From Litho Stone to Pentium Chip: Interpreting Gender in U.S. World War I Posters
Exhibition Introduction by Ashley Spets '01
In the early 20th century before the rise of mass media-television and radio-the most influential channel of communication in the United States was through posters such as these on display in the Richard F. Brush Art Gallery. U.S. World War I posters were intended to encourage those on the home front, especially women, to do their part to support the war effort. Lithographs enabled the government and related organizations to spread information rapidly and efficiently across the country. Throughout the course of the First World War, it is estimated that more than twenty million copies of about 2,500 posters were circulated in the United States alone, all in support of the war overseas. (1)
The general purpose of these posters was to link ideals of American society with the war effort. Posters evoked emotions such as patriotism, outrage, sacrifice, and hatred. Their production funded by the government, the posters were extremely effective as propaganda because they reflected and reinforced thoughts and beliefs already present in American society.
World War I posters, and specifically those targeting women, reinforced the idea of citizens not as "individuals," but as "subjects" of cultural norms. By linking the ideals of society to the war effort, the government promoted an affirmation of the dominant ideology in America, that of the rule of capitalism. Such affirmation occurred when the public allowed itself, consciously or not, 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 most lithographs of this era was "What is good for capitalist control is good for democracy in America."
The promotion of capitalism was not only coerced; gender roles were also underscored to promote the war effort. In fact, gender roles were fundamental to militarism in the U.S. during WWI. Since women could not fight in combat, it became their patriotic duty to support those who could. Women were given roles that reflected their domestic abilities and were told through countless messages displayed in war propaganda to support the men who fought by rationing food, buying war bonds, conserving gas and fuel, and volunteering for the Red Cross. Women were not encouraged to leave their domestic realms, but rather asked to do their part from within the home.
Images of Lady Liberty are frequently seen on many prints, portrayed as a victim in some posters and a mother figure in others. Women are generally represented in war posters as maternal figures or as sexual goddesses. Lady Liberty and other "poster girls" are most often seen draped in an American flag, obviously representing patriotic duty to their country. Typically, the ideal woman depicted in WWI posters is one who serves and fulfills her obligation to her country through her role as mother. Images of Lady Liberty were targeted at those who had newly arrived in the U.S., because of her connotation with freedom and the free world.
Women and children are also seen as helpless dependents or as victims of war who respond to their desperate situation on an emotional level compared to a more physical (male) response of taking some sort of action. Many women appear powerless, only able to reach out and plea for help. These images not only exploited the cultural norms regarding the roles of women and children, but they weighed heavily on the consciences of men to save and protect their wives, sisters, mothers, and daughters from the horrors of war. Such images were used explicitly to personalize men's obligation to protect their families.
1. Walton Rawls, Wake Up, America! (New York: Abbeville Press Publishers, 1988).