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THE WHITE FEATHER

 

The White Poppy is sometimes linked with the white feather, which chauvinist women bestowed on 'slackers' in the First World War. The notion of a white feather representing cowardice goes back to the 18th century, arising from the belief that a white feather in the tail of a game bird denoted poor quality. To 'show the white feather' was therefore to be 'unmanly'.

On 30 August 1914, less then a month after the declaration of war, a retired Admiral, Penrose Fitzgerald, announced in Folkstone that he had formed a band of 30 women to present a white feather - a danger 'far more terrible than anything they can meet in battle' - to young men 'of public school and university education...found idling and loafing' instead of setting an example to working men.

Thereafter white feathers were given out all over the country, but their frequent bestowal on men invalided from the trenches or otherwise unqualified for military duty made the women concerned unpopular even among those sympathetic to the war effort.

For those men who necessarily remained at home in key state industries the effect of being presented with white feathers was often one of shame although the pacifist Fenner Brockway proudly noted that he had enough feathers with which to make a fan.

The government's response was to authorise production of a badge bearing the legend "King and Country", thus marking out its wearer as someone effectively excluded from overt moral pressure to enlist.

Long after the war, pacifists rediscovered another significance of the white feather. In 1775 a Quaker meeting in Easton, New York State, was surrounded by war-painted Indians armed with tomahawks and arrows. The meeting continued in such solemn stillness that what had begun as a stealthy attack by the Indians became a silent response to open friendship, as the Indians disarmed themselves and sat alongside the Quakers. Afterwards, the Indian chief explained that it was the obvious absence of any weapons among the Quakers that had dissuaded his men from attack. He took a white feather from one of his arrows, stuck it firmly over the roof of the house and said, 'Your settlement is safe. We Indians are your friends, and you are ours.'

This story led a PPU member in 1937 to have 500 'white feather' badges made as a symbol of peace. All were quickly sold out.