This post was written by Keely Shaw, a 2020 Junior Fellow at the Library of Congress.
This summer, during my Junior Fellowship at the Library of Congress, I had the pleasure of working with the Library’s Learning and Innovation Office to develop resources for educators, specifically a set of primary sources. The general topic for this summer was public health, and between my interest in women’s history and the current pandemic, I began looking for sources related to nursing during the flu pandemic of 1918. Eventually, I began looking at the more broad topic of public health nursing between World War I and World War II. I wanted to look at the changes that occurred in that relatively short period in the practice and understanding of nursing.
However, in my research I came across a series of posters produced a little before my project’s focus: I found the Library’s online collection of Red Cross posters from World War I. While they didn’t fit the scope of my project, they remain fascinating and useful sources. They can be used as a tool to teach students to analyze and decode advertisements and posters, and they bring a pop of color and fun into primary source analysis, since many sources from this period are black and white.
The Red Cross posters from WWI are complex images rife with gendered implications and imagery. Their imagery presents a deep contrast from some representations of the concurrent suffrage movement and ideas of the New Woman. Two key archetypes can be found in this series of wartime posters – mothers and beautiful nurses. These ideas contrast not only against the social movement of feminism happening at the time, but also each other.
To add some context, these posters came out between 1914 and 1919. While that coincides with the Great War, it also overlaps with some of the high points of the suffrage movement. In particular, the idea of the “New Woman” had become popular in the U.S. The New Woman emphasized women’s independence and capability, showing them as feminists and independent career women. The iconic imagery of the New Woman includes a woman riding a bike and wearing the popular fashions of the day. The Red Cross posters shown here directly contrast with the images associated with both suffragists and the New Woman; rather than showcasing their independence, these women are framed with their relationships to men in mind, either as a mother or as an object of desire for men.
These two archetypes are particularly clear in two posters; the Spirit of America and the Greatest Mother posters. Both play on gender roles and stereotypes, but to different ends. Examine these posters with your students with these questions in mind:
- Why might the person designing these posters have chosen these particular archetypes?
- What made them persuasive to the American public?
- Why did the artist choose images that contrasted deeply against suffragists and New Women?
- How did gender shape images of nurses, both literally and in the mind of the public?
Gendered imagery can be found in any number of sources. The archetypes found in these posters, a mother and an object of desire, can be found in current advertisements even though a hundred years have passed. What similar images in commercials or ads do you or your students notice? How do these images help sell products? Why are these same tropes being used today?