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

1

Anonymous (after Stahr)
Untitled (Be patriotic), ca. 1917-1920
offset lithograph mounted on board
28 7/8 x 20 3/4 in. (sheet); 29 1/4 x 21 1/4 in. (board)
95.3.38

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Be Patriotic by Ashley Spets '01
World War I posters, and specifically those depicting women, reinforced the idea of citizens not as individuals but as subjects of the cultural norms found in society.  The cultural norms promoted in WWI posters such as this one are an ideological tool.  By linking the ideals of American society to the war effort, the government promotes an affirmation of the dominant ideology present in American society.  That dominant ideology is the rule of capitalism.  The affirmation of the dominant ideology occurs when the public allows itself, consciously or unconsciously, to accept the link between a democratic ideal such as patriotism and a capitalist ideal such as, 'Support our resources, save the food!'  The dominant ideology as represented in this and many other lithographs, is the idea that 'What is good for capitalist control is good for democracy in America.'  This lithograph is an exemplary model of the dominant ideology in American society.  In this poster, the government instructs Americans to carry out their duties as patriots in order for the country to thrive as an economic power. 

The promotion of capitalism was not only pushed onto the American people through war propaganda like this poster here, but gender roles were also sold to promote the war effort.  In fact gender roles were fundamental to militarism in America during World War I.  This lithograph is a perfect example of how war propaganda used gender-based images to promote the war by exploiting the cultural norms of women and the family. 

The poster presents a women who looks to be reaching out for the help of a male citizen.  She is the dependent, the one who is helpless, the one who must rely on men to save her.  Her only response to the situation seems to be an emotional one.  Her eyes even look weepy.  She looks completely disempowered; all she can do is reach out for help.  This poster appeals to any man's obligation to save and protect his wife, his sister, his mother.  Images of women like this one were used to personalize men's obligation to protect their families.  So if you couldn't fight and protect your country on the front lines you could fight from the home front and protect your family by rationing food.  This lithograph dramatizes the economic impact of the war on the working class in America. 

In this poster Lady Liberty is represented not only as a victim but as a mother figure.  She is draped in the American flag which represents her patriotism and her duty to her country.  This image of Lady Liberty in particular was commonly targeted at those who had newly arrived in the 'free world.'  Women were commonly represented in war posters as maternal figures or as whores or sexual goddesses.  This image here is the ideal woman who serves her country by doing her part''saving the food.'  By doing her part, she fulfills her obligation to her country through her role as mother. 

The irony of this poster is very important in terms of its historical context.  The poster asks women and men to do their part to support their country, but when women started standing up and rioting against the rising prices of food caused by the war, they were not represented as political activists, much less people with strength.  Instead women were portrayed here as acting helplessly'victimized, needy, and voiceless. 

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