To mark International Women’s Day (8 March), we’re hosting a public discussion about the representation of women and gender in recruitment propaganda. Ahead of this event, we explore how gender is used in three First World War recruitment posters.

As the First World War progressed, it was not just the lives of men that were turned upside down as they went off to fight. For women, the needs of war brought about dramatic change to daily life as they became required to run their homes alone and take on men’s work, while keeping up morale back home.

Women had a vital contribution to make to the war effort, both in terms of their own service on the home front, and in persuading their men to go and fight. They were, therefore, central to many of the posters produced as recruitment propaganda throughout the conflict.

Women of Britain Say – ‘Go!’

During the earlier stages of the First World War, the main message to women was that they should bravely encourage their male relatives to enlist. This poster shows women seeing off loved ones, and was designed to make those men who had not yet signed up feel ashamed.

It also showed women sharing their homes with refugees to remind them of their duty to help those facing persecution by the Germans on the Continent.

Go! It’s Your Duty Lad. Join To-Day

Posters were released that specifically called out to mothers to ensure that their sons understood their duty. However, this particular poster, an example of one of the newer designs created by printers who had received little guidance from the government, proved unpopular.

Its commercial look alienated potential recruits, who were more positively influenced by designs that elicited a sense of comradeship, patriotism and duty.

Women Clerks Wanted at Once

By the end of 1916, the casualty rate on the Western Front persuaded the British government to raise a Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) so that soldiers could be released from non-combatant roles. The Ministry of National Service used posters like this to recruit women into a variety of roles including secretaries, telephonists, cooks, store-women, drivers, printers, bakers and cemetery gardeners.

This particular poster, from 1917, was produced at a time when the need for women clerks in support areas was urgent. By October of that year, an estimated 5,000 female volunteers were needed each week, to release men for front-line service. Most worked in Britain but some went to France.

The images used in the posters, of smart and confident women dressed in WAAC uniforms, could be seen as an early representation of the change in perceptions of ‘women’s work’.

Want to know more?

How to Sell War – Videos exploring the use of propaganda as a recruiting tool in the First World War.

Posters of the First World War – National Army Museum publication giving fresh insight into posters within the political and social context of the conflict.