Gold Star Pilgrimages: Tracing Maternal Citizenship Through the Great War Era, 1914-1933

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From 1930-1933, the U.S. government funded Gold Star Pilgrimages—two-week voyages for Gold Star mothers to military graveyards in Europe where their sons were buried. These Pilgrimages emerged after a decade of public deliberation over the responsibilities of American mothers to motivate sacrifice during war and commemorate death at war’s end. The political rhetoric surrounding the Pilgrimages often valorized white, biological, and patriotic Gold Star mothers as the most authentic ideals of women’s citizenship, condemned women who challenged the patriotism of maternal sacrifice, and marginalized African American mothers through segregationist practices.

This project analyzes how Pilgrimage rhetoric constructed American Gold Star mothers as models of citizenship and how this ideal empowered and limited women’s political engagement and identity during an era of war, social protest, and suffrage. The chapters specifically trace how public discourse before and during the Pilgrimages defined, challenged, and reinterpreted maternal citizenship throughout the Great War era. In this study, I analyze three case studies that shaped Gold Star rhetoric and in turn conceptions of maternal citizenship from 1914 to 1933. Prior to American entry into the Great War, women’s peace and preparedness organizations publicly clashed over meanings of maternal responsibility (Chapter 1). After the war and women’s enfranchisement, Pilgrimage advocates and government officials debated Gold Star Pilgrimages through a series of congressional hearings. In the process, they exalted the Gold Star mother over more progressive forms of women’s citizenship (Chapter 2). After the government announced its decision to segregate the Pilgrimages, many prospective African American Gold Star Pilgrims publicly justified their decision to accept or boycott the Pilgrimages as a performance of maternal citizenship (Chapter 3).

The Pilgrimages debates ultimately illustrate how war commemoration can function to exalt and discipline performances of maternal citizenship. The contemporary rhetoric of Gold Star mothers continues to spark public debate about what it means to authentically embody the Gold Star ideal. This project challenges the notion that the Great War has been “forgotten” in U.S. public memory by highlighting the enduring rhetorical legacies of Gold Star Pilgrimages in contemporary political discourse.