Previously in this column there has been cause to celebrate feminists like Emmeline Pankhurst and the suffragettes for their fearless advocacy for the rights of women. But now, I must castigate some of them for their behaviour during the Great War.
In August 1914, at the outset of World War One, militarist and meddler Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather. The order sought to shame men into enlisting in the army by having women present them with white feathers. The white feather is a traditional symbol of cowardice in British military culture and is partly why it is the Kiwi and not the silver fern that represents our own defence force.
To question their masculinity in such a manner in the early twentieth century was immensely powerful and led many men, and boys, to enlist. Will Elsworth-Jones’ book on conscientious objectors recounts how a boy of 16, having lied already about his age, caught a fever at the Battle of Ypres and was sent home. As he walked across Putney Bridge, four girls presented him with white feathers. He tried to explain that he’d already been in the army and was only 16. However, “[s]everal people had collected around the girls and there was giggling, and [he] felt … very humiliated”. He walked into the recruiting office and re-enlisted.
I don’t wish to cast aspersions on the entire suffragette movement. History is a nuanced discipline and is almost never black and white. The movement itself was split during World War One between those, like Sylvia Pankhurst, who dealt in passivism and those, like her mother and sister, who dealt in militarism. Some suffragettes saw militarism as an extension of their own militancy for emancipation, and in fact the absence of many British men did further women’s emancipation by thrusting them into traditional male spheres and proving that they could do a “man’s job” just as well.
The absurdity of this is best encompassed by the presentation of a white feather to George Samson, who was on his way to a public reception in his honour after having been awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery. Eventually badges had to be issued to those engaged in war work so that they wouldn’t be mistaken for a shirker or, worse still, *shudder* a conscientious objector.