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

1

Anonymous (after Harrison C. Fisher)
Untitled (I summon you), 1918
lithograph mounted on board
40 x 28 in.
95.3.52

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I Summon You
by Tierney O'Meara '01

This poster depicts how women were used as instruments of the government to encourage other women to join the Red Cross.  This woman is obviously targeting other women to join the Red Cross and help men at war; it is their patriotic duty to help the country in this manner.  If women join this mission in aiding the men wounded in war, they will be obeying the President's orders. 

The woman in this poster is standing in front of the U.S. Capitol building symbolizing that she is a part of the government.  The quote by Woodrow Wilson, "I summon you to comradeship in the Red Cross," shows how the poster is a form of government propaganda.  The woman stands in the center of the poster with her left hand over her breast and heart.  This symbolizes her patriotism, her support, and dedication to her country.  She is wearing a nurse's uniform with the sleeves rolled up, representing how women were stepping out of their traditional roles and into work.  Her other hand is holding the American flag, which is draped around her body like a dress.  She represents a very feminine portrait and stands poised and confident.  Her hair is pulled back around her neck while wispy strands flow freely in the breeze.  She has soft lips and creamy white skin.  Although she is stepping out of a traditional role, she still maintains a feminine character. 
 

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I Summon You to Second-Rate Citizenship by Jillian Leah Roderick '99
The poster "I Summon You" presents a confused reflection of socially-constructed perceptions of gender in early 20th-century America.  The message to be a good woman and enlist in the Red Cross combines with the portrayal of a very sexually-charged female to send two very different messages to the intended audience, potential Red Cross volunteers who were by and large women.  Moreover, the message and the illustrations in no way compliment one another.  Thus, the contradictions in this poster are numerous. 

The portrayal of the woman in this poster is extremely sexual.  She is illustrated with her mouth open, head slightly thrown back, eyes closed, and hair escaping its restraints.  She looks as though she is caught in the throes of passion.  In addition, the low cut shirt and flag clutched to her breast are extremely provocative.  Historically, there have been two roles for women, Mary and Eve.  The woman who fits into the paradigm of Mary is submissive, virginal, and passive.  On the other hand, the paradigm of Eve is one of uncontrolled desire (sexual or otherwise), temptation, and heedlessness.  In her wanton position, the character in this poster falls into the Eve paradigm.  Further, the female image in I Summon You in no way reflects the values of the "good wife" or the "domestic angel" , which are two other historical examples of woman-as-Mary paradigms. (1)  The contradiction rests in the fact that despite being portrayed as an Eve-like seductress, the intent of the poster is more suitable to a Mary-like audience. 

Another contradiction involves the statement, "I summon you to comradeship in the Red Cross."  The quote is assertive and direct.  There are no mixed signals of sexuality and submission.  Rather, it is a simple statement, clearly demanding that women join the Red Cross.  Such a statement removes women from the Mary/Eve paradigm by offering an image that is neither sexually charged nor submissive.  Ironically, the statement is clearly denoted as issued by a man, then President Woodrow Wilson.  Further, it promises comradeship to those who enlist in the Red Cross.  Paradoxically, these female comrades were not even entitled to vote when this poster was issued.  Further, women are not even guaranteed comradeship among other women.  Thus, women are being offered comradeship by a highly sexualized image meant to appeal to men.  Again, the message and the image do not coincide. 

Finally, irony is also greatly evident in this poster.  To pose an extremely lascivious image of a woman in front of the Capitol building at a point when women were still disenfranchised is not only ironic but more than a bit offensive.  Such an image suggests the true place of women in society:  poster "girls" for male causes.  This place clearly does not include the Capitol building or any other seat of power or authority. 
 

1.  Dr. Judy DeGroat, guest lecture, February 12, 1998.

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