During the First World War, patriotism was as important to women as it was to men. The women who served in the First World War had been brought up with the sense that war was part of the evolution of the human race. Likewise, this generation of women had a favourable view of all things British. In the years leading up to 1914, they would have lived in an environment that was increasingly worried about ‘the German threat’.
British society and government tried to make patriotism attractive to women to help the war effort. At the beginning of the war, there was a particular focus on crimes that Germans had committed against women. Alongside this, Prussian masculinity was portrayed as violent and extreme – a view shared by Emmeline Pankhurst, the leader of the Suffragette movement.
Having a country full of patriotic women also made the men more willing to enlist in the armed forces, as the feeling that women were ‘doing their bit’ for the country made the evasion of duty by some men all the more disgraceful.
A major part of women’s patriotism was the negative view they had of Germany. At the beginning of the war, newspapers were keen to paint the Kaiser and his country as a threat. In September 1914, the Eastern Daily Press ran a story about two young ladies from Norwich who had become governesses in Germany, but had to return to Norwich after war was declared. The article gives us a good insight into how patriotism was used to portray the Germans as a threat to Britain. It reports that the two women “quite agreed… that the English are now regarded in Berlin with a ferocious and contemptuous hatred… Maps are shown in which England has become a territory of Deutschland.”
In 1914, Norfolk women were mobilised through a uniquely feminine type of patriotism closely intertwined with the idea of ‘women’s duties’. Women had traditionally been involved in charity work, and rapidly directed these roles towards the war effort, calling on local women’s leagues, organisations and needlework guilds to donate goods and supplies.
Patriotism infiltrated women’s advertising, with beauty products aimed specifically at women war workers. In 1917, the Eastern Evening News Norwich ran adverts for ‘Ven-Yusa Oxygen Face Cream – A real necessity for women war workers’. The product description claimed: “Women war-workers find that the grit and grime of the munition factories, exacting hospital work, and exposure to sudden weather changes are injurious to the skin.”
Norfolk girls were also taught the importance of ‘doing their bit’, and were trained to become useful to their country. At a Girl Guides inspection at Framingham, in 1917, one of the Guide leaders, Mrs Denny Cooke, congratulated the girls “as every badge they earned made them of more use to their homes and country.” She added that earning ‘home’ badges was “the most practical way of showing gratitude to our soldiers and sailors, so that when they return home they will find [their homes] good, comfortable and happy, and worthy of the great sacrifices which have been made for them.”
Patriotism could also be used to make women feel guilty, pressuring them to do their ‘duty’ for their country. A 1917 advert in the Eastern Daily Press asking women to join the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps pricked the consciences of women who were not yet helping the war effort: “All such women who have not yet been drawn into some form of essential national service will do well to heed the appeal now being made on behalf of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps… The patriotic motive will, of course, count for something in the spirit of every right-minded woman.”