At the outbreak of the First World War, young women suddenly were seen enthusiastically dancing with, kissing, and even having sex with young men in uniform—men many of them had only just met. It was known as “khaki fever”—for the color of soldiers’ military garb—and its outbreak stoked fear of immoral behavior among women.
But was the concern well founded, or was this a moral panic? Scholar of social work Viviene Cree examines “khaki fever” and a surprising response among women who decided they had to stop it.
Some of the young women who “took to the streets in large numbers in the evenings and engaged in risky, dangerous behaviour,” including drinking and having sex in places like alleys and parks, were prostitutes. But others weren’t, and it was the apparent loss of their morality that prompted the outcry.
At the time, Cree notes, social and political upheaval was bringing rapid change to women’s roles. It would be women, therefore, who self-deputized themselves to police “khaki fever.” Cree tracks the efforts of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies and the Women Police Service, both of which formed all-woman patrols to attempt to quell the behavior. They went to parks, dance halls, and movie theaters to check on the young women.
The mostly middle-class members of both organizations claimed a new freedom: to venture and move autonomously outside the home. They also opened up new job opportunities as social workers and police officers. And they doubtless helped some women.
But the patrol members carried different attitudes about sex and morality than those they patrolled, imposing a sexual double standard and a middle-class mentality on the women whose welfare they wanted to protect. This perhaps inadvertently helped create extralegal structures that would continue to monitor and police women’s sexuality, culminating in institutions like reform schools and homes for illegitimate children.
Cree sees khaki fever as a moral panic—a disproportionate reaction to a perceived moral danger that was in fact just young women expressing and enjoying themselves. Middle-class women used khaki fever to police lower-class women, unwittingly appointing themselves to reinforce patriarchal gender structures rooted in fears of expanding women’s rights and roles. Though women of all classes widened their opportunities during World War I, the women who tried to prevent other women from consorting with uniformed men “constrained the lives of all women.”
The young women enjoying themselves with men in uniform should be seen on a long timeline of public fears of women’s morality, Cree argues. Their historical sisters were flappers, “groupies,” and unwed mothers, all of whom prompted public outcries and efforts to contain their exuberant sexual self-expression. World War I ended more than a century ago, but the societal change it engendered laid the foundation for the rights of modern women—and the fears that inevitably accompany their rise.