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 Other portrayals are simply out of date.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
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
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 /
A Dual Biography