A white feather has been a traditional symbol of cowardice, used and recognised especially within the British Army and in countries associated with the British Empire since the 18th century. It also carries opposite meanings, however: in some cases of pacifism, and in the United States, of extraordinary bravery and excellence in combat marksmanship.
A symbol of cowardice
The white feather as a symbol of cowardice supposedly comes from cockfighting and the belief that a cockerel sporting a white feather in its tail is likely to be a poor fighter. Pure-breed gamecocks do not show white feathers, so its presence indicates that the cockerel is an inferior cross-breed.
World War I
In August 1914, at the start of the First World War, Admiral Charles Fitzgerald founded the Order of the White Feather with support from the prominent author Mrs Humphrey Ward. The organization aimed to shame men into enlisting in the British Army by persuading women to present them with a white feather if they were not wearing a uniform.
This was joined by prominent feminists and suffragettes of the time, such as Emmeline Pankhurst and her daughter Christabel. They, in addition to handing out the feathers, also lobbied to institute an involuntary draft of men, including those who lacked votes due to being too young or not owning property.
The campaign was very effective, and spread throughout several other nations in the Empire, so much so that it started to cause problems for the government when public servants came under pressure to enlist. This prompted the Home Secretary, Reginald McKenna, to issue employees in state industries with lapel badges reading "King and Country" to indicate that they too were serving the war effort. Likewise, the Silver War Badge, given to service personnel who had been honourably discharged due to wounds or sickness, was first issued in September 1916 to prevent veterans from being challenged for not wearing uniform. The poetry from the period indicates that the campaign was not popular amongst soldiers (e.g. Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est) - not least because soldiers who were home on leave could find themselves presented with the feathers.
One such was Private Ernest Atkins who was on leave from the Western Front. He was riding a tram when he was presented with a white feather by a girl sitting behind him. He smacked her across the face with his pay book saying: "Certainly I'll take your feather back to the boys at Passchendaele. I'm in civvies because people think my uniform might be lousy, but if I had it on I wouldn't be half as lousy as you." 
The supporters of the campaign were not easily put off. A woman who confronted a young man in a London park demanded to know why he was not in the army. "Because I am a German", he replied. He received a white feather anyway.
Perhaps the most ironic use of a white feather was when one was presented to Seaman George Samson who was on his way in civilian clothes to a public reception in his honour. Samson had been awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry in the Gallipolli campaign.
Roland Gwynne, later mayor of Eastbourne (1929–1931) and lover of suspected serial killer John Bodkin Adams, received a feather from a relative. This prompted him to enlist, and he subsequently received the Distinguished Service Order for bravery. The writer Compton Mackenzie, then a serving soldier, complained about the activities of the Order of the White Feather. He argued that these "idiotic young women were using white feathers to get rid of boyfriends of whom they were tired". The pacifist Fenner Brockway claimed that he received so many white feathers he had enough to make a fan.
The Four Feathers
The adventure novel The Four Feathers (1902) by A. E. W. Mason tells the story of Harry Faversham, an officer in the British Army, who decides to resign his commission the day before his regiment is dispatched to fight in Sudan (the 1882 First War of Sudan, leading to the fall of Khartoum). Harry's three fellow officers and his fiancée conclude that he is resigning in order to avoid fighting in the conflict, and each send him a white feather. Stung by the criticism, Harry sails to Sudan, disguises himself as an Arab, and looks for the opportunity to redeem his honour. He manages this by fighting a covert war on behalf of the British, saving the life of one of his colleagues in the process. On returning to England he asks each of his accusers to take back one of the feathers.
The romantic idealism of the novel has been popular for over a century and it has been the basis of at least seven feature films, the most recent being The Four Feathers (2002), starring Heath Ledger.
The White Feather
To Serve Them All My Days
In this 1980 BBC production, David Powlett-Jones, a shell-shocked Tommy, takes a position in a boys' school. Suspecting that fellow teacher Carter may be avoiding war duty, he muses, "I'd give a good deal to know whether he's really got a gammy knee", to which an acerbic colleague responds, "I suppose we couldn't get some chubby cherub to give him the white feather" as a means of accusing the suspected malingerer.
In the first episode of the second series of Downton Abbey some women, presumably members of the Order of the White Feather, interrupt a benefit concert to hand out white feathers to the men who have not enlisted. Upon seeing this insulting behaviour, Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, angrily orders them out.
The Order of the White Feather was the inspiration for the Weddings Parties Anything song "Scorn of the Women", which concerns a man who is deemed medically unfit for service when he attempts to enlist, and is unjustly accused of cowardice.
In 1983, new wave band Kajagoogoo released their debut album called White Feathers, whose opener was the title track, a light-hearted allegory for weak people, whereas the final track, Frayo, had a political flavour, referencing cowardice as the cause for an unchanging war-torn world.
2010 the Australian Rock band Wolfmother released their new album "Cosmic Egg", whose third track is "White Feather".
A symbol of pacifism and peace
In contrast, the white feather has been used by some pacifist organisations as a sign of harmlessness.
In the 1870s, the Māori prophet of passive resistance Te Whiti o Rongomai promoted the wearing of white feathers by his followers at Parihaka. They are still worn by the iwi associated with that area, and by Te Ati Awa in Wellington. They are known as te raukura, which literally means the red feather, but metaphorically, the chiefly feather. They are usually three in number, interpreted as standing for "glory to God, peace on earth, goodwill toward people" (Luke 2:14). Albatross feathers are preferred but any white feathers will do. They are usually worn in the hair or on the lapel (but not from the ear).
Some time after the war, pacifists found an alternative interpretation of the white feather as a symbol of peace. The apocryphal story goes that in 1775, Quakers in a Friends meeting house in Easton, New York were faced by a tribe of Indians on the war path. Rather than flee, the Quakers fell silent and waited. The Indian chief came into the meeting house and finding no weapons he declared the Quakers as friends. On leaving he took a white feather from his quiver and attached it to the door as a sign to leave the building unharmed.
In 1937 the Peace Pledge Union sold 500 white feather badges as symbols of peace.
In the United States, the white feather has also become a symbol of courage, persistence and superior combat marksmanship. Its most notable wearer was US Marine Corps Gunnery Sergeant Carlos Hathcock, who was awarded the Silver Star medal for bravery during the Vietnam War. Hathcock picked up a white feather on a mission and wore it in his hat to taunt the enemy. He was so feared by enemy troops that they put a price on his head. Its wear on combat headgear flaunts an insultingly easy target for enemy snipers.
- "White Feather". Etymonline.com. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
- Guardian review of We Will Not Fight...: The Untold Story of World War One's Conscientious Objectors by Will Ellsworth-Jones
- "The Suffragette Movement" by Sylvia Pankhurst: "Mrs. Pankhurst toured the country, making recruiting speeches. Her supporters handed the white feather to every young man they encountered wearing civilian dress, and bobbed up at Hyde Park meetings with placards: "Intern Them All."
- "The least that men can do is that every man of fighting age should prepare himself to redeem his word to women..." - Mrs. Pankhurst
- "Emmeline Pankhurst’s call for universal compulsory national service for both sexes" and "Female service would be played out on the floor of the factory." see http://itech.fgcu.edu/&/issues/vol1/issue1/feather.htm
- Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) p. 63 Guiness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
- Reagan p. 55
- Glansfield, John. Bravest of the Brave (2005) pp 110-112 Sutton Publishing ISBN0-7509-3695-9
- Pamela Cullen, A Stranger in Blood: The case files on Doctor John Bodkin Adams, 2006. P626
- Goldstein, Joshua S. "The Women of World War I". Retrieved 28 November 2011.
- "Can It Be True?" editorial by "W.M." from the 3 April 1940 issue of the Daily Mirror: "Is it possible that nitwit girls are reviving the infamous "white feather" campaign of the last war? Rumours reach us from Doncaster to the effect that certain female louts are thus insulting male workers in or out of reserved occupations." Referenced 29 October 2012, retrieved 29 January 2013
- Charles Henderson. Marine Sniper. New York: Berkley Books, 1986. ISBN 0-425-18165-0.