When 20-year old Bernice Smith Tongate walked into a California Navy recruiting office in 1917, and proclaimed “Gee, I wish I were a man, I’d join the Navy!,” I’m sure she was blissfully unaware of the impact she was about to have on the American Navy and women’s equality.

Illustrator and artist Howard Chandler Christy (1873-1952) was in earshot of Smith when she announced her wishful declaration. While she was denied admission to the Navy (this time), Christy recruited her to playfully pose in a white cap and sailor blues for this poster urging young men to serve their country. Christy was a renowned magazine illustrator in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and was a combat artist and war correspondent during the Spanish-American War. Yet, he was most famous for the “Christy Girl,” a depiction of his vision of the idealized American woman. Just like Smith, she was beautiful, modern, and educated, and she loved the outdoors and sports.

Christy was committed to assisting the war effort and many of his Christy Girl paintings were reproduced as posters promoting recruitment, bond sales, victory loans, and service organizations.[1] Posters were a vibrant means of mass communication during World War I and played an essential role in mustering national support. They were designed to inspire, inform, and persuade their audience and to ultimately encourage patriotism and sacrifice.

Alluring and romanticized images of women were often used to encourage young lads to enlist. However, they also motivated women. Just ten days after Smith posed for Christy, her wish to join the Navy came true. She was the first woman from California conscripted as a Yeoman (F) in the American Navy, and by the end of 1918 there were more than 11,000 active female sailors.[2]

As Christy’s image of Smith infiltrated popular culture it not only enthused young men to sign up, but it also opened the doors for more women to serve in the American Navy, despite one disgruntled colonel who retorted: “First the women wanted to vote. Then Alice Roosevelt started them smoking cigarettes! Now they’re talking about being soldiers. Next thing we know they’ll be cutting off their hair and wearing pants!”[3]

 

Rebecca Gross is a graduate student in the History of Decorative Arts and Design at Parsons The New School for Design. She is a freelance researcher and writer with an interest in twentieth-century American design and culture.



[1] Lafayette College Special Collections & College Archives, “Howard Chandler Christy Papers, 1873-2001,” Skillman & Kirby Libraries, Lafayette College. 

[2] Rudi Williams, “Wartime Posters drew Men, Women to Patriotic Duty,” U.S. Department of Defense, (April 7, 1999).

[3] Jean Ebbert and Marie-Beth Hall, The First, The Few, The Forgotten: Navy and Marine Corps Women in World War I, (Maryland: US Naval Institute Press, 2002), 23.

 

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