Case Study: Gendered Images

In a post-feminist age, one could argue that there should also be a chapter devoted to the way that men were depicted and appealed to in posters, but these are generally not relevant to the Home Front, with most posters aimed at men designed to get them to enlist in the services. With the war no longer fought in faraway territories, women were involved firsthand in warfare for the first time. The Government tried to appeal to women in many different ways in their posters.

During the war women encountered impossibly incompatible representations of themselves: from being inessential to national identity, to being central to it, to threatening to it; from being patient wives to mobile women; from being painted ladies to military beauties [Footnote 1].

The ideas of the First World War still held sway in some ways, as through the 1920s and 1930s the woman’s expected place was still the home, although there had been growing acceptance that there were roles for women in the workplace. It was not until there was a need for employed men in the armed forces that women were actually appealed to in the armed support services, or in the factories. The majority of posters still relied upon images of women that emphasised their domestic, passive, maternal, and supportive roles, images that relied upon – and were rooted in – the orthodoxies of contemporary gender relations. We see the growing use of such phrases as ‘The Kitchen Front’, designed to make the woman feel that she was ‘doing her bit’ in the home.

In America, women were encouraged to join the services by a campaign on the theme ‘Release a Man for Combat’, which backfired as it “drew attention to the fact that if wives and girlfriends enlisted they might be sending their own or someone else’s loved one to risk death at the battlefront” [Footnote 2]. M-O claimed that in Britain, the effect was the opposite, as a poster with an illustration of a soldier, captioned ‘IF ONLY MORE WOMEN WOULD HELP’, was successful in increasing the pressure upon women to do war work, although it was only successful because it was well timed, unlike “Many government campaigns [which] attempted to operate in a pressure-less vacuum.” [Footnote 3] After 2 December, 1941, when conscription for women was introduced, posters were more concerned with the choice between occupations for women, rather than trying to persuade them to work at all.

The government faced a dilemma after the mobilisation of women as it was necessary to represent women as patriotic, both in the home, and in the workplace. Although a lack of workers meant that women were necessary in the factories, it was also wished that the war would not interfere with normal domestic arrangements, but “producers of official propaganda dodged this dilemma by separating the woman worker and the housewife” [Footnote 4]. The young, single woman was concentrated upon as the ideal recruit for work, pictured in model patriotic roles (Figure 42), whilst mothers and housewives were shown in domestic settings, wearing frilly pinafores (Figure 43), urged to ‘Make-do- and-Mend’ as their patriotic duty [Footnote 5]. Posters tended to ignore the fact that many women fitted into both spheres.

Posters needed not only to make jobs appear attractive to women, but enable them to identify with the images contained in the posters. Existing members of the ATS and Thelma Cazalet criticised Abram Game’s ‘ATS’ poster (Figure 44) for over-emphasising the glamour of service life, and it was a consequently withdrawn for being ‘too glamorous’, replaced with a photo of a serving ATS member (Figure 45), which was believed to lend an air of authenticity to the poster. The withdrawal of the poster suggests that the government felt that the glamorised images would not attract real women, although an MoI official claimed that the poster was not aimed at attracting glamorous girls, and couldn’t understand the objection to an A.T.S. girl being shown as smart and attractive. “One would think from this type of criticism that every effort should be made to show that the service was for the most unattractive and un-enterprising women!” [Footnote 6]

The practice of using idealistic images obviously presented problems for some, such as the farmers who had workers turn up to ‘Lend a Hand on the Land’ (Figure 46) in their summer holidays: “Girls turned up dressed as for a picnic and were incapacitated in a matter of hours.” [Footnote 7] Idyllic images of the countryside translated into smelly and hard work. The Woman’s Land Army were similarly idealistic (Figure 47), presenting a far more glamorous and clean picture than the reality. It was not only in the countryside that the realities were mis-represented. Factory workers were liable to find their machines taken over for the morning by a troop of glamorous women in ministry-approved war worker outfits, who performed for the benefit of the cameras and were subsequently used to illustrate the mobilisation of women. [Footnote 8]

Allied propaganda spoke directly about and to the servicemen’s fear of betrayal. Posters enjoining silence as a protection against spies implied that women’s talk would kill fighting men. Women are pictured as “irresponsible in their garrulity” (Figure 24), and as “sinister in their silence” (Figure 48) [Footnote 9]. It was felt to be very important to make people realise their responsibility as

the anti-gossip campaign will never be as effective as it should be unless everyone in the country realises that it is not necessary to be an out-and-out ‘long-tongued babbling gossip’ to be, potentially, one of the silly asses in the cartoons, jabbering away in public places. [Footnote 10]

Fougasse was felt to be very effective as “his victims laugh even while they see themselves as Fougasse sees them” [Footnote 11]. (Figures 18 and 24)

The most famous poster of the ‘Keep mum, she’s not so dumb!’ series, designed for the officers’ messes, contained a beautiful woman known as ‘Olga’ (Figure 48), although there were others produced aimed at lower ranks ( Figures 49 , 50 & 51 ), with the slogan used in other national campaigns. ‘Olga’ is presented as a ‘femme fatale’, a glamorous vamp, a spy whose charms will endanger national security. It is an idea that is repeated in ‘Don’t tell Aunty and Uncle’ ( Figure 52 ), with a young, apparently naked woman, evidently intent on gaining information, and again in A maiden loved; an idle word; a comrade lost; and Adolf served ( Figure 53 ) praised as presenting a “complete story in twelve words, full of pep and punch and straight to the point” [Footnote 12]. Such an image popular in many countries, although Lant claims that such images were really only used in Britain before it was realised what a shortage of “manpower” there was going to be [Footnote 13].

Dr Edith Summerskill complained that the ‘Keep Mum, She’s not so dumb’ series was degrading to women as housework should be deemed to be an economic contribution to family life [Footnote 14]. Indeed, M-O found that the posters did not really appeal to women, as most did not feel (consciously) that they were being kept, and were “unable to think of themselves in a situation where they would ‘BE LIKE DAD'”, although women were more commonly felt to be stimulated by joke appeals [Footnote 15]. M-O found that the pun in the slogan was lost upon many in the working class, whilst those in the middle classes felt that the slogan was undignified, and most did not call their parents ‘Dad’ and ‘Mum’ anyway [Footnote 16]. M-O felt that the dis-illusionment with government campaigns and slogans in general which followed the failed ‘Silent Column’ ( Figure 54 ) had also lent an antagonistic effect to any new campaign dealing with the issue of careless talk [Footnote 17].

Women were seen as danger as they could infect fighting men with venereal disease (VD). Reginald Mount’s “Hello boy friend, coming my way” ( Figure 55 ) shows the feminine allure of the veiled hat and the ‘vaginal flower’ which would “lure soldiers to dissolution and death”, signified by the skull of the woman [Footnote 18]. Note that virginal fictional heroines also wore such hats, and that it was the text ‘the easy girl-friend’ that lent the ‘sensual connotations’ [Footnote 19]. Its effect upon the innocent bride ( Figure 56 ) was designed to make men feel guilty about their free and easy ways, whilst women were made to feel guilty about the effect that VD could have upon their children ( Figure 57 ).

The very fact that posters about VD could be put up is significant as although it was recognised that war led to an increase in VD, the British government generally tried to avoid the issue, with the 1916 Venereal Diseases Act, which made it slander to imply that anyone was infected with VD, still in force [Footnote 20]. However the VD rates hit such epidemic proportions that in October 1942 a campaign was finally begun [Footnote 21]; its purpose to make the public aware of the symptoms of the disease, and the treatment available. It had been feared that the public would be squeamish about such issues, but a survey revealed that ninety per-cent of the public approved of the posters that were designed to shock [Footnote 22], and we have to take into account the fact that between the wars, advertising about bodily functions had become a normal occurrence.

Kirkham argued that there “was no ‘masculinisation’ of women’s body shape” [Footnote 23] during the war, and that the ‘New Look’, with the small waist, and an emphasis upon the bust, associated with post-war fashion, was also fashionable in war-time, when it was seen as part of the female duty to remain feminine: “beauty as duty … conveyed something of the stiff upper lip associated with the British upper classes” [Footnote 24]. Consider the difference between Figure 58 and 59 , where the first picture appears to have been rejected due to the masculine appearance of the woman. With the government attempting to persuade women to wear their hair in certain ways, in posters, hair styles are presented only as those which were the most sensible ( Figure 60 ). Generally only those in a fully domestic situation, or one of the glamorous spies mentioned, would be shown with long hair [Footnote 25].

Figure 61 was rejected, and it was suggested that this poster would have deterred mothers from handing their children over [Footnote 26], although IWM PST 0137, containing a very similar picture was accepted for publication. Both posters were entitled ‘Caring for evacuees is a national service’ and although there was legislation in place to make people become hosts to evacuees, this was generally regarded as unsatisfactory, and so it was left to volunteers, and to the discretion of billeting officers [Footnote 27]. In Figure 62 we get an impression of evacuation as a happy, healthy experience, in the joyous countryside with happy, willing hosts.

Having looked at all three case studies, we can see whether the government really did consider, and use, propaganda, specifically posters, as the fourth armament.


  1. Lant, A. ‘Prologue: Mobile Femininity’ in Gledhill, C. and Swanson, G. (eds) Nationalising Femininity: Culture, sexuality and British cinema in the Second World War, 1996, p19
  2. Costello, J. Love, Sex and War 1939-1945, 1985, p70
  3. M-O A: Change No. 2, Home Propaganda for The Advertising Services Guild, [1942], p13
  4. Summerfield, P. ”The girl that makes the thing that drills the hole that holds the spring… ‘: discourses of women and work in the Second World War’ in Gledhill, C. and Swanson, G. (eds) Op. Cit., p40
  5. Ibid.
  6. Quoted in World’s Press News, 30/10/41, from a collection of newspaper cuttings entitled ‘ATS Glamour Girl, History 1939-85’ by Abram Games OBE, RDI, held at the IWM
  7. Chamberlin, E.R. Life in Wartime Britain, 1972, p129
  8. Calder, A .The People’s War 1939-1945, 1969, p501
  9. Gubar, S. ‘”This Is My Rifle, This Is My Gun”: World War Two and the Blitz on Women’ in Higonnet, M.R., Jenson, J., Michel, S. and Weitz, M.C. (eds) Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars, 1987, p240
  10. M-O A : TC Posters, 3/C, Times, 7/2/40, p9
  11. Ibid.
  12. Daily Mail, 7/2/40, from a selection of newspaper cuttings, collected by E. Embleton 1939-1946, held at the Imperial War Museum
  13. Lant, A. Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema, 1991, p76 (emphasis in original)
  14. Unidentified, from a selection of newspaper cuttings, collected by E. Embleton 1939-1946, held at the Imperial War Museum
  15. M-O A: FR 442 ‘Slogan: ‘Be Like Dad, Keep Mum’ – Pilot survey’, October 1940, p6
  16. Ibid., p5
  17. Ibid., p4
  18. Gubar, S. Op. Cit., p240
  19. Kirkham, P. ‘Fashioning the feminine: dress, appearance and femininity in wartime’ in Gledhill, C. and Swanson, G. (eds) Op. Cit., p170
  20. Costello, J. Op. Cit., p328
  21. Ibid., p127
  22. Ibid., p130
  23. Kirkham, P. Op. Cit., p155
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid., p164
  26. H.M.S.O. Persuading the People, 1995, facing p76
  27. Chamberlin, E.R. Op. Cit., p149
  28. H.M.S.O. Persuading the People, 1995, p17

If you wish to cite from this page, please use the following citation:

    Lewis, R.M., ‘Chapter 7: Images for, and of, Women in Posters, Undergraduate Thesis: The planning, design and reception of British home front propaganda posters of the Second World War’, <URL>, written April 1997, accessed Enter Date Here

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By Second World War Posters

Mass Communications Academic, @MMUBS. British Home Front Propaganda posters as researched for a PhD completed 2004. In 1997, unwittingly wrote the first history of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, which she now follows with interest.

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