Feminism and the White Feather Campaign During World War 1

My previous post seems to have caused a stir at r/mensrights, with some (apparently MRAs) questioning my claim that it was namely ‘feminists’ who handed out white feathers to males wearing civilian clothing (including children).

Well I was a little bit imprecise and perhaps unwarranted in describing the girls who handed out feathers to the 16 year old boy as ‘femnists’. Of course, I have no idea if those girls were feminists, and neither I am claiming categorically that their actions implied or entailed that they were feminists.

I should also point out that in the two chapters of ‘The Second Sexism’ that I have so far read, the author David Benatar makes clear that he is not an ‘anti-feminist’, and carefully distinguishes between different types of feminism (and even I, like him, support true ‘egalitarian feminism’, although I clearly have less faith than him that it even barely exists in practice).

However, it is known amongst many online men’s rights activists that the suffragettes played a major part in the shameful white feather campaigns of the First World War. I have read accounts of this online and in books (even feminist books) many times. But it seems that many or most of the subscribers to r/mensrights are not aware of this historical fact.

Just a cursory look online will provide numerous links to information regarding the role that early feminists did play in the scandalous campaigns to shame men into fighting in world war 1 – including disabled men, conscientious objectors, men working in vital industries, and even underage boys.

I haven’t got time to post much material tonight, but I will add to this during the week. Readers are also invited to post any links they find themselves in the comments section.


Her supporters handed the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress and bobbed up at Hyde Park meetings with placards: “Intern Them All”.

The above quotation is taken from a book written by Sylvia Pankhurst herself (sister of Christabel) : E. Syvia Pankhurst, The Suffragette Movement: An Intimate Account of Persons and Ideals, Longmans, London, 1931


The justification for political involvement and military force was framed in gender specific imagery with sexually violent overtones.  “Playing on the allegorical representation of Liberty as a woman, Allied artists repeatedly depicted a female Belgium stripped to the waist, bound and violated . . .”  (Gullace, Sexual Violence 16).  It was this kind of propagandized imagery that stimulated and popularized the war effort.  Many of the very same negative characterizations (of men) which had been waged in the “sex war” by the suffragists were now employed to depict the “Teuton barbarian” in the fight against German aggression.  The oppressors of both British women (in the fight for equality) and Belgium (in the fight for liberation) were characterized in a sexually aggressive manner.  It was this kind of war propaganda, combined with an already fully mobilized feminine consciousness, that both ignited the imaginations of and guided the actions of  the “White Feather Brigade.”

Shaming men into political or military action is not unique to the tactics used by the women of wartime Britain.  The idea carries all the way back to ancient times and is evidenced by the comical yet poignant depiction put forth by Aristophanes in Lysistrata.  In World War I alone, both a women’s contingent in Russia and in the United States utilized the same tactics to sway men into military service.  It is the timing and momentum of  “The White Feather Brigade” and the anti-masculine sentiment which was attached to the “feathering”  that ties this wartime activity to the feminist movement.  

Articles by Men’s Rights Activists Discussing the White Feather Campaign :


In 1914 despite widespread pro war propaganda, male enthusiasm for shipping off to go get slaughtered in foreign battlefields was low. To overcome the reluctance of young men to get themselves killed or maimed for the benefit of a few hereditary elites and royals, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald began organizing a groups of women to help “convince” the men of Britain to enlist.

Using public humiliation, the objective of these groups was to shame civilian men into joining the armed services. “This aim was to be accomplished by public humiliation — the women handing out white feathers to any man who did not wear a uniform.  The feathers were intended as a badge of disgrace, branding the men who received them as cowards, the primary effect of which as to render them as unsuitable in the eyes of women. “The Order of the White Feather” and their recruiting methods quickly spread across Britain. Women of all backgrounds contributed their influence to the war effort.”

“(Gullace, “White Feathers” 178) The zeal and the scope of this gendered phenomenon was paralleled only by the contemporaneous movement for suffrage — a movement which, right before the war, had reached a radical pitch. It is in the radical nature of “The White Feather Brigade” — the confrontational method which was employed by these women toward men — that a tactical tie is evidenced between the pro-suffrage and pro-enlistment movements. It is in the motives and movements of Emmeline Pankhurst that an ideological connection is discovered between the feminine pro-war demonstration of the “White Feather Girls” and the Suffragists.”

Part 3 of ManWomanMyth’s war segment of his excellent series of YouTube videos on the myth of equality :

Not relating to the feminist role, but this clip from a news report brings the white feather campaign to life :

10 thoughts on “Feminism and the White Feather Campaign During World War 1”

  1. The probability of many of the women being feminists is the same as boys being being to young for war or simple not wanting to go.

  2. Very well put article.
    What is inescapable, is that the white feather is not anomalous female behaviour. It’s indicative of something far worse and probably insurmountable. What’s more, it has received far too little attention from myself and others, and that needs to change.

  3. There was a much simpler calculation behind the white feather campaign. The suffragettes simply saw men as the reactionary element, and reasoned that getting as many men as possible killed in the war would shift the balance of social power to the advantage of women. It was a cull, plainly and simply.

  4. the success of the white feather campaign is unquestionable proof of the power and priviledge societies have traditionally afforded women

    there is simply no way that any intelligent, free thinking person can honestly connect such ability with ‘low’ status

    could black men have made white men go off to fight that way?

    utterly out of the question!

    this historical artifact is telling us something very profound about traditional gender relations that revisionist historians do NOT want people to realize

    my guess is that if we dig around enough we’re very likely to discover that the white feather campaign is by no means the only thing ‘airbrushed’ out of the history books

  5. Sadly there is no one to blame for this.
    Just another dark episode in History.

    Rest in Peace all those men who were influenced by the action of these women.

  6. Sadly there is no one to blame for this.
    Just another dark episode in History.

    Yes, I guess so…
    Just like the dark episode in history that’s being made at this very moment, i.e. men being sent to prison for many years as despised, sub-human ‘paedophiles’, for having fully consensual and normal sexual relationships with the girls they love, or even for merely looking at photographs of 17 year old women that the same kinds of women who handed out white feathers to WW1 soldiers, of today: deem are ‘children’ and each time a ‘pervert’ looks at such ‘child pornography’ that ‘child’ is re-victimized as if by some VooDoo like magical evil force…

    Yep, nobody to blame for that kind of injustice either… Right Gary?

  7. Thanks Eric, really good article.
    It makes me angry how women hold up the “Bad Guy” with such appreaciation and yet men who have gone out to fight lose their lives are treated like shit!

    A few yrs ago I was paying respects to my Grandad who had been at Dunkirk, Normandy and beyond when a woman branded me a “warmonger” and I should feel ashamed.
    I gave her a mouthful of what was on my mind.
    I wonder how this woman had felt if she had been a victim of mass rape like those that happend in Germany, after the Russians, entered.

  8. Gary:
    I was the same one who left the comment on Rookh’s article about the white knights and the jesters. At the time that article came out, I had a cousin in Iraq and he told me numerous stories about the ‘heroes’ returning home to catch their wives doing some bad-boy while the soldiers were out going hand-to-hand with the Jihadists. His company commander went home on a surprise leave and found his wife screwing some skateboard toting scumbag on the living room floor with the kids watching TV in the other room!

    Then the bitch had the nerve to sue him for divorce; or the excuse that he violated her trust by not telling her that he was coming home. Pfffft. I think if I were deployed over there, I’d take off my uniform and disappear into the populace.

    “I wonder how this woman would felt if she had been a victim of mass rape.”

    Unfortunately, given the low standards of most women today, she probably would have liked it.

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