Back in the dark days of the First World War, many men were proud to enlist and go off to fight for King and Country. Some young men enlisted because they thought it might be an adventure, a "bit of a lark". They soon discovered otherwise. Some men enlisted simply because they were frightened not to. Some were in reserved occupations or unfit to go. Those that did not enlist because they did not believe in wars or were simply afraid of losing their mortal spark, were put under immense pressure. Conscientious Objectors, or "Conchies" as they were often called, sometimes went into the danger zones in non-combative roles, but for those who remained at home, life was very difficult indeed.
War is a complex issue. I have nothing but the greatest respect for those who did go to war, many losing their lives. But I also have feeling for those who did not, because of their religious or ethical convictions, or simply through fear. Safe in the 21st Century, it is hard to grasp what they must have gone through. To suddenly become a figure of contempt must have been a terrible experience.
And being handed a white feather by a woman was one of the most prevalent expressions of that contempt.
Bizarrely, Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel, suffragettes, campaigners for votes for women of wealth (not universal suffrage), were major supporters of the "White Feather" campaign, and campaigned for military conscription for men (which happened in 1916). One would have thought that somebody who was fighting for new rights for (albeit only wealthy) women, would have some respect and appreciation for men who also stood against the accepted norm. But not a bit of it.
Sylvia Pankhurst, another daughter of Emmeline, wrote in her chronicle, "The Suffragette Movement":
“Mrs. Pankhurst toured the country, making recruiting speeches. Her supporters handed the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress, and bobbed up at Hyde Park meetings with placards: “Intern Them All.”
Some of those receiving the white feathers had been declared medically unfit to serve. In at least one known case, a soldier home on leave whose uniform was being cleaned was presented with one.
Fascinating article on Mrs Pankhurst here.
Mrs Pankhurst is, of course, revered by many feminists today. But I believe that sometimes idols can have feet of clay.
In fact, quite often in my experience.