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Themes of World War One:
The presentation of women as sex objects on postcards was nothing new, even when associated with military themes. There was however a new trend in depicting the effects of the War on women beyond their traditional roles as homemakers. Postcard publishers might have first begun showing women in untypical roles to present curiosities to an audience craving something new, but these images eventually became tools in the propaganda war. As manpower shortages grew acute, women had to be enticed into performing traditional male jobs. By placing images of working women on cards the concept became more acceptable out of familiarity. These cards also seemed to honor working women, which reinforced its acceptability. Many women had always held jobs, only now more of it was out in public view. There was a strong undercurrent among women before the War who sought more freedom in their lives, and many publishers produced cards that exploited these desires. Women had already proved to be a large audience for what they perceived as liberating depictions of their gender.
The types of wartime jobs that women were most often portrayed in on cards were those occupations traditionally reserved almost exclusively for men. Since this was a perceived aberration, its uniqueness drew attention, and no doubt increased sales. The audience for such cards was probably mixed, drawing from those who were astounded by this breach of normalcy as well as others who were inspired by it. Countless cards published in the decade before the Great War dealt with the changing roles of women, with many pushing the limits of socially acceptable behavior. In the context of todayís shifting gender roles most of these scenes would look totally normal but back then it broke all social norms causing both joy and resentment.
Transportation services saw a huge increase in female employment as women became ticket collectors, porters, and the conductors and drivers of streetcars. This was an attractive subject for postcard publishers because these jobs entailed the wearing of uniforms. This not only brought their responsibilities up to par with those performed by men in uniform, it made them immediately identifiable on the card without further explanation. These women were often portrayed on cards in the company of soldiers as a reminder that there was a place for everyone when it came to serving their country. Although most women were forced out of these jobs once the War ended, many women also remained in the workforce. This was not only because of their newly acquired taste for freedom, not enough servicemen returned to fill all available positions. The numbers of men killed in the War also meant that many women could not marry an be supported by a husband even if that is what they desired.
Postwomen were another occupation that publishers often placed on postcards. Not only was this a traditional male role, it was a position that nearly all people came into contact with on a daily basis. Unlike women hidden away in factories, postwomen were a constant reminder of social change. The publicís familiarity with them made them easier to accept, which was often further supported by friendly contact. This no doubt, combined with their obvious connection to correspondence contributed to their high numbers on postcards.
Postwomen not only delivered mail, they were eventually put in the manly position of driving mail delivery trucks. This was another role that the public was unaccustomed seeing women play. On the card above two boys carrying school books are added to contrast the new working woman with her traditional role as mother. It is ambiguous enough to be read as criticism or just a matter of fact snapshot of a new social order. With the added responsibilities placed on women and a growing number of absent fathers, many children were left unsupervised and developed behavioral problems. This greatly increasing the rate of juvenile delinquency until it became a major concern in many nations.
Women can also be found doing a variety of menial tasks on postcards such as driving carts, hauling crates, cleaning streets, and shoveling snow. While these were not positions of authority, these cards must have still been upsetting to many who believed such work was unsuitable for women. Resistance to changing gender roles remained strong throughout the War, but by 1916 there were so few able bodied men not in uniform that women were solicited for these jobs out of necessity. Customers may have found these cards curiosities, but those women filling these positions must have appreciated the recognition.
Not all women were inclined or fit to take up occupations, especially the hard dangerous work of factories. Woman who still wanted to contribute to the war effort often did so in a more personal manner by putting more time into the traditional female skill of knitting. These women not only provided garments for family members serving at the battlefront but other soldiers through the Red Cross. The Red Cross and other voluntary organizations were instrumental in encouraging women to take up knitting and sometimes supplied instructions. In the United States a special fund was created to buy wool for women who knit necessary items for soldiers. Sweaters and socks were always in short supply, and these supplemental items not only provided comfort but were often essential for keeping up good health. Boots were rarely as watertight as they should have been, and long deployments in wet and cold trenches often led to the blistering and even gangrenous conditions of trench foot. Women knitting was a popular subject for postcards, often taken up by the Red Cross. The public’s familiarity with the subject probably played as important a role as the need for knitted goods when it came for choosing subjects for publication.
The illustration on the French card above by Guillaume is one in a series depicting life on the home front in Paris. A theater intermission is chosen as a setting to show just how pervasive knitting had become in society. A couple token soldiers home on leave are added to make sure that this is understood to be a wartime scene. One soldier displays his wounds so not to be accused of enjoying frivolous pleasure while his comrades fight.
A common trope was to show a woman newly employed in a male dominated civil occupation still carrying on with her knitting as if she were at home. These portrayals were meant to be a comical stab at changing gender roles, but these situations were not far for the truth. Many women found the new male roles they assumed confusing, and it was not easy giving up certain habits. As the War progressed, wool shortages cut down on knitting, but it was also curtailed by the changing attitudes of working women. When they no longer viewed themselves as an aberration in the workforce, they more fully embraced their new occupations and became more professional in their performance.
Even if portraying women in men’s roles might be seen as controversial, most understood that this was a necessity dictated by the times. A far more difficult subject to broach was that of motherhood when put into the perspective of national duty. Even with many women being enticed into factories and other War related work by official propaganda, childbearing was still seen as a woman’s principal role in wartime. As the War grew longer and casualties mounted beyond all expectations, women were encouraged to become pregnant to replace the generation being decimated on the battlefront.
While it may seem that soldiers home on leave needed no prodding when it came to having sex with their wives, it is very common for couples to question having children during troubled times, even when not initiated by war. Exasperating this was the the length of the War. No one anticipated so many soldiers being away from home for such long periods nor the steeply declining birthrates that would result. Propaganda campaigns had to be initiated to encourage couples to have children. It is sometimes difficult to tell if a postcard is promoting this type of propaganda or making fun of it.
French Cards tended to express the need for new births in a fairly outright fashion. While humor was often infusing to soften the message, this formula was still not acceptable in other nations who generally did not tackle the subject at all despite the need. Some publishers found more subtle approaches, sometimes disguising the subject through allegory. This did not always work well because efforts to be modest often resulted in an ambiguous narrative. A more popular approach was to show a soldier happily at home greeted by his wife and newborn child, supposedly conceived on his last visit home. Some of these cards even have a caption referring to a future solder if the picture was not clear enough.
The number of women working as prostitutes increased greatly during the War. While this was in part due to the vast number of soldiers far from home with limited sexual outlets, many women entered this profession because it was the only way to survive after their lives were disrupted by the conflict. Some became regular working girls in brothels while others only engaged sporadically to obtain food. Prohibitions against prostitution had forced it underground in most places where it was impossible to control. Official warnings against visiting prostitutes seemed to have little effect on the behavior of soldiers judging by their high rates of venereal disease. This took many men out of action, which the military could not afford. While it might seem that this concern might have generated may cautionary postcards, this does not seem to be the case. It may have just been a subject too delicate for most publishers to tackle.
Many solders flowed back and forth between the front lines and local villages during rest periods where they came into contact with prostitutes. In Belgium and France soldiers often encountered small cafes (estaminets) that usually served as unofficial brothels. Similar situations existed all over the military theater. Outside of comic cards, prostitution was a subject rarely addressed by publishers before the War. When prostitutes were depicted it was usually those from exotic lands like the numerous French cards of North African types. This trend continued during the conflict with most photo-based postcards only depicting prostitution on the peripheries of the main theaters of war like the Balkans where the inhabitants were not considered European when convenient. In this way prostitution could be acknowledged without admitting that European women engaged in it.
By contrast to the other Allies, prostitution was considered an acceptable social norm in France, and brothels (maisons tolerées) had been specifically set up for use by soldiers since the 19th century. The primary reasoning behind this was to control the spread of venereal disease through the use of registered prostitutes. Since the practice was openly accepted, there were few taboos for French publishers to break when dealing with prostitution on postcards. Some are photo-based that depict prostitutes posing in the street, but most cards dealt with this subject through humor and satire on artist drawn cards.
Germany also set up official brothels and checked recruits for venereal disease, but this was more of a practical matter than social acceptance. It was recognized that soldiers in the trenches had few acceptable outlets for their sexual energy, and prohibitions against visiting prostitutes would have little effect. These red light establishments however seem to have garnered little attention on German cards, possibly because they were considered a necessary evil.
(See Filles De Joie, dated May 7, 2012, in the archive of the website’s Blog section for more information on the military and prostitution)
There was a whole range of ways that farewells were treated on postcards, but scenes of passion were largely reserved for wives and girlfriends. These types of cards were already stretching the boundaries of good manners for those with a more traditional outlook. Wartime exuberance allowed for some leeway but most publishers were careful to keep these cards somewhat tasteful, at least early on in the conflict. By the time the United States entered the War, passionate goodbyes were no longer reserved for acquaintances. The American card above implies that every soldier is deserving of a kiss even if a stranger. The propaganda war that asked women, what will they add to the war effort helped create a mood that had unforeseen consequences. Many young women, some underage, decided to test the mores of these changing times, and traveled to various military encampments to do their patriotic duty by giving sex to soldiers. These charity girls were not prostitutes; they usually provided free sex, though sometimes in exchange for a meal or a show. Military authorities fearing the spread of venereal disease created moral zones around training camps from which these women were not only banned but sought out for arrest. Tens of thousands were arrested, often on flimsy charges, and those found infected ended up in internment camps for over a year.
As men who worked on farms left to fight, the women left behind took over the tasks normally reserved for the men on family farms. Though little different from farming scenes depicted on postcards before the War, women are no longer just pictured in the fields, they are behind the plow. While this is usually portrayed as a patriotic gesture, most had no choice if they wished to survive. Their farm was not only a job it was home, it paid the bills and provided insurance against starvation. Not all these depictions are rendered equally. Cards that are only meant to emphasize duty to the nation are usually more pastoral, and even more colorful to temper the hardship. While the notion of sacrifice was important to their message, they still needed to be inspiring at the same time. Charity cards often show farm work to be more grueling because they need to stir up sympathy for these women if donations are to be made. Women are not just shown plowing but sometimes pulling plows in place of work animals.
Farming scenes were a popular genre in painting long before the start of the Great War, and they appeared on numerous postcards. Women had always played an essential role in farming, so it is not uncommon to see compositions that focus in exclusively on their labor. This became problematic during the War because there was little to differentiate the normal activities of farm laborers from the patriotic gestures of those who volunteered to work in the fields. This clearly demonstrates the importance of even simple captions that can separate military propaganda from pastoral landscapes.
Woman had always been engaged in farm work, though there was often a division of labor along gender lines. These lines grew less distinct in more rural areas, and it was not uncommon to see peasants engaged in hard labor, especially in Eastern Europe. As German and Austro-Hungarian armies pushed eastward, the peasants in the occupied lands were often pictured on fieldpost cards in the tradition of types. Peasants can also be found on real photo cards, sometimes posing with German soldiers. While many of these cards seem benign today, they were meant to reinforce stereotypes of the poor ignorant masses populating the region. This helped provide a rational for the invasion, occupation and eventual annexation of these fertile lands. The lot of these people would only improve under Germanic supervision.
The Great War not only disrupted trade in foodstuffs, much of it was reserved for the military so that soldiers would have the strength to carry out their duties. This caused no real shortages at first, only a rise in food prices. As more men were conscripted into military service from the fields and German U-boats took a higher toll on merchant shipping, Great Britain, which relied heavily on imports, realized that a crisis was soon to follow if nothing was done. To help relieve this problem the Minister of Agriculture then established the Women’s Land Army in February 1917. Postcards were employed in the propaganda effort to find women volunteers. The hard work involved was glossed over by promoting patriotic ideals and a sense of adventure. Women not only worked at all aspects of agriculture from plowing to harvest and even in herding; other sections were exclusively assigned for logging and the gathering forage for horses. While many women were shipped off to the countryside, the Woman’s Land Army was eventually employed in urban settings as vacant land was confiscated for agricultural use. Many photographs seem to exist of women out in the fields, but few seen to have been transcribed into postcard form. Those that do exist usually reproduce posters; though it is not always easy to identify which conflict a propaganda card was issued for since Women’s Land Armies reestablished in World War Two.
Once the United States entered the War, many women’s groups from suffrage organizations to garden clubs organized themselves into the Woman’s Land Army of America. They were not as numerous as their British counterparts simply because there was far less need for them. America was not only self-sufficient; it was an exporter of food. These women however played an important role as the War made these exports to other Allied nations even more crucial at a time when farmers were being inducted into the armed forces. This service did not just fill a national need, it was a way for women to feel they were making an important contribution to the nation and the war effort. As more women entered civic life, so grew support for women’s suffrage.
When there was no quick end to the War more men had to be called up to replace the mounting casualties. Occupations that once exempted men from military service grew much narrower, and some skilled jobs just went unfilled, while at the same time new industrial jobs were created to feed the war machine. While many women flocked to take up these jobs, their presence in the industrial work force was nothing new. The War may have opened up new opportunities for women, but it is an illusion to think that it was the War that broke these gender barriers. Women had been an integral part of production since the birth of the industrial revolution. Many jobs however were traditionally segregated, but by the middle of the War women were filling all positions except for those few beyond their physical strength.
Women did not freshly enter the industrial workforce during the conflict as much as they change their place of employment to suit the needs of war. Pay for women involved in arms production was generally above what they were accustomed to in order to attract them into this industry; but there were still hardships to face like a typical twelve-hour work day. Even when increasing inflation eventually neutralized these benefits well before the War was over, women still flocked to cities to find industrial jobs either out of patriotism or the desire for more freedom. While many employers bitterly resisted taking on women, others saw this as an opportunity for exploitation. Many firms often created new positions by reorganizing existing tasks. In this way if a woman was not seen as directly replacing a man’s job, she was not subject to wartime equal pay regulations. This policy directly threatened labor unions who fought the creation of lower paying jobs for women in many nations; though this often caused addition conflict with governments that were only concerned with output.
The familiarity with women in industrial jobs is perhaps one reason that they are not often depicted on postcards. When they do appear it is often because they are engaged in untypical work for the military. These cards are not only about women at work, their topical subject creates a patriotic gesture that can increase card sales. The image above of women painting insignias onto plane wings was widely circulated among the Allies, and can be found with captions in different languages.
When assaults on entrenched lines typically resulted in little more than immense casualties, more effort began being put into softening them up first with a heavy artillery bombardment that might last for days. The military was not prepared for this new type of warfare and it put great strains on the production of artillery shells. Many new facilities had to be built to keep up with need, and they required many new workers. With so many men being siphoned off to fight, women would have to fill in the gaps. Women came to play a very active role in the production of shells, fuses, and high explosives; and while this work was sometimes acknowledged on postcards, it rarely went beyond the simple recognition that all members of a nation were aiding the war effort.
The materials women often worked with were dangerous to handle, especially in conditions that emphasized output over workerís health. Hundreds died during the conflict through accidents or poisoning, and long term health effects were never recorded. Fumes from the varnishing of plane wings often led to unconscious women being laid outside factory walls in rows. Those working with high explosives suffered from eczema and their skin was stained a brownish yellow. While the press and postcards praised these women as munitionettes, the public often derided them as yellow girls or canaries. Their chemical smell and sickly appearance cause many to be shunned and denied entrance to shops and cafes. Postcards kept this downside of weapons production hidden from the public while only emphasizing patriotic values.
Considering the vital role women played in arms production, their recognition on postcards is scant. This is representative of the overall bias toward woman at this time, whose use was dictated by necessity but rarely respected. Anna Airy was a well known artist of her day, yet her efforts to support the War through her work like her male compatriots found few takers. The Munitions Sub-Committee of the Imperial War Museum finally commissioned Airy to produce four paintings, but she was subject to more contract restrictions than asked of any man. Airy also found work with the Canadian army who was more sympathetic to outcasts, and captured images of their camp in Surrey. Her outstanding paintings of female armament workers were not finished until 1919, and only appear as art reproductions on postcards issued after the War ended.
There was resentment within many societies over the mass introduction of women into the workforce. Despite the great need for their services in the arms industry, this attitude led to many jobs remaining unfilled. Publishers could not be seen as discouraging womenís involvement in the war effort without looking treasonous, but they often found backhanded ways to deride this phenomenon. While many postcards depicting women in traditional male roles were made to honor their service, just as many if not more poke fun at them. Some of these are only lighthearted jabs that were typically produced whenever social mores came into question, but others seem more mean spirited if only in subtle ways. Controversial opinions were usually displayed through humor, possibly to dull any backlash though intentions can never be totally clear. Even when lighthearted, the joke is based on the insinuation that a woman cannot perform a task as good as a man. Cute nicknames such as conductorette, farmerette or munitionette were meant to be more demeaning than descriptive. Pictured above is a card from the series, Woman and the War, illustrated by Leroy for the Parisian publisher P.J. Gallais. The French had a particularly high distain for seeing women in traditional male roles, and postcards honoring their service rarely went beyond the trite.
The French had a particularly high distain for seeing women in traditional male roles, and postcards honoring their service rarely went beyond the trite. On the French card above we see women occupying many jobs such as tram operator and truck driver, but it is more of an acknowledgment of the new reality. Even then it is not taken seriously but used a a joke that soldiers on leave can relax now that women are doing all the work.
As women entered the workforce in great numbers, they required clothing more suitable to their new occupations than the tailored lines typical of the Edwardian period. Many women working in labor intensive occupations ended up wearing trousers, which was considered scandalous for breaking gender taboos. By 1915 hemlines also began to rise until they reached mid-calf. While many complained of immodesty other pressing issues kept this trend in place. Fashion once considered risqué was now depicted on postcards as patriotic; though publishers still poked fun at the change.
Putting uniforms on millions of new soldiers created immense shortages of fabric, which additional production could not make up for. As a result, all clothing for civilians grew skimpier, less well made, and was eventually rationed. Fabric shortages in Germany reached the point where tailors were asked to report women who placed orders for full dresses to the authorities. As with many hardships, clothing shortages were often tackled with humor on postcards as can be seen on the German card above that displays the latest ragtag fashion trends.
The French propaganda card above also treats clothing shortages with humor, but it pokes fun at the Germans rather than acknowledging problems at home. It does not tackle the problem of supply as much as the character of German women. The Allies often portrayed the War as one against Prussian militarism rather than one of geopolitical rivalries. It was easier to stir up hatred against the enemy if they were seen as holding contrary values; making the conflict more personal. The whole of Germany would eventually be mobilized into the war effort, but its people complied out of patriotism, not innate war-like behavior.