The White Feather Campaign: A Struggle with Masculinity During World War I

By Peter J. Hart
2010, Vol. 2 No. 02 | pg. 1/4 |

White Feather Campaign was a brutal that shattered countries, redefined warfare with its bloody massacres, and left a generation with only the memories of the horrors they had seen. The trench warfare of the battlefield tore young Englishmen apart and turned their long held belief in the nobility of battle into a terrifying mockery. But it wasn’t only on the Front that the men of England faced a fight that threatened their very being. Those men left at home, whether by their choice or by some restriction, were forced to undergo a swift and merciless assault on the most important part of their essence: their masculinity. With the security of England threatened, those able-bodied men left behind were looked down upon as cowards, and passionate English women across the country launched a crusade against them.

The White Feather Campaign began with the creation of the white feather as a symbol of cowardice and unfulfilled civic duty. With the war effort and the recruitment campaign in full swing, the women of the White Feather would present any healthy young Englishman in civilian dress with this token, in order to symbolize their scorn for him and his failure to be man. Upon receipt of a white feather, these men were being told that they weren’t “real men” and that the women around them looked upon this apparent lack of masculinity with disgust. The campaign was meant to make these men question their gender identity and hopefully drive them to enlist in the military so that they could correct this perceived imbalance.

The Campaign worked fairly well and by shaming Home front men, these women drove many into the army out of dread of receiving a white feather themselves. But an unexpected consequence arose from this attack upon Englishmen’s masculinity, one that these “patriotic” women didn’t foresee. As this campaign became more public and recognized, the community backlash against women who engaged in this practice became increasingly harsh. Englishwomen had been molded into a weapon against the masculine identity through propaganda and promises of patriotism.

Their efforts were successful but the campaign eventually incited a feeling of outrage among the English population for the terrible shame that they brought upon both deserving and undeserving men. What I seek to argue in this paper is that by choosing to make a judgment of noncombatant men’s identity, these women unintentionally forced a harsh criticism to be made of English women. An attack on one gender identity caused ripples to run through the other, the White Feather campaign did not simply affect masculinity but also brought femininity into the light for condemnation. The recruitment movement of the white feather waged outright war against English masculinity and before it was over, both male and female gender identities changed as a result of this tactic.

Constructing Women as a Gendered Weapon

The history of the white feather really began almost a decade before the start of World War I with the publishing of The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason. The novel tells the tale of a young British officer, Harry Feversham, who resigns from the British armed forces and attempts to return home from the war in the Sudan. Upon his resignation Feversham receives four white feathers as symbols of cowardice and loss of respect. Three are from former comrades in arms who believe that Feversham is fleeing the army in order to avoid the coming war. The fourth is from his fiancée, Ethne, who is stricken at Harry’s resignation from the armed service. She returns her engagement ring to him to show that she no longer loves him and gives him the fourth feather to express her belief that he is a coward for leaving the war. The rest of novel chronicles Feversham’s attempt to regain his honor and the favor of his love. The only way that he achieves this is by returning to the Sudan where he kills his Arab enemies and saves his unit from destruction. Now with these actions having proven him to be a real man, Ethne promptly takes him back and they are soon happily marriedi.

This novel was a popular adventure novel in England at the time of World War I and, because of Feversham’s experiences, the white feather was commonly thought of as a sign of cowardice and shame. Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald was a military man who strongly believed in using conscription yet was forced to run a recruitment effort for an all-volunteer English army. Understanding the power of the symbol that this novel created, Fitzgerald devised a plan that he believed would help drive unenlisted, able-bodied men into the English military. On August 30, 1914 in the city of Folkstone, Admiral Fitzgerald gave thirty women the duty of handing out white feathers to men who were not in uniformii. Fitzgerald looked upon the men who were not out fighting for England as “deaf or indifferent to their country’s need” and that by giving the use of the white feather to women he would show them that they had “a danger awaiting them far more terrible than anything they can meeting battle”iii. This idea quickly took effect and began to sweep across England. Females everywhere would hear stories of women giving out feathers, or read in the newspaper of how these men were shamed for “shirking their duty in not coming forward”iv. Women who handed out white feathers to civilian men became known as members of the White Feather Brigade or the Order of the White Feather. Women were always the lesser gender in England, overshadowed by the dominance of their male counterparts, especially in the political arena.

But when Britain joined the war, they were allowed and, in fact, encouraged to participate in the war effort, a chance that they seized with great vigorv. The White Feather movement gained a good amount of popularity with English women because it allowed them to feel as if they were fervent English patriots. The White Feather women began to see themselves as the guardians of the English spirit and that through their recruitment work they would make sure that all men did their duties for the Union Jack. Women were barred from fighting in the war as combatants, they were forced to stay at home and wait while their husbands or relatives were out dying in the trenches. The White Feather Campaign gave them a chance to actively participate in the war effort and see themselves as helping the English army by sending them more soldiers.

Furthermore the white feather allowed them to gain power over the men who usually ruled them. This kind of gender power reversal was a chance that women rarely got, much less one that the government endorsed. These women became the harbingers of doom to those civilian men who were attempting to get out of fighting; they were no longer the lesser sex. What Fitzgerald had deftly understood was that there was something that was more terrifying to youthful Englishmen than a gruesome death on some foreign battlefield. The campaign showed a great knowledge of how masculinity functioned and the white feather played directly into this gender structure. The most devastating blow that could be dealt to an English youth was the sudden recognition of a woman’s shame and disapproval.

War and masculinity have long been associated with each other, and many consider being a fighting man to be the most potent and impressive show of masculinity. Over the twentieth century and into the new millennium this conception has been largely disproved, no longer does one need to be a military man in order to uphold their masculinity. But the old understanding of battle as a place of honor or an event where boys become men was still upheld in England. World War I was the point in which this concept was beginning to be questioned. It was just becoming understood that machine-gunning each other from opposing trenches was far from a dashing duel between two swordsmen, and yet these youths had still been raised to believe that fighting (and if necessary dying) for their country was the epitome of manhood. It was because of this shifting ideology that England gradually had to change between voluntarism and conscriptionist status during World War I. They were optimistic at the onset of the war that their men would rise to the challenge and provide enough manpower to push the war effort through to the end.

The English leaders thought it would be a short war and that volunteers would swell their ranks sufficientlyvi. Even when it became apparent that this war was going to be a long and costly battle, the government held back from conscription. Most democratic governments do not wish to implement a draft that will legally make male citizens of their country pick up arms and march out to their deaths (especially because of political repercussions). It is the hope of every country that and patriotic fervor will fill their ranks with willing men who believe in the cause. Unfortunately this can’t always be the case, especially in such large-scale wars. The days where hoards of men would rush off to war to be heroes were gone. Many men felt comfortable with their manhood and no longer felt the need to prove it on the battlefield with their own blood and amidst so much death. This new ideology of masculinity and civic duty wasn’t enough to satisfy Britain’s needs.

In 1917 and 1918 Britain began to move towards conscription as it became clear that these able-bodied men would have to be forced into the armed forces. This is not an argument over whether a draft is moral but rather a sign that the age of martial masculinity was beginning to slip away. Fighting in a war was no longer an honor but was beginning to become a compulsion. While change was in the air for masculinity, this transition was far from complete and many men still unconsciously equated war and manhood. By capitalizing on these civilian men’s fears of masculine inadequacy, the White Feather Campaign was striking at the heart of a changing male gender identity.

The English propaganda effort was extremely focused on gender issues, specifically those of masculinity. Most posters questioned a man’s responsibility in one way or another. Some centered on the defense of women, while others asked what a father would answer if his children asked him “Daddy, What did you do in the Great War?vii” The most compelling gender propaganda of them all was the use of everyday Englishwomen as recruiters for the army. But the English government did not just sit by idly and wait for these women to take up the cause. Those in power, specifically in the recruitment branch, realized the influence that these women had over men. “Many correspondents point out that recruitment lectures are not the best means of reaching the workingman and that all-important recruiting agency, his sister or sweetheart.”viii The government was legally barred from using conscription within England at the beginning of the war, so they put a large amount of effort behind this propaganda campaign that urged women to take up this fight.

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