White feather

A newspaper tells the story of a man who is given two symbolic offerings in a single day: the first for valour, the second as an accusation of cowardice. Why was this story published in newspapers around the world?

Remixed material from The Pukekohe & Waiuku Times.

Remixed material from The Pukekohe & Waiuku Times, volume 4 number 93, Friday 8 October 1915.

Context 

In 1915, “V.C.’s White Feather” was published in newspapers around the world. The story contrasts two symbolic offerings: a white feather, used to accuse someone of cowardice, and a Victoria Cross medal, awarded for “acts of valour”. Giving someone a white feather was a form of social bullying. The feathers were handed or mailed to men who didn’t wear uniforms; the intention was to shame them into signing up for duty. In comparison, the Victoria Cross is the highest military award possible and receiving one was a rare distinction. 

The practice of giving someone a white feather was less common in New Zealand than in some other countries. People here recognised that there were many reasons why a young man might not be in uniform. Even so, sometimes unusual people were targeted; for example, a 98-year-old man in Gisborne received a feather in the mail. 

As a symbol, a white feather can have different interpretations. For example, for some iwi, a white feather symbolises peace rather than cowardice. 

Key questions 

  • What can we observe? 
  • What do we already know? 
  • How might people view this story in different ways?  

Possible discussion questions 

  • What did you think was going to happen when one of the women walked over to the young man? 
  • Why did she give him a white feather? What did it mean? 
  • Was the woman showing bravery or cowardice by giving the young man the feather? 
  • What is a Victoria Cross? Why was it awarded? 
  • Can you think of other symbols that might seem insignificant to someone unfamiliar with them but that hold a lot of meaning? 
  • What are some ways that people try to apply social pressure today?
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