It is sometimes assumed that at times of war, men become vitally important, and women stop taking them for granted. But history shows that even or especially at times of crisis, many women express hatred for men and contemptuous demands for their sacrifice, as became clear during the First World War in Britain.
The British suffragettes who held their country hostage over voting rights for women have been glorified by modern feminists, who have minimized or justified suffragette violence in the years leading up to the First World War. But most feminists have been silent about these same women’s involvement in the White Feather Campaign during the war, when thousands of women across Britain participated in a mass shaming ritual designed to force men to enlist. The evidence of these women’s indifference to male suffering and their pleasure in crusades of sexual humiliation was so stark that to this day many feminists refuse to acknowledge the White Feather Movement.
The campaign to embarrass men into joining the war was inaugurated in the English port town of Folkstone on August 30, 1914. Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald, elderly retiree from the Royal Navy, was deeply committed to the war against Germany, which Britain had entered earlier that month, on August 4th.
Inspired by a now-obscure but then popular 1902 novel called The Four Feathers, Fitzgerald organized thirty Folkstone women to hand out white feathers to men who were not in military uniform. The white feather was given in recognition of the man’s alleged cowardice or shirking.
According to Professor of Philosophy Kimberly Baxter (“Humiliation or Death: the White Feather Campaign”), the white feather as symbol “originated from the belief that a white tail feather was a sign of inferior breeding in a rooster bred for cockfighting.” To show a white feather, therefore, was to show one’s unfitness for combat. In the afore-mentioned novel, a young military officer is sent three white feathers by his fellow officers after he resigns from the army in anticipation of an upcoming battle; the fourth feather is given him by his repulsed fiancé when she returns his engagement ring.
Admiral Fitzgerald, in organizing the White Feather Brigade, is reported to have said of the men of his country that a danger awaited them far more terrible than anything they could meet in battle: the danger, clearly, of a woman’s sexual contempt. Any man not willing to risk his life for his country was considered undeserving of the sexual love and public respect of the women of his homeland.
The practice of giving white feathers quickly spread to other towns and was enthusiastically adopted by women across Great Britain. There is no way of knowing the precise number of women who participated in the campaign, but as journalist Will Ellsworth Jones showed in his account of conscientious objectors during the First World War (We Will Not Fight: The Untold Story of WWI’s Conscientious Objectors), white feather activists must have numbered in the thousands and quite possibly in the tens of thousands.
The campaign went on for the entirety of the war’s four and a half years, even after the British government introduced compulsory service through conscription in 1916 (the Military Service Bill allowed the conscription of unmarried men aged 18-41; subsequently extended to include married men up to the age of 50), which clearly obviated any need to “encourage” volunteer enlistment.
The feathers were distributed with unseemly abandon. Historian Jessica Brain recounts the case of Seaman George Samson, who was given a white feather as he was traveling to receive the Victoria Cross, his country’s highest and most prestigious award for valour in battle. Army veteran Reuben Farrow, home from the front after having had his hand blown off, was accosted by a woman demanding why he was failing to do his patriotic duty; she left him alone after he showed her the stump where his hand had been (see “The White Feather Movement”).
Evidence of how widespread white feather giving was is found in newspaper accounts of the period as well as in diaries and published memoirs by soldiers who had direct experience of white-feather-wielding women. Professor Nicoletta Gullace, a feminist historian of the war years, mentions the abundant primary sources, including “a collection of remarkable letters sent to the BBC by old soldiers forty-five years after the armistice, describing this painful experience to researchers compiling an anniversary special on the history of the Great War” (see her online article “White Feathers and Wounded Men: Female Patriotism and the Memory of the Great War”).
Even the British government was prompted to intervene in a futile attempt to curtail the insistent harassment.
Officials issued “King and Empire” badges to be worn by men employed in home-front occupations essential to the war effort; they also created a Silver War Badge for wounded veterans in order to shield them from white feather aggressors. Nevertheless, the hounding of British men continued right to the end of the war, becoming one of the most rancorous war-time memories of soldiers and other men.
The fact that women continued to hand out feathers long after there was any plausible justification for it, and that they did so with complete indiscriminateness, often targeting underage boys, men home on leave from the Front, or men who had been maimed in battle, demonstrated that much more than misguided patriotism was involved. War mania itself does not seem adequate to account for the intensity and personal nature of the fervor these women displayed as they roamed the streets looking for male civilians. Even Emmeline Pankhurst, who had spent years in self-immolating ecstasy over women’s right to vote, abandoned the suffrage cause in order to dedicate herself to the male-shaming project.
In essence, the White Feather Brigade became a much-relished opportunity for women to express their sexual and moral power over men, and to demonstrate their exultation in symbolic rejection of those men they deemed inadequate. It was an opportunity to insult men with impunity, and to wound men with a psychological violence equal to or greater than a death blow itself.
Not all men objected to the practice; some shrugged it off or even laughed about it. Professor Gullace tells of a seventeen-year-old boy, H. Symonds, who wrote after the war of his experience of accepting a white feather from a pretty ginger-haired girl who had been making a recruiting speech at Hyde Park Corner in London.
Already eager to join up, he went to the recruiting office with the white feather she had given him still in his button-hole, and lied about his age in order to enlist immediately. Three or four days later, he returned in his military uniform to Hyde Park, where the same ginger-haired young woman recognized and approached him, asking for the White Feather back and giving him a kiss in its place. For this young man, white feather bullying was an expression of the natural order that he accepted with equanimity.
Many other men, however, especially those who were injured or knew those who had been, told stories of hostile encounters on trains or in public streets as late as 1917 or 1918 in which the cruelty and willed ignorance of White Feather women seemed almost beyond comprehension.
Some of these men felt compelled to display their mutilated bodies in order to shame the women for their obliviousness to heroic male suffering. There are even a few accounts of men slapping women across the face for their impudence, an action normally forbidden to any man. Some men carried deep anger for many years on behalf of friends or relatives who were sent to their deaths by feather-bearing women.
One, G. Backhaus, told of a sixteen-year-old cousin who was so traumatized by repeated taunts from white feather women that he lied about his age in order to get to the front, and was promptly killed. The “cruelty of the White Feather business,” this man declared, deserved to be far more thoroughly exposed (see “White Feathers and Wounded Men”).
Some women were outraged too. One man remembered how his mother, whose father died in the war when she was 9, never got over her sense of betrayal, remembering it even in her 80s. She blamed the politicians and the generals, but most of all she blamed “that unknown woman who gave him the white feather, and the thousands of brittle, self-righteous women all over the country who had done the same” (History of Feminism).
Feminist commentators have tended to downplay the popularity of the movement or emphasize women’s limited agency.
Feminist novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf insisted many years after the war that the White Feather Movement had been grossly exaggerated by misogynistic men to put women in a bad light. Woolf was convinced, without any evidence other than her own belief, that “The number of […] women who stuck feathers in coats must have been infinitesimal compared with those who did nothing of the kind.” She estimated that some men were making a fuss about fifty or sixty feathers in total (see Woolf, Three Guineas, p. 182). This is a straight-out fantasy.
Feminist historian Nicoletta Gullace is scrupulous about the real numbers, but focuses on mitigating women’s white feather activism, seeing the woman as backed into a corner by cultural trends over which they had little control. In her otherwise compelling account of the white feather movement, Gullace reveals her deep feminist bias when she has the gall to suggest that men’s anger over the practice was unjustified, describing men’s white feather stories as “an aggressive articulation of masculinity that claimed for those who suffered exclusive custody over the interpretation of the war.” How dare the men think that their war experience took priority over whatever the women had thought and felt. Men’s expressions of anger strike Gullace as unfair because they allegedly neglect “the larger cultural context that explained [the] women’s actions” (“White Feathers and Wounded Men”).
Canadian historian Peter J. Hart offers another sympathetic explanation, which is that the campaign gratified the women who participated because it “allowed them to gain power over the men who usually ruled them.” This is a typically gynophilic excuse for women’s abuse of power on the grounds that they didn’t actually have the power they so flagrantly abused.
But other explanations for the women’s actions are also well worth considering. Researcher Robin Mac Donald (see “White Feather Feminism: The Recalcitrant Progeny of Radical Suffragism and Conservative Pro-War Britain”) has emphasized the overlap in membership between the militant suffragettes who belonged to the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) and those women who later joined the White Feather Brigade. The leaders of the WSPU, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, became passionate recruiters for the war, and most of their supporters followed them.
The two movements seem rather different—one was radically in opposition to the government and to conservative society; the other was patriotic and supportive of the government—but both offered the opportunity for the unleashing of female rage in an allegedly altruistic cause. The “sex war” energy of suffragette activism was transferred to the war effort with the same deep anti-male antagonism as its impetus. The tactics of both campaigns were designed to expose male inadequacy and legitimize female assaults on men’s psyches and the wilful imperilling of male bodies. Both movements, in essence, were propelled by exterminationist female anger.
The final year of the war brought an at least partial victory for the suffragettes when women aged 30 and above were granted the right to vote in British parliamentary elections—largely in response to women’s factory work during the war years.
But that victory came at a massive cost, certainly in male lives and male suffering—with 700,000 dead and many more thousands severely injured, many permanently incapacitated—and also, not insignificantly, in the loss of male trust in women’s love.
For a considerable number of men, the war had brought two enemies into their lives: one on the battlefield, the other on the home front. The cost for men was so undeniable, and the evidence of female betrayal so staggering, that almost all feminist historians have assiduously covered over the reality of the war years, emphasizing instead the injustice to female factory workers who were quickly displaced by soldiers returning home after the war.
Women’s White Feather activism during the war provides vivid evidence that some significant number of women were more than willing to force their own menfolk with jeers and contempt into harm’s way. No excuse-making or claims of female victimhood can justify their cruel pleasure.