A Woman's Place in the War

Posters from World War I not only reinforced but relied upon gender stereotypes for their persuasive power.

War And Conflict-Civil War (1865)LIFE Photo Collection

Clara Barton, born in 1821 in Massachusetts, is known for her work as a Civil War nurse and as the founder of the American Red Cross.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; acquired through the generosity of Elizabeth A. Hylton

AC0433-0000808Smithsonian's National Museum of American History

Before Rosie the Riveter, there was first the Red Cross nurse. This American poster from World War One encourages women to become nurses with the Red Cross by playing on women’s traditional societal role as caretakers.

The slogan: “Our Greatest Mother – Join!” implies that a Red Cross nurse is the highest embodiment of motherhood. In the early twentieth century, when a woman’s sole roles were to be a wife and mother, this would have had enormous weight.

Behind the Red Cross nurse, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse wreak havoc, representative of the war.

The foremost horseman is War, evidenced by his red horse and fiery torch.

The second horseman, a skeletal figure, is Death.

The third, wearing a gold crown and shooting a bow and arrow, is Conquest.

The final horseman carries a set of scales, and is symbolic of Famine.

The Horsemen have left disaster in their wake, as evidenced by the burning town at their feet.

The Red Cross is a beacon of light and hope in this logo, acting almost as a sun in the upper left-hand corner. Behind it is a hint of blue sky, as if the Red Cross heralds better times.

Between all of this disaster in the background and the child in the foreground stands the Red Cross nurse. She is the protector of innocence. This enlistment poster promises that other women who join the Red Cross can be the same.

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