White Feather As a Symbol of Cowardice

face of a prisoner

During World War I, thousands of women across the British Empire gave men white feathers to shame them into enlisting in the military. By 1785 in England “show the white feather” was a folk saying for the behavior of a timid fighting cock.^ Fighting cocks was not then or subsequently a respectable activity. In 1902, British novelist A. E. W. Mason used the white feather as a central symbol of a British army officer’s cowardice in his adventure novel, The Four Feathers. A silent-film adaptation of that novel, Four Feathers, was produced in the U.S. in 1915. Mason’s novel thus symbolically elevated the white feather into a potent means for publicly shaming men into fighting in World War I.

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