Pre-WW1, WW1

The Order of the White Feather: Did the Women of WWI Really Shame Cowards?

At the outbreak of WWI British society existed under a traditionally patriarchal family structure consisting of the man at the head of the house; the main breadwinner, while the dutiful wife looked after the home and the children remained financially and legally dependent on him.

Despite this broadly accepted norm, there were some intent on changing the status quo. Most notable were the women of the suffragette movement, and most aggressive among them were the founders of The Women’s Social and Political Union.

The well-born ladies of the Pankhurst family included Sylvia, Adela (who later distanced themselves from the more militant WSPU),Christabel and their mother, the formidable Emmeline Pankhurst.

The WSPU inaugurated  in the early 1900s successfully exploited various media opportunities, as well as pursuing an increasingly militant protest campaign to wage war on tradition and to fight for women’s right to vote under the banner of ‘Deeds not Words’. But what has any of this to do with the First World War, or The Great War as it was then known?

Annie Kenney (left) and Christabel Pankhurst.
WSPU leaders Annie Kenney (left) and Christabel Pankhurst. They were both physically and vocally active in their fight for women’s votes.

Women in Propaganda

From its very beginnings, the WWI propaganda machine made good use of women in its varied campaigns. The propaganda from the First World War is incredibly gendered. The nation itself is embodied in Britannia, a female character. In some campaigns, images of vulnerable women were used to engender the feeling that women required protecting.

Other campaigns portrayed women as something worth fighting for; in these images for example, it is the soldier in Khaki that gets the girl. More worrying perhaps was the suggestion that your women folk have an expectation of you. That if you did not go as instructed when called upon that you were not only falling short of the nation’s expectations of you but also that your sweetheart may be humiliated by your reticence to ‘do your bit’.

The Order of the White Feather

It was around this time that another, more militant recruitment campaign came to the fore. When Mrs Pankhurst ordered her membership to cease militant activity and instead support the war effort, the WSPU along with other political suffrage groups were divided.

One camp consisted of pacifists, women who were opposed to the very notion of war or our involvement in it such as Millicent Fawcett, another was populated by women who were very much on the fence, and the final camp included those who burned with a fervent desire to almost militarise themselves in their campaign to encourage men to enlist.

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Retired Vice-Admiral Charles Fitzgerald would soon harness the fervour of the latter group and use it to launch his own crusade to bolster the recruitment campaign. Fitzgerald, a long-time advocate of the concept of conscription, seized upon the already existing trope of the white feather.

This physical symbol is thought to have its origins in the ancient spectator sport of cockfighting and the suggestion that a cockerel with a white tail feather would likely lose the fight. Recognising the effectiveness of using women to humiliate men into enlisting, he began by recruiting a group of approximately 30 women in Folkestone to form The Order of the White Feather.

Their job was to present the feather to men of fighting age not in uniform in an effort to publicly shame them into signing up. Unsurprisingly, groups of formally militant suffragettes readily signed up for this campaign. They targeted men indiscriminately, many of whom no doubt were working class and had no more right to vote than they had in 1914. In fact, in 1914 around 42% of Britain’s male population did not have the right to vote.

However, as far as they were concerned this did not matter, if you were not in khaki, then you must be a coward. They often got it wrong, shaming soldiers on leave, wounded ex-servicemen, men whose jobs were essential for the war effort and occasionally, those who were too young to join.

It had a similarly traumatising effect on all of these groups. To be harassed and publicly denounced in this fashion and by a woman left many lying to the recruitment officer in an effort to be included in the next draft.

WWI Propaganda poster.
British propaganda poster that depicts women as bravely seeing their men off to war. But was it all as it seems?

The actions of this White Feather Brigade sparked anger in the media and among the general population leading the government to create a series of badges in an effort to protect certain groups of men for being unfairly targeted. Eventually, as the war progressed and the realities of the conflict became evident, these women would face a harsh public backlash (besides wrestling with their own conscience) for their involvement in the demise of so many British soldiers.

The Charitable Role of Women

We can only guess at Emmeline Pankhurst’s decision to channel women’s energies towards the war effort. As a supporter of the White Feather Brigade herself, was it a matter of national pride that led her to alter her course? Or was it that she recognised this war as a valuable opportunity for the women of Britain to prove their true worth, something which they had hitherto been unable to do?

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Regardless of her intentions, what the country now had at its disposal were groups of women, many from the wealthiest echelons of society who were well-connected, educated and had long since proven their skills in both organising and co-ordinating large numbers of people. It was certainly an impressive CV!

Indeed, the war prompted a new wave of voluntary activity and many UK charities were established to offer some level of support to servicemen on active duty and their families, some of which still exist today.

Though many charities were very successful, the whole process was poorly regulated and rather chaotic with one source claiming almost 18,000 charities were set up between 1914-1918 with additional charities established post-war in support of wounded soldiers.

The most popular charities to set up were those which involved providing ‘comforts’ such as cigarettes, clothing, food and books for troops.
One female led charity, the Smokes for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors society was one of the largest, distributing an estimated 265 million cigarettes over the course of the war and succeeded in doing so thanks to hosting charitable events such as ‘Fag Day’.

Voluntary Aid Detachments and Medical Developments

There were other ways in which women contributed to the war effort besides organising charitable fundraising days. One of which was particularly attractive to the middle and upper classes.

It is no secret that huge leaps and bounds were made in medical advancement throughout World War One. However, what the sheer numbers of casualties also highlighted was the urgent need for doctors and nursing staff. Certainly, during the early stages of the war, female involvement was confined to a care-giving role. It did expand opportunities for more women to train as doctors to staff up field hospitals.

But more widespread was the decision in 1915, to allow Voluntary Aid Detachment nurses, known as VADs to travel to the front. These women were often wealthy (you had to be able to work for free and to pay for your own uniform after all) and had only a smattering of training.

At the start they were often given menial tasks such as emptying bedpans, washing and rolling bandages and mopping floors. These women also helped to organise and manage local auxiliary hospitals across Britain providing care and a calm environment for injured allied soldiers to convalesce. Eventually their role evolved further to take on more responsibility, with some becoming ambulance drivers, administering pain relief and putting themselves at significant risk in overseas field hospitals.

It was not all smooth sailing, however. As is the case with a certain Scottish female doctor and suffragette named Elsie Ingis. Inglis was one of Britain’s first female doctors and upon offering her services and those of a number of other medically trained female staff to the RAMC (Royal Army Medical Corps) towards the start of the war she was rebuffed with the words, “My dear lady, go home and sit still.” Inglis was not the ‘sitting still’ type. Instead, she promptly set about raising funds for the provision of field hospitals for the Allied forces.


Edith Cavell
Nurse Edith Cavell (seated centre) with a group of multinational student nurses whom she trained in Brussels

Unlike the British government, French and Serbian officials were quick to accept her offer of help and she successfully went on to organise 14 medical units across 7 countries, staffed by women before succumbing to cancer, aged 53 in 1917.

Another celebrated figure is the British nurse, Edith Cavell. She and a number of her Belgian and French colleagues helped over 200 soldiers escape from German-occupied Belgium. Sadly, Nurse Cavell was executed by firing squad on October 12th 1915 after being arrested and tried by a German military court; her last words being, “I realise that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

A Culture Shift

1915 brought further disaster with a battle at Neuve Chapelle. In March of that year, the British, together with support from Indian and Canadian forces began to make headway via a salient placing the Germans in a difficult position.

However, the element of surprise was lost due to a series of communication issues and the fact that the British forces began to run very low on ammunition thereby causing them to lose the advantage just gained and to concede ground. This ‘shell crisis’ or ‘Shell Scandal’ as it became known, caused the government to spring into action and by July 1915 the Munitions Act was passed and a Minister for Munitions appointed in the personage of David Lloyd George.

This, together with the introduction of The Military Service Act, in January 1916 which imposed conscription on all single men aged between 18 and 41 (with a few exceptions) conflated to produce an environment in Britain which gave women their first real taste of independence. For many families the loss of their main breadwinner even from 1914 caused severe hardship. Now, with the introduction of the Act the male workforce was even further depleted.

Before the war, there was a marriage bar in place. For women who had to work, in domestic service or similarly unskilled roles, your career was at an end as soon as you became married. You would be expected to leave the world of work and retire to the socially accepted norm of taking care of your husband and your own brood of children.

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However, these were not normal times and for the first time Government propaganda set upon a new recruitment drive, this time, calling women into the factories and other essential jobs which had been vacated by men. Although it was made very clear to women that these jobs were ‘only for the duration’ of the war, for many it was their first time earning their own wage and this was in itself liberating.

Women postal workers were appointed, contingents of female police officers were recruited to police women in general and female factory workers in particular. The Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) was created taking women on as engineers and electricians, positions vacated by men called up to fight. Female tram drivers and ticket collectors began to appear on public transport. Later, in 1917, the Women’s Land Army was established to tackle the growing food shortage problems.

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All of these were significant firsts for a society which still struggled against the turning tide of female independence, even if it was only for a temporary period. In munitions in particular, women from working class backgrounds could earn a very decent wage, less than a man of course but more than in some other posts, primarily due to the long hours and dangerous nature of the work.

While before the war one man was employed to do a job, the new munitions factories employed three women in his place, thus conceiving the idea of the factory production line – it was highly effective and output increased significantly. Women had proven they could do the work.

Munitions Girls.
Women working in a munitions factory during the First World War. It was often dangerous and backbreaking work. (painting by Stanhope Forbes)

In July 1914 just 2000 women had been employed in dockyards, factories and the munitions industry. By 1918 this had risen to just short of 250,000. Broadly speaking, the British workforce saw itself bolstered by the recruitment of at least one million women during the war.

Back to Normal

You may expect British society to have altered irrevocably by the end of the War. However, this was not quite the case. The marriage bar was swiftly reintroduced in 1918 with many women having to leave their wartime jobs and to return to their life as it was before the war, family loss notwithstanding.

However, life was not the same, the men who returned from the front were changed by their harrowing experiences and the women they came back to were bound to have undergone their own changes. Marriage rates fell post war because women saw new opportunities to have a career and opted not to get married. So where did all of this leave our suffragettes?

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In 1918, The Representation of the People Act granted all men from age 21 (age 19 if you had served) the right to vote and the same rights given to women over 30 – about two-thirds of the British female population. It was not for another ten years when the Equal Franchise Act of 1928 was introduced that women aged over 21 were given equal voting rights to men.