Right now the U.S. military is preparing to allow women to serve in combat roles for the first time, and pressure is growing from international precedent for the U.K. to follow suit. Yet there are still many who feel that the frontline is just not a place fit for a woman. Such a prospect was certainly out of the question a century ago during World War I. At that time the nearest the U.S. “yeomanettes” came to action was mustering on the mocked-up superstructure of a battleship here in New York—part of a drive to recruit men to the Navy. (The majority of yeomanettes worked in clerical positions or as recruiting agents.) On the right-hand side of the above photograph is a poster, Howard Chandler Christy’s Gee!! I Wish I Were a Man issued in 1917. The poster’s winsome pin-up (modeled by Mrs. E. LeRoy Finch) sports a fluttering naval uniform; the whole look and chatty tone was extremely effective in underscoring the masculine appeal of serving soldiers. Here was a woman worth fighting for. The poster was admired for its American “punch” and “air of glad youth which came like a Spring wind over our war-weary spirits.” (Martin Hardie and Arthur Sabin, War Posters Issued by Belligerent and Neutral Nations 1914–1919, London: 1920). It is currently part of an installation in the third-floor Architecture and Design Galleries on the theme of “Women and War 1914–1945” that highlights women’s varied roles both in support and condemnation of war.
Amid the orgy of advertisements that accompanied conflicts in the early 20th century, images of women could be relied upon to tug at the emotions, whether to promote recruitment, raise funds, or instill a sense of patriotism and outrage. Women may not have fought on the front lines but they were needed as nurses and, as more and more men joined up, in the defense industries and military support jobs. For Every Fighter a Woman Worker (1918) depicts a female munitions worker with the symmetrical poise and beauty of a classical statue; she bears a miniature war-plane in one hand and a bomb-shell in the other. In reality the work she advertised was dirty, dangerous, physically demanding, and attended by frequent explosions and instances of chemical poisoning. Such injuries and fatalities did not come with medals and war pensions. The poster emphasizes the need to “Care for Her Through the YWCA,” but ultimately the concern seems to be as much about her moral as physical welfare, and about confirming her dependency. The prospect of assertive, self-sufficient women usurping traditionally male roles was too destabilizing to confront directly, and women needed reassurance that their femininity would not be compromised by such work.
Nursing was an easier sell in terms of fitting more comfortably with conventional views of women’s duties, although some were put in harm’s way in or near combat zones. Over 30,000 women served as nurses during World War I, many of them recruited and funded through the American Red Cross, an organization established in 1881 by Clara Barton. Arnold Genthe’s poster The Roll Call presented a dramatic expression of the Red Cross Spirit, the theme of a theatrical fund-raiser originally staged in Washington D.C.
On the home front during the two world wars, posters urged women to maintain public morale and health and to conserve precious resources for the war effort, whether that was by breeding rabbits for their meat or collecting cooking fats for conversion to glycerin, an ingredient in explosives An article in The Nevada Daily Mail from October 30, 1942, explained “Every drop of waste kitchen fat is needed to make the high explosives necessary to blast Hitler & Co. off the map. And glycerine makes explosives for the U.S. and our allies. So, save all your waste fats after you’ve got the good from them.”
As one World War II poster put it, “Women in the War. WE CAN’T WIN WITHOUT THEM,” a message supported by a dramatic photomontage of a woman fitting a shell case. But another poster displayed next to it in the MoMA exhibition shows the skeletal arm of a syphilitic prostitute clutching a soldier as he wilts in her embrace. This disturbing image warns men to steer clear of women’s seductive charms. Mixed messages for turbulent times.
“Women and War 1914-1945″ is currently on display in the third-floor Architecture and Design Galleries as part of Designing Modern Women 1890–1990, which is on view through September 21, 2014.