With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

“All the World’s a Harem”: Perceptions of Masked Women during the 1918–1919 Flu Pandemic

Carlotta, with the drooping mouth; Esther, with the too-tilted nose, and Mary, the colleen with brown freckles, are taking full benefit of this temporary masked delusion…Carlotta, Esther, and Mary, and many other Carlottas, Esthers, and Marys, are making the most of the opportunity to show their eyes to advantage, forgetting the while about pug noses, large mouths, and freckles.1

During the influenza epidemic that ravaged the United States in the fall and winter of 1918 and 1919, cities across the country advised or required masks. Soon, discussions of masks took center stage across American media. Newspapers were filled with articles explaining how to make, wear, and purchase masks. From their inception, these discussions were focused on gender, and women in particular: how were women adjusting to the new normal? What was the public’s perception of women wearing masks? Readers of the October 29, 1918 edition of The Seattle Star got a peek into this new narrative in the quote above, implying women with less-than-desirable facial traits should be grateful for the temporary reprieve flu masks provided.

This stereotype of women wearing masks found expression in a cartoon published in the Muncie Evening Press on October 23, 1918.2 In this cartoon, a male patient pretends to have the influenza “just to get that pretty little nurse around and here she is wearing a mask.” Yet in the final frame, when the nurse removes the mask, which she is “sick of wearing,” she turns out to be less attractive than the male patient has imagined — leading him to announce, “Me? I’m cured!” This cartoon reinforced stereotypes as it sexualized the nurse’s appearance, ignoring her professional role. In the context of the 1918 influenza epidemic, however, this cartoon also illustrates how the image of the masked nurse became part of daily experience.

This objectification of women and the sustained focus on appearance and sex appeal belies the ascendancy of women in the workforce and the role of the mask in self-expression. This article sets out to complicate the notion that women wearing masks during the 1918 influenza epidemic were solely objectified or sexualized. Instead, it explores how masks became gendered and how the media responded. It then goes on to relate this to the current Covid-19 epidemic, both in terms of resonances and divergences.


Masks and Gender Today

As masks have once again become big news, women wearing masks continue to be objectified and sexualized. For instance, tweets by women who have been catcalled while wearing masks have gone viral in recent months, echoing problems that many women in 1918 and 1919 faced. The association of the mask with vulnerability and susceptibility, with their sexualized connotations, remain so feminized that it has led to men to disproportionately eschew mask wearing. Masks have even been dubbed “condoms of the face” perpetuating their link to sex and gender, drawing the symbolic association into the future.

Read entire article at Nursing Clio