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Pre-WW2 America
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Pre-WW2 Portrayals of Women 2
Portrayals of Women 1
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Just as with the portrayals of minorities, many of the portraits of women in popular pre-war publications could not be responsibly published today. Contemporary Americans, and not just female contemporary Americans, would view them as demeaning. Other portrayals are simply out of date. Still others we still routinely see in various guises in modern magazines. So that twenty-first century readers can catch a glimpse of how it was for women in 1940-41, I have included a wide range of exhibits on this webpage.

I begin with an iconic image of a very young model, 19 in fact, who contemplates what
Vogue in 1940 called “life masques.” As a woman she will wear such masques throughout her life. The teenage model was at the time a well-reviewed Broadway actress. She would soon become a movie star. Do you recognize her?
On the facing page an article titled “No Vanity Displayed” proclaimed that a woman stared into a mirror not to see how she looked but “to search within herself for substratum beauty.” This feat requires a mirror of considerable excellence. In any case women in 1940 did not need to discover their inner beauty if they had outer beauty because the society in which they lived placed tremendous emphasis on external appearance and with it, the ability to land a husband.
In beautiful women, according to cartoonists, vanity was often displayed.
For those trying to attain beauty, and capture a man in the process, the popular press provided mounds of advice. Any current issue of Cosmo will do the same, but how times have changed in terms of the specifics:
Let me point out a few treasures here: “Don’t wear styles that men consider queer” such as slacks. Ladies, you must answer a man when he speaks to you or his ego will be offended by your inattention. Also, don’t give your order directly to the waiter in a restaurant. (Patty Stanger of Millionaire Matchmaker still believes in this rule, but she is the last of her kind.) Don’t buy anything using money from your joint bank account or household allowance unless your husband approves the purchase.
In laying out his rules for beauty, which he apparently insists upon, Prince Obolensky turns out to be much better informed than the average man, and certainly better informed than I myself, about women’s fashions. He is of course against “mannish clothes” (read: pants) with “flat shoes” (read, anachronistically, tennis shoes). He cannot abide furbelows and pailletted dresses, but loves long hair, if immaculate, as well as Marie Laurencin colors and Winterhalter styles, though of course only at night.

(Marie Laurencin was a French painter, not a cosmetologist. "Winterhalter" is a mystery. Franz Xaver Winterhalter painted royalty and aristocrats in the mid 19th century, so his “styles” would have been wildly out-of-date in 1940. Composer and bandleader Hugo Winterhalter had nothing to do with fashion. Perhaps some reader of this website can enlighten me as to what the Prince is talking about.)

However they dressed, beautiful women were, in the eyes of many, a mercenary lot:
If one believed the popular media of 1940-41, the number one goal, really the only goal, of pre-war women was to get married. Failure to achieve this meant shame for both mother and daughter.
As she wrings her gloves, this wretched creature must wonder if she has in fact been too choosy.

To land a husband, women accepted ownership as part of the bargain.
One can speculate, however, that women in 1940 greatly preferred dominion and domination to this:
Contemporary readers should understand that Mildred was stunned into a mumbled answer at least in part because her suitor's proposal that she become his wife represented the culmination of her life’s ambition. So it was ridiculous for the man to have to dare (underlined in original) to ask for her hand. Mildred clearly was unhappy, but readers in 1941 did not view her discontent as the result of her role as flower but because the man who had picked her was loquacious and effeminate.

For their part, men preferred owning such lovely flowers as Mildred to dealing with more formidable women in their marriages. In 1940 matrimony represented the only socially acceptable way for a man to have a sex life because nice girls did not have sex outside of marriage. Popular media often confined alternatives to married sex, if they mentioned them at all, to men separated by military service.
What are the chances a national ad campaign today would feature a leggy girl on an elderly professor’s lap, or a matter-of-fact caption that she was working for her
M.R.S. degree?
The problem with marriage, from a man's point of view, was that mercenary girlfriends soon turned into mercenary wives. That's why most husbands gave their wives an allowance - not that it helped.
Some would argue that men perennially suffer from a "fear of commitment," but in pre-war America the fear was exascerbated by the fact that mariage really was "till death do us part." I wonder how many younger readers will get this cartoon.
For starters, younger readers might not even recognize where the two men were. Under a table at a restaurant? No, they were under a bed; beds were much higher off the floor then than now. The husband (left) has discovered his wife’s lover hiding there and he’s delighted. In 1940 almost all states granted divorce only for violating the marriage contract, either through adultery or cruelty. New Mexico in 1933 became the first state to adopt the modern no-fault, “irreconcilable differences” approach. Most states did not follow until the 1960s. As a result, unhappy couples either had to travel to a "divorce mill" state such as Nevada or to pretend to commit adultery. From this necessity there arose the occupation of "professional correspondent” who pretended to have an affair with one or the other so the courts would grant the couple a divorce. The plot of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie The Gay Divorcee turns on this theme.

If men felt trapped by the necessity of marriage, women felt it even more keenly. Life choices for women encouraged today tended to be discouraged in the pre-war U.S. For example, education. Many Americans in 1940 believed women attended college mainly to find a husband.
Tokyo Rose /
An American Patriot:
A Dual Biography