By Ken Zurski
Before the iconic Rosie the Riveter urged women to join the work force in World War II, another strong woman figure was used by the U.S government, this time by the Treasury Department, to sell war bonds.
Her name was Joan of Arc.
Joan of Arc was certainly not American. But her story and image gained footing in the U.S. during the first world war.
Called to serve God in the form of angel’s voices, the teenage Joan takes up the sword, disguises herself as a man, and goes to battle to save the French from evil in the early 15th century. After her capture, on May 30, 1431, she was burned alive at the stake.
In France, even today, she is celebrated as a symbol of nationalism and unity. However, American sensibilities about the mythical Joan are more romanticized.
In 1946, actress Ingrid Bergman played Joan in a play within a play titled Joan of Lorraine. (Lorraine loosely refers to Joan’s birthplace with the surname Arc.) The play is about a company of actors who stage a dramatization of Joan’s story. Bergman who won a Tony Award for her role, played two parts, Joan and Mary Grey the fictional actress who portrays Joan in the play.
Two years later, Bergman starred in a modified movie version of Joan of Lorraine. The film, renamed Joan of Arc, was a more straightforward retelling of Joan’s story, but still gave Americans a stylized portrayal of the French martyr. By this time, Joan’s image had already been on war posters. “Joan of Arc Saved France,” the ad reads. “Women of America. Save Your Country, Buy War Savings Stamps.”
The ads, which appeared for the first time in 1917, were colorful and attractive, especially the image of Joan.
In it, Joan is sporting long autumn hair, red lips, and a suit of armor that not only shows a tapered waistline, but a womanly figure as well. “Two orbs of light at the level of her hidden breasts suggest a female bosom that cannot be obscured by the trappings of war,” biographer Kathryn Harrison wrote about the poster’s likeness.
This was not the cross-dressing savoir of France, Harrison points out, but a 20th century version, pretty and determined, ready to fight like a man, but remain an empowered woman.
“Oh if I could speak large and round like a boy,” Bergman’s Joan wonders in the play. “But my voice is a girl’s voice and my ways are a girl’s ways.”