From 24 July 2020 to 19 July 2021, it was a legal requirement to wear masks in indoor spaces in England. On the whole, people have adhered to this regulation and now it has become second nature for us to grab a mask, along with our phone, wallet and keys, before leaving the house.
However, the law recognises that individuals with certain physical or mental illnesses, impairments or disabilities may not be able to wear masks and are, therefore, exempt. Lung conditions, for example, can increase a person’s sense of breathlessness; autism can cause sensory difficulties, which make wearing a mask intolerable, while rape survivors may suffer traumatic flashbacks of being smothered from face coverings.
Despite these valid reasons not to wear a mask, such individuals are not required by law to carry proof of exemption. At times, this has led to cases of verbal or physical abuse. In August 2020, Michelle Green – who has a respiratory condition – was verbally attacked in a supermarket for not wearing a mask. Equally, Paul Feeley – who suffers from panic attacks – received “a torrent of abuse” from fellow passengers when boarding a bus without a face covering.
This has raised serious questions about whether members of public have the right to challenge someone who does not wear a mask. As solicitor Hayley Chapman notes, it poses an “internal dilemma” because our desire not to make assumptions battles with our sense of civic duty. A report by Charity Disability Rights UK has found that 60% of disabled people fear being challenged by other people. In many cases, this has stopped them from leaving their homes, resulting in increased feelings of isolation and loneliness.
These issues bear striking similarities to another time of crisis in Britain: the First World War. Shortly after its outbreak in 1914, Admiral Charles Penrose Fitzgerald established the Order of the White Feather. Its purpose: to hand out white feathers to men not in uniform with the purpose of “shaming every young slacker” and reminding “those indifferent to their country’s needs” that “British soldiers are fighting and dying across the channel.” Typically led by women, the Order accosted men in the street by presenting them with white feathers or sent them anonymously in the post along with abusive messages.
The symbolism of the “white feather” came from cockfighting, where a white feather in a cockerel’s tail was seen as a mark of inferior breeding. The white feather, therefore, became heavily tied to notions of cowardice, weakness and femininity.
With many parallels to discussions in today’s media, the press expressed mixed feelings about the White Feather Campaign. Some argued that it was well-intentioned and within the national interests to encourage enlistment. Others, however, felt it was intrusive, discriminatory, and disregarded possible reasons why a person might be in civilian clothes.
Just as now with masks, many of these men did have valid reasons. Some suffered health conditions that made them exempt from service, while others were back home on leave or had been injured in battle and repatriated. The Order, however, was indiscriminate and saw all men in civilian clothes as cowards or traitors. Challenging men could lead to immense public humiliation and anxiety, but sometimes it had much worse consequences.
An article in Globe on 18 January 1915, for example, notes how a fight broke out when two men placed a white feather in the cap of Henry Joseph Wilding, a decorated soldier on leave from France. More tragically, on 17 November 1914, the Mid Sussex Times reported how Robert Greaves committed suicide after receiving a white feather in the post. According to Robert’s landlady, he had been declared not fit for service, so the white feather tormented him and caused him great mental distress. Sadly, Robert was one of dozens of men to take such drastic action, including Richard Charles Roberts who took his own life after being taunted by a group of women for not enlisting (despite being exempt due to his weak heart).
Other recipients of the white feather responded more wittily. The Dundee Evening Telegraph noted how a soldier on leave was presented with a white feather as he waited in a restaurant for friends. He cheekily responded to the women, “It is very strange that on one and the same day, I should receive two such distinguished decorations” and then pulled out a Victoria Cross from his pocket.
Echoing similar concerns to when face masks became a legal requirement last July, one man argued, “There must be a large government badge for the disqualified. Until we receive this, the only badge we have is the white feather.” Indeed, this led able seaman George Hempenstall to take matters into his own hands and create a button labelled “On War Service”, which he wore every time he went on land to avoid abuse. Similar fears have prompted many disability charities to produce exemption badges and lanyards to protect individuals from claims that they are selfish, ignorant or believe coronavirus is a hoax.
As the White Feather Campaign continued, the community backlash became harsher, and the media increasingly described the Order as a shameful group of bullies. Nonetheless, it persisted until the end of the First World War. The campaign had a lasting negative impact on the public conscience. Interviewed in the 1950s, many men still felt sore about receiving a white feather and became upset when recalling the incident.
While the White Feather Campaign took place at a time of war rather than a health pandemic, people’s reactions are uncomfortably similar. It shows how, at times when we are fearful or feel threatened by an external force, many of us feel the instinct to lash out at others. The White Feather Campaign is a sobering reminder to treat everyone with respect and that, if we do not know a person’s individual circumstances, it is probably best to say nothing at all.
Dr Lauren Alex O’Hagan is currently a Research Associate in the Department of Sociological Studies at University of Sheffield. She specialises in performances of social class and power mediation in the late 19th and early 20th century through visual and material artefacts, using a methodology that blends social semiotic analysis with archival research. She has published extensively on the sociocultural forms and functions of book inscriptions, food packaging and advertising, postcards and writing implements.
Header image: from ‘The White Feather: A Sketch of English Recruiting’ by Arnold Bennett, Collier’s Weekly, 10 October 1914.