Suffering and suffrage: 'Women and the Great War' on view at Stanford's Hoover Institution


One hundred years ago this year, World War I began. On the centennial of such a significant event, museums across the world are turning to their archives to offer historical and contemporary perspectives on The Great War.

Among those museums is Stanford University's Hoover Institution, which last month opened a new exhibit: "Women and the Great War." The exhibit runs through March 2015, but the archives from which it is drawn are open to the public year-round.

"You can have the greatest material in the world, but if nobody sees it it doesn't matter," noted Eric Wakin, the director of library and archives and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. "The extent to which the war has been forgotten in the U.S. surprises me. There are exhibits popping up all across the U.S. with different angles. We wanted to do something unique and connect women who lived during the war with women today."

Hoover's Assistant Archivist for Exhibits Samira Bozorgi came up with the idea for the exhibit and served as its curator.

"For an exhibit like this, most places would need two years to put together materials and organize it, but we were able to do this in a matter of months," Bozorgi said. Most of that time was spent researching and working with conservationists to determine which items could be displayed; the Hoover Institution has a vast collection of original WWI writings, some of which are unfortunately too delicate to display publicly.

"Women and the Great War" sticks to a rough chronology, but skews its focus toward individual women and the roles women played in all the belligerent countries as nurses, laborers, peace activists, dissidents and even soldiers on the front line. On display are posters, photographs, letters, diaries, postcards, handbills, pamphlets, medals and memoirs.

Perhaps the most striking theme of the exhibit is the way images of women were fashioned to serve two almost contradictory propagandist purposes. In many images from the period, women are portrayed as innocent, powerless victims of German rapaciousness: a presentation designed to fan the flames of the Allies' enthusiasm for revenge against the Central Powers. On the other hand, images of women were used to sanitize and even feminize the war, a choice intended to diminish the perceived risk of fighting and to shame men into keeping their fears to themselves.

Images of women as victims were particularly effective in sensationalized depictions of the German invasion of Belgium, termed the "Rape of Belgium" by propagandists. One of the main exhibit cases features original propaganda posters in which grotesquely caricatured German soldiers clutch at tattered women and even drag them away.

The image of one female victim of German brutality was particularly effective as a recruitment tool. British nurse Edith Cavell, who worked as a nurse in Belgium and helped thousands of Allied soldiers escape the invading German army, was executed for her actions despite international pleas for mercy. Her image instantaneously became fodder for propaganda and recruitment posters, some of which this exhibit prominently features.

"If you go to England, Canada and Belgium and ask about Edith Cavell, everyone will tell you who she was," said Bert Patenaude, a Hoover Fellow who assisted with the research and development of the exhibit. "There's a prominent statue of her in downtown London. Major streets in those countries are named after her. But I bet the vast majority of Americans wouldn't recognize her name. We've dedicated an entire case to her and, to me, that should be the part of the exhibit that is revelatory to visitors."

The butchery of World War I is difficult to exaggerate. If anything, exaggeration would do some good against the fictitious sanitized version perpetuated by the era's stereotypical image of nurses in sparkling white uniforms. Stories about the blood-soaked reality women faced in field hospitals near the front were consistently suppressed both by governments and by a frenzied public unwilling to listen and viciously quick to denounce and incarcerate those who tried to bring the truth to light.

One of those persecuted torch-bearers was Louise Olivereau, an activist in Colorado who was arrested and thrown in jail for distributing anti-war literature including a book by American nurse, journalist and author Ellen La Motte titled "The Backwash of War." La Motte was one of the first American nurses to serve in a European field hospital. She kept a diary that described in raw, visceral details what she witnessed (the amount and variety of limbs scattered throughout the hospital on any given day would challenge even the grotesque imagination of today's horror filmmakers). These notes would become the basis of her book, which was swiftly censored and was not legally republished until 1934.

Nonetheless, the majority of women, including feminists in both America and Britain, were in favor of the war.

"What surprised me is that most women who supported the right to vote and equal political rights also supported the war," Patenaude said. "They calculated that if they went anti-war they would be depicted as unpatriotic and not as tough as the men. They saw correctly that supporting the war effort was the way to get the right to vote."

President Woodrow Wilson, in his effort to garner support for entering the war, framed it as a "fight for democracy and freedom," a phrase suffragettes were quick to seize upon and use to pressure the president. Wilson gave two speeches to Congress explicitly tying women's right to vote to defeating Germany, building momentum that ultimately led to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920.

Emmeline Pankhurst, Britain's leading feminist and suffragette, was a vociferous supporter of the war, famously traveling to Russia in 1917, shortly after the Bolshevik Revolution. There, she gave a fiery speech urging Russia to stay in the war.

"There was no way Parliament was going to deny women the right to vote after that display of leadership," Patenaude said.

Standing next to Pankhurst while she gave her famous speech, wearing her characteristically gruff scowl, was Maria Bochkareva. The Russian female soldier was the commander of The Battalion of Death, an all-female combat unit that is prominently featured in "Women and the Great War." Bochkareva was a sensation in the West, which restricted women to working as nurses or in industrial factories (some women did serve, but they had to disguise themselves as men). Bochkareva's image was used to shame men into joining the military, a strategy of which she heartily approved.

As its name implies, World War I involved much of the world, and Palo Alto was no exception. The city's role during the war was largely founded on the leadership of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover's involvement with the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). Lou Henry, who was a Stanford alumna, played a major role in organizing and implementing the CRB, which at its peak fed more than 10 million people daily. She also shuttled between the U.S. and London, establishing women's organizations dedicated to relief of both soldiers and civilians. After the war, King Albert I of Belgium decorated her with the Cross of Chevalier, Order of Leopold the highest order of Belgium.

Ultimately, this exhibit's aim is to connect the past to the present.

"Some aspects of women's involvement in World War I persist in our world today, often in even more pronounced forms," said Katherine Jolluck, a senior lecturer in Stanford University's History Department who also assisted with the exhibit. "This includes women's suffering from wartime violence either targeted at them specifically as females or generally as civilians; women's peace activism and related challenge to nationalism; the use of normative depictions of women for political purposes; and women's participation in the military."

"Women and the Great War" illuminates the relationship between the war effort and women's burgeoning political rights. At the same time, the exhibit reveals the tension between two conflicting images of WWI women: powerful political figures on the one hand, helpless victims weeping beside the graves of their husbands and sons on the other. Looking back across a century, the temptation is to consign the incalculable losses of The Great War to the shortsightedness of the past until one remembers that global conflicts, and suffering, continue unabated today.

Freelance writer Joshua Alvarez can be emailed at joshua.alvarez1189@gmail.com.

If you go

What: "Women and the Great War"

Where: Herbert Hoover Memorial Exhibit Pavilion, 434 Galvez Mall, Stanford

When: Tuesday-Saturday from 11 a.m.-4 p.m. through March 21, 2015. The exhibit pavilion will be closed Dec. 22-Jan. 3.

Cost: Free

Info: Go to hoover.org/events or call 650-723-3563

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