Vixen or Virtuous: Depicting Women in WW2 Public Health Campaigns

The outbreak of venereal diseases in WW2 was serious enough to warrant a public health campaign. Read on about how women in WW2 were weaponized in the relevant posters.

Jan 9, 2021By Philippa Ogden, MA History of Medicine
ww2 veneral diseases
“She May Be a Bag of Trouble” Poster, 1940; with “Venereal Diseases Covers the Earth” Poster, 20th century


Due to a lack of awareness and modern medicine, venereal diseases broke out amongst servicemen during WW2. This brought about significant problems for both physical manpower and wartime morale. It prompted public health campaigns that sought to educate men on the risks of unprotected, anonymous sex. However, they targeted women in WW2 with propagandist messaging that positioned them in highly polarized ‘vixen’ or ‘virtuous’ roles. Here is an overview of the depiction of women in WW2 public health campaigns. 


Women In WW2 Public Health Campaigns: A Background


Public health campaigns have a long, rich history and remain to this date an instrumental tool of social reform. They were implemented to improve public health and control the spread of imminent health threats such as infectious disease, which without intervention, posed devastating consequences to society. Whilst they involve the strategic dissemination of particular information or ideals to address the mass public, they can also be manipulated and used in such a way to target specific groups of people. These groups are perceived by the relevant authorities as vulnerable, or at-risk, to certain health risks. As such, they are an effective and highly-malleable means of communication routinely wielded by governments whereby the promotion of good and stable public health is within their best interests.


bag of trouble woman ww2
“She May Be a Bag of Trouble” Poster, 1940, via the Veneral Disease Visual History Archive


As a result, many public campaigns can be considered a form of propaganda. A good demonstration of this can be seen in the public health campaign against venereal diseases that was rolled out in mid-century, wartime America. During WW2, the spread of venereal diseases was a very real issue that the US Army and Navy had to grapple with. 


American troops on foreign soil found themselves lonely, homesick, or simply bored. This led them to seek and engage in fleeting romances in their leisure time. These pursuits were conveniently facilitated by bars, dances, and pubs attended by young men and women trying to enjoy their youth in an otherwise uncertain period. The access to multiple sexual partners combined with a lack of sexual education, hygiene practices, and the absence of modern medicine led to an outbreak of sexually transmitted diseases which became a serious weakness in the American war efforts. 

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veneral diseases cover the earth
“Venereal Diseases Covers the Earth” Poster, 20th century, via The U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda


The fear of the havoc that such diseases were capable of within a military context was prompted by its previous history in earlier conflicts. In World War I, venereal diseases caused the US Army to lose approximately 18,000 servicemen per day and had caused substantial deaths in both the Revolution and War of 1812. Though the list of sexually transmitted diseases is extensive, the main culprits known by the medical department by WW2 were gonorrhea and syphilis – both unpleasant infections that if left untreated can have grave consequences for the sufferer. 


Gonorrhea, for example, can spread to joints or heart valves whilst syphilis can cause complications such as inflammation, deformations and even death. An absence of effective antibiotics within the earlier stages of this war meant that there was no quick cure, leaving patients out of action for a significant period of time. In 1943, a diagnosis of gonorrhea required thirty days within the hospital whilst syphilis could take up to six months to treat.


A Threat to Manpower And Morale 

sailor poster world war 2 disease
“A Sailor Doesn’t Have to Prove He’s a Man” Poster, ca. 1942, via The U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda


In addition to physically damaging men, the outbreak of venereal diseases was also seen as a blight to the face of the US. It was also contrary to the values encapsulated within, and preached by the ethos of the American Dream which historically emphasizes family stability and upwards mobility as core values. The idea that men were engaging in pre or extra-marital sex while fighting for and representing their country was therefore perceived as demonstrative of poor morality and adverse to morale. 


This was especially true given the fact that many would infect and transmit the disease to their wives or girlfriends upon their return home. This, combined with the risk it posed to the number of combatants propelled the US Government to push a public health campaign. This campaign sought to educate soldiers and sailors to either abstain from sex or commit to a monogamous relationship with a “clean” individual using the aid of contraception such as condoms. 


easy girlfriend world war 2
“The Easy Girlfriend” Poster, 1943-44, via the Wellcome Collection, London


As is evident above, this campaign involved the heavy use of posters where the dangers of sex and related diseases were articulated in often sensationalized ways. These posters explicitly correlated sexual gratification with themes and symbols relating to death, illness and unhappiness. Though the contraction of venereal diseases by men serving in WW2 was undoubtedly a multifaceted and complex social problem, such posters served to represent it in a far more simplistic manner. In many of these visuals, soldiers and sailors are depicted as permanently aroused, feeble-minded subjects at the mercy of vivacious, sexually promiscuous women. These women were set to seduce them and lead them to both their personal and patriotic demise by infecting them with a venereal disease. 


The Weaponization Of Women In Public Health Campaigns

venereal disease poster
“Exposing yourself to a “VD” without taking a pro means that–: you are a saboteur” Poster, ca. 1940s, via the Veneral Disease Visual History Archive


It is possible to view the representation of women in these posters as being weaponized as a tool of control through their depiction of either the virgin or vixen. The former of the two is a delicate, fragile entity upholding of all traditional values, and the latter a “forbidden fruit” archetype that will corrupt the mind and body. These contrasting depictions reflect their contemporary society’s view of women in WW2 and the polarized roles they were perceived as fulfilling, specifically – the doting, virtuous housewife or the promiscuous, “easy” woman.


The Vixen

furlough booby trap prophylactic
“Furlough ‘Booby Trap!’: No is the best tactic: the next, PROphylactic!” Poster, ca. 1940s, via The U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda


As demonstrated in the above image, women in WW2 public health campaigns were often illustrated as the stereotypical seductress, luring men to an unhappy fate through the sheer power of her attraction alone. Here, venereal diseases can be perceived as personified and disguised as a woman who is deliberately illustrated in accordance with her contemporary society’s beauty standards. This implies that though sexual infections can be carried by anyone, they are especially present in sexually attractive or forward women. This idea directly weaponized women in WW2, further evident through the fact the posters accompanying text deliberately reads: “Booby Trap.” In addition to being a crass joke pertaining to the female form, it is also a direct reference to guerilla warfare tactics which presents women and sex as a weapon or trap that are capable of concealing something destructive.


The Virtuous

venereal disease poster
“For their sake, avoid venereal disease” Poster, 20th century, via The U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda


In these posters showcasing sexually deviant women, sex is presented as illicit, taboo and something that ends in pain, shame or infection. In addition to acting as a harsh visual reminder of the dangers associated with casual sex, they also served to provide a powerful contrast to another way women in WW2 were depicted in other, relevant posers orientated around the social and moral consequences of venereal diseases. 


As shown in the above poster, women in WW2 were also depicted as virtuous or doting home-makers who should be protected and not have to suffer from their partners’ sexual misdemeanors. Here, a doting housewife is illustrated reading a letter whilst a young boy and elderly woman look on. These are figures whom we can presume to be the family of the soldier who penned the letter, and who is featured in a photograph on the wall. 


By presenting the innocent people who would also be implicated if their father/husband/son were to contract a sexual disease, it is thus a poster that aimed to shame or guilt men into abstaining from sex whilst away from home. This is because untreated syphilis can cause infertility in both men and women, and in some cases can be passed from mother to child during fetal development and at birth. The depiction of women in WW2 as girlfriend, wife, mother, daughter or grandmother is therefore still a weaponization of their sex, as they are being used as a tool of control, albeit in a more implicit manner.


The Impact Of Posters Depicting Women In WW2

prophylactic sex exposure
“Sex Exposure without Prophylaxis” Poster, 1944, via The U.S. National Library of Medicine, Bethesda 


Though venereal diseases were a significant problem in this period, it can be considered a turning point as it brought to attention the severe need for sex education. The rampant spread of preventable sexually transmitted diseases prompted contraception such as condoms to become more widely accessible and illuminated the necessity of conversations surrounding sexual hygiene practices. Although there was still a long way to go before the foundations of a more permissive society were laid two decades later in the ‘60s, this period nevertheless highlighted the severity of venereal diseases if left untreated and prompted the developments of more effective and fast-acting treatments. 


If you enjoy learning about women in WW2 and the visual culture that emerged during wartime, check out this article on Cecil Beaton which explores his photography in WW2, discover how esteemed art historian Rose Valland turned into a spy to save art from Nazis and find out more about Winslow Homer and his paintings showing life in the Civil War.


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By Philippa OgdenMA History of MedicinePhilippa Ogden has a passion for history and holds a MA in the History of Medicine from Newcastle University. She is particularly interested in perceptions of the body within the early modern period. In her spare time, she is a keen musician who plays old-time and bluegrass fiddle in her hometown of North-East England.