One hundred years ago today, on February 4, 1915, Germany declared a U-boat blockade of Great Britain. Historians note that the blockade changed the shape of the war, as it made civilians potential targets. The German blockade would have its most notorious moment three months later, on May 7, with the sinking of the Lusitania, resulting in the death of 1,198 civilians.
While sinking the Lusitania was a momentary victory for the German navy, it would ultimately be a huge propaganda win for Great Britain and her allies, as “Remember the Lusitania” became a rallying cry for their war efforts. In America, the disaster was couched in terms that focused on the women and children on the ship–innocent victims of war.
Of course, civilians, and by extension women, have never been immune to war. Women have been victims of war throughout history, whether they died innocently or fighting, or survived to become the spoils for the victors. Women have been more than victims, too. They have always picked up the slack on the home front while men marched away. They have defended their homes, done their husband’s jobs on top of their own, nursed the wounded both on and off the battlefield, and even fought beside the men.
That’s why I find it fascinating to explore the ways women have been portrayed in wartime. I don’t believe that women’s roles have varied all that much through the years, but certainly the public perception of those roles has changed.
The sinking of the Lusitania resulted in one of the most iconic images of womanhood in World War I, the sinking mother, babe in arms–innocent victims of the war to be protected. Other images of women from the Great War likewise show women as creatures to protect, images of comfort and home and prosperity to be returned to. The calls for women to help, show images of passive, sweet-faced maidens or nurturing matrons. They show mothers, arms lovingly outstretched to sons, or nurses, looking pretty and peaceful in their uniforms, or even mythological representations of women, such as Lady Liberty sowing fields.
Not quite the reality of what women really did, for example these French women plowing their fields in World War I.
In contrast, the women of World War II, twenty-some years later, are a stouter lot. The iconic, attractively-burly Rosie the Riveter and her companions burst on the scene with cries of WE CAN DO IT! OF COURSE I CAN! and IT’S OUR FIGHT TOO! Women are working in the posters of World War II, doing real labor–active, fighting, tough! Not just comforting helpers, but partners in the war effort.
The contrast between portrayals of women in the propaganda of the First and Second World Wars offers an interesting insight into how much attitudes about women had changed between 1915 and the late 1930s/early 1940s. It’s easy for modern readers to think of the struggle for women’s rights being a post World War II, civil-rights-era phenomenon, but the suffragists, labor leaders, and generally strong women of the early twentieth century achieved more than just the vote. These images are a great reminder of what they accomplished in changing the perception of women in the first half of the twentieth century. We must remember the Lusitania, but we must also remember the women who were fighting on the home front, for the sake of their sons on the battlefield, and their daughters, of future generations.
This is what inspired me to write SEARCHING FOR SILVERHEELS, a story of women on the home front during World War I, the challenges they face, and all the ways they must find strength to meet them. It is my tribute to the universal truths of womanhood, across the generations, whether or not we live in an era that acknowledges them.