White Feather Women

The “white feather” women of the First World War were not a spontaneous movement of women trying to “do their bit” to encourage men to enlist, but rather part of the Army’s own recruitment drive. Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather in August 1914, asking women to hand white feathers, a symbol of cowardice, to men who were not in uniform.

The short story on my blog is based upon a real set of circumstances (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/nov/11/first-world-war-white-feather-cowardice). It fascinates me as to the reasons why any woman would attempt to humiliate a man into joining the Army, particularly after 1915 when it became apparent that, contrary to initial popular belief, the War would not be over quickly. The numbers of dead and wounded in the horror of trench warfare were also starting to accrue. Women were not permitted to enlist themselves yet many would have been aware of what was happening in Europe as a result of the involvement of their own male relatives.

The Order was not popular in Britain. White feathers were given to enlisted soldiers who simply happened to be wearing civilian clothing on leave, or who had been discharged from military service due to illness or injury. Others were aware of the high casualty rates and resented the pressure being put on their relatives. Many of these men were not cowards but were exempted from service, or in reserved occupations.

One theory is that it was a rare occasion upon which ordinary women were given power and a voice in a public place (http://the-white-feather-movement-worldwarone.wikispaces.com). In Britain at the time women could not vote, nor could a married woman hold her own property. Many of the women were very young and perhaps a little bit of power, mixed with a lack of insight or education, led them to behave as they did.

Compton McKenzie, a writer and serving soldier, suggested these women were simply after getting rid of boyfriends of whom they had tired (http://spartacus-educational.com/FWWfeather.htm).

A friend of mine suggested they may have simply been a manifestation of the martial women, encouraging their men to fight, recorded as far back as classical antiquity.

The women were widely reviled during the War, by soldiers and by men and women who remained in Britain, and subsequently very few were prepared to speak about what they had done or their reasons for doing so. I approached this story from the view of power, both between the man and woman, and between them and the government of the time, who were literally the “men in charge”.


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