Blast from the past: British WWII propaganda for women

While doing research for my MA thesis, I came across the website of the National Archives, which some time ago had a great exposition called The Art of War. Do check it out: there’s book illustrations, propaganda posters, videos, and an overview of official British war artists. Since my thesis focuses on women during the Second World War, I have compiled some of the most striking images concerning the roles they played. You might not know it, but women were everywhere! The ground they gained towards emancipation by taking over men’s duties while they were away at war was in many cases lost when the men came home again, resulting in much frustration for the women.

1. Scrap salvaging

These three posters by Fougasse (Cyril Kenneth Bird) were made in 1942. Even though the subject matter is serious, I find them hilarious. Look at the “little gift from Grannie”: a machine gun! These posters were made for the women of the home front, and mainly appealed to housewives from every generation to join the Home Salvage Corps. They stressed the importance of salvaging “scraps” like spare metal and bones, the recycling of which was vital to the war effort, mainly the production of weapons. For example,  statistics given in Advertiser’s Weekly in February 1943 noted that a single chop bone, weighing 2oz, could supply two rounds of ammunition for RAF Hurricane guns. Campaigns for salvage ran throughout the war, but Fougasse was an exception in focusing on the housewives instead of the factories and emphasizing the importance of their task.
The video Salvage with a Smile explains more about this campaign.

2. ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service)

The ATS was the women’s branch of the British Army during WW 2. Formed in 1938, it was initially a women’s voluntary service, and it merged with the Women’s Royal Army Corps in 1949. The women in this corps worked in mess halls and on searchlight duty; as lorry drivers, cleaners, welders, carpenters, parachute packers, ammunition inspectors, and electricians; and some worked on anti-aircraft guns, where they were allowed to do everything from tracking a plane to fusing the shell but pulling the firing chord.
The ATS had a poor reputation and tried to attract women by using the first poster, which Churchill later deemed “too glamorous”. They needed to find a balance between appearing fashionable and dressing correctly for the job. The second poster, which almost seems slightly Russian with its bright red, shows an optimistic-looking young woman in a more realistic depiction of an ATS girl. The third poster really urges the importance of women’s involvement in the war: “this time it’s personal”, as it were. The fourth is a propaganda image that shows two ATS girls in gunnery control positions, demonstrating the technical precision required for the task.

3. Keeping mum


There was quite a bit of paranoia about German spies back then, and these posters show that the government thought the greatest danger lied in glamorous women seducing officers. The first poster in not from the National Archives, but it did incite the rage of MP Edith Summerskill, who was not pleased with the ethos about the position of women the poster carried out. I couldn’t find anywhere what her precise problem with it was, but it seems to me that the stereotypical gossipy female is overrepresented on the poster, so I suppose that’s it.
The second poster isn’t much better, as it implies that the men from various armed forces branches are discussing military secrets, assuming that the “dumb blonde” won’t pass them on to the enemy. The third poster, called Seductive ‘siren’, is in the same vein: a glamorous spy making bedroom eyes. Prostitutes were often believed to be spies.

4. Other branches


The first poster shows that the war industry wasn’t all about producing tanks and ships, but also about making uniforms, for which women were employed. The second poster titled Just a good afternoon’s work is probably my favourite; working in the factory is like slapping Hitler in the face! The third illustration is of a nurse handing out her picture to lots of different soldiers. I’ve just finished a great book titled Sisters in Arms by Nicola Tyber, which tells the life stories of members of Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps during WW 2. Highly recommended! In the midst of conditions usually just as terrible as those the troops had to endure, the nurses had to work round the clock and preserve their bedside manners. Wearing lipstick so as not to look tired in front of the troops was often part of the job. The perseverance and bravery of these women is incredible.

5. Dame Laura Knight

One of my favourite war artists deserves a mention of her own: Dame Laura Knight. She was already a distinguished artist before WW 2, made a Dame for her services to art in 1929, and by 1936 was elected Royal Academician, the first woman to become a full member of the Royal Academy. She was commissioned to do a number of paintings as soon as the Ministry of Information, which was responsible for propaganda, established the War Artists’ Committee in 1939. She made paintings for the Lend a Hand on the Land campaign, one of which is shown above, and a number of paintings under the auspices of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps (WAAC). Her most celebrated wartime piece, Ruby Loftus Screwing a Breech Ring in a Bofors Gun (1943), shows a munitions worker performing what was thought to be an impossibly delicate operation for a woman. Knight was also commissioned to portray the Nuremberg trials in 1946, and this assignment made her an official war correspondent. It’s a very impressive piece that shows the sterile hall and the criminals on trial in the foreground, and in the background gives way to the sea of flames and rubble that both sides inflicted on each other. Europe is burning, and its perpetrators watch from their bench.



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