Sunday, April 25, 2010

Misplaced feminine zeal - Order of the White Feather

The 100th anniversary of the First World War is only a few years away, and there will no doubt be many memorial events when that occurs. From this historic perspective, we can find it difficult to understand the thinking of that era, that whole populations would accept their governments' decisions so readily and that nations would rush headlong into hell before exploring every possible diplomatic solution to avoid conflict.
That particular War is also well known for the devil-may-care attitude of many of the young men of the time who thought it would be a “lark” and went off on what they thought would be a great adventure only to be brutally maimed, gassed, sent mad, or have their lives cut short in the most horrific and barbaric of situations. Its repercussions flowed for decades afterwards.
The War was also a watershed in the advancement of women, in that many of them stepped in and took over male jobs for the first time and proved that they were far tougher and more resilient than the “feeble” stereotype so beloved of Victorian and Edwardian men.
However, not all women did their bit in practical and admirable ways and some became involved in a shameful organisation that caused untold psychological damage to not only the men who became its victims, but to subsequent generations of their families. It was known as the Active Service League and its “award” was the Order of the White Feather – white feathers being presented in public places to men who were perceived to be cowards.
Surprisingly, one of its founders was the Tasmanian-born and ardent anti-suffragist, Mrs Humphrey Ward (Mary Augusta), whose family included such famous literary figures as Matthew Arnold and Aldous Huxley.
It seems remarkable today that a woman of high intellect committed to social reform for women and children such as Mrs Ward could have thought that financial, military, constititutional, and international problems could only be solved by men!
Another prominent woman who was anti-suffrage and became involved was Baroness Orczy, the popular author of "The Scarlet Pimpernel" books, and she hoped to recruit more than 100,000 women to the cause of shaming men into volunteering for the War.
Eventually, the practice of presenting men with white feathers as a symbol of their cowardice at not being in uniform got out of hand and it became necessary for returned soldiers, often wounded or invalided home, and men in protected industries to be issued with special pins so that they wouldn't be accosted in the street by zealous females keen to show them up.

There aren't any really good websites detailing the activities of the League, but some basic information about the white feather movement and the distress it caused can be found here.

Many writers and film-makers have used the symbolism since the 1902 novel by A E W Mason, “The Four Feathers”, up to the 2004 novel in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear entitled “Birds of a Feather”, which also uses this practice to construct an excellent plot that is both chilling and convincing.


Mirella Sichirollo Patzer said...

Saw your post on Historical Novel Society and thought I'd check out your blogs. Well done! You have some wonderful ideas for blogs.

I'd like to exchange links with you for your blogs and mine.


I'll add your two blogs to those sites as well.

Marina Maxwell said...

Thanks so much, Mirella. Your blogs are great and I've admired them for some time. I'll post up links to them shortly.