In June 2020, Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) tweeted a photo of her father, former vice president Richard B. Cheney, with the hashtag #realmenwearmasks. Wearing a white cowboy hat and a surgical mask, he presented the familiar tropes of masculinity and of political power, becoming a prop for his daughter’s efforts to encourage GOP supporters to follow public health recommendations to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

More recently, one of Cheney’s newest colleagues, Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), also employed a familiar gender trope to express her position regarding face masks. Calling masks oppressive, she appropriated the famous feminist slogan “My body, my choice” as she tweeted the hashtag #FreeYourFace.

As these tweets and hashtags reveal, masks have become the most visible sign of our current political, cultural and social moment. Wearing a mask is not only a matter of public health, an individual choice or sign of a civic courtesy. It’s now the latest chapter in the culture wars over our identity as a nation, our fundamental values and our rights as citizens. Communities across the country are paying the price as case numbers soar.

Yet the current politics around mask-wearing are nothing new. During the 1918 flu pandemic, directives to wear masks turned into a political battle over patriotism, gender and power. Just like today, clear lines marked the pro- and anti-mask camps, although they did not necessarily accord with partisan divisions. Part of it was because of the different political situation in 1918. As the flu pandemic coincided with World War I, Americans were more prone to rally behind their government than to enter a partisan debate. Moreover, President Woodrow Wilson’s administration cracking down on all forms of dissent made voicing any criticism much more difficult. Portraying the flu as the common enemy, just like the German kaiser, turned the debate over masks into a question of patriotic duty, lessening the chance that the issue would break down along partisan lines.

Yet despite the strong hand of the state during World War I, mask orders in 1918 were not coordinated on the federal level but were left to cities and local authorities. The federal government was far less expansive in power and responsibilities than it is today, which meant that issues of public health policy were often the realm of private initiative or local governments.

Shortly after the outbreak of the flu, state officials and city health boards pushed for mask mandates, understanding that they would be useful to combat the pandemic, and save the economy. Indianapolis, for example, issued a mask mandate and school closures, while state officials in Salt Lake City decided to only recommend the wearing of masks — not require them. In Denver, the police enforced the mask order, but in most places mask opponents ignored them, voicing a range of excuses.

Some complained it was difficult to breathe in masks, or that they made work impossible. And gender played a significant role in shaping one’s attitude toward masks. Despite how cowboys and farmworkers in the West donned face covering, the gauze mask that became popular during the flu pandemic connoted femininity. One reason was an earlier global trend from 1913-1914 that popularized veils as part of the Orientalist craze that swept women’s fashion. But another reason was that masks were either seen as a sign of weakness and dependency or associated with nurses and caring — all feminine connotations.

State and local authorities tried to appeal to men by portraying mask resisters as “slackers,” invoking patriotism by alluding to draft evaders. Wearing masks was a civic duty, claimed Oakland Mayor John Davie, arguing that “it is sensible and patriotic, no matter what our personal beliefs may be, to safeguard our fellow citizens by joining in this practice.” Using similar propaganda tactics as the ones used for war mobilization, ads in newspapers warned that “Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases, As Dangerous as Poison Gas Shells.” By circulating ads and publications that likened the fight against influenza to fighting in the war, authorities attempted to shame those who did not join the “war effort” against the flu by wearing masks.

Illustrators also poked fun at mask resisters, who they portrayed primarily as men. But some women also refused to wear masks. Several women organized “Anti-Mask Leagues,” similar to other women’s clubs in this period, where they sought to fight state officials and city ordinances through petitions and demonstrations.

If authorities appealed to men by stressing patriotic duty, and assuring them of their masculine virility, the appeal to women harnessed the fashion industry. Textile and fashion manufacturers, who already struggled with a sluggish economy due to the war, marketed masks and “safety veils” as the latest fashionable items. While the fashionable veils’ effectiveness was questionable, it did help to normalize mask-wearing. Newspapers encouraged women to add lace and color to their masks and to turn them into items of fashion.

Unlike today, however, when masks are viewed on the runways and every clothing company has introduced colorful designs, the world of high fashion in 1918 largely ignored the pandemic. Discussions about the effect of the pandemic on fashion trends and the industry were limited to the trade press, and completely absent from the more highbrow magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Even more surprising, masks in 1918 were never used as a political prop. Unlike 2020, when masks became a blank canvas to express one’s views, whether it is supporting Black Lives Matter, calling people to vote or promoting the names of presidential candidates, flu masks were not used to convey a message, but stuck to the conventional white gauze design. Even suffragists, who were known for their savvy use of fashion in their campaigns, did not use masks creatively. There is no photographic or ephemeral evidence that they wore masks during their fight for suffrage, or that they used them to present their slogans as they did with pins and sashes.

Yet, if in 1918 masks were not used to promote political agendas, they were still imbued with the contemporary politics of the day. Similar to this current moment, masks became a conduit to discuss the limits of government power, as well as if and how much authorities should intervene in individuals’ lives and the economy in the name of public health.

Public reaction to masks and authorities’ willingness to pose or lift ordinances very much depended on the impact the flu had on the community. Rising death tolls and the paralysis of the economy did not necessarily stop the resistance to masks, especially from men, but it made authorities much more determined to crack down on it. On the other hand, once cases went down, pressure to lift requirements became stronger, even as doctors warned that such steps would be premature and dangerous.

In the midst of public debates over flu response, masks became more than just an item of fashion, but also a barometer of public opinion and patriotic sentiment. For some, masks were used as a maker of belonging to the polity, a sign of national pride and patriotic sentiments and a tool of war mobilization. For others, this was an issue of public health. Yet, no matter what was one’s position toward masks, they became a tangible way to make sense of the world around them. In a period that saw changes to social relations as more women gained presence in the public sphere, the gender politics around mask-wearing offered contemporaries ways to rethink notions of femininity and masculinity.

If today our masks are much more colorful, creative and brazen than those of a century ago, the debate they spur is remarkably familiar. Just like in 1918, masks are the visible symbol of our current political moment, and they will serve as tangible evidence for future historians to understand our present.