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"White Feather" Feminism:
The Recalcitrant Progeny of Radical Suffragist
and Conservative Pro-War Britain 
by Robin Mac Donald 
The twentieth century began in June of 1914 -- on the day that Europe plunged into a vortex of change called the Great War.  What emerged four years later was a very different world from the one which saw its inception.  What began in nationalistic optimism, would end in a worldwide skepticism that would permanently mark the century.  The onslaught of pro-war propaganda prompted a show of the nationalistic fervor which characterized the milieu of pre-war Britain.  As the Germans invaded neutral Belgium in August of 1914, the patriotic call grew as the propaganda’s slant changed from the legal discussion of treaty violation to a chronicle of both real and fictionalized war atrocities.  With the heightening of the propaganda campaign, the invasion of Belgium became more engendered.  “The appeal to duty, conscience, and sense of honor became a plea for the protection of the family” as the portrayal of the war became “a battle between good and evil” to be fought against the enemy of the “home” (Gullace, Sexual Violence 7).  The engendered imagery which permeated wartime propaganda would repeat itself in British recruitment efforts.  It became a common rhetorical tactic to frame the issue of the War in stereotypical sexual imagery in order to both garner and bolster public support. 

It was in this atmosphere that Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald organized a group of thirty women to help “convince” the men of Britain to join in the fight against the German enemy.  It was the tactical objective of this group to shame civilian men into joining the armed services.  This aim was to be accomplished by public humiliation -- the women handing out white feathers to any man who did not wear a uniform.  “The Order of the White Feather” and their recruiting methods quickly spread across Britain.  Women of all backgrounds contributed their influence to the war effort (Gullace, "White Feathers" 178).  The zeal and the scope of this gendered phenomenon was paralleled only by the contemporaneous movement for suffrage -- a movement which, right before the war, had reached a radical pitch.  It is in the radical nature of  “The White Feather Brigade” -- the confrontational method which was employed by these women toward men -- that a tactical tie is evidenced between the pro-suffrage and pro-enlistment movements.    It is in the motives and movements of Emmeline Pankhurst that an ideological connection is discovered between the feminine pro-war demonstration of the “White Feather Girls” and the Suffragists. 

British feminists struggled for over fifty years to obtain votes for women.  During the pioneering phase, from 1866 to 1870, they focused their energies on the Reform Act of 1867, but the bill which enfranchised so many of the working class, did not include women.  The second phase of the struggle, lasting from 1870 to 1905, has been described as diffused and uneventful.  With the advent of militancy in 1905, the fight for women’s suffrage took on a new and bold intensity (Kent 184).  It was Emmeline Pankhurst and her eldest daughter Christabel who rode the suffragist crest on the eve of the Great War.  By 1914, Emmeline Pankhurst was the undisputed leader of the suffrage movement in Britain.  Under the leadership of the Pankhursts, the movement had taken on a broader and more radical scope -- the call for equality had taken on the look, the feel, and the design of a “sex war” (Mitchell 29). 

It was Emmeline Pankhurst’s daughter Christabel who, in 1906, masterminded the thesis which laid down the “new” strategy that would guide the movement for the next eight years.  Miss Pankhurst reasoned that the failure of the suffrage movement had thus far been its inability to make any appreciable impact on public opinion.  She believed that it was useless to expect any backing from the Labor movement -- they didn’t have a stake in the enfranchisement of about two million middle and upper class women who would presumably vote either Liberal or Tory.  The Conservative Party was solidly, although illogically, opposed to the idea of women’s suffrage.  The political tide, regardless, was turning for a Liberal victory in the election of 1906.  Christabel concluded that the obvious strategy was to win the support of the working-class women -- to point out to them that they could use the vote to improve women’s conditions throughout society: 

to refuse to commit oneself to any political party, and to attract funds and backing from women on a sex-war basis -- which would in itself create a fighting, if temporary, democracy of the dispossessed;  to use every chance, at general elections, by-elections, and major political meetings of all kinds, and by spectacular individual or mass demonstrations to force the Government either to sponsor a women’s suffrage bill or to expose its refusal to do so.  (Mitchell 29)
Christabel’s bold design proposed results in a number of areas.  This radical approach would inevitably put the government on the defensive.  All anti-suffragism, of whatever political ilk, would be driven into the open -- this, she determined, would prove that the fight was a “sex war” and not that of a political or philosophical type.  Newspapers would be forced to give space to the matter.  She believed that the latent outrage and militancy of women all over the country would be roused and they would begin to take up the fight on their own accord (Mitchell 30). 
Thus, this “sex war” strategy, by broadening the scope of issues, expanding goals, and radicalizing methods, changed the course and the aim of the struggle from one of suffragism into one of feminism: 
    State regulation of prostitution, the institution of marriage, the male monopoly on medicine, and the exclusively male administration of laws that failed to protect and often endangered women, constituted for feminists evidence that a state of war rather than mutual cooperation for common goals characterized the relations between the sexes.  (Kent 157) 
By 1914, sexual issues permeated the literature and propaganda of virtually every suffrage organization.  Prostitution and venereal disease were the favored topics employed to illustrate the condition of women in a male-controlled society (Kent 159).  As the influence of the Pankhurst’s WSPU (Women’s Social and Political Union) increased, so did the sexualized nature of the feminist struggle play out in the public forum.  On the eve of Britain’s war with Germany, the domestic war between the sexes was already in full force. 

The genderized nature and/or sexually implicit propaganda which characterized the suffrage movement carried over to the propaganda which distinguished the war effort as concern turned from the German violation of treaty law to “the German invasion of Belgium neutrality of August 4, 1914” (Gullace, Sexual Violence 2).  In describing and/or fictionalizing the war atrocities being perpetrated by the “Barbaric Hun” on the “innocence” of Belgium, British war propaganda took a conscious turn toward genderized imagery in its depiction of the invasion: 

As the personal became political, the case of Belgium offered a way to explain the need for military action in private and sexual terms.  “Britain is Fighting not only for Freedom in Europe,” one recruiting poster proclaimed, “but to defend your mothers, wives, and sisters from the horrors of war.”  (Gullace, Sexual Violence 9)
The justification for political involvement and military force was framed in gender specific imagery with sexually violent overtones.  “Playing on the allegorical representation of Liberty as a woman, Allied artists repeatedly depicted a female Belgium stripped to the waist, bound and violated . . .”  (Gullace, Sexual Violence 16).  It was this kind of propagandized imagery that stimulated and popularized the war effort.  Many of the very same negative characterizations (of men) which had been waged in the “sex war” by the suffragists were now employed to depict the “Teuton barbarian” in the fight against German aggression.  The oppressors of both British women (in the fight for equality) and Belgium (in the fight for liberation) were characterized in a sexually aggressive manner.  It was this kind of war propaganda, combined with an already fully mobilized feminine consciousness, that both ignited the imaginations of and guided the actions of  the “White Feather Brigade.” 

Shaming men into political or military action is not unique to the tactics used by the women of wartime Britain.  The idea carries all the way back to ancient times and is evidenced by the comical yet poignant depiction put forth by Aristophanes in Lysistrata.  In World War I alone, both a women’s contingent in Russia and in the United States utilized the same tactics to sway men into military service.  It is the timing and momentum of  “The White Feather Brigade” and the anti-masculine sentiment which was attached to the “feathering”  that ties this wartime activity to the feminist movement.   

The first two years of World War I saw the utilization of only voluntary enlistment in Britain.  The recruiting propaganda “relied heavily on a patriotic appeal that wielded masculinity to military service and branded the unenlisted civilian as a coward beneath contempt” (Gullace, White Feathers 182).  As E.S. Turner describes in his World War I chronicle, Dear Old Blighty, the pressure to enlist was inescapable: 

So the recruiters, rolling up their sleeves, varied the appeal to pride, honour, manliness and vengeance with warnings to eschew shame, disgrace, betrayal, sloth and cowardice.  From a poster showing the ruins of Belgium a woman asked, ‘Will you go or must I?’  Under a photograph of the dead Lord Roberts ran the message, ‘He Did His Duty.  Will You Do Yours?’  The breadwinner was asked, ‘Is Your Conscience Clear?’, ‘Is Anyone Proud Of You?’. . . . (65) 
It was the intent of “The White Feather Brigade” to shame the unenlisted of Britain into service, and, by doing so, to demonstrate their own patriotic quintessence as women by illuminating the unpatriotic nature of men.  The justification or appropriateness of these “featherings” was often of no concern -- many men, just returned from active duty, were presented with this symbol of cowardice (Gullace, White Feathers 187).  The underlying message of the “White Feather” movement seemed intrinsically tied to the feminist construct.  These women were, fundamentally, comparing their own characters to those of the men.  It was in this instance that the women could be backed by a “patriotic intent” in their effort to show the men for what they were -- to show them as not only repressive, but also as inherently weak and not deserving of their favored status.  Although much has been made of the pacifist endeavors of feminists during the war (Sylvia Pankhurst representatively), it must be recognized that the general weight of the suffrage movement was behind the war effort (Gullace, White Feathers 179).  With characteristic dedication, Emmeline Pankhurst, the indisputable leader of suffragism, seemingly redirected her attention from the war of  the sexes to the war with Germany.  But, as evidenced by her movements, the original cause was never far below the surface -- in many ways, Pankhurst continued her feminist agenda under the guise of wartime patriotism. 

As World War I began, Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst were able to utilize the “great emergency” to their own ends.  Under the circumstances, it certainly wouldn’t have been well received to ignore the national crisis overtly in an effort to continue the fight for suffrage.  In opposition to her sister Sylvia’s pacifist stance, Christabel Pankhurst explained their mother’s posture on the war in her book Unshackled: 

War was the only course for our country to take.  This was national militancy.  As Suffragettes we could not be pacifists at any price. Mother and I declared support of our country . . . . We offered our service to the country and called upon all members to do likewise . . . . As Mother said, ‘What would be the good of a vote without a country to vote in!’ . . . . She called for wartime military conscription for men, believing that this was democratic and equitable, and that it would enable a more ordered and effective use of the nation’s man power. (1)
“The Prussian philosophy, said Christabel, with its hausfrau vulgarity, was a monstrosity which every militant should strive, with mingled patriotic and feminist zeal, to destroy” (Mitchell 50).  The mass hysteria, the overwhelming pro-war ethos of wartime Britain, made the redirection of militancy easy for Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.  Their weekly paper, the Suffragette, was renamed Britannia in 1915 -- here, “hun-hatred” was fostered by detailed atrocity stories and abusive attacks were made on pacifists, conscientious objectors, and anyone in favor of a negotiated peace (Mitchell 51).   

Characteristically, Mrs. Pankhurst threw all her energies and all her influence into the effort, which now, designated itself pro-war and pro-conscription.  Although, not all of the members of the suffrage movement backed the war, Mrs. Pankhurst’s influence swayed many to follow her lead.  “Giving its energies wholly to the prosecution of the War, it rushed to a furious extreme, its Chauvinism unexampled amongst all the other women’s societies” (Pankhurst, Sylvia 593).  Enlistment of the unenlisted was of the highest priority.  As Sylvia Pankhurst points out in her chronicle, The Suffragette Movement, her mother and sister rallied their followers in an effort to reroute the militant momentum which they had so successfully orchestrated in the struggle for suffrage: 

On September 8th 1914, Christabel re-appeared at the London Opera House, after her long exile, to utter a declaration, not on women’s enfranchisement, but on “The German Peril.”  Mrs. Pankhurst toured the country, making recruiting speeches.  Her supporters handed the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress, and bobbed up at Hyde Park meetings with placards:  “Intern Them All.” (593) 
The “White Feather” movement of Admiral Fitzgerald is thus both ideologically and actively tied to the leadership of the suffrage movement in the wartime efforts of Emmeline Pankhurst.  In her nationalistic zeal, Mrs. Pankhurst was able to place herself in a patriotic light.  It was an underlying consequence of this pro-war stance that allied her with former enemies.  The tables had turned in more than one way -- wartime Britain had set the stage for an alliance between the militant suffrage movement and the national establishment. 

By October of 1914, Christabel Pankhurst was touring America in an effort to convince her audience to enter the War with the Allies (Mitchell 50).  When the first Russian Revolution took place, Emmeline Pankhurst journeyed to Russia to dissuade them from “retiring” from the War (Pankhurst, Sylvia 594).  In Russia, Mrs. Pankhurst went to Petrograd and Moscow to urge Russian women to do their utmost to keep their wavering menfolk in the war.  She even got an interview with Kerensky and told him to take a firm line with the Bolsheviks (Mitchell 51).  Both the Pankhursts' domestic “recruitment” and their international war campaign efforts did not go unnoticed by the British establishment.  As Sylvia Pankhurst describes, the War had made for some strange bedfellows: 

Christabel received the commendation of many war enthusiasts. Lord Northcliffe observed that she ought to be in the Cabinet. Lord Astor told me, when I happened to be seated beside him at dinner, that he had received two letters from her; he had sent one of them to the War Office, the other to the Minister of  Blockade.  Undoubtedly he was much impressed by their contents.  (Suffragette 594) 
Not only did the Pankhursts now align themselves with the concerns of aristocratic conservatism, but Lloyd George (then Minister of Munitions), whom Christabel had regarded as the most bitter and dangerous enemy of women, was now the one politician in whom she and Mrs. Pankhurst placed confidence (Pankhurst, Sylvia 595). 

It was Emmeline Pankhurst’s call for universal compulsory national service for both sexes that especially served the conservative line.  Female service would be played out on the floor of the factory.  This new work force would be in direct opposition to the concerns of the “socialist” trade unions: 

In 1915, at the request of Lloyd George . . . the tiny but dynamic nucleus of the WSPU organized a mammoth Women’s Right to Serve demonstration in London to help overcome the still lively resistance of trade union leaders to the mass introduction of female labour.  (Mitchell 51) 
The conservative British establishment utilized Emmeline Pankhurst’s influence in their effort to curb “socialist” movement.  Emmeline Pankhurst utilized a conservative stance to place her underlying concerns for suffrage and women’s rights in a better light and in a better position politically.  She ultimately cozied up to the power structure of British society, many of whom she had previously considered the enemies of women, to advance the feminist agenda. 

In November of 1917, with an eye to post-war political action, the Pankhurst led WSPU was reformed as the Women’s Party.  Under the leadership of the Pankhursts, the British women’s massive war effort had given the Government no alternative but to enfranchise them.  In February of 1918, shortly after the first installment of women’s suffrage had become law, Christabel urged women to rally in an attempt to make further strides.  The first installment restricted the vote to those women who were home owners or the wives of home owners, and were at least thirty years old, enfranchising some six million out of eleven million adult women in Britain.  The age requirement served to ensure that women would not enjoy a majority over men (Kent 220).  The Women’s Party program advocated legislation by Parliament on hours, wages, and conditions of work.  They advocated equal pay for equal work, equal marriage and divorce laws, the same rights of guardianship of children as their husbands, and equality in education, health services, opportunity in the professions, and in the public services (Mitchell 53).  The suffrage movement had won the vote, not by de-radicalizing their efforts, but by redirecting their radical efforts to back a popular and more nationalist cause.  In the proverbial sense, the suffrage movement had learned how to play ball with the powers that be -- the War had inspired the Pankhursts to use the patriotic fervor of the times to ingratiate themselves politically. 

From the inception of Christabel Pankhurst’s “sex war” thesis in 1906, Britain had been thrown into a very public debate on women’s rights.  In its effort to impact public opinion, the original plan followed a radical separatist stance -- destruction of property, mass rallies, hunger strikes, physical assault -- all had been designed to force a negative response from the male-power structure.  The Pankhursts had bargained that this negative response would show the traditional male stance at its repressive worst.  They had hoped that this would rally a general public support for the women and the movement.  Although these tactics garnered much in the way of publicity and additional support from women, it ultimately alienated, ever further, the conservative power-structure.  After years of radical public play, the “sex war” didn’t make any appreciable headway in the struggle for the vote.  What it did do was place the whole “sex” issue in the public eye for years prior to World War I.  It was the widespread familiarity of the issue as a whole -- the years of debate on women, on men, and on their respective spheres -- it was this “sexist” atmosphere that drove the content and feel of the war propaganda, the British recruiting campaign, and the “White Feather” movement.  By the time the War had begun, the domestic front was so used to measuring all public policy by a “sexual” yardstick that it came as no surprise to anyone in Britain that even the realm of war could not escape a genderized framing of the aspects concerned. 

When Christabel Pankhurst constructed her thesis in an effort to impact public opinion, she couldn’t have imagined how her anti-establishment “sex war” initiative would take a conservative wartime turn to ultimately attain the goal of women’s suffrage.  Originally, the plan had called for an alienation of women’s objectives -- a negation of any goals common to both sexes.  With a radical energy, heretofore unheard of from women, the suffrage movement proceeded to purposefully separate itself ideologically from the maleness of the national agenda.  It would have seemed more in keeping with the movement’s character for the Pankhursts to take a pacifist stance on the War -- that they would have opposed a war which had been orchestrated by a “male-controlled” power structure.  The immediate pro-war stance, which was taken by the Pankhursts, seems at first glance, a major departure from Christabel’s original design.  But, when the core of her thesis is separated from the radical movements which followed, the wartime position of the Pankhursts can be seen to have stayed true to Christabel’s main goal. Her main goal, after all, was to make an appreciable impact on public opinion.  By backing the war, the movement changed outwardly from one of Suffragism to one of Feminine Nationalism.  As it re-directed its efforts, its more universal cause garnered a more favorable public response, and thus, opinion.  The war effort of the Pankhursts had succeeded where the suffrage movement had not.  Their conservative alliance with the establishment stance gave them a public respectability that their “sex war” suffrage demonstrations hadn’t.  It was constructing a semblance of unity with conservatism that garnered the approval needed to win the vote.  Although in its effort to conform, the movement toned down its feminist rhetoric markedly during the War, the enlistment campaign as evidenced by “White Feather” movements, intermittently took on the radical tinge and tone of pre-war suffragism.  Here, the “sex war” sentiment combined with pro-war patriotism to form an odd and sometimes virulent display of feminist nationalism. 
In order to analyze “The Order of the White Feather,” all the factors that influenced it must be taken into account.  This recruitment phenomenon must be interpreted as the resulting combination of the two most emotionally charged influences of the day.  It might be considered the “mutant” offspring of the unlikely marriage which took place between the radical pro-suffrage and conservative pro-war movements.  The “sex war” psyche had not been diminished by the onset of war with Germany.  The energy which had previously been exerted in the suffragist “sex war” was not redirected to the recruitment effort of wartime Britain -- the energy of the two movements were fused to create a new nationalistic feminism.  When the Pankhursts added their seal of approval to the sentiment and the tactic of “feathering” by both backing and participating in the effort, suffragists all over the country were encouraged to conduct a righteous assault on civilian men without the fear of recrimination from either the establishment or the suffrage elite.  Whether Admiral Charles Fitzgerald’s “White Feather Brigade” and Emmeline Pankhurst’s “white feather” recruitment tactics were organizationally tied is irrelevant -- the psychological motivation of all “White Feather Girls” was unequivocally tied to that of the suffragists. The objective was to show men in the worst possible light, and by comparison, illustrate the patriotic quintessence and moral superiority of British womanhood.  

It wasn’t long after the War had ended that a definite anti-feminist backlash was detected throughout Britain.  As the soldiers were mustered out of the army, the women were dismissed from their wartime jobs.  The pressure on women to return to their domestic sphere was intense.  A new government propaganda campaign took an abrupt turn against women and against the victories women had secured before and during the War (Kent 221).  How much the memory of “white feathering” contributed to the backlash cannot be determined.  Although the initial recruitment efforts of women were deemed patriotic, the realities of war and the often nasty manner in which this method was executed  was eventually deemed, at the very least, in extremely poor taste.  As the carnage was calculated, people took pains to distance themselves from any participation in recruitment efforts.  The world had forever changed in the four years which made up the Great War.  Both the War and the Suffrage movement had made their mark on British society.  Suffrage had been attained, but the costs of the War diminished this feminine victory.  Post-War Europe had enormous hurdles to overcome.  With a skeptical eye turned toward the future, both the men and women of Britain began an effort to move forward -- in the uncertainty of this new and precarious 20th century. 

Works Cited 
Gullace, Nicoletta F.  “Sexual Violence and Family Honor:  British Propaganda and International Law During the First World War,” in The American Historical Review,], June 1997.  

---.  “White Feathers and Wounded Men:  Female Patriotism and the  
Memory of the Great War.”  Journal of British Studies  36 (April 1997):  178-206.  

Kent, Susan K.  Sex and Suffrage in Britain, 1860 - 1914.  Princeton:  Princeton UP, 1987.  

Mitchell, David.  The Fighting Pankhursts:  A Study In Tenacity.  New York: Macmillan, 1967.  

Pankhurst, Christabel.  Unshackled, in Spartacus Educational.  [].  November 1997.  

Pankhurst, E. Sylvia.  The Suffragette Movement:  An Intimate Account Of Persons And Ideals.  1931.  London:  Virago, 1977.  

Turner, E.S.  Dear Old Blighty.  London:  Michael Joseph Ltd., 1980.  

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