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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 (Have you answered....), ca. 1917-1920
lithograph mounted on board
26 3/4 x 25 in. (sheet); 32 1/2 x 30 1/2 in. (board)
95.3.54

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Virgin Mary:  The Ideal Woman by Shari Law '01 and Tracy Southwick '01
In this poster, the Red Cross is asking American women to partake in the World War I effort.  The artist addresses the women of the nation specifically, but the aim seems to be more toward Caucasian women of the Christian religious background since the figures are all white and there are prevalent religious messages.  There is an implicit appeal of religious connotation in that the woman's countenance seems to resemble the widely used depictions of the Virgin Mary. Mary's head is frequently shown with a side cant, a posture of humble acquiescence.  In addition, an exaggeratedly high brow, large eyes, and a small mouth are iconographical features repeatedly employed by painters to represent her spirituality and lack of sensuality. (1)  This portrayal of the woman as the Virgin Mary strongly reinforces textual insistence on her obedience, submissiveness, and innocence. (2)   These attributes of the Virgin Mary were strongly urged onto women by prominent Christian leaders of this period.  The approval of God in the Bible, and also the approval of the Church, of the Virgin Mary as the ideal woman systematically influenced women to aspire to this role.  This is especially important in wartime because women are leaving the domestic sphere.  Since women's social roles are changing, patriarchal society wishes to remind these women they are still to embody these characteristics of the Virgin Mary as well as the feminine qualities of nurturer, mother figure, and virtuous woman. 

The colors of the poster are symbolic in that the woman reaching for help is dressed in red, white, and blue.  The American flag is also shown in its colors of red, white and blue.  However, the remainder of the poster is of a green hue, keeping these images more in the background.  In doing this, the artist directly associates the woman with the flag, reflecting the patriotism of her work.  The Virgin Mary is most often dressed in white attire and a blue cloak.  The addition of the red crosses to her forehead and chest not only signify the organization that the poster is about, but they also hint at a religious connotation and complete the scheme of colors that evokes a patriotic feeling in the viewer.  The poster gives the message that the Red Cross work of the women is a patriotic duty to her country, as well the way for her to fulfill more completely the role embodied by the Virgin Mary. 

The written appeal to women for help is supported by the image of the woman reaching out her hand, as if to accept other women to join in the effort to preserve patriotism.  The poster uses with good effect the ideal of the Virgin Mary to call for help from women and at the same time illustrates gender-specific boundaries of how femininity is constructed during this period. 
 

1.  Margaret Miles, "Violence against Women in the Historical Christian West in North American Secular Culture, " in Shaping New Vision, eds. Clarissa W. Atkinson et al. (London:  Umi Research Press, 1987), 11-29. 
2.  Ibid. 
 

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