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

Class 4: Womanpower Wanted: Working Women in Recruitment Material and Propaganda


Class 4 explores the US government production of recruitment material during World War II and focuses on depictions of women in the workforce. The readings highlight how the government produced idealized images of femininity during the conflict as a means of persuading middle-class white women to aid the war effort by working outside the home in traditionally “masculine” fields. The Censored War by George Roeder explains how the government carefully shaped the American public’s view of the war through propaganda by withholding and emphasizing certain information. Leila Rupp’s, “Rosie the Riveter,” chapter six of Mobilizing Women for War focuses on how the government constructed a composite image of a new ideal woman that emphasized glamour and superficially changed the public perceptions of gender to convince women to work outside the home. The article “Gendered Labor” by Melissa Dabakis studies how the government incorporated popular culture into propaganda that convinced middle-class white women to enter the workforce, yet ultimately limited their narrow gender roles. Katherine Adams, Michael Keene, and Melanie McKay’s seventh chapter of Controlling Representations, “The Suddenness of a New Normality World War II,” discusses the distinct differences in how propaganda showed women as nurses, housewives, and servicewomen during the war. The chapter reveals the contradictory circumstances military nurses faced; the American public viewed nursing as a feminine wartime job, while female military service was ideologically problematic. Controlling Representations concludes by comparing recruitment materials and the jobs women actually performed during the war, while providing an overview of how public representations of women changed from 1900–1950.

The materials in Additional Online Resources include a variety of Army Nurse Corps and Navy Nurse Corps posters and publicity photos. The government designed these images to persuade model young women to enlist as military nurses. These images demonstrate how the government and the armed forces produced recruitment materials that depicted nurses who embodied their ideal concept of womanhood.

Class Resources
  • Adams, Katherine H., Michael L. Keene, and Melanie McKay. Controlling Representations: Depictions of Women in a Mainstream Newspaper, 1900–1950. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press Inc., 2009, Chap. 7 and Conclusion.
  • Dabakis, Melissa. “Gendered Labor: Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter and the Discourses of Wartime Womanhood.” In Gender and American History Since 1890, edited by Barbara Melosh. New York, NY: Routledge, 1993.
  • Honey, Maureen. “Remembering Rosie: Advertising Images of Women in World War II.” In The Home-Front War: World War II and American Society, edited by Kenneth Paul O’Brien and Lynn Hudson Parsons. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.
  • Roeder, Jr., George. The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993, Prologue.
  • Rupp, Leila J. Mobilizing Women for War: German and American Propaganda, 1939–1945. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978, Chap. 6.
Additional Online Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. What is propaganda? How would you define it? Are propaganda and recruitment materials the same thing? How are they similar or different? Is the recruiting material in the Additional Online Resources section propaganda? Explain.
  2. What are the similarities and differences between the two systems the US government used to produce propaganda during World War I and World War II? Make sure to consider the processes, producers, viewers, and roles the images played in the war effort in your answer. Which system was more effective? Explain.
  3. Refer back to the resources from Class 2, specifically chapter five of The Girl on the Magazine Cover by Carolyn Kitch, “Picturing a Woman’s Mission: Service to Humanity,” and Additional Online Resources. Compare the ways in which the ideal woman was depicted during each World War based on the images from Class 2 and this class. What symbolism did artists employ? What qualities did the ideal woman embody? What did she look like? How did she dress? What was her proper role in society?
  4. Compare and contrast the posters to the photographs. How do illustrations or photographs affect military recruitment material and its influence? Explain.
  5. What types of women are visible and what types of women are invisible in these choreographed posters and photographs? What messages did military recruitment materials send women regarding who should and who should not join the war effort? What does this say about concepts of citizenship? How did women who did not meet the government’s model of femininity fit into World War II propaganda? How do you think these idealized images influenced different women’s participation in the war effort?
  6. What recruitment themes do you see used to appeal to women in the materials listed under the Additional Online Resources section? What are the nurses doing in the images? What do they look like? How does what you observe compare to the readings?
  7. What is “visual culture?” How is a visual culture constructed? What do you think makes something part of visual culture rather than just an image? Reflect back on Class 1 and Class 2 when considering your answer.
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