Stereotypes Galore! Women’s Emancipation as Reflected in Advertising

Pre-University Paper, 2009

37 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

I. Introduction

II. Women’s Position in Society: American Social History
1. First-Wave Feminism: Women Gain the Right to Vote
2. Second-Wave Feminism: The Personal Becomes Political
3. Third-Wave Feminism: Finally Diversity

III. Comparison of the Portrayal of Women in Advertising Campaigns of the 1950s and the 1990s
1. The Power of Advertising
2. In Search of Stereotypes: Advertising of the 1950s
2.1 A Woman’s Worth: Beauty Etiquette and Proper Femininity
2.2 Women Portrayed as Inferior to Men
2.3 Women as Decorative Objects
2.4 Women Portrayed as Housewives and Mothers
2.5 Exclusively White
3. Constructive Criticism
4. The Old New Thing: Advertising of the 1990s
4.1 Sky-High Beauty Ideal
4.2 Women in Relation to Men
4.3 Oversexed and Underage
4.4 Housewife Turned Superwoman
4.5 Diversity

IV. Conclusion

V. Appendix

A. Print Advertisements
B. Bibliography

I. Introduction

A woman rushes across the screen, cleaning the floor with the latest “turbo power 3” multifunction vacuum cleaner, feeds her baby with the new and improved baby formula and marvels at her almost blindingly clean dishes, then turns to the camera with a smile on her face that suggests she could not imagine a more satisfying life. This description might sound a little old fashioned and restricting, but it is commonly conveyed to us through advertising, even today. Is this truly the concept we have of modern women? Has not the women’s movement brought about more change than just in legal status? As advertising is one of the most powerful educational mediums in modern society, the image of women it conveys is not only quite interesting, but also of great importance. There is such an overload of advertising surrounding us; we’re bombarded daily with a vast amount on the radio, TV, online, on billboards, in magazines, even on the most common things like a pen—there is no way to escape its influence.

Advertising’s key objective is making money; selling an image of perfection to consumers makes great business sense, because it sends people on a never-ending quest, trying to achieve the impossible, all the while spending endless amounts of money. Advertising does not only sell a product, but, through stereotyped characters, also provides us with an exemplary way of life. The concepts of beauty, love, and normalcy it promotes, might have changed in the course of 40 years, but the central message remains the same, “you have to buy this or otherwise you will be unacceptable”.

It seems that in the 21st century, women’s emancipation is an issue that should long since have been checked off the list as accomplished. Western society, especially the USA, land of unlimited opportunity, is one that believes in women’s equality and ability to accomplish anything man can, a society where gender stereotypes seem to be out of place, or so we like to think. The great effect of the feminist movement, with better educated, working women, participating in every aspect of life, is undeniable, yet the influence it has had on advertising’s portrayal of women remains questionable. Have stereotypes been banished, did they evolved or maybe even stay the same? The focus is on the 1950s and the 1990s as representative decades for the pre-and post-feminist attitudes, in order to explore the truth of advertising and finally be able to answer the question: does advertising’s image of women match their place in society?

II. Women’s Position in Society: American Social History

1. First-Wave Feminism: Women Gain the Right to Vote

If in 1776, the First Lady of the United States acknowledged the importance of including women in government matters, by telling her husband to “remember the ladies”1 in his drafting of new laws, why did it take another 144 years for her suggestion to be put into action? It is obvious that feminist ideas were present, but the ideals set for women before the first wave of feminism showed a very different reality. The social circumstances gave cause to formulate the basic four principles of true womanhood as: “piety, purity, domesticity, and submissiveness”2. Limited education was the norm, which meant only a few years of schooling, instruction centered on teaching women how to be a good homemaker, in the end leaving them with slim chances of finding work. The one respectable goal in life for a woman was to get married, after which she would loose her legal identity and therefore any minimal rights she had before. Those were the conditions for middle-class white women; women of lower education were expected to work, but could only get a position in low-paying jobs, such as domestic service, while black women were mostly slaves and therefore not even viewed as citizens3.

What women of all economic and racial background had in common, however, was disenfranchisement, not being able to vote, and therefore no representation in the legislature. They began to question their social status; but just how did the women’s movement begin? Well, “surprisingly often, change began with half a dozen women, sitting around a kitchen table, defining a problem and figuring out what they could do about it”4. Such a spontaneous campaign also marked the official beginning of the women’s movement: the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848. Organized by Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the purpose of the conference was to discuss the “social, civil, and religious rights of woman”5. They drafted a Declaration of Sentiments, modeled after the Declaration of Independence, to provide a focal point for the meeting. In their opening remarks, they declared that “all men and women are created equal”6, thereby setting the tone for the meeting. They presented the hardships women had to face in American society and managed to pass resolutions ensuring women’s equality in “education, inheritance, property rights, divorce, and child custody”7. Only the claim of suffrage remained unanswered.

At the outset of the women’s movement, it was interlaced with other movements of reform, most notably the abolitionist movement. The leaders of these, at the beginning, small organizations, soon realized that “disenfranchisement severely hampered reformatory efforts”8. But skeptics of the vote for women, not only feared that it would be a setback for colored men, who were also campaigning for the same cause, but were also worried that illiterate women of color would claim their right to vote. A separate movement for women’s suffrage followed, consisting mostly of White, middle class, well-educated women. These suffragists did not give up on the vote for women and also kept on confronting stereotypes, such as the “cult of domesticity”9, which saw women as a servant to her husband and caretaker of her children, in the home, exclusively. The act of women campaigning in public was in itself a protest against the norm that “respectable women did not exit the private sphere of the home to put themselves forward and speak out in mixed company”10. Prejudice against the movement was further advanced by the common belief that women “have smaller brains of inferior quality to men’s”11.

After the first convention at Seneca Falls, a meeting was held every year between 1850 and 1860, to further advance women’s rights and fight for suffrage. The Civil War put a damper on activism, however, as many thought it was simply not women’s turn and promoted abolitionism instead. Women activists held high hopes that they would be rewarded for their service to the Union with a suffrage amendment. The end of the war did not bring the hoped-for reward, but only resulted in a division within the movement, as blacks were campaigning for the Fourteenth Amendment, which would only grant black men the right to vote. Different associations were formed, most notably the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), who fought alongside each other for suffrage, either on state- or federal level. The first state to grant suffrage to women was Wyoming, in 1869, followed by Utah, Colorado and Idaho in the years 1870 to 1896. Then a long dry period followed; no new states granted suffrage until 1910.

At the turn of the century, the traditional role of women also came under fire, with Victoria Woodhull promoting sexual freedom and Margaret Sanger, who coined the term “birth control”, declaring that “no woman can call herself free, who does not own and control her own body”12. By the early twentieth century, a new generation of suffrage activists had stepped on the scene, who called for more direct action, “advocating public demonstrations, parades, and picketing”13. In so doing, women raised attention to their cause more than ever before, and won over the sympathy of the public, when they were jailed for their commitment. In 1910, Washington State granted suffrage to women, thereby ending the fourteen-year dry period. Seven more states followed and the Nineteenth Amendment, securing the right to vote for women, was finally passed in 1920, after a 72-year struggle for suffrage14.

2. Second-Wave Feminism: The Personal Becomes Political

The term “women’s liberation” quickly conjures up images of bra-burning, hysteric females in our minds. Fact is, no bras were ever burned during the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s. The stereotypical image of a feminist was branded in our minds by overzealous media coverage of a demonstration at the Miss America Beauty Pageant, in 1968. Two hundred activists protested American society’s beauty standards; they tossed, not burned, objects of feminine oppression, such as false eyelashes, high-heels, makeup, and bras into a “freedom trash can”. Ironically, even 40 years later, the link between a “bra-burner” and a feminist persists.15

The resurgence of feminism in the 1960s leaves us with the question of what happened between the waves. Feminism did not die completely, as was strongly enforced by the media, which sought every piece of evidence pointing to its funeral. Fact is, after the vote was won, women did not crowd at the polling stations and it was concluded that suffrage was a failure and feminism no longer existed. However, many smaller activist groups emerged out of the larger ones that had fought for suffrage. They fought for birth control and the women’s peace movement, but the women’s movement itself was lacking a unified goal.16 They got what they wanted in the postwar years of the 50s. During this period an effort was made to reestablish “’normalcy’ […] with men as breadwinners and women as homemakers”17, as gender-based roles in society had been reversed during World War II, when many women had become part of the workforce. Now the role as stay-at-home wife and mother was pressed onto women as the ideal way of life once more. Magazines, teaching women how to do everything “just perfect”, from cooking to doing laundry and raising children, are the prime example of the inescapable pressure put on women.18 The problems of the suburban housewife were strange to black women and men, however, who faced racial discrimination and segregation. The Civil Rights Movement developed out of black activism in the South and acts as the forerunner to the 1960s feminist movement.19 A parallel can be seen between the first and second wave of feminism, as both sprung up in a social climate conducive to reform and developed out of movements for black rights.

As women joined in to advocate blacks’ rights and demonstrate in the anti-Vietnam War movement, they once again found themselves reduced to doing paperwork, excluded from any assertive action.20 Aside from the sexism women had to face in these social movements, they had to overcome many other obstacles in their daily lives:

At midcentury, women were limited in the courses they could take in high school; discouraged from considering any but the most traditional, feminine careers; kept out of graduate schools, medical schools, and law schools by quotas; barred from many occupations; automatically fired when they became pregnant; routinely denied credit; and forbidden by law to sit on juries in some states. Most Americans, male and female, took it for granted that as breadwinners, men had a right to earn more than a woman who was doing the same job. Battered wives had nowhere to turn; sexual harassment was a dirty secret; abortion was illegal; and a woman who was raped had to produce a witness if she wanted the rapist brought to justice.21

Once again women saw the need for a separate movement for their own rights. They formulated their key demands as: “the right to safe and legal abortion, the right to accessible and affordable childcare, and equal opportunities in education and employment”.22 Typical of the women’s liberation movement was its dissonance concerning tactic and root cause. Was male supremacy or capitalism to blame? Would direct action or “consciousness raising”, in the form of small group discussion, be more effective?23 A member of such a “consciousness-raising” group coined the phrase “the personal is political”, meaning that problems in the private home could only be helped by changing society at large, which became the central idea of the second wave.24 As much as the movement differed in tactic, it was lacking diversity in the form of race and sexual orientation. Even the mainstream organization National Organization for Women (NOW) had to cope with internal divisions, especially where interracial dialogue fell short.25 Black women recognized the existence of sexism, but felt the struggle against racism was more urgent. The fear of white women, that their black sisters would ridicule their claims of oppression, further prevented a joint movement.26 Lesbianism presents the second split; many women’s organizations were concerned that their projects would not be taken seriously if associated with homosexuality. Sadly, the common goal of not wanting to be discriminated against based on sex or sexual orientation, was often overlooked, much to the devastation of the women’s movement in the 1970s, as it experienced a gay-straight split.27

Even though the many strains of the movement worked mostly separately, fast results were achieved through NOW. The Equal Pay Act was passed in 1963; Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which forbade discrimination at the workplace on the basis of sex, race, color, or national origin, was signed into law in 1964.28 Aside from the fast successes, the second-wave feminists failed in their quest to get the Equal Rights Amendment, which states “equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any state on the account of sex”29, signed into law. First introduced to Congress by Alice Paul in 1923, it was not ratified by enough states in time for its deadline. The loss of the ERA struck a blow to the movement, as it once again lost its unifying goal.30 Many of the changes women of the second wave accomplished were through new laws and legislation, but maybe even more significant were the personal advances they made. Through the new sense of sisterhood, women found the strength to be affirmative and take charge of their own lives, changing the atmosphere in their homes, at work and gaining the confidence to believe in their own strength of character31 to break the “glass ceiling”, an invisible blockade which had been keeping them from climbing the career ladder.32

3. Third-Wave Feminism: Finally Diversity

In spite of ample media coverage of feminism’s death after the first and again, after the second wave, the ebb between the waves only seemed to be “the quiet before the storm” as feminist activism surged once again. After the defeat of the ERA, feminism was proclaimed dead once more in the 1980s and young women felt uncomfortable labeling themselves feminist, because of the negative connotation the term had received through media coverage. The backlash the movement experienced in the late 1970s is closely tied to the emergence of the New Right, which reemphasized family values, they claimed, had been destroyed by feminists. They linked feminist propaganda such as the ERA, the issue of abortion, homosexuality and equity in education, to the destruction of the American family.33 It was the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings in the 1990s, however, which finally caused feminists’ patience to run out. When Thomas was nominated as Supreme Court justice, the media released claims of alleged sexual harassment. At the hearings that followed, the accuser, Anita Hill, was met with scorn and condescension, by the all-male Judiciary Committee. Thomas denied any accusations and was confirmed to his post by a narrow vote. This event once more mobilized feminist forces, as it made evident that women were simply not heard.34

The third wave of feminism developed in a very different direction than the second wave, becoming more global and inclusive of women of color and all social classes.35 Multiplicity was the keyword, also in the range of issues covered; women now saw their oppression not as solely based on sex, they were also beginning to deal with economic oppression and environmental issues, concerns not traditionally considered to be “feminist”. A feminism of many perspectives evolved; this simultaneously meant that the movement became more inclusive, accepting diversity, but also more subjective, challenging the idea of “universal womanhood”. This new attitude was criticized as being self-absorbed and unpolitical, yet many feminist groups practiced quite a creative form of activism.36 Among these was Riot Grrrl, an underground punk rock movement, whose members made their dissatisfaction heard through the lyrics of their songs. The countermovement to the aggressive Riot Grrrl was “girlie feminism”. Women suddenly reclaimed everything feminine, wearing high-heels and lipstick, things that the “bra- burners” of the second wave would have linked with male oppression. Women now used these as assets, parading them in a parodic and playful way. By doing this, they opposed the feminist stereotype and embraced femininity with a new confidence.37 This extroverted, pro-sex attitude not only led to a more lighthearted approach of femininity, but ultimately also induced a questioning of beauty ideals. The unrealistic beauty ideals that are set for women are so restrictive and harmful38 that “body image […] may be the pivotal third wave issue—the common struggle that mobilizes the current feminist generation”39.

The third wave of feminism is much more difficult to grasp than the first or second wave, because it is history in the making, which does not allow for an analysis in retrospect of the events. As old goals are accomplished, a new set of issues is ready to be dealt with, therefore, the race is not yet, and may never be, won. But there is a heritage of achievements of which to be proud. Maybe one of the most important legacies feminists have left is the immense research and teaching on women’s issues40, the awareness of oppression and a sense to prevent it. What was once an abstract feminist thought has become part of the widely accepted truth about women and equality.41 However, in the twenty-first century, the need for feminism is still apparent, as for example, women in 2007 only earned 89 cents to a man’s dollar42.

III. Comparison of the Portrayal of Women in Advertising Campaigns of the 1950s and the 1990s:

1. The Power of Advertising

“Advertising, more than art, literature, or editorials, allows us to track our sociological history: the rise and fall of fads, crazes, and social movements; political issues of the times; changing interests and tastes in clothes, entertainment, vices, and food; and scenes of social life as they were lived.”43 If this is true, the three waves of feminism should have left a definite mark on advertising’s portrayal of women. But did it really? Is advertising reflective of the rights women have gained and their new, equal status? In order to be able to answer this properly, an understanding of advertising’s function and strategy is necessary. Advertising can be defined as: “The activity of attracting public attention to a product or business, as by paid announcements in the print, broadcast, or electronic media”44, or in other words, advertising is a paid, widely spread means of persuasion. Advertising has the difficult job of trying to please everyone, it must “as a rule appeal to as large a section of the public as possible. And the focal point of this appeal can be only one thing: the product”45. It has to work with certain tools to market products to people; one of them is stereotyping. Stereotypes allow a person to assume a universal role that a wide range of people can relate to. In the short time an advertisement has to convey its message, the stereotype acts like a “code” to allow the audience to immediately understand the setting and role of the person portrayed, and therefore grasp the use of the product advertised.46

When trying to trace developments of the women’s movement in advertising, a comparison of the 1950s and the 1990s is sensible, because this allows for a direct contrast of the conservative backlash during the 50s, before the second wave, and the accomplishments achieved through all three waves of feminism, as advertising from the 90s should depict. In the course of women’s history, groundbreaking change in women’s lives is evident, but the question remains, whether this undeniable shift in gender roles is also apparent in advertising.

2. In Search of Stereotypes: Advertising of the 1950s

The conservative era of the 1950s was characterized by reintroducing family values and the corresponding gender roles, the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the homemaker. “The suburban housewife” was enforced as “the dream of young American women”47 by everything surrounding them: magazines, newspapers and books, television programs and finally, advertising. As most of the products advertised were related to housework or beauty, the number one target consumer were women.48 In these, the feminine stereotype, what was proper behavior and etiquette for women, was reinforced. Women were portrayed as dependent, emotional, unassertive, passive, caring, and kind.


1 “Letter from Abigail Adams to John Adams, 31 March - April 1776”, Adams Family Papers: An Electronic Archive, Massachusetts Historical Society, 18 December 2008. <>.

2 see: Dicker, R., A History of U.S. Feminisms, Seal Press, Berkeley, California 2008, p. 21.

3 see: ibid., p. 21-24.

4 Davis, F., Moving the Mountain: The Women’s Movement in America since 1960, Touchstone, New York 1991, p. 9.

5 Stanton, E. and Mott, L. “The First Convention Ever Called to Discuss the Civil and

Political Rights of Women, Seneca Falls, N.Y., July 19, 20, 1848”, National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, Library of Congress, 25 December 2008. <>.

6 see: ibid.

7 Ryan, B., Feminism and the Women’s Movement, Routledge, New York 1992, p. 16.

8 Kroløkke, C. and Sørensen, A., Gender Communication Theories & Analyses: From Silence to Performance, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California 2006, p. 4.

9 see: ibid., p. 5.

10 Dicker, R., p. 28.

11 Boham L. and Lipton, M., “Women Writing: 1890-Present”, Yale-New Haven Teachers Institute 2008, 23 December 2008. <>.

12 Sochen, J., Movers and Shakers: American Women Thinkers and Activists 1900-1970, Quadrangle, New York 1973, p. 105.

13 Dicker, R., p. 47.

14 see ibid., p. 30-55.

15 see: Berkeley, K., The Women’s Liberation Movement in America, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut 1999, p. 3-4.

16 see: Davis, F., p. 26-28.

17 Dicker, R., p. 64-65.

18 see: ibid., p. 65.

19 Ryan, B., p. 42.

20 see: Kroløkke, C. and Sørensen, A., p. 8-9.

21 Davis, F., p. 491.

22 see: Dicker, R., p. 58.

23 Berkeley, K., p. 44.

24 see: Dicker, R., p. 81.

25 see: ibid., p. 71-74.

26 see: Berkeley, K., p. 50-51.

27 see: Dicker, R., p. 92-95.

28 see: Berkeley, K., p. 25-29.

29 Ryan, B., p. 166

30 see: ibid., p. 108-109.

31 Eisenberg, B. and Ruthsdotter, M., “Living the Legacy: The Women’s Rights Movement 1848- 1998”, National Women ’ s History Project, 28 December 2008. < hist.html>.

32 Dicker, R., p. 145.

33 see: Berkeley, K., p. 87-88.

34 see: Dicker, R., p. 116-118.

35 see: Davis, F., p. 494.

36 see: Dicker, R., p. 126-129.

37 see: ibid., p. 121-123.

38 see: ibid., p. 141-142.

39 ibid., p. 142.

40 see: Kroløkke, C. and Sørensen, A., p. 15.

41 Davis, F., p. 493.

42 “Highlights of Women’s Earnings in 2007”, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics 2007, 16 January 2009. <>.

43 Cortese, A., Provocateur: Images of Women and Minorities in Advertising, Rowan & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, Maryland 2008. p. 3.

44 “Advertising”, Def. 1, The American Heritage ® Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., Houghton Mifflin, Boston 2000, 10 January 2009. <>.

45 Barth, M., Stark reduziert!, Silke Schreiber Verlag, Heidenheim an der Brenz, Germany 2000, p. 185.

46 see: “Media Stereotyping”, Media Awareness Network 2009, 11 January 2009. <>.

47 Berkeley, K., p. 153.

48 see: Parkin, K., Food Is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2006. p. 12.

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Stereotypes Galore! Women’s Emancipation as Reflected in Advertising
Maria-Ward-Gymnasium Augsburg
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Emancipation, Stereotypes, Advertisement, Advertising, USA, Women's Rights, Womens' Emancipation, Women's Emancipation, Werbung, Amerika, Frauenrechte, Feminisim, Third Wave, Second Wave, First Wave, Portrayal of Women, Gender Studies, Diversity, Womens' Rights, 1950, 1950s, 50s, 1990s, 1990, 90s
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Gesa Biermann (Author), 2009, Stereotypes Galore! Women’s Emancipation as Reflected in Advertising, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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