Women Persuading Men to Fight Other Men

face of a prisoner

While much recent historical research has emphasized women’s neglected contributions to history, women’s contribution to persuading men to fight other men still has not been adequately appreciated. Women have encouraged and incited men to fight in a variety of ways. In 1756, an English magazine presented a humorous, imaginary parlor conversation discussing how women should encourage men to fulfill their proper roles of fighting and dying in wars. The specific war of concern at this time was England’s war against France. The female hostess, a voice of the male editor, states:

‘Tis our business rather to inspire them {men} with courage, by listening to the addresses of those only who have discovered a proper regard for our religion and liberties, either by arming, or exciting others to arm, against the profess’d enemies of both.

Then the (male) narrator declares:

I was just going to commend my ward for her sensible observations, when a lively little Thing, who had cast several glances at me, in order, I suppose, to make a conquest of me, notwithstanding my age, and the gravity of my deportment, thus prevented me. – “All arts, said she, to induce men to fight for their country, should I think be allowed; and I think moreover, that all leers, nods, ogles, winks, and taps, should be tolerated and encouraged for the welfare of the state, and not deem’d coquettish, immodest, and unbecoming”^

Both women’s abstract political discourse and women’s flirtatious bodily gestures can encourage men to fight other men. In Britain in 1914, Baroness Orczy, the leader of the Active Service League, declared:

Women and girls of England, you cannot shoulder a rifle, but you can actually serve her {England} in the way she needs most. Give her the men whom she wants…use all the influence you possess to urge him to serve his country.^

This appeal was part of a well-organized campaign to enlist men to fight in World War I:

{Baroness Orczy} offered a military style badge and a place on the League’s “Roll of Honor” to any woman or girl who pledged to “persuade every man I know to offer his service…and never to be seen in public with any man who being in every way fit and free…has refused to respond to his country’s call.” The baroness succeeded in enrolling 20,000 women and for her efforts received a letter of commendation from the king. Yet Orczy was merely one of a multitude of commentators and patriots who bade women to persuade their men to enlist and to scorn those who refused.^

In their appeals to women, recruiting campaigns recognized women’s power over men:

If you cannot persuade him to answer his Country’s Call and protect you now Discharge him as unfit! {excerpt from recruiting leaflet}

Women of Britain Say – ‘Go!’ {text from recruiting poster} ^

Much more so than the lives of different ethnic, national, racial, and religious groups, women and men’s lives typically are closely intertwined. In nearly all times and places, men and women have engaged intimately with each other. Men’s relationships with women greatly affect what men do.

In England during World War I, women gave young men not in military uniforms white feathers to shame them and show contempt for them as cowards. Women encouraging men to serve in the military could take crude forms such as this notice in the London Times in 1915:

Jack F.G. If you are not in khaki by the 20th I shall cut you dead. Ethel M.^

Giving a white feather, in contrast, was a highly stylized public gesture. The women who performed this gesture imagined themselves to be patriotic women serving in the Order of the White Feather, also known as the White Feather Brigade. Leading public figures supported the white-feather campaign. Among the white-feather proponents was Mary Augusta Ward a leading British novelist (Mrs. Humphrey Ward). She founded the Women’s National Anti-Suffrage League in 1908. Another white-feather proponent was Emmeline Pankhurst. She founded in 1898 the Women’s Social and Political Union, a militant suffragette organization. Thousands of women participated in the white-feather campaign. Speaking in the House of Commons in 1916, Winston Churchill praised British women for “unchecked and indiscriminate voluntary recruiting — enforced by every form of social pressure, equal almost to the power of compulsion of law.”^

Personal stories testify to the effectiveness of the white-feather campaign as well as its indiscriminate pursuit. A father of three young children had volunteered for service, but was turned down on account of his nearsightedness. He applied again a day after being given a white feather. A fifteen-year-old boy who lied about his age to get into the military was sent home after he caught a fever during a retreat from a deadly battle:

“I explained to them that I had been in the army and been discharged, and I was still only 16. Several people had collected around the girls and there was giggling, and I felt most uncomfortable and … very humiliated.” He walked straight into the nearest recruiting office and rejoined the army.^

In Hyde Park Corner in London, a young woman speaking out to urge men to enlist gave a seventeen-year-old male dressed in civilian clothes a white feather. A few days later, having joined the service, the young man returned dressed in military uniform to the same spot:

she recognized me and in front of the crowd round her stand she came up to me and asked for the return of her feather. Amidst mixed cheering and booing I handed it to her. She had tears in her eyes as she kissed me and said, ‘God Bless.’^

In another instance, a woman business owner standing on a train upbraided a man for not offering his seat to a wounded soldier. The man stood up and showed her a severe, fresh war wound down near his buttocks. The woman evidently deeply regretted her mistake:

the woman took {the man} to her room, “put a bottle of whiskey {at} the side of the bed took {off} all clothes and got in bed and said do as you like you earned it.^

Apparently, being wounded in war was worth much more than just a kiss for enlisting in the army.

Some women showed more cultured appreciation for the value of men. Because a woman was disinfecting her husband’s uniform, he had been dressed in civilian clothes while having tea with her in a café in London. Three white-feather-carrying young ladies confronted the woman’s husband. She repulsed them, telling them “they ought to be in a Munitions Factory making Ammunition for the Soldiers to defend themselves.” She ordered the young ladies to return to the café the next day. That day the husband was there smartly dressed in his military khaki, “with all my Decorations.” According to the husband, the ladies were ashamed and they:

told my wife they would pay for our teas my wife told them that my Husband would pay for us as it would be an Insult to take their money they little knew what I had gone through in the first year of war always wet through from frost snow rain wounded at Neuve Chappel and how many battles I had been in I was wounded 2 and gassed 2.^

This woman loved her husband, probably decided what he wore, and understood his public value. She would not allow others to pay for her tea: “my wife told them my Husband would pay for us.” She understood that her husband fulfilled his manly duty by paying for her and suffering horrendously in war. She represented an alternative form of woman’s leadership of men.

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