The First World War wasn’t just fought on the fields of France and Belgium. There were lesser battles fought on the homefronts of the nations which were fighting.
In the United Kingdom and other Commonwealth countries, this battle was fought on the streets of cities and towns between men who didn’t wear a uniform and women who tried to shame them into joining the military.
These street conflicts got so bad that the governments eventually had to take action.
Learn more about the White Feather Girls and how they shaped World War One on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.
Before the outbreak of the first world war, a social movement was underway in the United Kingdom, similar to that in other western countries: women’s suffrage.
In Britain, women were restricted from voting, and the suffrage movement was an organized effort to change the laws to grate the vote to women.
When the war started, partisan politics, in theory, were put on hold, as was the suffrage movement. While the external expression of political movements was put on hold, the underlying desires and policies were not. They were just shifted into war-related activities.
The Women’s Sufferage movement split into two camps. There was a smaller camp of pacifists who were against the war. Then there was a larger group of pro-war nationalists who tried to use the war to advance their goal of having the vote extended to women.
As men were sent to continental Europe to fight, women took up roles in factories and other jobs that were traditionally held by men. The theory was that when the war was over, their patriotism and support of the war would make it hard to continue to deny them the vote.
Taking up factory jobs was important and also not very controversial.
However, there were other actions that British women took to support the war that was far more controversial and divisive.
When the war began, there was no conscription in the UK. The British military was an all-volunteer force for the first two years of the war. That necessitated getting as many men as possible to enlist and fight.
Just a few weeks after the start of the war, the British Admiral Charles Fitzgerald, who was pro-conscription, hatched a plan to get more men to enlist.
He recruited 30 young women in the town of Folkestone in southeast England to walk around town and hand white feathers to men who were not in uniform.
Here I have to explain the symbolism of the white feather.
The white feather has had many different, and often diametrically opposed, meanings throughout history.
The white feather was often used as a sign of peace, pacificism, or cowardice…and often, the difference between those was in the eye of the beholder.
Supposedly in 1775, a group of pacifist Quakers in Easton, New York, were having a meeting when a group of Indians who were on the warpath trying to find white settlers who had attacked them. Upon being confronted, the Quakers refused to fight back or flee.
When the chief of the tribe entered the meeting house, found no weapons, and saw that the Quakers did not attack, he put a white feather on the door to indicate that they should be left alone.
A century later, a non-violent Maori uprising took place in New Zealand, which used the white feather as their symbol.
In early 20th century Britain, however, the white feather wasn’t a symbol of pacificism, it was used as a symbol of cowardice.
…and just as an aside to give you an idea of how symbols can mean totally different things, during the Vietnam War, Carlos Hathcock, the United State’s greatest sniper with over 93 confirmed kills, wore a white feather in his hat.
Likewise, in 1346, the Prince of Wales plucked thee white ostrich feathers off the King of Bohemia and integrated them into his coat of arms.
So for the purposes of this story, the white feather was a symbol of cowardice.
These women would find men on the street and hand them white feathers to shame them into enlisting. The idea was that it was more effective if the shame came from women than it would if it came from other men.
By all accounts, it was effective. One 2022 study showed a jump in British enlistments by a third within ten days of the first mention of white feathers appearing in the news.
Lord Kitchener, who was the head of the British Military at the start of the war, approved of the program. He said, “The women could play a great part in the emergency by using their influence with their husbands and sons to take their proper share in the country’s defense, and every girl who had a sweetheart should tell men that she would not walk out with him again until he had done his part in licking the Germans.”
Women across Britain began giving white feathers to random men they saw on the street and would even give them to relatives. Some women would send white feathers in the mail, often attached to a postcard so everyone could read it.
Informally known as the Order of the White Feather or the White Feather Brigade, it even spread to other commonwealth countries.
Many women took part in the white feather movement because it gave them a sense of empowerment, a way to break the norms of the period in a socially approved manner, a sense of purpose, and a way to contribute to the war effort.
The White Feather Girls quickly became very controversial and unpopular in some circles.
One reason for their unpopularity is something we probably wouldn’t consider today. Back then, it was considered to be very unladylike to approach any strange man to talk to him. Giving out white feathers was doing exactly that, even though, even if the circumstances were not improper.
Secondly, they goaded some men into joining, who were later killed or wounded. Many families started to lay the blame for what happened to the men in their family directly at the feet of the White Feather Girls.
In a 2008 article for the Guardian newspaper, writer Francis Beckett told the story of his mother, who lost her father at the age of nine in the war. Her father was exempt because he had three small children and was nearsighted. However, he joined after he was given a white feather.
He wrote, “My mother was nine, and never got over it…. She blamed the politicians. She blamed the generation that sent him to war…But most of all, she blamed that unknown woman who gave him a white feather and the thousands of brittle, self-righteous women all over the country who had done the same….”
Next, they were rather indiscriminate as to who they gave white feathers. You were fair game if you were male and not in a military uniform.
The problem was that many of the men who were given feathers were not avoiding military service but had a very good reason for not being in uniform.
The first were men involved in important civilian industries, directly contributing to the war effort.
Many men were working at munitions and armament factories, which were considered essential industries. Trying to explain the nuances of your job as it pertained to the war was very difficult to do when someone was in your face telling you that you were a coward.
Eventually, the British Home Secretary created badges for men to wear which said “King and Country” so they wouldn’t be harassed by the White Feather Girls. However, these badges didn’t eliminate the problem.
The next group were men who were serving or had served in the war were given white feathers. These cases made many of the men who served in the military very angry at the white feather girls who questioned their bravery.
One of the most telling stories came from Private Norman Demuth, who was honorably discharged after he was wounded. He said,
“Almost the last feather I received was on a bus. I was sitting near the door when I became aware of two women on the other side talking at me, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh Lord, here we go again.’ One lent forward and produced a feather and said, ‘Here’s a gift for a brave soldier. I took it and said, ‘Thank you very much- I wanted one of those.’ Then I took my pipe out of my pocket and put this feather down the stem, and worked it in a way I’ve never worked a pipe cleaner before. When it was filthy I pulled it out and said, ‘You know, we didn’t get these in the trenches’, and handed it back to her. She instinctively put out her hand and took it, so there she was sitting with this filthy pipe cleaner in her hand and all the other people on the bus began to get indignant. Then she dropped it and got up to get out, but we were nowhere near a stopping place and the bus went on quite a long way while she got well and truly barracked by the rest of the people on the bus. I sat back and laughed like mad.”
Maybe the most ironic case was that of George Samson. He was awarded the highest honor in the British military, the Victoria Cross, for his gallantry during the Battle of Gallipoli. He saved 30 men and was shot a dozen times.
He was literally on his way to a reception in his honor for having been awarded the Victoria Cross when he was stopped by a woman and given a white feather for being a coward. He was wearing civilian clothes.
There were cases of men without limbs who displayed their wounds in anger after having been given a white feather.
In another case, a 15-year-old boy, Frederick Broom, lied about his age to enter the military. He was sent to France, injured, and sent back home both because of his injury, and it was discovered that he was underaged.
Even though he was still underage at 16, couldn’t legally enlist, had already served, and had been wounded, he was surrounded on the street by a crowd of women who yelled and screamed at him, calling him a coward.
In tears, he immediately ran to an enlistment office, but the officers there knew who he was and wouldn’t let him reenlist.
Another 15-year-old boy, who again legally couldn’t join the military, was given 15 white feathers.
There were even cases of men committing suicide after having been given white feathers when they were medically disqualified from enlisting.
As with the badges given by the Home Secretary, the government eventually awarded the Silver War Badge to those who were honorably discharged that they could wear on their civilian clothes so they wouldn’t get harassed.
Even though the British began widespread conscription in 1916, that didn’t stop the white feather brigade. By the end of the war, even wearing a uniform wasn’t enough. There were cases of men being given white feathers because they wore a uniform that was too clean, indicating they hadn’t been on the front line.
The white feather girls had become very unpopular with a very large segment of British society, but something interesting came out of it.
On November 21, 1918, just ten days after the war’s end, Parliament granted the first right to vote to women in the UK to those over the age of 30 and with the property. In 1928, this was extended to all men and women over the age of 21.
It isn’t known just how much the white feather movement had to do with women being given the right to vote, but the timing of the franchise being extended so soon after the war does seem to indicate that it might have had something to do with it.
After the war, members of the pacifist suffragettes such as Virginia Woolf tried to downplay the white feathers’ prevalence. She claimed that only 50 or 60 were given out during the entire war when there were individual men who reported having been given that many. The true number was certainly in the tens of thousands over the four years of the war.
Likewise, many pro-war nationalistic suffragettes didn’t claim the movement either, preferring to leave it in the past given its unpopularity.
The handing of a white feather has appeared in many literary, musical, and cinematic works about the first world war. Most recently, there was a scene in the second season of Downton Abbey where one of the house staff was given a white feather, and there was a similar scene in the 2021 movie “The King’s Man.”
There was a brief and unsuccessful attempt to revive the white feather movement at the start of World War II. The stories of feathers being given to wounded soldiers from the first war, plus the early adoption of conscription in Britain, ensured that the movement never reached the same levels it did before.
There hasn’t been a similar movement like the white feather movement before or since, and outside of other Commonwealth countries, it didn’t exist anywhere else during the war.
Ultimately, the White Feather Movement was a unique product of the social and cultural forces which shaped Britian during the First World War.
Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast.
The executive producer is Darcy Adams.
The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.
Today’s review comes from listener USNPAO over at Podchaser. They write,
We’re a military family who homeschools our son, Sean, and we listen to Everything Everywhere Daily every night before bed. Sean is going into 6th grade, but because homeschooling allows us so much flexibility, we let his curiosity guide much of his learning. There are more than many times during which Sean has asked to see pictures of and/or dive even deeper into a subject that you have covered. Whether you know It or not, you’re Sean’s favorite teacher. His other teacher is learning new things alongside him, and she’s not quite as friendly as you are. Thanks for helping a homeschool Mom and kiddo out!
Thanks, USNPAO! First, let me say you are doing a good job as a teacher if your son is a fan of this podcast. The biggest thing you can do is instill a sense of curiosity about the world. If the curiosity is strong enough, everything can take care of itself.
Sean, as the headmaster, I would like to formally welcome you as part of the inaugural class of the Everything Everywhere Academy for Curious Youth.
At the Everything Everywhere Academy, you are free to walk about our campus with red brick, ivy-covered buildings, and our finely manicured lawns.
We don’t have a very good football team, but we are awesome at quiz bowl.
Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read the show.