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

1

Anonymous
Untitled (America called her men to fight), ca. 1917-1920
lithograph mounted on board
26 3/4 x 20 1/2 in. (sheet); 27 1/4 x 19 5/8 in. (board)
95.3.32
Anonymous

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The Angels of the Red Cross by Amber Cole '98  and Sabrina Lawrie '99
During World War I, the United States government began a campaign to recruit young women for the Red Cross.  The implication was that by becoming a member, a woman would fulfill her "natural" role as a nurturer and caretaker of men.  This notion stemmed for the Victorian period when women were viewed as "angels of the households."  A woman's primary role was to make her husband feel safe and provide him with a haven from the harsh, outside world. (1)  This is, in effect, the role that the American government wanted women to assume.  As a nurse with the Red Cross, a woman could answer her call of duty by comforting "her boys" and nursing them back to health. 

This poster, however, was not intended to target all women.  White, middle-and upper-class women were the primary focus, and they were the ones who were expected to answer the call of duty.  To become a nurse, a woman needed to attend a training school which required money and access to school.  Also, white middle- and upper-class women were viewed as the only women capable of this duty because of their previous role as "angels of the households."  Chances are the government did not want lower-class and minority women caring for the boys on the front. 

The poster campaign of World War I was very effective in motivating women to become involved in the United States war movement.  A primary focus of the campaign was to manipulate women into believing that their participation in the war movement would help them gain political support for the suffrage movement.  There were two distinct effects of the poster campaign, one intentional and the other not.  By joining the Red Cross, women did assume the role of nurturer and caretaker as the government had expected.  However, it also empowered those same women to continue their fight for equality.  Through their participation, women had experienced economic and social freedom and subsequently refused to return to their previous submissive roles. 

1.  Richard Altick, Victorian People and Ideas (New York:  W.W. Norton Company, 1973), 52-53.

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