The Second Line of Defense: Female Representations during the WWI (Project)

Tags: Alma A. Clarke Papers, Manuscript Journals of Frank R. Steed

By Andreina Soto

Women performed noncombatant roles during the WWI in the U.S. and in Europe. Their presence in the war, sometimes overlooked, can be observed through a wide scope of visual culture that circulated during the years of the Great War. Photographs, postcards, and propaganda show different dimensions of the female persona during this period. Women were portrayed as vulnerable and defenseless, but they also played more active roles, ranging from healers, to providers, and embodiment of national identity. All these representations portrayed the imagery towards femininity and gender stereotypes, as well as depicted the changing identities of women during the course of the war.

The visual culture and printing media that circulated during the Great War reflects the imagery towards gender roles, shows the multifaceted character of the female representations, and women’s engagement in different activities at home and overseas. Giving the inextricable relation between war and gender, I created a digital storytelling project that portrays and explains some of the female representations of women during the WWI. The storytelling is based on propaganda, photographs, and videos I have selected from digital databases related to the Great War. These resources serve to explore in more depth the role of women in the early-twentieth century U.S., particularly in the context of the war.

Women became the “second line of defense” that secured the moral, social, economic, and political methods of sustaining of the U.S. in ways the male soldiers and civil men could not achieve. As Susan Grayzel notes, World War I was the first modern war that required the full participation of both combatants and noncombatants, altering the battlefield as well as the domestic and social spaces of the Homefront in Europe and the U.S. Even though the outcome of WWI did not radically change the place of women in society, this epoch did had a great influence in different aspects of the domestic and public life that affected women and men. As well as the image of the country and the male soldiers highlighted the cohesion of a national identity, the visual representations of the war also relied and engaged female imagery. At the same time, the war opened new opportunities for education, employment, and national service for women in the country and overseas, performing duties as nurses, stenographers, factory workers, food producers, among others. The composition of different types of visual culture using female models, especially in propaganda, reflect this transition.

Depicting the Battlefront and the Homefront: Sources

Printed media and keep the population informed. During this period, mass media was accessible and cheaper, which increased their circulation and their conservation, as occurred with the making of scrapbooks and clipping albums. Similarly, the development of technologies during the industrial revolution increased the production of photographs that registered the fast-moving world. The use of photographs expanded the concept of fine arts beyond the canvas and the brush, as well as improved the circulation of information. Photography, in conjunction with printed media, became fundamental forms of documentation and visual representation in the post-WWI era.

Within this context, the wide scope of government propaganda that circulated in the U.S. and Europe is significant for understanding the recruitment of common citizens as combatants and noncombatants of the war. According to David Welch, war propaganda had a significant impact within the public, since their content tackled specific goals of nationalist sentiment.

Propaganda justified the war to the people, helped to promote recruitment into the armed forces, and convinced the population that their sacrifices at home and in the war would be rewarded with victory. Propaganda targeted men to join the military forces, alluding almost to a sentiment of shame if they were unwilling to protect their women and children. These advertising also used a similar discourse calling women to duty, whether helping with food provision for the soldiers or joining the Red Cross to assist men in the battle zone. The messages are usually patronizing when it comes to women, but they also reflect the importance of women –their moral image and their work- in the success of the battle, a message male imagery did not fulfill. I decided to incorporate several types of propaganda I have found at the Library of Congress Digital Collection, a very comprehensive database to locate printed media from U.S. and overseas from the early twentieth century.

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Roll over the images to learn more about them!

By analyzing the scrapbooks from Frank Steed and Alma Clarke, I found recurrent use of visual media -photographs, postcards, and propaganda- showing female symbolism and women performing different roles as workers, nursers, nuns, and even models of leisure and fashion. These scrapbooks offer a more personal perception of the war, from the angle of two different persons who were in the battlefield and gathered, selected, and constructed their memories into a physical form. In this sense, Alma Clarke, a female nurse from the Red Cross and Frank Steed, a male soldier of the casualties division, are two similar but divergent views of the war. The memories they framed in their scrapbooks allow readers to see individual perspectives based on gender, occupation, leisure activities, social interactions, and personal values.

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Another enriching source is the Scrapbook of the Home Front. Even though the author remains unknown, we have knowledge the scrapbook is from Atlantic City and was made circa 1918. This source gathers visual elements that circulated in the U.S. during the period when Clarke and Steed were in Europe.

The scrapbook contains different newspaper clips showing images of soldiers going to the war and different female representation, which reflects the inspirational and nurturing vision embedded on the women’s roles.

Villanova University Digital Collection
Page from Scrapbook, Home front – Atlantic City, 1918. Digital Library, Villanova University.

The Tools: Digital Storytelling

The main goal of this project is to analyze visual culture produced and circulated during the WWI and its relation to the construction of female representations. Hence, a digital storytelling project is an enriching and dynamic way to present this historical theme, which allows to combine writing text, images, and videos in a dynamic way.

Digital storytelling allows to construct compelling narratives with the use of different tools, guiding the user through the topics in discussion with interactive methods. The project is built entirely on WordPress, which allowed me to use different plugins simultaneously. This is a feature that strengths the concept of storytelling with text visualization within the images and comparative exposition of the visual content.

For my storytelling, I have used mainly Visual Slide Box Builder to embed text analysis in the images. This plugin is very useful for appreciating the visual content but also gives the user the opportunity to explore more about their composition and messages with brief explanations. I have also used Juxtapose JS and NextGen Gallery. Juxtapose JS permitted me to create comparative visions of certain images. Meanwhile, NextGen Gallery offers the opportunity to create sets of pictures from a similar theme to observe several examples. By using the three tools, I can create contrasting views of the visual content and examine their similarities and differences in more depth. Moreover, I can create elements that are dynamic for the users, which allow them to make decisions and engage with the narrative of the storytelling.

The structure of the project goes through a main narrative, divided in three themes. Each excerpt offers a particular view or role I have defined to understand the female imagery during the WWI. The sections are 1. Motherland: Female Symbolism of National Identity; 2. Healers: Nurses in the Battlefield; 3. Muses: Longingness and Domesticity; 4. Providers: Working Women in the Homefront. Each excerpt is formed by a main argument presented through a comparative analysis of different visual resources. This gives the sense of an “interactive museum,” where in each gallery the user cannot only observe the visual culture but also manipulate the images and learn through the contrast between visual and writing content.

The user can scroll down the page, as when reading a web article, and hover over the images edited with Visual Text Box Builder to gain more insight and information about the visual content. The images in Juxtapose offer a contrasting view between male and female representations, empowering the visibility of women in the war.

Future directions

Beside the levels of analysis I expose in the storytelling (motherland, healer, and provider), I would like to identify other feminine identities highlighted during and after the war to expand the multifaceted faces of women during the early twentieth century.

I would like to see how the imagery of women continued once the soldiers returned home and new relations took place once women increased their participation in the productive and political sectors of the U.S. I would like to see if women gained more agency in depicting themselves through the printed media of the epoch. Except for Alma Clarke scrapbook, most of the material used for this project was made by men. Hence, I considering the idea of trying to identity later images produced and designed by women compelling, especially during the suffragist movement in the 1920s.

Overall, this project has thought me how important noncombatant individuals were for the outcome of the war, and how a battle that engaged multiple nations had such an impact in the quotidian relations of women, children, and men. Soldiers were fundamental to win the battle, but women, those who usually remained relegated to a minor place in history, also played a fundamentals roles in the outcome of the war. This is my tribute to them.

To access the Storytelling, click here.


Susan Grayzel, Women’s Identities at War: Gender, Motherhood, and Politics in Britain and France during the First World War (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press), p. 2.

Alison Nordström explains how, by the end of the nineteenth century, the availability of mass produced visual culture also enhanced the culture of collecting and scrapbooking in the U.S. Alison Nordström, “Making a Journey: The Tupper Scrapbooks and the Travel they Describe,” in Photographs Objects Histories, Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart ed. 81-95 (New York, Routledge, 2004), p. 88.

Katherine Ott et al, “An Introduction to the History of Scrapbooks,” in The Scrapbook in American Life, Susan Tucker, Katherine Ott and Patricia Buckler ed., 1-21 (Philadelphia: Temple University, 2006), p. 7

Juliana Kreinik, “An Introduction to Photography in the Early 20th Century,”; Department of Photographs, “Early Documentary Photography”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

David Welch, “Propaganda for Patriotism and Nationalism,” British Library

The Library of Congress has a very rich of collection of material from the U.S. and other countries. To see more examples of WWI propaganda, visit:
Following the guidelines of The Goggles Manifesto, a digital storytelling should be grounded on a linear script that guide the user through the exploration of the topic., May 30 2012,”>