About Women, War, & Woodrow Wilson

The figure of the Christy Girl, a stereotypical female ideal represented in print through the rapidly expanding American mass visual culture of the early part of the twentieth century, became, through her ethereal beauty, healthy strength, and sensual exuberance, a model for the public appearance of women that was widely circulated to merchandize commercial products throughout the United States.  She represented a female standard which emerged in a national identity that depended upon visual images for its cultural and social cues.  Far from passive, the Christy Girl was an assertive presence in the everyday life of American citizens.  She could be observed everywhere and by everyone, but her illustrious gaze was directed back at her every observer.  She communicated messages about how the lifestyle of the American woman would be lived and how that lifestyle could and should be maintained.  Her dominance in the mainstream American visual experience was firmly established by 1904.

The Christy Girl images produced during the United States involvement in World War I were widely circulated in every possible media format of the time, but it was her representation in the wall poster that was the most public viewing experience for the casual passerby, which appeared in public spaces, such as post offices, city halls, and libraries in towns and cities across the nation.  Howard Chandler Christy, her creator, was called upon by the Committee on Public Information, or CPI, to establish the Christy Girl as a spokeswoman for marketing the American domestic effort in World War I.  Soon, the rise in the visibility of the Christy Girl resulted in the subsequent rise of the American nationalist spirit, which quickly became evidence of a successful achievement in a formula for marketing and advertising campaigns.  In particular, Christy’s depiction of this figure in the propaganda poster, CLEAR-THE WAY-!!, demonstrates the commodification of female sexuality for the purpose of the sales of World War I American Liberty Bonds and the established marketing and advertising norm that would survive long into twentieth century American visual culture.

In the late1890’s, Howard Chandler Christy began illustrating for magazines and books, after studying at the Art Students League in New York, under William Merritt Chase. As advances in development for illustration and color reproduction made his work as an illustrator more profitable, Christy forged relationships with important publishers that established his success.  G.P. Putnam’s Sons, and Dodd, Mead & Company, through Life, Leslie, Illustrated Weekly, Century Magazine, Scribners, and Harpers all used Christy’s illustration talents.  The career decision for an artist to become an illustrator was a lucrative one, owing to the artist’s ownership of their original work, which could be reproduced again and again for profit. By 1905 the Christy Girl had appeared nearly 6,000 times and reached over 64,000,000 Americans who held an average of four magazine subscriptions per household.  From this, Howard Chandler Christy’s earnings reached nearly $50,000 each year, by 1910. 

The Gibson Girl, created by Charles Dana Gibson, that came before The Christy Girl.

Once the illustrator made an image available to a magazine publisher for its cover, the original image remained the property of the illustrator and could be sold again and again for calendars, playing cards, post cards, and posters.  In this way, long before the United States entry into World War I, the Christy Girl became an established norm for the American female ideal.  In the early twentieth century, the Christy Girl first appeared in print just after the more regal and conservative late nineteenth century, “Gibson Girl,” and the Christy Girl benefitted from the successful appearance of this predecessor.  Christy considered girlhood the prime moment in a woman’s life, the time when she was most interesting and meaningful to society as a whole. In fact, Christy published several books about women that supported his creation of the Christy Girl, which helped to establish her as an iconic role model for American women who were concerned about how they appeared to even the casual observer.

“To know her truly,” Christy wrote in his book, The American Girl, published in 1906, “we must look upon her just when all her beauties, her powers, her graces and her virtues are at their early maturity.”  Christy’s use of, “Girl,” in this context, is a reference to the stage of womanhood that might be best described as the young ingenue — neither a child, nor a mother — but rather, the virgin who is yet to be, “claimed,” by a man through marriage.  Ten years later, as the United States entered World War I, the Christy Girl was represented as a woman who had studied in college, driven a car, hiked in the mountains, and attended the opera — and Christy’s illustration of a more sophisticated young woman soon emerged as the established norm for young American women to emulate and young American men to desire.  Women studied the appearances and choices of the Christy girl, as she was depicted in both public and private places.  

In 1917 President Woodrow Wilson gave an executive order for the creation of the CPI, and it was tasked to promote a spirit of nationalism that was needed when the United States was troubled with serious domestic issues concerning racial tensions, labor unions, and instability in its economy.  Also, the collective conscience of those newly immigrated American citizens, whose relatives were suffering in the, “European War,” as it was then known, needed to be reminded of their new nationalism.  Upon entering World War I,  many Americans were reluctant to support this decision, since Wilson was re-elected on the campaign slogan, “He Kept Us Out of War,” and the country was fragmented in its opinions about the necessity of sending its young men to do battle with what they perceived as foreign, not domestic problems. Wilson, then, badly needed to sell World War I to the American consumer culture.

The CPI, headed by the investigative journalist George Creel, focused on the manipulation of the American people by the United States government, then intent on pressuring its citizens into supporting WWI.  Creel had appointed the illustrator Charles Dana Gibson as the head of the Division of Pictorial Publicity, or the DPP.  Gibson was an ideal choice to lead the team of artists, owing to his affiliation with every popular illustrator of the time, and he appointed his own committee members who met with illustrators regularly in New York, after discussing the propaganda needs of the United States government in Washington, D.C. So profound was their belief in the efforts of WWI, that these men donated much of their own time, expense, and artwork to its cause. 

The DPP enlisted the services of a wide ranging group of American artists, including portrait painters, etchers, lithographers, architects, illustrators, and cartoonists.  Together, they produced 700 posters, 310 advertising illustrations, and 270 cartoons.  Under the direction of Gibson; the artists were specifically instructed to make their compositions represent, “ideas, not things.”  This is a significant directive that Gibson, himself, qualified in a New York Times Magazine article in which he likened President Wilson to the great “Moses of America” and that, “because he [Wilson] is an idealist, he is become the greatest artist in America.”  The relationship that an artist such as Howard Chandler Christy enjoyed with the United States government through the DPP, allowed him to perpetuate his own ideals in his subjects, so long as his compositions upheld the nationalist ideal, as set forth by Gibson and the CPI in the commercialization of WWI in the American consumer culture.  

A careful examination of the details in the composition of the Christy Girl in the World War I propaganda poster art of 1917, CLEAR-THE-WAY-!!, is an excellent example of the values and ideals that Christy expressed in his book, but with some additional qualities not seen before.  The subject of CLEAR-THE-WAY-!! is the Fourth Liberty Campaign, but it is the Christy Girl who dominates the image.  She stands beneath the bold red lettering of the poster’s title, stretching her right arm to gesture toward the open sea, while her left arm is stretching down toward the fighting men of the United States Navy.  Standing on the deck of a ship, the men are represented as healthy, muscular, and rushing together to form a point, itself a phallus symbol, that extends to the end of a gun they are loading with ammunition, intent on fighting an unseen enemy on the horizon above the open sea.  Along the line of the Christy Girl’s right arm,  the words, “Buy Bonds,” and “Fourth Liberty Loan,” are lettered.  The entire composition is swathed in the red, white, and blue colors of the American flag, which hovers as a billowing cape that blends with the sheer gown that the Christy Girl wears. 

She is a damsel, just out of reach, and yet ever-present in her determination to look directly at the viewer, and Christy deliberately chooses to clothe this female figure in a dress that envelopes and reveals the form of her body, which is just slightly arched, with her left shoulder rolled forward in a seductive pose.  The males in the composition are partially dressed as well, some in shirts and some without, and with which Christy takes full advantage, emphasizing muscles, bones, and joints.  But the Christy Girl is dressed in a sheer fabric, which reveals her smooth, flawless, clearly defined breasts, that converges toward and between her thighs.  This emphasizes her genital area, where the free billowing movement of fabric ends and the more constrained choreographed movement of the men begins. Cultural and social cues in depictions of women, such as these, were more widely available for the viewing masses as visual images in public spaces created an abundance of information for consumers. 

As Christy defines her, in his own writing, the Christy Girl in CLEAR-THE-WAY-!! is the evolution of the highest type of woman-kind the world has ever produced.  In dominating the composition with her figure, she becomes an object for sale, together with the product she represents in the sale of United States Fourth Liberty Loan Bonds.  Moreover, as she is draped in the colors that represent the national identity of the United States, she is transformed into an allegory of America and the quintessential American girl, calling on viewers to commit American dollars to its cause. In addition, Christy has added details in features, which define her place firmly rooted in modernity.  With her mouth slightly parted and her eyes slightly closing — her complexion is rouged with color, her lips are defined by the same, and her hairstyle is bobbed — she is featured with signifiers that indicate the choices she makes for herself as a consumer of beauty products.  Here, symbols of nationalism combine with contemporary visual norms to convey messages for garnering American support of entry into World War I.

Christy produced compositions for propaganda posters that included other ideas in addition to that of connecting the American citizen to soldiers doing their duty, through their financial support.  Another can be seen in AMERICANS ALL!, in which the Christy Girl stands alongside a list of an, “Honor Roll,” of the surnames of American citizens.  Together with the old English surname, “Smith,”  are surnames such as, “O’Brien,” “Du Bois,” and others that represent immigrant populations of families that have become new United States citizens. The enormous urban expansion of cities such as New York and Chicago was created by the millions of people who came to America to work in a much needed industrialized labor force.  The demonstration of their commitment to their new nation, as suggested by Christy, is evidenced by their investment in the Victory Liberty Loan campaign of 1919 that would fund the return of soldiers after the war had ended.  Here, in AMERICANS ALL!, the very posture of the Christy Girl suggests that of the Statue of Liberty, as she would have been seen upon the arrival of immigrants to Ellis Island, which could now be associated with the safe return of their sons, home from war. 

More importantly, as Lady Liberty is transformed by Christy into his iconic Christy Girl, she not only promotes the Victory Liberty Loan, but she becomes an additional product for the new American to consume together with an investment in World War I.  The Christy Girl of AMERICANS ALL! is clothed just as she was in CLEAR-THE WAY!!.  Her garment is transparent as it outlines her in a manner that sexualizes her appearance, even as she clutches the American flag toward her breast.  Her left arm stretches to hold a victory wreath of laurel above the, “Honor Roll,” an image that evokes an ethereal quality rooted in antiquity, much like a goddess, which is also emphasized by her facial expression.  Upon it, she wears an appearance of hope — a sentiment that is easily identifiable to the new American immigrant who hopes for a renewed life of peace and prosperity and will ensure its preservation if they will commit themselves to uphold it by investing in the Victory Liberty Loan, thus proving their true American identity.  Moreover, the seriousness with which she looks upward toward the text indicates her hope that new American citizens will invest both in bonds and herself, as the nation.

Similarly, in GEE!! I WISH I WERE A MAN, Christy portrays a sexualized Christy Girl in a United States Navy enlisted man’s uniform.  Here, she is coquettish and wears minimal cosmetics.  She looks with a sidelong glance toward an implied viewer that is beyond the frontal perspective of the viewer.  She stands in a more profiled posture that clearly depicts her feminine sensuality.  Her back is slightly arched, and she holds the front of the uniform with two hands, accentuating her bust, waist, and hip lines.  Her trousers sit just slightly lower than her shirt, revealing a hint of flesh. The oversized top is cut deep and low between her breasts and prominently features the red, white, and blue insignia of the Navy uniform.  The collar of the uniform and her hair blow slightly, in a suggested breeze that aims toward the phrase “GEE!! I WISH I WERE A MAN.” Just below it are the phrases, “I’d JOIN The NAVY,” and “BE A MAN AND DO IT.”  In this, the uniform has replaced the American flag, seen in CLEAR-THE-WAY!!, as a symbol of American nationalism and it is the text that frames the figure of the Christy Girl.

This figure of the Christy Girl is a, “tease,” with a knowing, “come hither,” expression that conveys an invitation to the American male, and challenges him to consider something that, perhaps she cannot do owing to her gender, because she only, “wishes,” she were a man.  She recruits the American male not only for service to their country, but for service to her, as she represents it.  In GEE!! I WISH I WERE A MAN, it is the implied male viewer who could dominate the more passive female, that manipulates the sexual language for viewers.  There is also an implied sexual reward, that is the coquettish Christy Girl, as her female sexuality helps to merchandize the war. In addition, the agency of the Christy Girl is that of a young woman who can choose any man who will please her, which makes her a threat to male sexuality — something which helps to underscore the suggestion that she will choose the American man, who chooses to join the Navy.

All three examples of the figure of the Christy Girl in World War I American propaganda images use this strategy to attract the American male to a product.  But in GEE!! I WISH I WERE A MAN, Christy sells a different product, or, “idea,” — as Gibson directed.  It is the American male, as a commodity, necessary for the success of the outcome of World War I,  that is merchandised in Christy’s shift from selling Liberty Bonds to selling the United States Navy.  The commodification of female sexuality serves to sell that idea hard.  American women also joined the armed forces and served in the United States military — something which the Christy Girl, who was seen nationally in periodicals and publications, as she climbed mountains, drove a car, and graduated from college, was perfectly capable of doing.  Numerous other World War I propaganda images appeared at the time to solicit the support of women working on the home front, doing the work that men once did, preserving food supplies, and taking up causes, such as those of the American Red Cross.  None of these challenged gender identity norms and male sexuality, as GEE!! I WISH I WERE A MAN was intended to do.

As for, THE SPIRIT OF AMERICA: JOIN, the Christy Girl is clothed as the scantily clad bride of the American nation, a white veiled healer, ready to marry herself to the American Read Cross. Her arm has been slung through that of the imaginary groom, represented by the American flag, which billows around her in a bursting halo of red, white, and, blue, with a wide span of fluttering ends that resemble the potent explosion of insemination on her wedding night, sure to impregnate her with a cause as worthy as her virginity, as she stands before the altar of service represented by the organization’s bold red symbol of hope, rescue, and safety. If it were not for the severity of the exploitation of both American men and women, of which there were 116,516 deaths and approximately 320,000 sick and wounded among male soldiers, it would be very nearly comical. And perhaps, to some clear minded American citizens, it was not only comical, but also tragic as well, since at no time in history before, were women so openly commodified for such enormous mass production and consumption in the public square.

The Christy Girl is an idealized American woman, crafted from the imagination of Christy’s notion of what the American woman should and could become.  In CLEAR-THE-WAY-!! she is a sexualized damsel, “in distress,” which the American male can fight to defend in two ways.  He can buy Liberty Bonds or he can, as the Christy Girl suggests in her posture, enlist to serve in the military.  She points to the soldiers in the image, even as she points to the horizon where the enemy might be located, which suggests either financial investment or military service, both of which are gendered male roles as “protector.”  Similarly, in AMERICANS ALL!,  the Christy Girl’s sexuality is connected to an additional element.  She looks upward in a gaze that is directed toward something beyond, something higher, which adds to her ethereal quality.  This is underscored by the lettering of the phrase “Victory Liberty Loan,” which implies that America’s success in World War I depends upon those who support it financially.  She is quite obviously sensual in her depiction, but she is also adorned as a “goddess.” As such, her moral imperative is for the war effort that she honors with a wreath above the surnames of those who have chosen to support it financially, which calls upon American male gendered identity as, “provider.”

GEE!! I WISH I WERE A MAN, then, adds another quality that was important to the idealized American female, as Christy created her.  The Christy Girl in this image is a sexualized, “coquette,” teasing her viewing audience with her posture, gaze, and low cut bodice.  But she is also a threat, dressed in the uniform of a man — something that is a conflicted position in its message, since women did serve in the American military.  But the, “idea,” represented in this poster points toward the Christy Girl to challenge her audience — both in its own ideals about female stereotypes and in its values about female agency.  The Christy Girl in this composition might be worth the American male fighting for her, but she can have any man she chooses and might also take that man’s job when he returns home from the war.  These conflicting ideals existed together in a composition aimed at justifying the American male, who was capable in a time of war, to draw upon his gendered identity as, “predator.”  

Whether as protector of the, “damsel,” provider for the, “goddess,” or predator of the, “coquette,” American men had viewed the stereotype of the Christy Girl for years before the advent of World War I, which prepared them for viewing her figure in World War I propaganda images.  By manipulating the American public through images that stimulated responses to traditional gendered relationships, the Committee on Public Information, and the Department of Pictorial Publicity were able to sell ideas to the American people about what kind of support was expected of them, as devoted citizens of the United States.  In 1917, Woodrow Wilson, and the United States government needed to sell a war and it called upon Howard Chandler Christy to enlist the Christy Girl, as she had not been previously seen — sexualized, seductive, and sensually pleasing — and for sale, together with the products that she represented.  

As the figure of the Christy Girl continued to be made available through mass visual culture, she joined men in college, sports, and even the military, but she also made herself available in the marketplace to be chosen as an investment, if she was seen as desirable by those who viewed her image.  Her predecessor, the figure of the Gibson Girl, was a beautifully composed young woman who was represented pursuing activities that were attributed to both men and women for times of leisure.  The figure of the Christy Girl at the time of World War I, however, had assumed a more modern role that represented the American woman choosing activities that could lead to or included a career, which took her away from the private or domestic and into the public spheres of observation. There, she might also choose to display her sexuality, as her clothing, her posture, and her physicality revealed a new and modern public view of female sensuality, ready to sell anything that might be commodified for American consumerism.

About Women, War, & Woodrow Wilson, by Robin Whitham McCrady, Copyright, 2020. All references, citations, sources, and bibliographies are available upon request. 

“Wise Women, such as Midwives, Astronomers, Mathematicians, Healers, Philosophers, Herbalists, and Storytellers were once persecuted, as Witches,” from, Wise Welsh Witch. 

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