on board
30 x 20  in. (sheet)
95.3.14

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The Power of Propaganda by Alison Corwin '00  and Jessie Waldeier '00 
Does this white, young, innocent-looking woman fill your heart with American pride and spirit?  This poster, The Spirit of America by Howard Chandler Christy, exemplifies the "100% Americanism" campaign during World War I. (1)   The image of a beautiful, white woman dressed in a flowing, translucent dress appeals to the Caucasian female population, in that it was considered their duty as "caretakers" to join the Red Cross and their duty as American women to support their men overseas.  The roles of men and women during this time were clearly defined; men were to do the fighting and women were to support the cause. (2) 

Her angelic aura consumes the poster while her pleading gaze calls out to American women.  She is looking upwards to the heavens, as the flag, which billows around her head, represents the notion of a halo.  Her milky white skin denotes the image of a pure, innocent woman.  She reaches out to the inner souls of the viewers and touches hearts with her virtuous appearance.  This poster fuels the gender stereotype of the era, furthering the notion that women are purely ornamental rather than instrumental.  It clearly represents "the woman in need."  This idea is further enhanced through her clothing.  She is pictured in a filmy, white dress, revealing more than what might be considered appropriate for a working woman of the time. 

Few words are needed to convey the message because the picture itself illustrates the idea.  "Join" goes in tandem with the big red cross, and "the spirit of America" is a simple yet powerful thought, just slightly hidden by the image of the woman and the encompassing flag.  This poster, along with many others, presents the image of the "true American" woman, asking her nation to support the war. 

Although the poster was originally created to represent the "spirit" of America, the many contradictory messages leave the contemporary viewer unsure of its intentions.  Women were asked to go to work for their country, yet they are depicted primarily as sexual beings.  The purpose of World War I posters was to motivate and unify the general public; however, as this poster suggests, the country was not unified because women's efforts were not taken seriously. 

1.  Dr. David Schmitz, guest lecture, February 12, 1998. 
2.  Ibid. 
 

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