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What is the Order of the White Feather?

The Order of the White Feather was one of the movements that created an opportunity for women to contribute to the War. But did you know they were not as helpful as an organization? 

The Order of the White Feather was created to recruit for the British Army in World War I. Women would give out feathers to men not in an army uniform to shame them to sign up.

The Order of the White Feather

The Order of the White Feather, or the White Feather Brigade, was formed by a British admiral to get women to enlist through pressure on family and friends. Young, fit males who did not volunteer for the military were presented with white feathers.

Some criticized the practice, claiming that idiotic young ladies were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends they were tired of. (Source: AWM)

Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald instituted the Order of the White Feather in August 1914. He deputized thirty women in Folkestone to hand out white feathers to any guys who were not in uniform. The concept was derived from traditional cockfighting legend, which states that a cockerel with a white feather in its tail is a coward. (Source: Spartacus)

The Order was greatly supported by then known female writers such as Mary Ward and Emma Orczy, as well as British servicemen:

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.

Lord Kitchener, Secretary of War, World War I

The Order of the White Feather enabled women to take an active role in the war effort and to view themselves as aiding the English army by sending additional soldiers. Additionally, the white feather empowered them over the men who typically governed them. (Source: Spartacus)

This gender power reversal was a rare opportunity for women and was fully supported by the government. These women became the bringers of doom for civilian men wanting to avoid combat; they were no longer the inferior sex.

Ultimately, the Order had unintended repercussions. It gave the impression that Britain was pleading for recruits to fight for the country. Additionally, it sparked resentment among the English populace for the awful humiliation on both deserving and undeserving men. (Source: Inquiries Journal)

Conscientious Objection

The No-Conscription Fellowship was founded in late 1914, around the same time as the Order. Its members were opposed to implementing mandatory military service, more so with the public shaming of the Order of the White Feather.

Conscientious objection was poorly understood during World War I. Its main principle is a person’s refusal to follow an authoritative standard or rule that violates their core beliefs. Many people viewed conscientious objectors as cowards because they stood by their moral beliefs.

At this time, around 16,000 men declined to fight or take up arms during World War I for various religious, moral, ethical, and political reasons. These individuals were known as conscientious objectors.

In 1916, the No-Conscription Fellowship successfully lobbied for a ‘conscience clause’ in the Military Service Act, which was established that year and legally required males to enlist. The section empowered conscientious objectors, or COs, to argue for their exemption from conscription before a tribunal.

Of the 16,000 men, nearly 6,000 of them were imprisoned for resisting military authority. This brought about a change in how potential recruits thought about military service and how they were recruited. (Source: IWM)

Britain began moving toward conscription in 1917 and 1918 when it became evident that these able-bodied men would have to be coerced into the armed forces. Fighting in the War had ceased to be an honor and had devolved into a necessity. While the change was afoot for masculinity, the process was far from complete, and many men continued to associate War with manhood implicitly. (Source: Inquiries Journal)

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