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“Proud – I’ll Say!”: Images of Patriotic Service and Domestic Responsibility in World War II

When asked, “Why did you volunteer for military service?” very few female veterans will say that it was a propaganda poster which inspired the commitment. Common responses reflect a brother/cousin/friend’s enlistment or conscription. That they felt it was their duty and responsibility as a citizen of the United States. Moreover, female friends who wished to join, or had done so already, encouraged the decision. Frequently women felt their lives needed a change and they saw potential for independence and education with the military. Volunteerism was exciting, but also many thought it was necessary. At the core of all volunteer military enlistments is patriotism. Yet, visual imagery had a major impact on their decisions. As curators William L. Bird, Jr. and Harry R. Rubenstein write, “World War II posters helped to mobilize a nation. Inexpensive, accessible, and ever-present, the poster was an ideal agent for making war aims the personal mission of every citizen.”[1] It seems the advertising firms behind the messages seem to have done their job well, since few veterans acknowledge the poster as a significant element to their decision-making. Veterans either do not acknowledge the propaganda poster in order to emphasize the (justifiably) heroic personal decision, or they do not realize the ever-present poster’s influence upon their choice. I assert the latter: the propaganda poster’s inconspicuous nature allowed it to amalgamate into collective memory through employment of shared symbols and beliefs. Additionally, cryptic – and dueling – visual messages of masculine patriotic service and feminine domestic responsibility emerged from Word War II propaganda posters, thus adding to the ambiguous role women should play during and after the conflict. “Proud – I’ll Say” (1943) by illustrator John P. Falter, from the Alice Marshall Collection at the Penn State Harrisburg Archives and Special Collections, demonstrates the use of common symbols and deep meaning utilized by advertising firms and illustrators that do not shock or agitate the audience, but rather reaffirm already established beliefs.

Inconspicuous Advertising

The focus of this essay is a propaganda poster that inspires women to volunteer for military service. Other propaganda posters existed and encouraged workplace safety, home food canning, purchasing war bonds, restricting personal travel to conserve gasoline, repressing secrets told by overseas family members, growing a family/community garden, work ethic and reliability, recycling, and general patriotism. There were few propaganda posters directed towards male volunteerism due to military conscription through the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, ordering all men ages 21-35 to register with local draft boards. Once the United States entered the war in 1941, men ages 18-45 were required to serve.

Encouraging women to enter the military was only one message among many that Americans would encounter in their daily routine. The posters were placed in a wide variety of public locations: the city hall, hotel lobbies, store windows, the Post Office, grocery stories, village greens, and fences.[2] The federal government teamed up with private advertising firms to created new images that would catch the attention of the public. Rather than work on their own, the government relied on private business to translate their message. Due to propaganda’s advertising style, the general public looked, internalized, but did not explicitly react to the images. This is similar to what we do now with the thousands of advertising images we see in one day. Advertising consultant and author William M. Weilbacher contends, “Advertisements tend to get lost in the shuffle of brain activity. They are rarely regarded uniquely, nor attend to as unique informational statements about a brand and then only in the context of whatever has already been stored in memory about that brand. [Whatever] the consumer does take away from an advertisement, consciously or unconsciously, is immediately amalgamated into everything else the consumer knows about the brand.”[3] WWII veterans may not remember viewing a particularly inspiring poster at all.

The aesthetic quality of the posters is of utmost importance. Since the beginnings of consumerist culture, the boundaries between art and advertising have been blurred. Notable illustrators lend their talents for popular visual interest and we look nostalgically on their work. Yet, often the fascist regimes of the twentieth century are cited most often for heavy-handed propaganda. While this is true, one should not forget the gifted American illustrators who helped bridge the gap between fine art and popular illustration to build the foundation for modern American art: Charles Dana Gibson’s “Gibson Girl” of Harper’s, Colliers and Scribner’s, Frederic Remington and his heroic cowboys in the mass-market magazines at the turn of the twentieth century, Norman Rockwell’s incredibly famous Saturday Evening Post covers, and even pop artist Andy Warhol began his career as a commercial illustrator in the 1940s.[4] Americans were familiar with high-quality, painterly imagery used in mass-market publications and advertisements. For the federal government to mirror mainstream business marketing, they needed quality artists of their own. As a result, the military commissioned private illustrators. One of the earliest and most creative methods of recruiting artists for war work was through a competition proposed by the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 1941.[5] The artists were encouraged to exercise creativity and freedom and as a result, modern art aesthetics emerged in the work and the bridge between illustration and fine art was formed. Illustrator John P. Fatler (1910-1982) was one such artist.

John Falter in his studio, photographed in 1978 by his stepson, Jay Wiley. (Wikipedia Images)

John Falter in his studio, photographed in 1978 by his stepson, Jay Wiley. (Wikipedia Images)

Trained at the Kansas City Art Institute and the Art Students League in New York City, Falter realized it was easier to find work and make a successful career out of illustration. He was a part of the New Rochelle, NY, community that was somewhat of a “colony” for illustrators, with connections to Frederic Remington and Norman Rockwell. It is important to note that Falter’s career took off during the 1930s and he made a consistent living through an illustration contract with Liberty Magazine. By the end of the 1930s, he was working as an advertising agent for a number of companies, including Gulf Oil and Arrow Shirts.[6] In 1943, Falter enlisted in the United States Navy and began creating illustrations for propaganda posters, and it is notable that at this time he also began working for the Saturday Evening Post. Falter was not an obscure artist. Even if Americans did not know his name, they knew of his sharp aesthetics and comfortable style. Like Rockwell, Falter’s images create a sense of easy calm and familiarity. The partnership between the federal government and professional artists/private advertising firms created a distinct, sophisticated illustration style and “painterly” image, away from stylized and abstract symbols of earlier years.[7]

“Proud – I’ll Say”

The most famous of Falter’s propaganda posters is part of the “loose lips sink ships” theme and portrays a smiling, attractive U.S. navy man walking away from the viewer, who carries a bushel over his left shoulder while looking back over his right, with a caption that asserts, “If you tell where he’s going, he may never get there!”[8] Falter’s soldiers – male and female – are beautifully Hollywood-esque and a tool to grab the attention of the viewer. Yet Falter’s illustrations were eye-catching for more than this reason. By focusing on several elements in Falter’s Navy WAVES (Women Active for Volunteer Emergency Service) recruitment poster, we see that the physical desirability of the main character is not the primary appeal. Falter conveys a message of patriotism and Americanness through recognizable symbols in his illustration for the poster, “Proud – I’ll Say” of 1943. In fact, the primary character is not the strapping Navy man, but a father.

Like other propaganda images, “Proud – I’ll Say” is brightly colored to catch the viewer’s eye in order to compete against similar advertisements for commercial products. It is essentially a portrait of a man and a woman – a father placed directly in the center of the picture plane, holding a photograph black and whit portrait of a much younger woman, and we know it is his daughter due to the message, “To Dad, Love Mary.” The gentleman is sitting at his writing desk, but turns over his left shoulder to declare, “Proud – I’ll say,” as he holds the photograph in his left hand. The frame is a recently opened gift and the brown wrapping paper unfolds over the objects on the desk. In black and white, the portrait of the daughter stands in contrast to the brightly colored environment. She is self-contained and confident and relays a strong gaze outward toward the viewer. Her father is proud and looks over his glasses while revealing a slight smile.

On the desk and throughout the room are important signifiers of Americanness. Immediately center, and in contrast to the monochromatic portrait, is a bright red, white, and blue American flag that the father keeps on his desk as an emblem of his – and his family’s – patriotism. The desk itself is messy, containing books and paperwork. Is he a businessman? An academic? A lawyer? Regardless, he is a diligent worker participating in the middle class American lifestyle in the capitalist system. To the left of the desk his office window is open, not only allowing a breeze through the room, but also connecting the viewer to the outside world. Falter is a master of creating an established environment. The viewer can sense the warm sunshine through the window. The room is not the office of the local bank president or situated on the top of a high-rise in the city. It is located on a tree-lined street in small town America. Falter shows that this is distinctly a middle class family, like us.

John P. Falter,

John P. Falter, “Proud – I’ll Say!” (1943) Alice Marshall Women’s History Collection, Penn State Harrisburg Library Archives and Special Collections

Through the window we can see a woman carrying a bag of groceries with a small child and two gentlemen speaking to one another across the street. This is an active, safe community and the gentleman’s family is thoroughly a part of it. His office location within the town portrays his relationship to the neighborhood. His daughter’s portrait indicates that she is away, but a part of the national community while serving in the military. Finally, the open window does not only allow the viewer to look beyond the room, but it symbolizes hope, opportunity, and openness to the world.

While an aesthetically pleasing image, it is most important to think of how the contemporaneous viewer would understand the illustration. It is not enough to appreciate Falter’s work for its formal qualities, particularly since this poster could be found in the most common of locations: a bank, a grocery store, or a public park. Viewers were not interested in looking at this piece as “art,” if they were interested in looking at it at all, but their interest in the poster rested in the message it relayed. Falter’s image portrays an ambiguous message to both women and their families concerning the role they are to play during (and after) the war. The mixed signals come through the formal elements and symbols the artist employs to appeal to the viewer’s already established worldview.

Viewing and Reading Ambiguity

A young woman’s enlistment into the United States military revolved around the opinion and desires of her family. She either obeyed or disobeyed, even as an adult in her early twenties. If a woman was not married, she often continued to live under her father’s direction and this created real problems for the military recruitment offices. Historian Doris Weatherford writes, “Many women simply had to go against the wishes of family and friends to that the crucial step of enlistment. The father of one WAVE said he was…‘Embarrassed’ by the ‘revolution’ in his daughter’s life, his confusion seemed to center on his own role… he clearly thought of women in the military as more cute than essential, a wartime concession whose end would be a relief.”[9] In order to combat this worldview, propaganda writers and illustrators needed to place the father at the center of the conversation. This occurs at the center of Falter’s “Proud – I’ll Say” in several ways: the father is the prominent feature and conversing with the audience, the mother is nonexistent in the dialogue, and the young women who viewed the poster would see this as permission from the father-figure. In fact, standards for women entering the military were different from men drafted at the age of 18. WAVE enlistees must be between the ages of 20-36 and if a woman was under the age of 21, she needed her parent’s permission.[10] It is not that young women simply wanted their father’s approval – they needed it.


The reader of this poster could walk away with two different messages depending on how they read it to themselves, which ultimately rests upon their personal worldview.


            It is significant that the mother is not in the image as it eliminates the relationship to the earlier generation of American women and the feminist movement of the 1920s. Young enlistees in the 1940s were the daughters of a radical generation of women who fought for the right to vote and pursued progressive political reform. There were images that referenced women’s war work in earlier generations, but propaganda writers primarily connected service to the Revolutionary War generation, not the generation of women who volunteered for the World War II effort. This reach into the federal era of American history can be found in posters like the c. 1943 “It’s a tradition with us, Mister!” depicting a Rosie the Riveter factory worker and her earlier counterpart, a Revolutionary War woman worker filling the barrel of a gun.[11] The 1940s generation was much more conservative compared to their 1920s “mothers,” yet (and maybe as a result of) more opportunities outside the home were offered to women of the 1940s generation.

Rather, Falter’s poster depicts a connection to masculine work through the father as head of the household and decision-maker. The gift is signed to the father only and he is proclaiming his pride and convincing the audience to feel the same about their own daughters. The textual evidence in the poster relays two messages. “Proud – I’ll Say” can be stated with emphasis on either the first or second part of the phrase, altering the meaning. Emphasis on the “Proud” is a statement of possibility, revealing to the audience what will happen, whereas an emphasis on “I’ll Say!” communicates a statement with the supportive and affirmative “I’ll say.” The reader of this poster could walk away with two different messages depending on how they read it to themselves, which ultimately rests upon their personal worldview.

Outward-Focused and Inward-Focused

The 1940s was an era in which various groups of citizen received conflicting information about their role within the American system. The Double V campaign seeking “Victory Abroad and Victory at Home” was sparked by African American soldiers who were asked – no, required – to serve and possibly die for their country, only to return to segregated society in which they were not equal. Japanese-Americans, although active citizens of their communities participating in the American system, were forced to sell property, businesses, and belongings to relocate to internment camps in the deserts of the Midwest as a preventative domestic safety measure, although not one case of subversion has been documented. Japanese-American men and women were some of the first to enlist in the military after Pearl Harbor. Conflicting messages of “Americanness” could be found everywhere. That minorities were not fully a part of the system is not shocking news, and it is well understood that these conflicts lead to the civil rights movement of later decades. Women willingly and quickly volunteered to serve in the military and industry, but two ideas come out of the termination of service creating societal tension: that many fled the military to return to civilian life, and that many did not want to leave these jobs but were forced to do so when the war ended. Major General Jeanne Holm (USAF) writes, “With the end of the hostilities, millions of servicemen and women were eager to go home…to return to loved ones and start new families, to find jobs and use new-found skills, or to advance their education under the G.I. Bill of Rights. For most, it was not a question of if they would leave but when.”[12] Whereas, in an argument to continue female service, Captain Joy Bright Hancock (U.S. Navy) writes, “I firmly believed that women should be an integral part of the Navy… [Of continued enlistment] there was good reason to continue to make womanpower available.”[13] Certainly women have differing opinions in what their lives should be like after the war. However, statements of belief concerning women as a whole group are often emphatic in one direction or the other. One explanation for the duality is found in images like Falter’s “Proud – I’ll Say,” which contains conflicting messages of service. The illustration presents both outward-focused and inward-focused messages to the viewer. It is necessary for the propaganda offices to relay both in order to encourage women to quickly enroll, but to provide stability to the traditional gender role system.

First, the direction “outward” promotes a lifestyle that is beyond domesticity. The young female viewer is encouraged to go away as she sees “Mary,” the female enlistee, in the image is away. That the military servicewoman is not “physically” in the picture, but is involved only through her portrait mailed to the father, creates a narrative that causes the viewer to wonder, “Where is she? Is she somewhere exotic? Is she traveling the world?” Wherever she is, she is not in the small town. This was clearly a draw for many female enlistees. Captain Hancock describes in her memoir the amendment the Navy enacted once they realized that women were needed on overseas ships, but certain restrictions were put in place: the soldier must serve for at least six months and demonstrate maturity, responsibility, adaptability, and “emotional stability,” and the she must be “free of dependents.”[14] However, in other forms of propaganda, the U.S. military put great weight upon overseas travel, as in the short film “WACS – It’s Your War, Too” (1944) where the narrator states, “Thousands of WACS volunteer for overseas duty eager to serve in the actual theater of operation – the goal toward which they worked and trained. Wherever the American Armies may go, WACS may follow.”[15] The military clearly used the promise of travel to get young women out of the small towns to see the world.

The young woman in Falter’s image is single and the artist shows her married counterpart through the window. Walking home with her groceries the woman outside has a small child with her. It was rare for a married woman with children to serve in the military, and if she did, she was probably not traveling the world. We know “Mary” is single and without children by default. She sent the photograph to her father, instead of a spouse, and we can assume she is childless because she is away. In fact, it was a requirement for women to be free of dependents under the age of 18 in order to enlist in the Navy WAVES.[16]

Images like Falter’s are oozing with the possibility of freedom from parents and the small town, and to gain more agency as a modern adult woman. Reporter Nancy Wilson Ross, who was not one to back down from promoting the independence and freedom of women from gender constrictions, wrote, “If women can finally stand shoulder to shoulder with men and work to prepare a more rational world, then surely they have accomplished something by refusing to maintain in time of war the male dream of the little woman in the home, the light in the window for the wandering boy, and biscuits like mother used to make.”[17] Clearly, women were ready to move beyond the home to new social and civic responsibilities.


Women’s work always relates to her relationship with someone else.


However, an inward-directed message is also apparent in Falter’s illustration, emphasizing the woman’s ties to domesticity, and this rests in the placement of the father at the center of the image. As mentioned above, that the father is the primary character/speaker in the poster creates a dialogue with parents of potential enlistees and confirms parental authorization to the young enlistee. The parental approval lies in the direct gaze outward and in the text, “Proud – I’ll Say.” Women were enlisting on their own accord, but the connection to domestic life was always there. Often propaganda used images of family and loved ones when imploring women to take up the war effort. Women’s work always relates to her relationship with someone else. While men worked and served because it was their duty, women volunteered because of their responsibility to their relationships.


John Falter’s “Proud – I’ll Say” is only one image of many that are directed toward women serving the nation during World War II. What is unique about his image is that it is not only visually pleasing and employs important symbolism, but it balances both an outward and inward message to the viewer. The need to comfort both women and their parents, and to convince them that this was the right decision, relied on making young women excited to expand beyond the boundaries of their small town and middle class home. It also required assuring the parents that their daughters were still connected to home life and domesticity. It was ultimately the father’s decision, as Falter confirms in his image, and daughters will always keep their ties to family. Ambiguous communication from the federal government and American society will create an existential crisis for American women from a wide-range of backgrounds – wealthy, middle class, poor, white and black – women will not know how to balance the taste of freedom outside the home and the emphasis on domestic home life in the postwar years. Yet, they are not victims. They are also agents of this change by allowing themselves to return to domesticity and the contradictions in the expectations women face come out of image of propaganda like Falter’s “Proud – I’ll Say.” They were found across the nation, in grocery stores, parks, post offices, shopping centers, along fences, and innumerable public spaces for all to see.

[1] William L. Bird, Jr. and Harry R. Rubenstein, Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998): 1.
[2] Ibid., 11.
[3] William M. Weilbacher, “How Advertising Affects Consumers,” Journal of Advertising Research (June 2003): 233.
[4] Tara Reddy Young, “Andy Warhol,” Encyclopedia of American Studies, ed. Simon J. Bronner (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014), accessed 1 May 2014.
[5] Bird and Rubenstein, Design for Victory, 23, 25.
[6] “John Philip Falter,” Museum of Nebraska Art,, accessed 1 May 2014.
[7] Bird and Rubenstein, Design for Victory, 27.
[8] John P. Falter, “If you tell where he’s going, he may never get there!” Poster, World War Poster Collection, University of North Texas Libraries Government Documents Department, 1943., accessed 1 May 2014.
[9] Doris Weatherford, American Women and World War II (Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1990): 91.
[10] Nancy Wilson Ross, “Requirements for Enlisted Women” in The WAVES: Story of the Girls in Blue (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1943): 169.
[11] “It’s a tradition with us, Mister! ca. 1942- ca. 1943” No. 535414, RG 179, Series War Production Board 1918-1949, National Archives, Washington D.C.
[12] Major General Jeanne M. Holm, In Defense of a Nation: Servicewomen in World War II (Washington D.C.: Military Women’s Press, 1998): 147.
[13] Captain Joy Bright Hancock, Lady in the Navy: A Personal Reminiscence (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1972): 220.
[14] Ibid., 198-99.
[15], “WACS – It’s Your War, Too,” US Army Film MISC-958 (1944)
[16] Ross, “Requirements for Enlisted Women” in WAVES, 169.
[17] Ibid., 164-65.

Works Cited

Bird, William L., Jr. and Harry R. Rubenstein, Design for Victory: World War II Posters on the American Home Front. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.

Falter, John P., “If you tell where he’s going, he may never get there!” Poster, World War Poster Collection, University of North Texas Libraries Government Documents Department, 1943.

Falter, John P., “Proud – I’ll Say,” Courtesy of the Alice Marshall Women’s History Collection, AKM 91/9.3, Archives and Special Collections, Penn State Harrisburg Library, University Libraries, Pennsylvania State University.

Hancock, Captain Joy Bright. Lady in the Navy: A Personal Reminiscence. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1972.

Holm, Major General Jeanne M. In Defense of a Nation: Servicewomen in World War II. Washington D.C.: Military Women’s Press, 1998.

Ross, Nancy Wilson. The WAVES: Story of the Girls in Blue. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1943.

Weatherford, Doris. American Women and World War II. Edison, NJ: Castle Books, 1990.

Weilbacher, William M., “How Advertising Affects Consumers,” Journal of Advertising Research (June 2003): 230-34.


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