Skip Navigation Bar

Education Higher Education

Picture Perfect Images and Realities of Military Nursing During the World Wars

Class 2: Angels and Mothers: Entrenching Cultural Ideals through Propaganda


Class 2 shifts from considering the abstract characteristics of the ideal American woman during World War I to examining visual representations of ideal femininity, the government’s production of wartime propaganda, and women’s roles in patriotic and wartime images. As archetypes and technologies began to change, so did the mass media’s depiction of the American woman, and the ways in which images were deployed into society. Imaging American Women by Martha Banta analyzes images of ideal femininity as pieces of cultural evidence while explaining how they both dictate and mirror social norms. The preface and chapter one, “Public Women, Public Depictions,” of Katherine Adams, Michael Keene, and Jennifer Koella’s Seeing the American Woman reviews the changes white upper class women experienced as they moved outside the home and further into the public sphere between 1880–1920. It also describes the coinciding advances in printing technologies, theater, pageants and films that influenced public depictions of women during the period. James Rodger Alexander explains how the poster was a central part of the developing mass-produced, visual, commercial culture in “The Art of Making War.” Additionally, he shows how the famous artists, who developed pre-war images of ideal femininity, lent their skills to the government’s propaganda efforts during World War I, and constructed easily identifiable images that helped sway public opinions. Kitch’s “Patriotic Images,” chapter five of The Girl on the Magazine Cover, links wartime propaganda and female images by describing the varying symbolic significances that illustrations of women held in wartime propaganda. In particular, Kitch draws out the dichotomy of depicting women as both warriors and angels. The “Picturing a Woman’s Mission” section of the Pictures of Nursing exhibition, curated by Julia Hallam, shows additional ways in which nurses were popularly portrayed in Western culture during this period.

The Additional Online Resources below offer visual materials that demonstrate how the government represented nurses for the public during World War I. The posters and postcards exhibit the work of well-known artists such as Howard Chandler Christy, Harrison Fisher, and James Montgomery Flagg, and provide illustrations of the varied symbolism connected to both nursing and femininity, that the readings discuss.

Class Resources
  • Adams, Katherine H., Michael L. Keene, and Jennifer C. Koella. Seeing the American Woman,1880–1920: The Social Impact of the Visual Media Explosion. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc. Publishers, 2012, Pref. and Chap. 1.
  • Alexander, James Rodger. “The Art of Making War: The Political Poster in Global Conflict.” In Visions of War: World War II in Popular Literature and Culture, edited by M. Paul Holsinger and Mary Anne Schofield. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992.
  • Banta, Martha. Imaging American Women: Idea and Ideals in Cultural History. New York: Columbia University Press, 1987, Pref.
  • Kitch, Carolyn L. The Girl on the Magazine Cover: The Origins of Visual Stereotypes in American Mass Media. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001, Chap. 5.
  • National Library of Medicine. “Picturing a Woman’s Mission: Service to Humanity.” Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection. Curated by Julia Hallam.
Additional Online Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. What social and technological changes occurred in the United States between 1880–1920 that influenced popular images of ideal American womanhood? How did the archetypes change?
  2. Compare the illustrations of women during World War I to previous feminine ideals, such as those Kitch describes in chapter two of The Girl on the Magazine Cover. Describe the similarities and differences between the images. Were the visual changes spurred by the war or other occurrences during the period? Explain.
  3. Did using familiar images in wartime propaganda, such as those produced by famous commercial artists, influence the propaganda’s powers of persuasion? Explain. What were artists trying to achieve in their wartime illustrations? Do you think the propaganda had an influence on American participation in World War I? Why or why not?
  4. How did artists use images of women as symbols of country and patriotism during World War I? Why do you think they depicted women in these particular ways? What do the symbolic images say about female religiosity, sexuality, domesticity, and submission? Overall how do these symbolic images illustrate ideal male and female gender roles during the war?
  5. How did artists visually embody the characteristics of America’s ideal woman, which existed from about 1880–1920? Draw on what you learned about the “True Woman” and the “New Woman” in Class 1 and Class 2. What types of women did artists show in propaganda? Did wartime illustrations of nurses reflect old or new female ideals? Who did these women represent in society?
Back to top