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Women as Symbols in Nationalism

Written by: Charlotte Fischer/ Edited by: Lila Ovington

At first glance, nationalism and the nation seem to be genderless concepts, affecting, and being affected by, all people equally. Understandings of the nation appear to lie squarely within a state level of analysis, whereas the notion of gender is largely individual-based. Most scholarship on the topic reflects this assumption. However, a small discussion in one of our first seminars on nationalism made me question this; we wondered why countries are referred to as the ‘motherland’ in some languages, and as the ‘fatherland’ in others. On a similar note, the term patriotism (love for one’s country) stems from the ancient Greek and Latin term for ‘father’. Research into feminist scholarship on nationalism reveals that it is in fact a deeply gendered concept, and that imaginations of the nation have long gone hand in hand with imaginations of gender roles. Historically, women were absent from the spaces in which decisions on nation-building, unification or nation-creating wars were made. Conversely, nationalist symbolisms and propaganda have been rife with the idea of women. The role of women in these nationalist ideologies usually focuses on motherhood, family, purity and often vulnerability. Especially in wartime, depictions of women have been utilised to motivate and inspire patriotic and protective feelings in order to help the war effort. Motherhood and the ‘vulnerable maiden’, two common categories of symbolic womanhood in nationalist discourse, are discussed and exemplified in more detail below.

Motherhood

A frequent depiction of women in nationalist imagery is as mothers or mother-figures. The symbol of the mother commonly conveys one of two messages. The more straight-forward one is to encourage the everyday woman to reproduce, and to focus on her role as the caregiver and homemaker, responsible for raising ‘the future of the nation’. 

The other popular symbol of motherhood in nationalist discourse is symbolising the nation itself as a mother, the message being that your nation ‘gave you life’ and is deserving of the same respect and honour awarded to one’s mother. Interestingly, in some cases ‘the nation as a mother’ is used to convey the need for protection, while in others she herself is the protector. 

Here we see a Soviet propaganda poster from 1944, advocating and praising women for child-bearing. Notably, some of the mother’s sons are depicted in military uniform whilst another plays with an airplane, symbolising the mother’s (re-)production of future soldiers for the Soviet Union. 

This cover of a song from World War I pictures Britannia, a personification of Great Britain, as a mother. The implication is that Britain deserves the same loyalty and protection that would be accorded to one’s own mother. Here, the purpose of the symbolism was to increase military recruitment.

Mama Sranan, or Mother Suriname, is a personification of Suriname. She is here depicted

holding five children, which represent the five ethnicities of Suriname. In this example motherhood is used to symbolise the desired unifying effect of the nation.

The ‘Vulnerable Maiden’

In addition to symbols of motherhood, women and female national personifications were often represented as young, vulnerable ‘maidens’ in their respective nationalist imagery. These depictions can be used to symbolise either the purity and beauty of a nation, or its need for protection from outside enemies. As the renowned feminist scholar Cynthia Enloe has pointed out, women have in this context often been used as symbols of “the nation violated”, with frequent allegories of sexual violence. In fact, the all too common use of sexual violence as a weapon of war carries the exact same implications: the violation of a woman’s presupposed ‘honour’ or ‘purity’ is translated into a violation of the nation and her male relatives. In this the woman is both a symbol for, and the property of, the nation.

This German postcard from around 1920 shows Germania, the personification of Germany, bound at a stake by ‘the ties of Versailles’ with predators in the background. It was used to propagate the idea that the Treaty of Versailles unjustly restricted and punished a pure and innocent Germany.

This poster by the Conservative Party from 1909 shows Britannia, wearing a belt of prosperity, being strangled by the ‘monster of socialism’. It seems to call on the nation’s men to protect and save the vulnerable, female nation from this perceived threat.

This Polish magazine cover from 2016 shows a white woman clad in a European flag, or perhaps Europa, the personification of Europe, being groped by darker skinned hands. It was used to reiterate the nationalist anti-immigrant sentiment in Poland and across Europe.

Bibliography

Brandt, Bettina. 2010. Germania Und Ihre Söhne: Repräsentationen Von Nation, Geschlecht Und Politik In Der Moderne. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Buss, Doris E. 1998. “Women At The Borders: Rape And Nationalism In International Law”. Feminist Legal Studies 6 (2): 171-203.

Enloe, Cynthia. 2014. Bananas, Beaches And Bases: Making Feminist Sense Of International Politics. 2nd ed. Berkely: University of California Press.

Hagay-Frey, Alona. 2011. Sex And Gender Crimes In The New International Law. Leiden: Brill.

Mosse, George L. 1983. “Nationalism And Sexuality In Nineteenth-Century Europe”. Culture And Society 20 (5): 75-84.

Nagel, Joane. 1998. “Masculinity And Nationalism: Gender And Sexuality In The Making Of Nations”. Ethnic And Racial Studies 21 (2): 242-269.

Yuval-Davis, Nira. 1997. Gender & Nation. London: SAGE Publications.

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